Are There Degrees of Punishment and Reward?
Will there be degrees of reward in heaven? Similarly, will there be degrees of punishment in hell?
Any topic relating to the specific nature of man’s ultimate, eternal abode should be of great interest to all accountable people, since every human eventually will inhabit eternity (see Thompson, 2000a, pp. 33-39; 2000b, pp. 41-47; 2000c, pp. 49-55). It is not surprising, then, that questions of what conditions will be like in the afterlife often occupy our thoughts. Whenever questions of spiritual import are under consideration—as they are when discussing the destiny of the soul—the only reliable source of information must by necessity be the One Who is the Originator and Sustainer of the soul. God, as Creator of all things physical and spiritual (Genesis 1:1ff.; Exodus 20:11), and Himself a Spirit Being (John 4:24), is the ultimate wellspring of the soul (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The Bible, then, as God’s inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), must be the preeminent authority on this subject. It therefore is to Holy Writ that we must turn to answer any question about eternity.
DEGREES OF ETERNAL REWARD
First, it is important to note that every faithful follower of God eventually will receive an eternal reward. Writing in the book of Revelation, the apostle John described in striking language the destiny of the righteous when this world finally comes to an end: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.... He that overcometh shall inherit these things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son” (21:3,7, RSV). Earlier, John had encouraged his readers with these words: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). John’s coworker, the apostle Paul, referred to those who had served Jesus faithfully as “heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). The writer of the book of Hebrews spoke of Christ as having become “unto all them that obey him, the author of eternal salvation” (5:9).
Second, it is equally important to realize that every saint will be rewarded “according to his deeds.” Matthew wrote: “For the son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he render unto every man according to his deeds” (16:27). Paul used practically identical words in Romans 2:5-7: “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his works.” Such a concept was taught even in Old Testament times. Solomon wrote: “If thou sayest, ‘We knew not this,’ doth not he that weigheth the heart consider it? And he that keepeth thy soul, doth he not know it? And shall not he render to every man according to his work?” (Proverbs 24:12).
Parables from the mouth of the Lord similarly demonstrate that every person will be judged according to his or her deeds. The parable of the pounds, recorded in Luke 19:11-27, is a perfect example.
A certain nobleman went into a far country, to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called ten servants of his, and gave them each ten pounds, and said unto them, “Trade ye herewith till I come.” But his citizens hated him, and sent an ambassage after him, saying, “We will not that this man reign over us.” And it came to pass, when he was come back again, having received the kingdom, that he commanded these servants, unto whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading. And the first came before him, saying, “Lord, thy pound hath made ten pounds more.” And he said unto him, “Well done, thou good servant: because thou wast found faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities.” And the second came, saying, “Thy pound, Lord, hath made five pounds.” And he said unto him also, “Be thou also over five cities.” And another came, saying, “Lord, behold, here is thy pound, which I kept laid up in a napkin: for I feared thee, because thou art an austere man: thou takest up that which thou layedst not down, and reapest that which thou didst not sow.” He saith unto him, “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I am an austere man, taking up that which I laid not down, and reaping that which I did not sow; then wherefore gavest thou not my money into the bank, and I at my coming should have required it with interest?” And he said unto them that stood by, “Take from him the pound, and give it unto him that hath the ten pounds.” And they said unto him, “Lord, he hath ten pounds.” I say unto you, that unto every one that hath shall be given; but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away from him.
After reading this parable (and the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30), it is clear that certain individuals receive—and thus are responsible for—more pounds/talents than some others. The faithful servant who soundly invested ten pounds was awarded authority over ten cities. The second servant also was recompensed in proportion to the degree with which he fulfilled his responsibility to the master. He wisely invested five pounds, and in return was given authority over five cities. There is no reason to disbelieve, then, that had the third servant been equally faithful, he, too, would have been rewarded commensurate with his investment (which likely would have been authority over one city). This parable, then, teaches the following: (1) all of God’s servants are blessed with varied abilities; (2) all who are faithful stewards of the ability with which they have been endowed will obtain a reward; and (3) God’s stewards will be rewarded based on what they accomplished with the abilities that were entrusted to them. [This is not to say, of course, that heaven is “earned” by any human works (see Thompson, 1999, pp. 47-49). Ephesians 2:8-9 states unequivocally that salvation is a free gift of God, not something bestowed because of any human merit. Rather, the works done in the here and now provide for the Christian an eternal weight of glory—a weight that differs from person to person (2 Corinthians 4:17).]
