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Are There Levels in Heaven?

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Are There Levels in Heaven? The Bible speaks clearly of heavenly reward(s) but for our part, whenever we speak of biblical rewards (and views among otherwise like-minded Christians vary), we must lay aside ideas of comparison and be careful to avoid the idea that once saved by faith apart from works we then earn various degrees of reward through our obedience.

Are There Levels in Heaven?

DOESN’T JESUS TALK ABOUT EARNING REWARDS?

The Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, include several examples of Jesus teaching about heavenly rewards, but not in the sense of earning extra rewards. Jesus never contrasts different amounts of heavenly rewards for those who inherit God’s kingdom. Instead he contrasts inheriting the kingdom of this world with God’s kingdom. Let’s consider a few examples.

“You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven” (Matt 5:11 12).

The great reward, heaven, is absolute. The idea of greater rewards among those blessed in the Kingdom works against the perspective of the text. In God’s kingdom, the blessed—the meek, humble, merciful, etc.—stand in stark contrast with what counts as great in this world.

“Store up for your yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20).

Similarly, in Matthew 6, Jesus isn’t envisioning some sort of spiritual vault where increasing rewards get deposited for future enjoyment. Jesus contrasts the values of his kingdom over the values of the kingdom of this world. Living for the riches of this world means living for things that cannot last, for all is destroyed by “moth and rust.” The treasures of heaven, however, last forever.

“If you want to be perfect . . . go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (Matt 19:21).

In this statement, Jesus pinpoints the primary obstacle the rich, young ruler had to following Jesus: he “had many possessions” (19:22). Jesus, of course, is not suggesting that simply selling everything and giving the money to the poor earns someone eternal life. He’s telling this young ruler that he shouldn’t live for his temporal earthly wealth and should instead value the kingdom of heaven where humility, service, and mercy count. The reward is the kingdom of heaven itself. The perfection Jesus offers is the eschatological blessing extended to citizens of the kingdom.

“But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).

Here, Jesus is teaching his disciples about life in his kingdom in contrast to the world where “even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full” (6:34). The “great” reward for selfless love, generosity, and mercy is the full realization of becoming “children of the Most High.” Even if some sort of measurable, heavenly reward is in view, there’s no hint of earning it by obedience. Those who pursue the kingdom life Jesus envisions are motivated by what they have received by promise, not for some extra reward they might earn.

WHAT ABOUT THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS ?

In the Parable of the Talents, one servant is given five talents, another two, and another one, each according to his ability (Matt 25:14–15). You know what happens next: the servants who began with five and two double their master’s investment and both are rewarded: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy” (25:21, 23). But the third servant did nothing with his one talent and is subsequently thrown “into the outer darkness” (25:30). His talent is given to the one who has ten. Jesus then declares, “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him” (25:29). The second servant is left out in the redistribution. Why? Because the amount of talents isn’t the issue; faithfulness is. In other words, Jesus’ point isn’t that the better you do the more you’ll be rewarded. He’s simply highlighting the super-abundance of the eschatological gift described in the parable as “sharing in the master’s joy”.

It’s a mistake to translate each phrase of the parable—such as being “put in charge of many things” or “more will be given”—as indications of increased heavenly rewards or status. Parables simply don’t work that way. We cannot arbitrarily choose which details are theologically laden and which are simply “part of the story.” For instance, the master clearly symbolizes God the Father. But no one should read the specific descriptions of the master in the parable as reflecting something more about God’s attributes or actions—such as the servant’s description that the master reaps where he hasn’t sown and gathers where he hasn’t scattered seed (25:24, 26). Those who point to this parable to defend degrees of heavenly rewards haven’t given careful attention to the context—nor do they understand how to read parables differently than narratives.

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Brian is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Sojourn Church, Jeffersontown Kentucky.