“Will there be differing degrees of rewards in heaven and different levels of punishment in hell?”
Before we address the question directly, recognizing some preliminary observations and principles would be helpful.
God is good
The Bible is very clear in affirming that God is a being of absolute goodness. The Psalmist declared: “Good and upright is Jehovah?” (25:8; cf. 100:5). Whatever God does, therefore, is good — whether or not man can understand it (Isa. 55:8-9).
God is just.
God is also just. Justice is one of the elements that lies at the very foundation of his sovereign rule (Psa. 89:14). The Judge of the earth always “does what is right” (Gen. 18:25). As finite beings with limited understanding, however, we are unable to appreciate fully this reality.
When Job went through his anguished ordeal, in moments of weakness, he thought that God occasionally deals unjustly with people. He charged that Jehovah is not always good; sometimes, the patriarch alleged, he mocks “at the calamity of the innocent” (9:23).
Later, when confronted with the power and wisdom of the Creator (chapters 38-41), Job confessed that his uninformed accusations had obscured the true plan of the Almighty (42:2-3).
The wages of sin is death
Those who spend eternity estranged from the presence of the Lord (cf. Mt. 25:41; 2 Thes. 1:7-9), will do so because that is what they deserve. The “wages” of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and eternal “death” is separation from the good and gracious Maker of mankind (Rev. 20:14-15).
Salvation is through Christ alone
Those who have accepted the loving favor of God, by humbly submitting to his revealed will (regardless of the time period in which they have lived), will enjoy the bliss of eternal life, i.e., everlasting communion with the Lord. The guilt of sin is removed from the submissive sinner, by virtue of the atoning death of Jesus of Nazareth (Gal. 4:4; Heb. 9:15-17).
On the other hand, those who reject the offer of salvation will not enjoy the reward of heaven (cf. Heb. 2:1ff; cf. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 4:17).
Will There Be Degrees of Reward in Heaven?
Let us now address the first part of our question. Will there be degrees of reward in heaven? We believe that both scripture and common sense answer affirmatively.
There is no evidence that the human spirit, as to its basic constitution, will be changed by the experience of death. If it is the case, therefore, that we are capable of different levels of satisfaction and enjoyment now, depending upon our capacity for such, it follows that such likely will be the case in the eternal order of things. This seems to be a logical inference.
Consider, for example, the following. How could most modern Christians, with their limited range of experiences, possibly appreciate heaven to the same degree as someone like the apostle Paul, who suffered so much for his eternal crown (cf. 2 Cor. 11:24ff)?
The Scriptures, in many places, seem to imply varying levels of reward for the redeemed. Everyone in heaven will be supremely happy, but the capacity of some would appear to be greater — by virtue of their sacrifices and spiritual development. Let us meditate on a few passages.
Degrees of Reward
In speaking of the heavenly order of things, Daniel wrote that those who
“are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever” (12:3).
Note the term “many,” as compared to fewer. There clearly is implied a level of reward commensurate with one’s evangelistic labors.
Albert Barnes noted that the suggestion is that the righteous will “be honored in proportion to their toils, their sacrifices, and their success” (1853, 450).
Another scholar has written that the glorious reward of the righteous “is in proportion to the works that are done” (H. C. Leupold 1969, 532)
In one of his parables, Jesus told of a nobleman who entrusted to each of ten servants an equal quantity of money with which to do business while he was away in a distant land (see Lk. 19:12ff). When he returned, they were called to account for their stewardship.
One fellow had multiplied his investment ten-fold and was granted authority over ten cities. Another had increased his trust by five; similarly, he was rewarded with five cities. Finally, one man had done nothing with his allotment, and so lost it.
For our purpose here, simply note that the two men who had increased their investments were rewarded according to their respective results.
The Scriptures affirm that Christ, at the time of his return will “repay each person according to what he has done” (Mt. 16:27 ESV). The preposition kata (“according to”) implies a norm, standard by which “rewards or punishments are given” (Danker 2000, 512). If this does not signify a proportionately fair dispersal, language scarcely has any meaning.
Paul was thrilled to know that, at the time of the Lord’s return, he would have both joy and glory on behalf of those whom he had helped in their journey to heaven (1 Thes. 2:19-20).
By way of contrast, however, the apostle cautioned the Corinthians about the manner in which they seek “materials” for the make-up of the Lord’s spiritual house, the church (see 1 Cor. 3:10ff). He urged them to consider the quality of those on whose behalf they labored (i.e., ernest people, versus the superficial) for the time would come when that construction material would be put to the test, the quality being revealed.
Paul noted that if a man’s “work” (i.e., his converts; cf. 1 Cor. 9:1) did not abide, though he himself might be saved, he would suffer “loss.” Of what would that loss consist? The loss would be the joy and glory (cf. 1 Thes. 2:19-20) of knowing that his labor was fruitful eternally (cf. Gal. 4:11).
The implication is plain — the more of our converts who endure and finally arrive in heaven, the greater our joy and reward will be.
Degrees of Punishment
On the opposite side of the equation, there is the matter of degrees of punishment. If anything, the Bible is even more decisive on this issue.
Jesus informed the citizens of certain communities in Galilee that in the day of judgment, it would be “more tolerable” for certain people of the ancient world (e.g., Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom) than for them (Mt. 11:20-24; cf. 10:15).
The word “tolerable” means “bearable, endurable.” In the Greek Testament the word represents a comparative format. The difference was in the opportunities each had enjoyed. Judgment was to be balanced against this factor.
Christ told about a certain master who took a trip. While he was away, his servants, who had been charged with various responsibilities, disobeyed him. When the Lord returned, and discovered that some had knowingly been disobedient, while others had disobeyed in ignorance, he punished them according to the level of their culpability (Lk. 12:47-48).
There is perhaps no clearer passage than this, that teaches degrees of punishment.
During the course of his trial, Jesus informed Pilate: “He who delivered me unto you has the greater sin” (Jn. 19:11). Does not justice require a greater punishment for a greater sin?
A man who set aside the law of God under the Mosaic regime, was executed without mercy. The writer of the book of Hebrews declares that the one who tramples on the Son of God and who treats, as a common thing, the blood by which he was sanctified, will deserve a much “worse” punishment (Heb. 10:26-31).
Here is the principle. There is a greater level of responsibility for those who live under the better covenant, and there will be appropriate punishment meted out for those who, through apostasy, reject that which they previously embraced.
The apostle Peter wrote regarding those who had “escaped the defilements of the world” by virtue of their knowledge of the truth, i.e., obedience to the gospel (2 Pet. 2:20-22; cf. 1 Pet. 4:17). He warned that should they become entangled again in these defilements, and overcome, their “last state” (their apostate condition) would be “worse” than the first (the pre-conversion state).
Ominously, he says it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back to their former lifestyle. This, most assuredly, teaches a greater level of punishment for apostate Christians than for those who never knew the truth.
James provides a word of caution appropriate to this topic. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1 ESV). Is there any question about the implication of that warning?
“The main thought in vv. 1-12 is the greater responsibility of teachers and the extremely dangerous character of the instrument [the tongue] which they have to use? Greater responsibility brings greater judgment” (Adamson 1976, 141).
And so, the answer to the original question is, “Yes.” There will be degrees of just reward — in terms of both blessedness and punishment.
Intelligent people will endeavor to live the obedient life so as to achieve the greatest plateau of enjoyment of which they are capable, and therefore avoid the horrible alternative.