If believers are to be judged according to their works (Matthew 16:27; 25:31-46; Revelation 20:12), it logically follows that those with the greatest responsibility can expect the strictest judgment. Indeed, the Good Book teaches exactly such a principle. Jehovah charged the prophet Ezekiel:
Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, “Thou shalt surely die,” and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thy hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul. Again, when a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteous deeds which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thy hand. Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and thou hast delivered thy soul (Ezekiel 3:17-21).
What an awesome and terrifying responsibility that ancient preacher and prophet was given. Millennia later, James offered this warning: “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment” (James 3:1).
Those who suggest that God will reward every saint equally often appeal to the parable that Christ presented in Matthew 20:1-15 for support of their position. There, the Lord told of a certain landowner who was in need of workers to assist him in his vineyard. The man went to the marketplace to find laborers and, when he had located some men, agreed to pay them a denarius each. About the third hour, he went to the market again in order to seek additional laborers. He went out twice more and then, at the eleventh hour, he found still more men to help. This last group worked only one hour, and yet when the end of the day arrived and all the men lined up to be paid, those “eleventh-hour” workers received their wages first—a full denarius. The rest of the men were given equal dues. When the master finally got to the laborers he had hired first thing that morning, he gave them the same amount he had given everyone else. Those “first-hour” workers were outraged! The very idea that they—who had been hired first and worked longest—should receive the same recompense as those who worked only one hour, was more than they could handle. The text in Matthew says that “they murmured against the householder” (vs. 11). But the man who had hired them responded simply: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?” (vss. 13-15).
Those who teach that God will reward each of His faithful followers equally suggest that the denarius in this parable represents eternal life (see, for example: Wright, 1980, 122:531; Coffman, 1974, p. 307), and since every worker received a denarius, the implication is that there can be no “degrees” of reward. This, however, cannot be what the parable is teaching. In his commentary on the book of Matthew, renowned biblical scholar R.C.H. Lenski explained why.
Those who think that the denarius is eternal life, of course, regard the evening as the final judgment or the hour of death. Even in this verse this cannot be the sense, for eternal life is never earned by any man’s work. The combination of a)po/ with do/j (di/dwmi) means “give what is due.” Eternal life is never due anyone either at the time of its first bestowal in conversion or at the time of its full enjoyment when the believer enters heaven (1943, pp. 772-773, emp. added).
If this parable were speaking about final judgment, it would indeed provide a cogent argument for the equality of each person’s eternal reward. But is the parable addressing final judgment and eternal rewards? No, it is not. In Matthew 20:11 the text clearly indicates that the ones who worked all day “murmured against the householder.” In regard to those who did so, H. Leo Boles commented that “they were envious; their eyes were evil” (1952, p. 400). But the Scriptures make it clear that there will be no envy in heaven (Revelation 21:27). Lenski correctly observed: “Here, it ought to be plain, the possibility of making the denarius equal to eternal life is removed. The thought that a saint in heaven may murmur against God is appalling” (p. 775).
In addition, the master of the vineyard commanded the workers who labored in the field all day: “Take up that which is thine and go thy way” (vs. 14, emp. added). Lenski rendered the phrase, “Take up thine own and be gone,” and then observed:
This lord is done with him. And this is the climax of the parable. This u(/page [be gone] cannot mean, “Go and be content with thy wages!” It is exactly like the imperative found in 4:10, and always means to leave, cf., 8:13; 19:21.... This is a man who works in the church for what he can get out of the church. He has what he worked for—and nothing more. He is treated exactly as the hypocrites are who are mentioned in 6:2,5: “Verily, I say unto you, They have received their reward!” i.e., are paid in full.... Those who will learn nothing about divine grace even when they are working in the church will finally be left without this grace; those who are set on justice and refuse to go beyond it shall finally have justice (p. 777).
