Chapter 4

Heaven's Reward

Somewhere between A.D. 30 and 33, our judgment took place as Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Having believed—having placed our faith in Christ—we were given eternal life:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24 ESV)

But there is a second event, a future judgment, not for eternal life but for our experience of it, and they are two different things. At this “judgment for reward” we will stand accountable for everything “done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). This won’t be a pointless exercise just to see how much we really don’t deserve eternal life, though I’m sure that point will be plain enough. This will be for our inheritance, our allotment—what we will be, how we will appear—our capacities, our gifts, our freedoms, our abilities, our privileges, our responsibilities, our glory. Everything about our experience of eternal life will be decided then and there. And, hauntingly dissimilar to the rest of the Christian life, we will face it utterly alone.

In the New Testament we find a number of descriptors or characteristics of these future rewards and each is nuanced and distinct. It would seem a good first step in reclaiming the motivation of reward, to explore what might be envisioned in these descriptions, and where it might be pointing our imagination and faith. To be clear, what follows is biblically informed hypothesizing (theological abduction) based on the biblical data. The result we are looking for is not a sure explanation, but a better, more biblical understanding of these rewards.


“To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna.” Revelation 2:17 (ESV)

“To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life.” Revelation 2:7 (ESV)

Looking at these promises of reward from the Book of Revelation, let’s begin with an observation, one that’s seldom observed and embarrassing to point out: they’re not very motivating. How can you be motivated by a tree you’ve never eaten from or by food you’ve never tasted such as manna? You can’t. Would I like a nice, juicy bite of a glavinndish sandwich? I don’t know, I’ve never tasted one.

Such an observation would lead us to infer a deeper meaning here: that what’s being offered is really greater intimacy with Christ in the life to come. But again, like the taste of manna, we have no conception of this. By virtue of having eternal life, we already assume that we’ll be with Jesus all the time, so what would more time or more intimacy look like? Who knows?

Attempting to follow this through with intellectual honesty, however, leads to a profound truth about rewards. Scripture never discloses the actual reward, only the promise of reward, and there’s a big difference. The active motivation of a promised reward is faith; the active motivation of an actual reward is the reward itself.

By not telling us what’s really being offered, all the comfort and encouragement of this promise is derived by faith: faith that God knows how to give good gifts to his children, faith in God’s faithfulness, faith in God’s promises. However intimate, however trusting we have grown in our relationship with Christ, well, that’s exactly how motivating this promise of reward will be. No more, no less.

This would seem to answer an objection that’s sometimes raised about rewards: that a Christian’s motive for pursuing them is somehow defective or debase. But whatever is done for the sake of heavenly reward is done by faith like we do everything else in the Christian life. Because no reward has been disclosed, the focus of faith and obedience remains upon the person and promise of Christ, not the reward.

Whatever is done for the sake of heavenly reward is done by faith.


In 1949, Harry Harlow, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin enrolled eight rhesus monkeys in a thought experiment which involved solving a series of puzzles. As a task, one would assume that the monkeys needed some kind of reinforcement or reward—a banana or something—in order to perform it. But they didn’t. In fact, the monkeys seemed to enjoy doing the puzzles.

The results mystified Harlow because the reigning view of science at the time was that animal and human behavior could be explained exclusively by one of two drives: a biological drive like thirst or hunger, or an environmental drive fueled by reward and punishment. This was neither, so Harlow proposed a novel theory, that the monkeys solved the puzzle driven by a third, previously undiscovered motivation. “The performance of the task,” wrote Harlow, “provided intrinsic reward,” and so he called it, “intrinsic motivation.” Knowledge of his discovery spread through the work of one of his most influential students, Abraham Maslov.

What may be more impressive than Harlow’s discovery, however, is that several years before he discovered it, C. S. Lewis, in writing on the subject of heavenly reward, observed this same difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Lewis wrote:

There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.

But Lewis didn’t make this up; he observed it in Scripture’s teaching on rewards:

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? —1 Thessalonians 2:19 (NIV)

Notice that the reward Paul speaks of is intrinsic to his ministry; it’s what Lewis described as “the activity itself in consummation.” In referring to the Thessalonians as “the crown in which he will glory in the presence of Christ,” Paul sees the reward of his ministry labors, at least in part, as the worship of the Thessalonians, presented to Christ always and forever, for all of eternity.

In a sense, the text provides incontrovertible evidence for a doctrine of rewards. Here is an eternal means of worship that Paul will possess, and we will not, tied directly to his earthly obedience. No one else in heaven will observe the Thessalonians worshipping God with Paul’s consummate satisfaction, and that is due to his earthly obedience.


Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

… To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” Mark 10:35–40 (NIV)

Like John and James, what I’d like when I get to heaven is to sit right next to Jesus. But I can’t, because it’s a privilege given to someone, and that someone isn’t me. There may be many privileges not ours for the asking; perhaps people will be able to fly in the age to come, but that doesn’t mean that I will. I think what James and John see more clearly after this exchange with Jesus is that the eternal kingdom is a real place where not everyone gets to do everything, and where privilege is tied to reward and reward tied to faithfulness (“Can you drink the cup I drink?”). Surely part of our failure to see the significance of heavenly reward is we think that all of heaven’s privileges are already ours. That we will be happy, whole, and holy in God’s coming kingdom, of that we can be sure—but just that. Everything else is privilege and privilege is tied to faithfulness.


Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:2 (NIV)

Iron, magnesium, hydrogen, helium … if you ever gave thought to where those 92 elements on the Periodic Table came from you would probably assume, as most scientists did, that they were simply part of the universe from its beginning. In fact, no one thought differently until 1957, when astrophysicist Fredrick Hoyle published a paper on stellar nuclear synthesis, or in less technical terms “how a galactic star burns itself down to nothing.”

