Before I begin to answer these questions, I first want to say that there is defiantly a heaven and a hell. These are the only two destinations that will continue to exist for eternity. Whether there are degrees of rewards in heaven or degrees of punishment of hell, does not change the fact that we will end up in one of these two places and our goals as Christians is to avoid going to the horrible place called hell.

We must understand that God is in control, and whatever decision He makes about our eternal destination and what happens to us there, it will be a just decision, because God is just God.

Psalm 89:14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne

While we might not fully understand the judgments that God makes, we can rest assured that He will make the right ones. As the Lord declares in:

Isaiah 55:8 " For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," says the LORD.  9 "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. 

One thing that is clearly taught and can be read in Matthew 25 is that there will be a great separation at the day of judgment. The righteous will join God in heaven and wicked will join the devil and his angels in hell:

Matthew 25:46 "And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

The wonderful news is that we all have the opportunity to make to that wonderful place called heaven. God has given us the ability to choose whom we will serve and He patiently waits for us to make that decision, but He hopes that we choose to serve Him:

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

I also want to point that only those that have an obedient faith will make it to heaven as the writer of Hebrews points out:

Hebrews 5:8 though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.  9 And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him,

I want to make it clear that this is not teaching in anyway that we can earn or merit our salvation through any amount of works that we do. Instead, this is talking about works of obedience. By our works, we show our faith as James said:

James 2:24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.  25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?  26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

By our works we show our love for God:

1 John 5:3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.

While our works cannot earn our merit our salvation, our works of obedience is how we tell God that we have accepted His grace. When we choose not to have works of obedience and disobey the Word of God, we are telling God that we do not choose to accept His grace. As you will see, as get further into this lesson our works do affect what kind of reward or punishment we will receive in heaven or in hell.

Let us begin answer the first part of our question: Are there degrees of rewards in heaven?

First, I want to point out that every faithful Christian will receive the greatest reward and that is eternity in heaven. Regardless if there are greater, lesser, or equal rewards, personally I will happy to be heaven. However, I do believe the Bible teaches that there are degrees of rewards in heaven. However, some get confused about one the parables that Jesus taught about the laborers in vineyard in Matthew 20.

If you will remember the landowner goes out and hires various people at different times during the day, but at end of the day we read:

Matthew 20:8 "So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.'  9 "And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.  10 "But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.  11 "And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner,  12 "saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'  13 "But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  14 'Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  15 'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?'  16 "So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen."

At first glance, some might conclude that everyone who gets into heaven is given an equal reward, independent of their work here on earth. After all, these workers enter at different times and appear to perform different amounts of work, yet they all get the same payment! Does this mean that regardless of what we do here on earth, the reward will be the same for all of us? Or is it possible that this parable is really trying to make an entirely different point? 

Keeping things in context, we need to remember that in the previous chapter Jesus had a discussion with the Rich young ruler about what it would take for him to have a home in heaven. After this discussion when the rich young ruler went away because he was not willing to give up his riches, Peter wants to know if he and the other disciples had done enough to enter the kingdom of God, and he also asked the following question:

Matthew 19:27  "See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?"

Jesus assures Peter that they will have authority in the kingdom, but He also tells Peter that many others who come to the truth later will also be in the kingdom:

Matthew 19:28 So Jesus said to them, "Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  29 "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.  30 "But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This last statement is important. Jesus is telling the disciples that some who come later will also be in the kingdom. Who are these late comers? The parable of the vineyard workers answers this question. When we keep the parable in context by looking at Matthew Chapter 19, it’s easy to see that the parable of the vineyard is all about the salvation of the Gentiles! The parable is designed to illustrate the fact that the Gentiles (who actually heard the Gospel and entered the Kingdom very late compared to the Jews who possessed the scripture all along), would also enjoy the same privileges and rights as the Jews who were originally God’s chosen people.

This parable does not teach our reward in heaven will be the same. In fact, if you read the parable in the context of Matthew Chapter 19, you can easily see the rewards in heaven will not be the same. Also,  in Matthew 19:28-29, Jesus indicates that these disciples  will have a greater position as they sin on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

Keeping the parable in context, we can see that it does not speak of equal rewards for every Christian in heaven. Besides, many other passages in Scripture teach just the opposite.


Degrees of Reward

We have to no reason to doubt that there is a reward to be had in heaven because Jesus said that heaven is a place where rewards will be given to the saved. In fact, notice the following passages from the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:11 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  12 "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, …

 Matthew 6:1 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  2  "Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  3 "But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  4 "that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.  5 " And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  6 "But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Matthew 6:16 " Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  17 "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  18 "so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Matthew 6:20  "but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Jesus makes it clear that there is a reward in heaven waiting for the saved. We are told to focus on the treasures (plural) found in heaven as opposed to the treasures of this earth because the heavenly treasures or we could say rewards will never end.

Jesus also said that there are degrees of rewards in heaven.

For example Jesus said:

ESV Matthew 16:27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay ( NKV reward) each person according to what he has done.

