By God’s design, the Church is richly diverse. Ethnical diversity is celebrated as the cross brings together people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9; Eph 2:11—22). We know from Revelation that the ethnic distinctions will continue into eternity. Although I’m willing to guess we will share a common language, since linguistic diversity was a result of the fall (Gen 11:9), nevertheless, ethnic diversity is eternal.
The Church celebrates diversity in a second way. God distributes an assortment of gifts to the members of the Body (1 Cor 12:12—31). And it appears this diversity is carried over into eternity, too. But to understand how requires a little explaining about eternal rewards.
From Scripture we know that eternal rewards are distributed to individual Christians. Scripture is also clear that our eternal rewards are not the basis of our salvation, but built from a foundation of personal faith in Christ (1 Cor 3:15). Rewards in heaven are distributed according to personal achievements made possible by grace alone. However, justification before God (i.e. being saved) is never merited by personal achievement or self-righteousness.
For each Christian in heaven there will be various degrees of rewards, various degrees of glory. My question is why? Why the variance of reward, especially in a place where there will be no tears and no regret or sorrow over past failure? And why the variance of reward in light of a variance of gifting?
Our tendency is to erect a monolithic ladder of rewards that will measure the worthiness of individuals. We see this in distorted versions of Christianity. Saints and martyrs reach the top of the reward spectrum. Missionaries are near the top. The upper-middle rungs are covered with faithful pastors. Toward the bottom are folks who really did very little for the church. The lower you are on the ladder, the more you need the help of those above you. There is a minimal reward threshold all must meet to enter heaven. This is 2-dimentional image distorts the truth of salvation, distorts the truth about rewards, and it distorts the beauty of diversity.
“His purpose in doing this,” Herman Bavinck writes of God’s distribution of eternal rewards, “is that, on earth as it is in heaven, there would be profuse diversity in the believing community, and that in such diversity the glory of his attributes would be manifest. Indeed, as a result of this diversity, the life of fellowship with God and with the angels, and of the blessed among themselves, gains in depth and intimacy. In that fellowship everyone has a place and task of one’s own, based on personality and character, just as this is the case in the believing community on earth.” [RD, 4:729]
There are many problems with the ladder image. First, rewards are not means to heaven. Secondly, it does not account for God’s diverse gifting. We cannot equally achieve the same level of reward because we are not gifted equally. Bavinck was getting at this. Here is the point: To the degree God has gifted you, this is the degree that you serve in this life, which translates into a unique distribution of eternal rewards you receive in heaven, which translates into a unique position you will fulfill in the life to come.
If Bavinck is right, the level of reward we individually receive is not so much a means to compare ourselves with others (to determine our height on the ladder). Rather, it is a set-up for God to eternally display the multiplicity of His glory as it is reflected in the “profuse diversity” of His people.