Hoyle proposed that only two elements, hydrogen and helium, existed at the beginning of the universe, and that these two elements coalesced into stars. Extreme gravity inside the star causes the hydrogen to fuse with helium and this process is what “lights” the star and turns it into a massive fireball.

Eventually—according to Hoyle, about a couple billion years—a star burns through its fuel supply of hydrogen and helium and as it does so it produces the next few elements on the Periodic Table: lithium, boron, beryllium, and carbon. This brings us to six elements in the universe.

But the star, intent on incinerating itself, proceeds to burn through those elements and creates six more in the process, all the way up to magnesium on the Periodic Table. But these too must go—everything must burn. In fact, as the star burns itself down it creates the first twenty–six elements of the Periodic Table, all the way to Iron. But that’s where the fire dies, “Iron is the final peal of a star’s natural life.”

So the question is, where do the rest of the elements in the universe—elements 27 through 92 (Cobalt through Uranium)—come from? Well, yes, of course God, but the material cause is when a star eventually burns itself down to a cold iron core, it finally dies, but this death is only a precursor for the most glorious phenomenon in the entire universe, described here by Sam Kean in his book The Disappearing Spoon:

Suddenly lacking the energy to keep their full volume, burned out stars implode under their own immense gravity, collapsing thousands of miles in just seconds. Then, rebounding from this collapse, they explode outward. For one glorious month, a supernova stretches millions of miles and shines brighter than a billion stars. During a supernova so many gazillions of particles with so much momentum collide so many times per second that they high jump over the normal energy barriers. Every natural combination of element and isotope spews forth from this particle blizzard.

So here is the awaited analogy—and thank you for your patience. In the worldly furnace of trials and temptation, certain elements of godliness are produced in our lives: patience, kindness, self–control, and all that accompanies the fruit of the Spirit. Such elements could only be forged in the crucible of earthly sanctification. But when Christ appears, sanctification will be subsumed in a glorious supernova of resurrection power, “taking our weak mortal bodies and transforming them into glorious bodies like [Christ’s]” (Philippians 3:21 NLT), “we will all be changed—in a flash” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52 NIV), and we shall “shine like the brightness of the heavens” (daniel 12:3 NIV) with a whole new array of elemental gifts and capacities.

The doctrine of rewards would lead us to understand that at the moment of our transformation, what we are formed into will have everything to do with what we are formed from–––the oak exists in the acorn (see 1 Corinthians 15). The raw material of that supernova will be us—our choices, thoughts, actions, attitudes, character, our entire life, and what has been made of it. Our unique, individual life will be magnified, glorified, and transformed, and our reward will be in the resulting likeness—in our radiance, however bright; in our capacities, however gifted; in our being, however glorious; in our magnitude, however attractive. Our reward will not simply be upon us; it will be us.

Unfairly, it would seem, talent, beauty, intellect, education, wealth, and opportunity are meted out in this world without regard to personal merit. Brad Pitt does not deserve to look like Brad Pitt, he deserves to look like … me. Rewards flip this right–side up. Our life here determines what will be innate to us there.


The twenty–four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power … .” (Revelation 4:10–11 NIV)

This passage, while not speaking directly to rewards, illustrates their purpose and the end to which they serve. The irreplaceable value of the elder’s crowns is not in its wearing but its worshipping. Our reward, like these crowns, will be a means, a vehicle for worshipping and glorifying God. More particularly, they will be an acceptable means for worshipping God, like the holy vessels in Solomon’s Temple. Their purpose and worth make them the commodity of heaven, but earth is where they’re earned.

Only those who struggle with the impurity of their motives, will be pushed onward by this promise.

Yet again, the reward offered is just a worthless coupon unless redeemed by faith, for only the earnest follower perceives the value of what’s being offered here. Only those who struggle with the impurity of their motives, the meagerness of their sacrifice, the fickleness of their affections, the sluggishness of their wills, the faintness of their endurance, will be pushed onward by this promise, this prospect of having at last, something of immeasurable value to lay at the feet of Christ.


“Friends, comrades, and fellow South Africans … . On this day of my release, I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release.”

These are the first public words of Nelson Mandela, spoken after being imprisoned twenty–seven years by the apartheid government of South Africa. In speaking them there is something triumphant—a moment of utter and absolute vindication in the presence of his enemies—for what he believed. There is this same note of vindication in our biblical reward.

Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8 NIV)

At the Judgment, all those hoping, believing, and “longing for” Jesus will be ecstatically vindicated, as nothing will be so clear as how right we were to believe in, to love, to serve, and to suffer for him. We will be like Noah as the rain began to fall, like Mandela giving his inaugural address.


In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink summarizes current research in the study of human motivation. What drives personal fulfillment and happiness, states Pink, is the “deep–seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to make a contribution.” Of course, the same conclusion could be reached by merely reading Genesis 2. And it is the absence of these—autonomy, expertise, and purpose—brought about by the Fall, that is responsible for much of the “meaninglessness” (mentioned 35 times in Ecclesiastes) of the human condition. It’s the promise of these that we find in the reward of reigning with Christ. “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12 NIV). Here is the offer of purpose–filled service, of responsibility that commands honor and respect, and of the skills and capacities to brilliantly administrate this God–given authority.

And All By Faith

In the 1950s, political scientist, Robert Dahl did his seminal experiments on the coercive use of power. Dahl defined coercive power (military, economic, etc.) as “the use of threat or reward to get someone to act against his or her preference.” This definition helps us see something remarkable. In all these different promises of reward, there is not an ounce of coercion. To those who have purposed to be faithful, God’s promise of reward is simply added motivation (enacted only by faith), but to the disobedient and apathetic, God’s promises offer nothing viscerally appealing that would cause them to choose faithfulness over and “against their preference.”