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.
Three Ways Obedience Relates to the Age to Come
The New Testament describes the relationship between our obedience and our condition — our happiness in the age to come — in three ways.
1. Obedience is never the ground of our acceptance with God.
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” (Romans 3:20). And positively he says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 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 one man’s disobedience the many will be made 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.
2. Obedience confirms we have saving faith.
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 God’s being for us, it is the confirmation that God is one hundred percent for us.
For example, 2 Peter 1:10 says, “Be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Romans 8:13 says, “If by the Spirit you put to death the [sinful] deeds of the body, you will live.”
So obedience is necessary for eternal life — not as the foundation, but as confirmation.
3. Obedience results in degrees of reward.
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.
Full to Different Levels
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’d 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. First Corinthians 15:10 says, “By the grace of God I am what I am. . . . I worked harder . . . though 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.
Good Deeds and Divine Rewards
So if you wonder: Where does all that come from in the Bible, here are just a few texts. (And there are more.) Second 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 tells bondservants to 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) that statement would be meaningless if everyone received the same level of reward.
Hierarchy of Humility
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 talking about us in the age to come, in heaven:
Though all 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.”