Before anything I apologize for this being a mammoth of a post, but everything in it is quite essential to fully conveying my message with clarity. I highly encourage you to read the entire thing, but if you absolutely cannot, at least read the last paragraph, and pray for understanding and for how you can apply it to your life.
So this week I want to talk about a highly controversial topic: Are there different levels to Heaven and Hell? Are there greater rewards for Christians that sin less, share the Gospel more, preach, do missions work? And are there greater punishments in Hell for those who are more evil, who murder, steal, and deceive, who persecute Christians? By human intuition, we all want to believe yes there are, but God's ways are not our own, and no one on this earth will ever know how God will judge us at the end of times.
However, that being said, there is biblical evidence that there are different rewards and punishments for everyone, but there is also evidence on the contrary, that this matter is simply black and white, you go to Heaven as righteous as anyone, or you go to Hell and suffer the same torment as everyone who did not put faith in our Lord Jesus. Therefore, I urge you to do as the church in Berea, as described in Acts 17:11: "they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." Being so controversial a topic, I do not want you to think that my view on the subject is ultimately correct; it is very possible that I have missed a verse that outright contradicts everything I will talk about, and I do not want you to be deceived by me in such a case. I have not yet read the entire Bible, much less memorized it, and so such a possibility can happen, and I ask that if you do find a verse that goes against my reasoning, please comment here and let me know so I can make amends.
Disclaimer past, I have found a lot of Biblical evidence to confirm that there are different levels and rewards given in Heaven; Hell I am not so sure about. But lets begin with gifts in Heaven. One of the biggest selling points for me personally is a matter of interpretation and logic. Romans 2:12 states "all who sin apart from the law will also perish under the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law." backed with Psalm 62:12, "and 'You reward everyone according to what they have done.'" The first verse is obviously concerned with God's judgement of what we have done on this earth and the determination of our fate as a result of such. The first part seems pretty black and white, that those who do not have the Law, meaning the Gentiles, who do not have knowledge of the Bible, will receive death, which is pretty much universally known in the New Testament to mean the second death in the lake of fire. So those who do not know God will go to hell. But then the second half says that those who do have knowledge of the law will be judged by it. For me, it normally seems like a determination of the heart of man, whether they truly believe in their heart that Christ is King or if they believed it and read the Scriptures simply as an act, such as the Pharisees, and from there divides people definitively into the living and dead. However, when you consider Psalm 62, which is quoted just before by Paul in Romans 2:6, you get a slightly different interpretation.
Just notice the verb used here, we will be rewarded according to what we have done. Not that we will be judged by our actions, but rewarded, and such rewards would not exist in Hell. Thus, by the psalm, we know that God will reward each of us independently in the final judgement. A few verses from Revelation tie in nicely here, Revelation 6:9-11 and chapter 21 with talk of the new Jerusalem. Verses 6;9-11 are concerned with the martyrs, those who are killed for the sake of defending the name of Jesus. It says each of them will be given a white robe. If absolutely nothing else, you cannot deny the fact that martyrs are given a special gift in Heaven, the white robe. But chapter 21 talks about the New Jerusalem, and part of it is the 12 foundations upon which the city was built. This part is highly interpreted but in my first time reading I understood the foundations to be as different levels of the city. As in, one foundation is for one part of the city, and is only accessible by certain people. It could be terraced, in that everyone can get into the lowest foundation, and only some could get to the progressively higher foundations. It could be that each foundation is a different part of the city, keeping certain peoples exclusively together. However, a friend had interpreted this to be 12 foundations all stacked upon one another, and the city upon all 12, meaning that the entire city is open to all.
And while on the topic of foundations, 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is a great example of God testing the strength of our faith and power of works. It explains that Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which we build, and some build with cheap materials such as hay or sticks, while others build with precious metals and expensive stones. Then God's fire will test the strength of each structure. "If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss, but yet will be saved--even though only as one escaping through the flames." So if what we build on the foundation Jesus has laid was made cheaply and without much care, it will be burned up. These are the people who have faith in Jesus, but that is about the extent of that. They do not work actively to avoid sin and temptation, and they are afraid to share the Gospel for fear of persecution. They do not take the time to strengthen their relationship with Christ by studying the Scriptures, and in general they do not have a true relationship with Jesus. And yet, because they believe, they will be saved, but barely. And then those who build with expensive materials, those who do all they can to rid themselves of the things of this world and seek Jesus only, will be given much more. In fact, in Matthew 19:28, "they will receive a hundred times as much, and inherit eternal life."
So why does this matter to us? In short, it shows that God understands how human minds work. He knows that given the choice between much work and little work, if the reward is the same, then most would choose the less work. He knows that the desires to indulge in sins of the flesh is very strong, and that we need something to rid ourselves of that sin. For if simply believing in God were enough, and nothing we do could make us any better, than many of us would simply stop at the faith. And I am no exclusion, for nineteen years, I thought just like this, knowing that God will forgive my sins, and so I could just keep on sinning. It wasn't until I came to have a relationship with Jesus that I came to realize just how much God hates, literally abhors, sin, and all He has done to help us rid ourselves of sin. And it makes sense, both from a human perspective and from that of God, as presented in the Scriptures, that he would reward those with greater faith.
Our God is just, and therefore two things I know: those who do not believe in Jesus Christ will go to Hell, and I have not found any evidence in Scripture to suggest that there are different levels to this. While I would want to believe that someone does not even know of Jesus would receive a lesser punishment than, say, Hitler, the truth is that sin separates us all from God and the only way to be reconciled with God is through Jesus. Therefore, the extent of our sinning does not make a difference if we are still condemned to Hell, a place of unimaginable torment; how can one torment that we cannot even fathom be any more bearable than another that is beyond our comprehension? And Hell is Satan's realm, and Satan exists to steal, kill, and destroy, so why should Satan show mercy on anyone? All he wanted was to keep us from God and Heaven, and beyond that he doesn't care about us or favor anyone who has sinned more.
The second thing that I know is that because god is just, he will reward our good actions. This is not to say that we are reconciled through works, but rather once we are reconciled and have our names written in the Book of life, God wants us to actively pursue Him and pray and evangelize and further His kingdom, not just sit and be content with living mostly as we did before. Once we find and have a relationship with Christ, we are crucified with Christ, and we are born again and he lives inside us. And after this, we know that our faith produces good works as a result, and this is Jesus living in us, trying to help us earn the best gift in Heaven possible. Because God loves us, He has given us more than we ever deserve; not just eternal life but also special Heavenly rewards simply for trying not to disappoint him.
So in all, it seems clear from the Scriptures that the more you do on earth will yield more for you in Heaven, but this is not implying that by doing good deeds you will inherit eternal life. Rather, it is faith and faith alone that will bring you eternal life, and the punishment for a lack of faith is plain and simple: eternal death. But after life is granted, God produces good works in us that will bring us closer to realizing his own goals, and if we are faithful to his call and we further his kingdom, then he will be faithful to us and give to us according to what we have done. However, God is still just, and does not show favoritism, and so God loves us all the same, regardless of what we do or do not do to share the Good News of Christ. Just do not forget that our sins greatly distress God, and so by following Christ and ridding ourselves of sin, we please God, which is all we as Christians should ever want to do.