Earlier this year, we spent some time as a church thinking about what happens to us when we die. We thought about the final hope of Jesus’ resurrected, glorified people in the new heaven and earth. Theologians call this the ‘eternal state’.
But is this eternal state identical for every individual or is their variation in the degrees of glory and happiness we will each know? I think it’s a bit of both.
What we all receive
Generally speaking, all believers will receive the joy of seeing God face to face, of being with Jesus, and being like him (1 John 3). There will be fullness of joy for all of God’s people. James speaks of a crown that believers receive, as the reward of eternal life (James 1:12). This is the inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you… i.e. all believers (1 Peter 1:4). Not one single person in heaven will have any flicker of unhappiness, in God’s presence.
This equality of joy fits in with the doctrines we know and love well: of justification and blessing from God on the basis of faith alone, in the work of Christ alone, by grace alone. This is the reward we have by faith in the work of Christ, earned by him. Paul teaches us that any gifts we receive from God can never be earned: ‘By works of the Law, no human being is justified in his sight’ (Romans 3:20). So, receiving these things in heaven, being in God’s presence isn’t grounded on our obedience. Believers will stand in heaven and be in the new creation, accepted, loved, forgiven, justified on the basis of Christ’s work. Romans 5:19 says, ‘by the one man’s obedience the many will be counted righteous.’ Jesus will say to all of his people “come and enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:23).
We love the equality of grace, that we all receive these things… by faith.
What we receive in different degrees
The danger though, is that we overextend the doctrines of faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone… and we start thinking that because we are all in Christ, the inheritance of God’s people is shared identically with little diversity and no variation of individual glory in heaven… and I’d argue that’s not the picture the Bible gives us.
You might have heard preachers say things like, “since we are justified in Christ, God cannot love you any more than he does” or, “if we sin, God can’t love you any less.” “He loves all of us the same.” I’ve been such a preacher, and I suppose in one sense it’s true. But we’ve got to be really careful. I think the Bible is more nuanced and there’s more to it than that. Are those sayings really true in every sense? Is it true that God treats all believers exactly the same regardless of how we live and that His emotional response to each of us is precisely the same regardless of what we do? Can it be true that each one of us, regardless of how we live on earth will receive exactly the same inheritance in the new creation? The Greek word misthos (often translated, ‘reward’) in the New Testament shows that the Bible is not embarrassed about there being a system of rewards for certain behaviors. In Matthew 5 and 6 Jesus uses the word a lot, sometimes referring to earthly rewards and sometimes heavenly. Hence, we’re not told to ‘discern what is pleasing to the lord’ (Ephesians 5:10) and not to ‘grieve the Holy Spirit’ (Ephesians 4:30) so that we can be forgiven by God, but just as Paul says, so we can please God more… Consequently, there are certain behaviours that elicit God’s pleasure and occasion the giving of different rewards. So for example, the parable of the ten minas (see Luke 19) implies that believers will be rewarded with varying degrees of responsibility in the New Creation.
So, whilst all of us will experience fullness of joy, and pleasures forever more (Psalm 16:11), these pleasures are not going to be absolutely identical for all. There is an equality under grace (we are all sinners justified and saved by grace and nothing we receive will be because anyone can boast in themselves), but that equality does not mean uniformity. There is a diversity of people with different positions and responsibilities in heaven.
If that’s hard to imagine, just think of how life now in God’s kingdom sets the pattern. In church life, we’re not all given the same gifts of service, we’re not all the same in holiness and faith and glory… we are all born again, members of God’s household, sons of God, but in the family there are brothers and sisters with different giftings and degrees of honour. Just read 1 Corinthians 12 on this… one body but with many parts, some with greater honour and some with lesser honour. And it’s not always the people we think are most glorious, that really are. All of God’s children are of equal worth, joint heirs of the grace of life, but with an inequality of gifting and honour. A diversity, not a uniformity. And rather than a domineering system of hierarchy, in part 2 of this article, I want us to see why this forms a much greater enjoyment of God in heaven for us all.