Jesus statement is clear, He will “repay (reward) each person according to what he has done.” Think about it for a minute. If Jesus is not telling us that fair and just rewards and punishments are going to be given based on what we have done, then what in the world does this passage mean?

The preposition kata (“according to”) implies a norm, standard by which “rewards or punishments are given” (F.W.Danker, et al., Greek-English Lexicon, University of Chicago, 2000, p. 512). So, the meaning is clear, we will be given various levels of rewards or punishments based on what we have done in this life.

To further illustrate the point, Jesus used a parable to teach this same idea:

Matthew 25:14 " For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them.  15 "And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey.  16 "Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents.  17 "And likewise he who had received two gained two more also.  18 "But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord's money.  19 "After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  20 "So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, 'Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.'  21 "His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.'  22 "He also who had received two talents came and said, 'Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.'  23 "His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.'  24 "Then he who had received the one talent came and said, 'Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  25 'And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.'  26 "But his lord answered and said to him, 'You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.  27 'So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.  28 'Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.  29 'For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.  30 'And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  

Jesus is teaching us that we will be rewarded in heaven in accordance with our deeds. The idea is the greater responsibility you take on and do for the Lord the greater your reward will be in heaven. If you do nothing, we learn that your potential reward will be taken away and given to another and you will not get to experience the joy of heaven. Jesus gives a similar example Luke 19.

God Word has always maintained that there are varying degrees of rewards in heaven. Even the Old Testament speaks of this truth. Look at what Solomon says:

Proverbs 24:12 If you say, "Surely we did not know this," Does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?

In speaking of the heavenly order of things, Daniel wrote:

Daniel 12:3 Those who are wise shall shine Like the brightness of the firmament, And those who turn many to righteousness Like the stars forever and ever.

Many believe that this passage implies that our level of reward will correspond to our evangelistic efforts. For example:

Albert Barnes noted that the suggestion is that the righteous will “be honored in proportion to their toils, their sacrifices, and their success” (Notes on Daniel, New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1853, p. 450).

Another scholar has written that the glorious reward of the righteous “is in proportion to the works that are done” (H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Daniel, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969, p. 532).

There are many more passages that we could look at the teach this same truth, but I believe these are enough to show that there are degrees of rewards that will be given out in heaven, but as I stated early on in this lesson, I will be happy to have made it to heaven regardless of an additional rewards or positions of importance in heaven because that is up for God to decide. As Jesus said to the mother of Zebedee’s sons and those that were there:

Matthew 20:23 So He said to them, "You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father."

While we know there will be degrees of rewards and differing positions, the Bible is vague on the specifics about these things. I just hope all us here today will get to find out about those specifics because that would mean that all of us would make it to heaven.

Now let us quickly look at the second part of our question: are there degrees of punishment?

I believe the Bible is clearer on this matter and answers the question with a resounding yes. For example, Jesus said:

Matthew 11:20 Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent:  21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  22 "But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.  23 "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  24 "But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you."

These verses speak for themselves and show that there are different levels of punishments based on what a person has done in their life. Another clear example that shows degrees of punishment comes from the following parable:

Luke 12:42 And the Lord said, "Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season?  43 "Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.  44 "Truly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all that he has.  45 "But if that servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk,  46 "the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.  47 "And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.  48 "But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.

Again, Jesus makes it easy for us to understand there will be degrees of punishment based on our actions such as whether we sinned against God willfully or out of ignorance.

During the course of Jesus’ trial, He tells Pilate:

John 19:11  "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin."

Does not justice require a greater punishment for a greater sin?

A man who set aside the law of God under the law of Moses was executed without mercy. The writer of Hebrews declares:

Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,  27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.  28 Anyone who has rejected Moses' law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?  30 For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. And again, "The LORD will judge His people."  31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

The principle is this: there is a greater level of responsibility for those who live under the better covenant, and there will be appropriate punishment given to those who have chosen to reject what Christ has done for them.

Along the same line, Peter wrote:

2 Peter 2:20 For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning.  21 For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.  22 But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: "A dog returns to his own vomit," and, "a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire."

Peter teaches us that it would have been better for them to have never known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back to their former lifestyle. This clearly teaches a greater level of punishment for apostate Christians than for those who never knew the truth.

Without a doubt, there are degrees of punishment in hell. So, the answer to both our questions is yes there are degrees of rewards and punishments in eternity, but the most important thing we should be concerned with is whether or not we are living our life in such away that we can obtain that glorious crown found only in heaven. As Paul said:

1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.  25 And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.

While rewards are nice, the greatest reward that all faithful Christians will receive is an eternal home in heaven with our Father. Hopefully none of us will ever have to find out about the various degrees of punishments that many will experience in hell because not only will they be tormented day and night without rest, to me the greatest punishment would be being separated from God for all eternity. Let us do everything we can in our power to love God enough to obey His commands and live our life for Him so that we do not lose out on our reward of heaven.

Some of this sermon was adapted from Wayne Jackson’s article on this topic.