What awaits the believer after death? We all know the answer—heaven. Heaven is a real place in which we will worship God (Revelation 5:11-13), serve God (Revelation 7:15) and reign with God (Revelation 22:5). It is a place of great pleasure, characterized by magnificent beauty, including streets of gold and buildings of pearls and emeralds and precious stones (Rev. 21:19-21). We will live, celebrate, eat and drink in heaven (Revelation 19:9; Luke 22:29, 30).
Heaven will be a wonderful place, and we will enter it only on the basis of faith in Christ’s work for us, not by any works which we have done. What we seldom consider is that Scripture plainly tells us there is a judgment of believers, not simply of our faith but of our works, that will determine for all eternity certain aspects of our place or position in heaven.
Scripture repeatedly states all men, not just unbelievers, will be judged for their works (Proverbs 24:12; Ecclesiastes 12:14). The unbeliever’s judgment of works comes at the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:12). The believer will not be condemned at the Great White Throne, but nonetheless he still faces a judgment of works himself, at what is called the “Judgment Seat of Christ.”
The Lord’s evaluation of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 makes clear he is watching us, evaluating us. He is “keeping score.” As an instructor gives grades to his students, so Christ gives grades to the churches. To Christians Jesus says, “I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:23).
Scripture teaches with unmistakable clarity that all believers in Christ will give an account of their lives to their Lord (Romans 14:10-12). We will be judged by him according to our works, both good and bad (2 Corinthians 5:10). The result of this will be the gain or loss of eternal rewards (1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:9,10; Romans 14:10-12).
God’s Word treats this judgment with great sobriety. It does not portray it as a meaningless formality or a going-through-the-motions before we get on to the real business of heavenly bliss. Rather, Scripture presents it as a monumental event in which things of eternal significance are brought to light and things of eternal consequence are put into effect.
If any man builds on this foundation [the foundation of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
Our works are what we have done with our resources—time, energy, talents, money, possessions. The fire of God’s holiness will reveal the quality of these works, the eternal significance of what we have done with our God-given assets. The fate of the works will be determined by their nature. If they are made of the right stuff (gold, silver, costly stones), they will withstand and be purified by the fire. But no matter how nice our works of wood and hay and straw have looked in the display case of this world, they will not withstand the incendiary gaze of God’s Son in the next.
2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
“Whether good or bad” in this verse is perhaps the most disturbing phrase for believers in the entire New Testament. It is so disturbing, in fact, that I’ve found any honest attempts to deal with it are met with tremendous resistance. Equally disturbing is the direct statement to Christians that not only will they receive reward from Christ for their good works, but “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism” (Colossians 3:25). If Christ has paid the price for our sin, if we confess and receive forgiveness of our sins, then what can such verses mean?
Our sins are totally forgiven when we come to Christ, and we stand justified in him. Nevertheless, Scripture says what it does about our coming judgment. This judgment of believers by Christ is a judgment of our works, not our sins. However, the commission of sins and the omission of righteous acts we should have done, apparently replaces or prevents the laying up of precious stones on the foundation of Christ. Therefore these sins contribute directly to the believer’s “suffering loss.” Through this loss of reward the believer is considered to be receiving his “due” for his works “whether good or bad.” Hence what we do as believers, both good and bad, will one way or the other have effects for eternity.
Why is the believer’s coming judgment of works, such a clear teaching of Scripture and such a central motivating force among God’s people for centuries, so badly ignored in the western church today?
Partly because, through misunderstandings and embracing half truths, we have come to believe that our works are not important to God. On the contrary, they are extremely important to God, and should be given careful attention by ourselves.
The five hundred year old play Everyman is a picture of all persons. As Everyman faces Death he looks among his friends for a companion. One friend would accompany him on the journey through death to final judgment. His name was “Good Deeds.”
Some of us may balk at such a picture. Yet it is explicitly biblical: “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them” (Revelation 14:13).
In Revelation 19:7-8 we are told “the wedding of the Lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)”
This passage offers several surprises. We might have expected to be told that Christ makes the bride ready, rather than she herself. We could have expected the fine linen would stand for the righteousness of Christ, or perhaps the righteous faith of the saints. But what we are told is that it stands for the righteous acts or works or deeds of the saints. (If we will indeed be clothed according to our works for Christ, some of us may suffer from acute exposure!)
Somewhere we’ve gotten the erroneous idea that to God “works” is a dirty word. This is totally false. While he condemns works done to earn salvation, and works done to impress others, our Lord enthusiastically commends righteous works done for the right reasons. Immediately after saying our salvation is “not by works,” Paul adds: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Salvation is a matter of God’s work for man. Reward is a matter of man’s work for God.
God created us to do good works, has a lifetime of good works for each of us to do and will reward us according to whether or not we do them. Indeed, Scripture ties God’s reward-giving to his very character: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10). The verses that follow in Hebrews 6 tell us that if we are to inherit God’s promised blessings we must not become lazy, but be diligent to do our God-given works.
Good works are essential to the Christian life, as James repeatedly states (James 2:17,18,22,24,26). “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).
We know that Christ will say to some (but not all) believers “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). It is significant that he will not say “Well said” or “Well believed” but “Well done.” In the account of the sheep and goats, where the “Well done” is spoken, that which separates the sheep from the goats is what they did and did not do with their time and money and possessions.
Peter said “if you do these things [then] you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11). What a powerful encouragement to the godly saint who has sacrificed in this life to prepare for the next. In heaven there waits for him a great welcoming committee, and a hearty “Well done.” But this is not automatic for believers—the conditional “if, then” makes it clear that if we do not do what Peter prescribes, then we will not receive this rich welcome when we enter heaven.
