Theology: Eschatology: The Eternal Crown of Glory
an exposition by Kwing Hung
These are some of Paul’s final words (2Ti 4:6-8):
“…the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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.”
[Also in 1Co 9:25: “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” 1Pe 5:4: “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”]
What is this crown of glory or crown of righteousness? Clearly, this is the reward that all believers will receive on Judgment Day. It will be with us in heaven, in our eternal lives. What then is this crown? Is this a real crown for the head? Or can it be something else?
(1) Are there different degrees of rewards? Apparently, there are.
In the parable of the pounds (Lk 19:11-27), 10 servants were each given one pound by the master. Eventually they returned differing amounts to him and were rewarded in proportion to their faithfulness.
In Dan 12:3, the Bible says: “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”
In 1Co 3:14-15, the Bible says: “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
(2) Can this crown be seen and admired by everyone else?
Since the physical characteristics of the crown is never described, we can only speculate. In theology, speculation is a legitimate theological activity, as long as we are aware that we are speculating.
If the word “crown” is to be interpreted literally, then it is something that we wear on our heads. Then a very faithful Christian will be given a crown that is bigger and with more gliterring and more colourful precious stones; a less faithful believer will receive a plain crown with little or even no precious stones (like 1Co 3:15).
But there may be other interpretation. For example, some people speculate that a very faithful Christian will be given a large room in the Father’s house; a less faithful believer will receive a smaller room.
(3) Are there problems with this kind of interpretation?
As human beings, we always visualize rewards as something with a physical presence such as a crown or a room. But there are problems with this interpretation. First, possession of physical objects should no longer be an indication of whether one is blessed or not. Second, if the crown is something that is visible to everyone, can it be that a less faithful believer may be reminded of the smallness of his crown day after day that he cannot fully enjoy his eternal life?
(4) Is there a solution to this problem?
To this problem, there is a better solution. May it not be that the difference in the rewards lies not in the external or objective circumstances, but in the subjective awareness or appreciation of those circumstances? In other words, it is possible that the crown describes the capacity of experiencing joy as rewarded by God?
An analogy here is the varying degrees of pleasure which different people derive from a concert. The same sound waves fall on everyone’s ears, but the reactions may range from boredom (or worse) to ecstasy.
We can see a similar analogy in the Bible. Paul and John both refer to degrees of joy. In Php 2:2, Paul asks the Philippians to “make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose”. John also speaks of “to make our joy complete” (1Jn 1:4) and also “so that our joy may be complete” (2Jn 12).
John in fact experienced a state of spiritual exaltation when he wrote Revelation (Rev 1:10 and 4:2). He described it as “in the Spirit”. Peter (Ac 10:10; 11:5) and Paul (Ac 22:17) also had similar experiences.
(5) Why is this interpretation (the crown as the capacity to experience joy) a good solution?
This solution will satisfactorily answer to the two problems listed above. First, it does not involve the possession of physical objects. Instead, the reward of an emotional capacity demonstrates the omnipotence of God. Second, the perfection of heaven will not be reduced by the sight of bigger rewards of others which may cause regret over wasted opportunities in the early life. Each one may enjoy the same things in various degrees of joy but no one can be jealous of others as no one can fathom the joy experienced by others.
This solution has other advantages too. This kind of reward will be fair (equitable) for those who work hard but do not have a prominent role (because of shortage of intelligence and/or physical strength and/or other barriers or handicaps) because they will receive the same amount if they are equally faithful.
For example, one may ask whether someone who serves God with their teachings receive a bigger crown than someone who serves God with prayers or with manual labour. In God’s standard, to be faithful is simply to use one’s God-given abilities to its fullest. Lk 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” When more is given, more is expected.
The reward does not depend on whether the service is prominent or important (in the eyes of man). In fact, a church leader may be prone to receive a smaller crown because he has received human honour in his work. A similar principle can be seen from Mt 6:2-6:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
In conclusion, the interpretation of the “crown of glory” as the “capacity to experience joy” solves the difficulties associated with the interpretation of it being physical objects. This new interpretation also provides every Christian of an incentive to serve faithfully as we do not need to be jealous of the human glory and honour gained by prominent church leaders.
While there are degrees of reward, the Bible is also clear that there are degrees of punishment. In Mt 10:15, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
Bad people in this world will be judged more harshly. When we see all kinds of evils committed in the world, we sometimes feel very angry. At the same time, we have to pity those people because they will experience the full weight of God’s wrath on Judgment Day. It will indeed be terrifying, far beyond what words can describe.
Excerpt from Erickson, Millard J. (1985): Christian theology.
[KH: title added: Degrees of Reward] (pp.1233-1234)
A fifth question is whether there will be varying rewards in heaven. That there apparently will be degrees of rewards is evident in, for example, the parable of the pounds (Lk 19:11-27). Ten servants were each given one pound by the master. Eventually they returned differing amounts to him and were rewarded in proportion to their faithfulness. Supporting passages include Dan 12:3 (“And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever”) and 1Co 3:14-15 (“If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire”).
The differing rewards or different degrees of satisfaction in heaven are usually pictured in terms of objective circumstances. For instance, we might suppose that a very faithful Christian will be given a large room in the Father’s house; a less faithful believer will receive a smaller room. But if this is the case, would not the joy of heaven be reduced by one’s awareness of differences and the constant reminder that one might have been more faithful? In addition, the few pictures which we have of life in heaven evidence no real difference: all are worshipping, judging, serving. A bit of speculation may be in order at this point. As we pointed out in chapter 3, speculation is a legitimate theological activity, as long as we are aware that we are speculating. May it not be that the difference in the rewards lies not in the external or objective circumstances, but in the subjective awareness or appreciation of those circumstances? Thus, all would engage in the same activity, for example, worship, but some would enjoy it much more than others. Perhaps those who have enjoyed worship more in this life will find greater satisfaction in it in the life beyond than will others. An analogy here is the varying degrees of pleasure which different people derive from a concert. The same sound waves fall on everyone’s ears, but the reactions may range from boredom (or worse) to ecstasy. A similar situation may well hold with respect to the joys of heaven, although the range of reactions will presumably be narrower. No one will be aware of the differences in range of enjoyment, and thus there will be no dimming of the perfection of heaven by regret over wasted opportunities.
Degrees of Punishment (p.1240)
We should observe, finally, that Jesus’ teaching suggests that there are degrees of punishment in hell. He upbraided those cities which had witnessed his maracles but failed to repent: “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida!... For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mt 11:21-24). There is a similar hint in the parable of the faithful and faithless stewards: “And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Lk 12:47-48).
The principle here seems to be, the greater our knowledge, the greater is our responsibility, and the greater will be our punishment if we fail in our responsibility. It may well be that the different degrees of punishment in hell are not so much a matter of objective circumstances as of subjective awareness of the pain of separation from God. This is parallel to our conception of the varying degrees of reward in heaven. To some extent, the different degrees of punishment reflect the fact that hell is God’s leaving sinful man with the particular character that he fashioned for himself in this life. The misery one will experience from having to live with one’s wicked self eternally will be proportionate to his degree of awareness of precisely what he was doing when he chose evil.