Will there be different levels of suffering in Hell? Why or why not? Also, will there be different levels of rewards for Christians in heaven? Does this matter to our lives now?
Condemnation is the sentence pronounced against those who (1) disobey the word of the Lord (whether written down in letters, written on the heart or spoken audibly) and/or (2) reject Jesus, the Savior whom God has sent to deliver the disobedient and rebellious. The specific terms of that condemnation can be summarized in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Regarding the suffering, we have verses like Matthew 11:24, “But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” This verse would suggest that some of the condemned will suffer more than others. I confess I have no idea what that will be like. I can project my own concept of the variableness of suffering gained from life experiences, but such would be only a guess. We have no way to relate to a situation where there is NO goodness from God, as we have experienced during our whole life on earth. Nothing about hell appeals to me or offers any hope of relief or moderation. Hell is hell, period, and I don’t want any part of it.
As for rewards for Christians in heaven or at the resurrection unto life, the degree to which Christians will be differentiated is not entirely clear. There are Scripture verses that could support this; for example, 1 John 2:28, “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming …” This suggests that some could be ashamed. And then the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, “… we make it our aim to please Him. For 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” (2 Cor. 5:9–10). In context Paul seems to be talking to Christians.
It is worth noting that a great many of the tangible rewards mentioned in the New Testament seem to be granted on earth, rather than in heaven. One example is Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The reward seems to be a temporal answer to prayer, not necessarily a future heavenly reward.
Then the Lord promises that those material sacrifices of earth will be compensated for both here and in heaven, but not as a matter of exalting one person over another: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29). The thought appears to be receiving blessings in advance of eternal life.
So, getting back to heavenly rewards, we might well say that heaven is its own reward: “… to the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). The Apostle Paul speaks of gaining “a crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8) and by this seems to indicate either that his labors for the Lord will be acknowledged as having been righteous, or that having continued to trust Christ to the end of his earthly life, he will then be rewarded with perfect sanctification so as to be qualified to live in God’s holy presence. Either way, the emphasis is not on the (figurative) crown but on the righteousness. A crown is a ceremonial item, not something one wears to work.
The reward we are seeking most is the longed-for pronouncement from the Lord Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). More on the being set over much in a moment, but first we must consider the Lord’s commendation. He wants to publicly recognize the faithfulness of his servants, and that recognition is sufficient reward for those who live to please him.
The Apostle Paul admonishes his readers,
Now if anyone builds on the foundation [Christ] with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation 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. (1 Cor. 3:12-15)
What is the reward here? I believe it is the Lord’s “well done,” along with the joy of seeing the fruit of one’s labors.
The previous verse also answers your question about how rewards affect our lives now. In order to get the “well done,” one must labor as a good steward and not be found lazy or negligent or satisfied with “straw.” And notice that with the “well done” the Lord calls the faithful to further endeavors. Those spoken to—those who have been productive for the sake of the kingdom—are promised not possessions or ceremonial apparel, but greater responsibilities. There will be much to do in the new heavens and new earth, and one reward, at least, will be additional exciting, God-honoring work.
I should close with a word about martyrs. The book of Revelation does stress that those martyred for Christ’s sake will be recognized and will find special honor: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10b). But again, the crown, while it signifies recognition and honor, is meant to call attention to a special achievement accomplished by grace. The Scriptures’ own disposition of crowns (apart from that of Jesus) is their being cast before the throne of the Lord (Rev. 4:10).
Hope this helps you.
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