Uche Anizor, associate professor of biblical and theological studies, Biola University
There are different degrees of glory in heaven. Some saints will there be exalted higher in glory than others. This is a doctrine very fully revealed in the Scriptures.
– Jonathan Edwards, “Degrees of Glory”
We see disparities in income, opportunities, education, skills – you name it – all around us. Public discussion and debate about these disparities often center on the issue of justice or equity. However, inequality is not necessarily inequity. No doubt some inequalities are unjust, even extremely so. But others may be just, and still other inequalities may have little to do with justice or injustice.
As in all matters, it is helpful to get somewhat of a God’s-eye view of this easily misunderstood issue. One strand of biblical teaching that is worth considering in this context is brought into sharp focus by Jonathan Edwards’ eschatology.
In “Degrees of Glory,” Edwards argues that in heaven, after judgment, some people will have more glory than others. We may not know what it would mean to attain more or less “glory,” but that is not the main concern here. The basic point is that in God’s perfected world, there will be inequality. No doubt this will be a just inequality.
Edwards makes the point through a number of biblical texts, including Luke 19’s parable of the pounds. He writes:
This is also a doctrine that we are very plainly and directly taught in the parable, in the nineteenth of Luke, of the nobleman travelling into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and delivering to his ten servants each of them a pound; who when he returned, having received his kingdom, reckoned with the servants; and one told his lord that he had with his pound gained ten pounds, and he rewards him by making of him ruler over ten cities; and another gained five pounds, and he is rewarded by making of him ruler over five cities.
Edwards then concludes:
This evidently respects the different degrees of reward that will be bestowed on Christ’s faithful servants at his coming to judgment, according as they have been more or less profitable. For doubtless by the nobleman that travelled into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom is meant Christ’s ascending to heaven to receive an heavenly kingdom; and by his returning again to call his servants to an account, is meant his coming again to judgment.
A key point for Edwards is that Christ is the one giving out unequal rewards. Therefore, the inequality of the rewards is the Lord’s intent. In fact, in glory inequality is the most equitable (i.e., “just”) outcome.
If Edwards is correct that there will be differing degrees of honor, blessing, or reward in the consummated Kingdom, then one need not be disturbed by the mere existence of inequalities in the present, as if inequality were contrary to God’s will for humanity in and of itself. The fact of inequality doesn’t necessarily prove some kind of funny business going on. In the new creation, according to Edwards, some will have more while others will have less, in the absence of greed and exploitation.
Inequity or injustice obviously requires urgent attention, but not as a knee-jerk response to inequality. Further reflection on the eschatological economy might aid our efforts in fighting for justice, helping to bring Christian clarity to economic and social issues.