- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2002

ATLANTA
Images of paradise are changing with the times, and one of the country's most popular writers of Christian devotional books is offering his description of the rewards waiting when you die.
Bruce Wilkinson, author of the mega-selling "Prayer of Jabez," has moved on to the afterlife and already "A Life God Rewards Why Everything You Do Today Matters Forever" is hitting the best-seller lists.
Whereas "Prayer of Jabez" has caused talk about whether God answers prayers for power and influence on Earth, "Rewards" is likely to create a stir about the hierarchy of heaven. Mr. Wilkinson, formerly a resident of Atlanta, lives in South Africa, where he will attend people with AIDS.
He quotes a string of Bible verses he says show that heaven may not be equally heavenly for everyone, but that deeds done on Earth add amenities to the heavenly home:
"Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven." (Matthew 6:20)
"In my Father's house are many mansions I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2)
"Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to every one according to his work." (Revelation 22:12)
Says Mr. Wilkinson: "God is keeping track of what you do for Him every day."
By no means does Mr. Wilkinson turn his back on the doctrine of salvation by grace that is the bedrock of most of Christendom. He clearly believes that faith in Jesus Christ is the path to heaven. But, he asserts, actions on Earth determine the magnitude of the reward.
"Will there be any stars in my crown?" the old hymn asks. Will I find expensive chocolates on my pillow, as Meryl Streep's character did in the movie "Defending Your Life"? Or only a mint, a la Albert Brooks?
A joke, popular in certain circles, tells about the man who got to the Pearly Gates and found out that St. Peter assigned modes of transportation. He got a Toyota. His neighbor passed him in a Mercedes, but then he saw his preacher on a skateboard.
"Orthodox Christianity has always believed that the Bible teaches that there are degrees of reward and degrees of punishment," says Danny Akin, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "Hell will be bad for everyone, but it will not be equally bad. Revelation brings responsibility. The more you know, the more your responsibility."
The concept of levels of heaven was an ancient Jewish notion adopted by Christians, says Bob Royalty, assistant professor in the department of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and author of "The Streets of Heaven The Ideology of Wealth in the Apocalypse of John," published in 1998 by Mercer University Press.
"Seventh heaven you may have heard that phrase," says Mr. Royalty, who grew up in Atlanta. In 2nd Corinthians 12:2-5, the Apostle Paul writes of someone taken up into the "third heaven," he points out. The third-century Christian author Origen "had a very intellectual philosophy that the smarter you were, the higher up you went."
Some religions today teach clear concepts of multilayered ever-afters. Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, recognize telestial, terrestrial and celestial kingdoms. Celestial, the highest, is the presence of God.
Christians as early as the second century started emphasizing "the reward-punishment aspect of heaven," says Edward Wright, associate professor of the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism at the University of Arizona. Images of heaven have changed over the centuries to suit the times, says Mr. Wright, author of "The Early History of Heaven," a new book from Oxford University Press. "Heaven is modeled after a king's palace in antiquity because the king was the greatest person imaginable." Today the image might be a penthouse versus a studio apartment.
Some New Testament scholars say they see nothing in Scripture to suggest that the sweet by and by will be sweeter for some than for others.
"I think that's trying to replicate heaven according to earthly values instead of thinking heaven is outside the experience we can calculate," says Gail O'Day, professor of preaching and New Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. The idea of working one's way closer to the throne of God can "become a game," Miss O'Day says. "What God will do should be left to God."
Good deeds should be done simply because good people want to live godly lives, she says. "It's enough to know what you do matters because God calls us to action."
Mr. Wilkinson is quick to say that motive is a critical criterion for credit with God. He presents three "tests" of whether earthly deeds will count eternally: whether the deed-doer has a relationship with Christ, whether an act is performed "to serve God and bring Him glory," and whether something is done with genuine love for someone else.
He cites Luke 6:35, "But love your enemies, do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High."

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