If we interpret the parable to mean that the master of the vineyard represents God, and the denarius represents eternal reward, how, then, are we to interpret the fact that those who worked all day received a denarius, but were sent away from the master of the vineyard? Can such a view be squared with Paul’s word in 1 Thessalonians 4:17—“And so shall we ever be with the Lord”?
If this parable is not discussing final judgment (and it is not), and if the denarius does not represent eternal life (and it does not), what, then, is the point of the parable? It appears that Christ was instructing His Jewish listeners about the Gentiles’ place in the Kingdom—a topic that, as we learn from later New Testament writings, became somewhat controversial among first-century Christians. The late Guy N. Woods, former editor of the Gospel Advocate, wrote concerning Christ’s discussion:
It is possible, indeed probable, in the minds of many scholars that it was delivered to show that the Gentiles, who came in at “the eleventh hour,” would enjoy in the kingdom (soon to be established when these words were uttered) the same privileges as the Jews who had been the favored and chosen people of the Lord for many centuries. Though last in point of invitation, they were to become first through their acceptance of, and dedication to, the gospel; whereas, the Jews, through their rebellion and disbelief, would be cut off (1976, p. 231, parenthetical comment in orig.).
Numerous conservative biblical commentators have suggested exactly such a view, including Adam Clarke (n.d. 5:194-197) and H. Leo Boles (1952, pp. 400-401). One writer by the name of Watts put it like this:
It is not the design of this parable to represent the final rewards of the saints at the day of judgment, but to show that the nation of the Jews, who had been called to be the people of God above a thousand years before, and had borne the burden and heat of the day, i.e., the toil and bondage of many ceremonies, should have no preference in the esteem of God above the Gentiles, who were called at the last hour, or at the end of the Jewish dispensation (as quoted in Woods, 1980, 122:532).
While the parable of the laborers established that all who are deserving (Jew or Gentile) would inherit a reward, it also emphasized God’s grace. As Lenski remarked:
The warning represented in this parable suggests our responsibility. If we close eye and heart against grace, no matter how high we stand in the church or how much we work, we shall lose life eternal (1943, p. 781).
But what of the denarius? What does it represent, if not eternal life? Lenski concluded—correctly, we believe—that the denarius represents the blessings one receives here on Earth by being a member of the Lord’s church.
The denarius paid at evening constitutes the temporal blessings connected with our Christian profession and work, and these blessings are made ours already during the entire time that we work. Every one of us gets his denarius; every one enjoys the same temporal benefits that are connected with life in the church. They come to the new convert exactly as they do to the old, to the preacher as well as to the [member], to the child as well as to the octogenarian (p. 772).
REASONS FOR UNEQUAL REWARDS
Lending credence to the idea that Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20 is not discussing equality of eternal rewards is the fact that the Bible plainly depicts certain people being awarded a unique and distinguished position in heaven. Revelation 15:3 notes that in heaven “they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” Surely none of us would be so bold as to suggest that the hosts of heaven will sing a song about us as they do about Moses. Furthermore, in Revelation 21:14 John wrote that “the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” While we recognize the somewhat figurative nature of certain terms employed by John, the principle nevertheless remains: the apostles ultimately will occupy a place of greater preeminence in the heavenly abode. Also, Luke 16 portrays Abraham as having more prominence and authority in the afterlife than Lazarus. Consider also Mark 10:40, wherein James and John asked the Lord to allow them to sit next to Him in glory—one on His right side and one on His left. Jesus replied: “To sit on my right hand or on my left hand is not mine to give; but it is for them for whom it hath been prepared.” Some glorified beings (whether angelic or human) will occupy a place of distinction beside the Savior—a unique and special place reserved solely for them.
Some have argued against the idea of differing rewards by claiming that heaven will be perfect, and that something perfect can be neither improved nor diminished. However, Jesus observed that “even so there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more [joy] than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7, emp. added). In at least some sense, then, joy in heaven can differ in degrees. The principle of degrees of heavenly reward—which is taught quite plainly in Scripture—should motivate every Christian to “work while it is yet day, for the night cometh when no man can work” (John 9:4).
