The Bible says that “each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). Of course, there are going to be two different judgments: a rewards ceremony and a sentencing hearing. Non-Christians will appear at the latter. Judicial punishment for sin is dispensed at the Great White Throne Judgment and you definitely don’t want to be there (Revelation 20:11-15).
On the other hand, Christians will be heading to a rewards ceremony known as the Judgment Seat of Christ. The Bible says “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Followers of Jesus will be rewarded based upon how faithfully we served the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). The Judgment Seat of Christ will be a time of rewards or loss of rewards (1 Corinthians 3:15). There won’t be any punishment for sin, however, because followers of Jesus are completely forgiven in Christ (John 5:24).
Still, this talk of losing rewards is mildly unsettling. The Bible mentions that our work will be tested with fire, and “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). In other words, a whole bunch of us are probably going to smell like smoke. That’s an unpleasant thought, and plenty of pastors have abused this passage to scare their parishioners into throwing some extra cash on the offering plate.
Of course, it’s often ignored that our level of accountability is directly related to how much responsibility we’ve been given by God. Naturally, this contributes to a different standard of judgment among believers. For example, in the Parable of the Talents, each servant started with a different amount of money (Matthew 25:14-30). This explains why teachers will face a stricter judgment (James 3:1). Not everyone has been entrusted with the same amount of responsibility. It’s the same with non-Christians. Their level of accountability, the severity of their future punishment, differs depending on how much revelation they’ve received (Luke 12:47-48). Jesus said “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48).
By the way, nowhere does it say that the rewards given during the Judgment Seat of Christ are material. A simple glance at Revelation 2-3 reveals the nature of these rewards. Some of them include access to the tree of life, not being hurt by the second death, hidden manna, a white stone with a new name on it, authority over the nations and being clothed in white garments. Then there are all of the crowns, like the crown of righteousness which is given to everyone who loves Christ’s appearing (2 Timothy 4:8). Sadly, many pastors promote the idea that some Christians, especially those who don’t give generously to their ministries, will be living in squalor in Heaven. That’s complete nonsense.
Now, when does the Judgment Seat of Christ take place? Well, the seventh trumpet will be blown, announcing that Jesus is King over the earth (Revelation 11:15-19). It will be time for God to reward His servants and finish off wicked humanity (Revelation 11:18). Then, the first six bowl judgments will unfold against those who oppose the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth (Revelation 15-16). While the bowl judgments are unfolding on earth, Christ will be conducting a rewards ceremony for His followers in Heaven (Revelation 11:18).
After the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Marriage of the Lamb will happen (Revelation 19:7-8). Christ, the Bridegroom, will forever be united with His faithful followers, His bride (Ephesians 5:23-27; Revelation 19:7-8; 21:2, 9; 22:17). Currently, followers of Jesus are engaged to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2). At the appointed time, Christ-followers will be presented to Him (Ephesians 5:23-27; Revelation 19:7-8). The saints will be given fine linen to wear because “fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8).
Until then, we’re all about the King’s business, eagerly waiting for His return (Luke 19:13).