Eternity, Judgment, Heaven and Hell

Degrees of Reward and Punishment

 As to the difference of reward for the righteous, it would seem at first glance that Matthew 20:1-16 indicates the same reward for all who receive eternal life in the world to come, which had been the closing topic of Matthew 19:23-30 and Mark 10:23-31. But on closer examination it will be noted that at the close of Matthew 20:1-16 it is stated, "So the last shall be first, and the first last," which is slightly different from the close of 19:23-30, namely: "But many shall be last that are first, and first that are last." Yet the second seems to have a relation to the first, by immediately following it and being introduced by "for" though not duplicated in Mark.

The situation in the first is related to the men chosen by the Christ to be his apostles to the world after he returns to heaven, who were keenly rank conscious, each seeming to want to be first or as nearly so as possible in his coming kingdom (see Matthew 18:1-4; 20:28; Mark 9:33-35; 10:35-45; Luke 9:46-48). So, on numerous occasions he taught them that is not rank but service that makes men great in heaven's sight. (See Matthew 23:1-12 for a public discourse also along this line in the temple in Jerusalem on Tuesday of crucifixion week, and John 13:1-17 for an object lesson along this same line to the apostles the last night with them before his crucifixion the nest day.) And Matthew 19:23-30; Mark 10:23-31, mentioned in the foregoing paragraph, represents a previous effort to emphasize to the apostles that one might think himself, or be thought by others in this world, to be first in his class, yet not necessarily be such in the world to come. He might even be last. But the purpose could hardly have been to say that the apostles, all or them, would be last, or all of necessarily equal reward.

But, if Matthew 19:30 is not intended to say that all the apostles would be last, or all receive the same reward, in the world to come, how could 20:16 have any relation to the preceding?

Some would apply 19:30 to the apostles (who were Jews), as indicting that their being among Christ’s earliest disciples even among the Jews would not within itself give them a higher standing in the eternal phase of the kingdom of heaven (which surely is true). And in like manner they would apply 20:16 to all Jews as a class, as indicating that their being called into the kingdom before the Gentiles (see Romans 1:16) would not within itself prevent the latter from enjoying equal standing and reward in the kingdom (which is surely also true) – which by the Jews might be thought to be preferential treatment – and on earth did actually come to make them first in the sense of becoming more numerous in the kingdom than the Jews and thus occupy a place of comparative prominence because of disbelief in Christ on the part of all but a remnant of the Jews, as per Romans 9:11.

But granting such as representing said group situations factually in no wise destroys the foregoing application of Matthew 19:30 to individual situations inherent in "many" being last in the world to come that are first in this world, and first that are last. By the same token, whether Jews or Gentiles, will be equally rewarded in every respect, as will now be noted.

For example, the apostle Paul who said of himself, "we are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not destroyed – always carrying about in our body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:8-11, New King James Version), also said: "Therefore we do not loose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed from day to day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (vs.16-18).

One would think that if Paul had died immediately after conversion to Christ, he would have had eternal glory in the world to come. But he believed what he was doing and suffering for Christ was working for him much greater glory, which would hardly seem likely if there is no difference in degrees of reward. Christ had said, "Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).

In Revelation 15:2-3, John describes a scene he beheld in heaven as being of "them that come off victorious from the beast, and from his image, and from the number of his name, standing by the sea of glass, having harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb." Does that not indicate an aspect of glory for Moses and the Lamb (Christ) that the rest of us do not, or will not have?

And in Revelation 21:14, John again describes a part of the vision he was given of the eternal city, New Jerusalem, thus: "And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." Does that not also indicate an aspect of glory for the apostles that none of the rest of us will have?

Some of Jesus’ judgment parables also seem to suggest different degrees of reward. In the parable of the Talents, the faithful five-talent and two-talent servants who doubled their lord’s money in his absence seems to have allowed to remain in charge of their entire respective amounts (which were not the same but more than to begin with in both instances) besides entrance for both otherwise, it would seem, into the "joys" of their lord; and the now ten-talent man, was given the talent taken from the unfaithful one-talent man, "For," said Jesus, unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away" (Matthew 25:14-30). In eternity "his servants shall serve him" (Revelation 22:3), and "reign for ever and ever" (v.5), but have varying scopes of responsibility and service –as indicated by the following.

And in Luke 19:11-27 is another parable, uttered for a different purpose but containing as element similar to that in the foregoing. In this instance a nobleman upon making a journey into a far country delivered ten pounds (or minas, said to be equal to about three month’s salary) to ten of his servants to trade with in his absence. Upon his return, one had gained ten pounds more, another had gained five pounds more, and one had just kept his pound without attempting to gain more. In this case, the first was rewarded by being placed over ten cities, the second by being placed over five cities, and the third had his one talent taken away and given to the servant that had the ten pounds. But the two that were rewarded were promoted, not equally, but equitably.

And such seemingly will be true of the righteous in the world to come – rewarding according to their works. "He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophets reward: and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whosoever shall give a drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you he shall in no wise lose his reward for his deed" – an emphatic way of saying he would certainly be rewarded for such (Matthew 11:40-42). Quantity alone is not all that will count. Mark tell that on one occasion Jesus "sat down over against the treasury, and beheld how the multitudes cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, This poor widow cast in more than all they that are casting into the treasury: for they all did cast in of their superfluity; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living" (12:41-41).

As for the unrighteous, some will "receive greater damnation" (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke 20"47, King James Version). Some will be beaten, as it were, "with many stripes," and others "with few stripes," according to degree of culpability (Luke 12:41-48). Again, some will suffer "sorer punishment" than others because of the nature of their sin (Hebrews 10:28-29). And for some it will be "more tolerable" in the judgment than for others because in the difference in opportunity (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15). So punishment will not all be equal, but equitable.

Cecil N. Wright