DEGREES OF ETERNAL PUNISHMENT
But if there are degrees of reward in heaven, will there likewise be degrees of punishment in hell? Yes indeed. On several occasions, when speaking of eternal torment, the Bible mentions those who will suffer to a lesser or greater degree. And each time such a reference occurs, the punishment is proportionate to the opportunities missed. Those who are blessed with numerous opportunities to obey the gospel and still reject it will receive greater condemnation than those who have little or no occasion to accept Christ. Jesus echoed this sentiment in His rebuke to the inhabitants of the cities of Bethsaida and Chorazin.
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And thou, Capernaum, shalt thou be exalted unto heaven? thou shalt go down unto Hades: for if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in thee, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee (Matthew 11:21-24, emp. added).
Jesus offered this censure to those Jewish cities where He had done much of His preaching, and where, on occasion, He even had performed miracles. The citizens of those towns had more opportunity to accept the Messiah than many others living around them, yet they persisted in their rejection of Him. On the other hand, the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon—renowned for their wickedness—would receive a lesser punishment at the Day of Judgment for the simple reason that they had been deprived of direct exposure to Christ’s message and miracles. All were to endure punishment, for all had rejected God’s law. But it would not be equal punishment. The writer of Hebrews further emphasized this point when he addressed the “sorer punishment” that was to befall those who had “trodden underfoot the Son of God” (10:29). Notice also Peter’s stinging statement regarding the terrible fate that awaits unfaithful, backsliding Christians:
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first (2 Peter 2:20-21, emp. added).
If Peter’s statement teaches anything, it teaches degrees of punishment.
But perhaps the most convincing argument for the concept of degrees of punishment derives from Jesus’ parable of the wicked servant, as recorded in Luke 12:42-48.
And the Lord said, “Who, then, is the faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall set over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will set him over all that he hath. But if that servant shall say in his heart, ‘My lord delayeth his coming,’ and shall begin to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; the lord of that servant shall come in a day when he expecteth not, and in an hour when he knoweth not, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint his portion with the unfaithful. And that servant, who knew his lord’s will, and made not ready, nor did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more” (emp. added).
The meaning of the last section of this parable is inescapable. All the wicked will be punished; however, those limited in their opportunities to learn about Christ will be punished “with fewer stripes” than those who knew the truth and obeyed it not.
Does the Bible teach degrees of reward in heaven? Yes, it does. Does it also teach degrees of punishment in hell? Yes, it does. The good news, of course, is that heaven’s offer of salvation is open to everyone (John 3:16; Romans 6:23). No one has to go to hell. When Christ was ransomed on our behalf (1 Timothy 2:4), He paid a debt He did not owe, and a debt we could not pay—so that we could live forever in the presence of our Creator (Matthew 25:46). God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Nor should we. As one writer put it: “No one who has been snatched from the burning himself can feel anything but compassion and concern for the lost” (Woodson, 1973, p. 32). As we discover the hideous nature of our sin, we not only should desire to save ourselves “from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40), but we also should be passionate about warning the wicked of their impending doom (Ezekiel 3:17-19).
Boles, H. Leo (1952), A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Clarke, Adam (no date), Clarke’s Commentary (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury).
Coffman, Burton (1974), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Abilene, Texas: ACU Press).
Kurfees, M.C., ed. (1921), Questions and Answers by Lipscomb and Sewell (Nashville, TN: McQuiddy).
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Thompson, Bert (1999), My Sovereign, My Sin, My Salvation (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Thompson, Bert (2000a), “The Origin, Nature, and Destiny of the Soul—Part III,” Reason and Revelation, 20:33-39, May.
Thompson, Bert (2000b), “The Origin, Nature, and Destiny of the Soul—Part IV,” Reason and Revelation, 20:41-47, June.
Thompson, Bert (2000c), “The Origin, Nature, and Destiny of the Soul—Part V,” Reason and Revelation, 20:49-55, July.
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Woods, Guy N. (1980), “Editorial Note” accompanying an article by Cecil N. Wright, “Are There Degrees of Reward and Punishment in Eternity,” Gospel Advocate, 122:531-532, August 21.
Woodson, Leslie (1973), Hell and Salvation (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell).
Wright, Cecil N. (1980), “Are There Degrees of Reward and Punishment in Eternity,” Gospel Advocate, 122:531-532, August 21.