Easter is a time when we spend more time than usual thinking about Christ’s death and resurrection. We may also think more about our own death and resurrection. After all, they are intimately connected. Scripture says everyone great and small, believer and unbeliever will stand before God (John 5:28-29). Death is a doorway everyone passes through from life here and now to life there and then. Our “now” life is connected to our “forever” life.
I’ve always known what I did in this life mattered on the other side of death. But despite years of theological training, the connection between the two has only recently become clear to me.
Previously, I thought that as a Christian I was to strive to do the best I could at living a godly life. Then standing before the Lord after death, my life would pass through the crucible of His judgment at the judgment seat of Christ where my works would be tested. Good works, like gold, merited a crown. Bad works would garner God’s disappointment and a frown.
Then I would lay my crowns, if I had any, at His feet and He would say something like, “Thanks. It’s all good now, come on in.” I would rejoice in my successes, wipe away tears from my failures, and go on to enjoy heavenly bliss. I believed all Christians would have this same experience and once in heaven we would all be on equal footing forever and ever.
I don’t believe some of that now. What has become clearer for me is the reward (the word is literally “repayment”) God gives for how we live in this life is something enduring that I will experience for all eternity. It is an eternal reward. I don’t give it back to God and all believers in heaven will not have the same experience or be on the same footing for eternity.
The Bible is clear that our eternal destination, either heaven or hell, is determined by grace through faith. “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Works don’t determine destination but they do determine our repayment once we have reached our destination of heaven or hell. " For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father and will judge all people according to their deeds” (Matthew 16:27).
I hear Christians ask, “Sin is sin, isn’t it?” as they think about judgment and consequences. The answer is yes and no. Insofar as every sin, whether taking a pencil or taking a life breaks God’s law, it is sin. But the consequences for life, judgment, reward, punishment, and eternity are not the same for all sins or for all good works. The justice of God requires that some sins will result in harsher punishment in hell than others (Matthew 11:22; 18:6).
Conversely, the good works of some believers will achieve for them a better or greater heavenly reward to enjoy while others will enter heaven with no eternal reward at all (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). In simple terms, the reality in heaven and hell is that there will be degrees of reward and punishment and they will be experienced for eternity.
So what really matters forever? Here are some of the things in this life that God says determine the way He will repay in the next.
- How we do our jobs (Ephesians 6:5-9)
- How we do our spiritual disciplines (Matthew 6:6)
- How we help those in need (Titus 3:14; James 1:25; Mark 9:41)
- How we love our spouse and family (1 Timothy 5:4, 8; Colossians 3:18-20)
- How we make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20a)
- How we share our money and resources (Matthew 6:3-4)
- How we submit to and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24-27)
I don’t know the exact nature of the rewards we’ll receive in heaven—whether they relate to some actual treasure I receive, the nature and size of the dwelling I have, what or whom I rule over, or my placement in serving the Lord. I suspect it is all this and more.
More than ever before I’m aware that my “now” life is totally connected to my “forever” life on the other side. Since God will repay me for how I lived this life, here and now definitely matters there and then.