Where we spend eternity, whether heaven or hell, will be determined by our faith. Our further station in either place will be determined by our works. John Bunyan, ever-motivated by this reality, said, “Consider, to provoke you to good works, that you shall have from God, when you come to glory, a reward for everything you do for him on earth.”
What does all this mean? That my God-given resources of time and talents and money and possessions have immense potential. They are the lever, positioned on the fulcrum of this life, that moves the mountains of eternity.
As evangelicals we reject the doctrine of a second chance for unbelievers, an opportunity after death to come to trust in Christ. But we must be equally aware there is no second chance for believers after death either. There is no further opportunity for us to walk by faith and serve our Lord in this fallen world. As there is no second chance beyond this earth for the unbeliever to believe right, so there is no second chance for the disobedient Christian to behave right.
This life ends at death. We can’t do it over again. There’s no retaking the course of life on this earth once we’ve failed it. There’s no improving a “D” to an “A”, no rescheduling of the final exams. There are no strings to pull, no going over the professor’s head. Death is the final deadline, for which there is no extension.
A basketball game is over at the final buzzer. No shots taken thereafter count. Likewise, when the trumpet sounds Christ’s return, time will be gone. It will simultaneously be the beginning of eternity and the end of that which determines eternity’s composition. At that time, if we have failed to use our time and energies and possessions for eternity, then we have failed. Period.
It’s not so simple as saying “We’ll be in heaven and that’s all that matters.” On the contrary, Paul speaks of loss of reward as a great and terrible loss. The fact that we are still saved is only a clarification, not a consolation—”if it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
The receiving of reward from Christ is an unspeakable gain with eternal implications. The loss of reward is a terrible loss with equally eternal implications. (How dare we say that being in heaven is all that matters to us, when so much else matters to God?)
The bottom line of all this is that what we do in this life is of eternal importance. This begins with our choice to follow Christ, but it does not end there. What you do with your time and money and all your other resources in this life is the last chapter of your autobiography. This book you’ve written with the pen of faith and the ink of works will go unedited, into eternity, to be seen and read as is by the angels, the redeemed and God himself. When we see today in light of the long tomorrow the little choices become tremendously important. Whether I read my Bible today, pray, go to church, share my faith and give my money is of eternal consequence, not only for other souls, but for my own.
Those who’ve dabbled in photography understand the effect of the “fixer.” In developing a photograph, the negatives are immersed in several different solutions. The developing solution parallels this life. As long as the photograph is in the developer it is subject to change. But when it is dropped in the fixer or “stop bath” it is permanently fixed. The photograph is now done. What you see is what you get. So it will be when we enter eternity—the lives we lived on earth will be fixed as is, never to be altered or revised.
Scripture simply does not teach what most of us seem to assume—that heaven will transform each of us into equal beings with equal possessions and equal responsibilities and equal capacities. It does not say our previous lives will be of no eternal significance. It says exactly the opposite.
Beyond the New Heavens and New Earth—which themselves are populated and structured according to what has been done in this life—there is no record of change. We might hope that what happens at the judgment seat will be of only temporary concern to the Judge, and that all of the disobedience and missed opportunities will just “blow over” and none of it will ever make any difference. But will God make all souls equal in heaven and thereby consider as equally valid a life of selfishness and indifference to others’ needs as compared to a life spent on its knees praying and feeding the hungry and sharing the gospel? The Bible seems to say “no.”
We have been given fair warning that there lies ahead for each of us, at the end of the term, a final examination. It will be administered by the fairest yet strictest Headmaster in the universe. How seriously we take this clear teaching of Scripture is demonstrated by how seriously we are preparing for that day.
When we took courses in college we asked others about the teacher: “What are his tests like, does he take attendance, is he a hard grader, what does he expect in your papers?” If I’m to do well in the course I must know what the instructor expects of me. We must study the course syllabus, God’s Word, to find out the answers to these questions. And when we find out, we should be careful to plot our lives accordingly—in light of the long tomorrow.
While visiting a missionary friend in Greece, the two of us spent a day in ancient Corinth. For an hour we sat on the same judgment seat Paul stood before in Acts 18, and which he used to help the Corinthian Christians visualize Christ’s future judgment of the believer. Together we read Scriptures that speak of that day when we’ll stand before the Lord’s judgment seat and give an account for what we have done with all he has given us. We discussed the implications and prayed that when that day comes he, the Audience of One, might find us faithful and say to us, “Well done.” Yet we prayed knowing that it is we, by virtue of our hourly and daily choices to depend on him and follow him, who will determine what transpires on that day.
Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist who made his fortune by inventing dynamite and other powerful explosives, which were bought by governments to produce weapons. When Nobel’s brother died, one newspaper accidentally printed Alfred’s obituary instead. He was described as a man who became rich from enabling people to kill each other in unprecedented quantities. Shaken from this assessment, Nobel resolved to use his fortune to reward accomplishments that benefited humanity, including what we now know as the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nobel had a rare opportunity—to look at the assessment of his life at its end, but to still be alive and have opportunity to change that assessment. Let’s put ourselves in Nobel’s place. Let’s read our own obituary, not as written by uniformed or biased men, but as an onlooking angel might write it from heaven’s point of view. Let’s look at it carefully. Then let’s use the rest of our lives to edit that obituary into what we really want it to be.
A moment after we die we will know exactly how we should have lived. But it will be too late to go back and live life here over again. Thankfully, God has given us his Word so that we don’t have to wait until we die to know how we should have lived.
Martin Luther said that on his calendar there were only two days: “today” and “that Day.” May we learn to live now in light of eternity. May we learn to live our short todays in light of the long tomorrow.
For more information on this subject, see Randy Alcorn's book Heaven.
Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.