Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio transcript

In eternity, will some saints in heaven be more happy than others? That’s a question from Ken, who writes to ask: “Pastor John, do you believe, as Jonathan Edwards did, that Christians will enter eternity at differing degrees of happiness based on the depth and measure of our spiritual development during our earthy life? Or do you believe, as many Christians do, that all Christians enter heaven as equals, at the foot of the cross, with the same degree of holiness and happiness for all of eternity? That is, do you believe in a hierarchy of happiness in heaven?”

Well, the short answer is I agree with Edwards, but some of the alternatives that can set up might not be exactly right. So let me try to dig in a little bit to try to explain what I and Edwards would mean. Let me put it in a larger context.

The New Testament describes the relationship between our obedience and our condition — our happiness in the age to come — in three ways. Number one, and this is most basic. The most basic description of the relationship between our obedience now is that it is not the ground of our acceptance with God now or in the age to come. It is not the ground or basis or foundation of our justified standing in his presence.

Paul says, negatively, “By the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” And positively he says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That is Romans 3:20 and 3:28. So none of our works, none of our obedience is the ground of our justification. It could never be. It is never good enough. It is always contaminated. It is never full enough. We have to have Christ.

So we stand before God in eternity accepted, loved, forgiven, justified on the basis of Christ alone. Romans 5:19 says, “By the obedience of one man, the many will be appointed righteous.” So that is the first and most basic thing to say about the relationship between obedience now and happiness in the age to come.

Number two, the New Testament also teaches that our obedience now confirms that we are chosen by God, called by God, born again, have saving faith. So while obedience isn’t the foundation of our God’s being for us, it is the confirmation that God is 100% for us. For example, 2 Peter 1:10 says, “Be diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these things you will never fall.” Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for the holiness without which you won’t see the Lord.” Romans 8:13 says, “If by the Spirit we put to death the sinful deeds of the body, we will live.” So obedience is necessary for eternal life — not as the foundation, but as confirmation.

Now here is the third one and this is the one that is most important for the question. The New Testament teaches that our obedience results in rewards in the age to come that differ from each other according to the measure of our obedience. So the question that was asked was, “Will there be differing degrees of holiness and happiness or will we all enter heaven as equals in holiness and happiness for all eternity? Do you believe there will be hierarchy in heaven?”

Here is my view. I think it is the same as Edwards. He helped me a lot on this. We will be rewarded differently in the age to come, but everyone will be fully happy. There will be no gap between anyone’s capacity for happiness, on the one hand, and anyone’s fullness of happiness on the other hand. There will be no frustration over any of these differences. And the rewards in their essence — and we have to talk a lot more about this, maybe — but the rewards in their essence are differing capacities for happiness in God.

It is not like a Cadillac and a Chevrolet. That is very irrelevant. If you get down to the essence of what would be a good reward in heaven, it is knowing and tasting and having a capacity for greater delights in God and awareness of God and enjoyment of God. And I think that is what Edwards means when he says there are differing degrees of holiness and glory since the essence of holiness and the essence of glory is the heart’s treasuring and esteeming of God above all things. Our God-treasuring happiness is our holiness and our glory. That is why Edwards talks about different degrees of holiness, different degrees of glory — not that there are unholy people in heaven or inglorious people in heaven or unhappy people in heaven, but that everybody’s capacities will be full, but the capacities are different.

And with those differences there will be no envy in those with smaller capacities. And there will be no boasting in those with greater capacities. Benevolence from the ones that are greater and humility will be perfect in both so that it will involve no sin whatsoever, no resentment, no jealousy, no envy, no arrogance, no demeaning of anybody. And in that sense we are all equal. We are all sinless. We all stand on common ground at the foot of the cross totally dependent on grace to provide every measure of happiness and every measure of holiness.

Here is another clarification. All Christian obedience now and forever is done by God’s grace. In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am. I worked harder, but it was not I, but the grace of God.” So what God rewards is the fruit of his own grace in our lives. So there is no thought that rewards are earned in the sense of giving God something that he then has to recompense because he didn’t have it already.

So if you wonder where does all that come from in the Bible, here are just a few texts. And there are more. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” That is amazing. So there are negative and positive consequences for the believer in heaven.

What in the world does he mean by negative consequences, like good or evil? The closest text, I think, that sheds light on that question is 1 Corinthians 3:14–15 and it goes like this: “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation of Christ survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” So there is some loss of what might have been because we built with wood, hay, and stubble instead of silver and gold and precious stones.

Likewise, in Ephesians 6:8, Paul stresses the correlation between good deeds and divine rewards. Here is what he says: “Slaves, serve the Lord knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” Whatever good. That is amazing. Every single little whiff of goodness that God enables us to do is going to have its appropriate recompense in heaven. And that means that good deeds are noted and rewarded. And I think — there’s a little controversy around this, I suppose — I think that statement would be meaningless if everyone received the same level of reward.

So just one last word on this issue of hierarchy. It sounded like Ken’s question saw that as a negative. Like, “Whoa, hierarchy in heaven would be a bad thing.” And what I would just encourage Ken and everybody who is listening to do is read Edwards on this. Let me give just a taste of what he says. This is Edwards:

“Though all [talking about us in the age to come, in heaven] though all are perfectly free from pride, yet as some will have greater degrees of divine knowledge than others and will have larger capacities to see more of the divine perfections, so they will see more of their own comparative littleness and nothingness and, therefore, will be the lowest abased in humility.”

So when you read a sentence like that you say, “Well, that is going to be a kind of hierarchy that has never existed before.”