This originally was going to be a brief blog on this passage from the book of Revelation, but as is often the case with my writing, I ended up being fascinated with the study and so produced a fairly long piece. I hope that you find it instructive and edifying. rmb 9.16.2020
“So, what happens at the Judgment?” My friend had been having a discussion with his wife in preparation for talking to his daughters about the final judgment. He knew that I was working on a book on the end times, so he gave me a call and posed the question.
“Wow, that is a great question! Let me pull together some Scriptures and make some notes and I will call you back.” So, the stage was set.
This post, then, will be an explanation of what happens at the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.
THE TEXT – REVELATION 20:11-15 (NASB)
11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
UNDERSTANDING THE PASSAGE
John sees the great white throne with the LORD seated on the throne. In this awesome scene, all creation flees away, trying to get away from the fury and the wrath of God and of the Lamb (compare to Revelation 6:15-17). There is, however, no place to hide. The business at hand is The Judgment.
Next, John sees “the dead.” This word “dead” is significant because the meaning goes beyond just those who are not breathing. These are the spiritually dead. John mentions “the dead” four times in two verses to emphasize their spiritual lifelessness. At the great white throne, we see the gathering of all the spiritually dead of all time, awaiting their final judgment. That is the identity of “the dead” whom John sees. Regarding “the dead,” consider these verses from the mouth of Jesus:
- When our Lord was talking to the Sadducees about the resurrection, Jesus quotes from Exodus when God said, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matthew 22:31-32).” Jesus is making it clear that these patriarchs, even though physically dead, are spiritually alive.
- Perhaps more to the point, In Luke 9:60, Jesus calls a man to follow Him, but the man makes the excuse that he needs to bury his father. Jesus said, “Allow the (spiritually) dead to bury their own (physically) dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” It turns out that there are many who, even though physically alive, are spiritually dead.
- In John 3:18, Jesus says, “He who believes in Him (the Son) is not judged.” That seems straightforward to me.
- Jesus also taught that those who have believed in Him will not come into judgment. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24).” Two truths are taught by this verse. First, the one who believes in Jesus “does not come into judgment.” That seems pretty easy to understand. But second, those who have eternal life through Jesus are no longer among “the dead,” regardless of their physical state. They “have passed from death to life.”
- A few verses later, Jesus is teaching about the resurrection and says, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice (the voice of the Son of God), and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29).” So, we can see that, in the resurrection, the ones who will experience the judgment are “those who committed the evil deeds.”
Next, “books were opened.” What exactly are these books which were opened? It is clear that these books determine the verdict that will come from the throne, for John writes that “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.” These books, then, are the records of all the sins of each one of the dead who are standing before the throne. They will be judged “according to their deeds.” Their deeds are evil (John 3:19-20’ “their deeds are evil”). Their deeds are their sins, and it is on the basis of these deeds, their “works,” that they will be judged. The time for forgiveness is over. There will be no more mercy or compassion. The offer of the gospel is forever taken away. These have come before the great white throne of the Holy One of Israel with nothing but their unrighteousness and their sins. “There no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but only a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries (Hebrews 10:27).”
THE BOOK OF LIFE (OF THE LIVING)
But wait! “Another book was opened, which is the book of life.” John does not talk about this “book of life” here, because the issue at hand is judgment and eternal death, but we need to understand what this “book of life” is. First, there are the “books of the dead,” which doom people to the lake of fire (20:15), but there is also “the book of life” (“of the living,”) which admits people into eternal life. The book of Revelation has already spoken of this “book of the living” twice, in 13:8 and in 17:8, so we will take a brief detour to find out more about this book.
- Revelation 13:8 takes place as the beast that comes up out of the sea is in power and is persecuting the saints. “8 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.” TRUTH: This verse makes clear that the names that are in the book of life were written there in eternity past and that they were written in the book of life by the Lord Himself. The inescapable conclusion is that those who were going to have eternal life and who were going to avoid the lake of fire were chosen by God in eternity past. This necessitates the doctrine of election (Ephesians 1:4; etc.).
- Revelation 17:8 also involves the beast and talks about “those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” The group in view in both these verses is the people “whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” TRUTH: Therefore, the other conclusion from these verses is that, since those in the book of life are known, those who are doomed to the lake of fire are also known from the foundation of the world.
We find out from this verse where all “the dead” come from. From the previous verse, we know that “the dead, the great and the small,” are standing before the throne, but now we find out that “the dead” come from the sea, and they come from “death and Hades.” This is just another way of saying that all the dead are here. Not one of the dead has been overlooked or has escaped the judgment. Then, once all the dead are gathered, they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. As we have seen earlier, these “deeds” are the sins of the dead who stand before the throne. Their destiny is the lake of fire.
Death and Hades are irretrievably and inescapably thrown into the lake of fire. Long, long ago, in one of the early scenes of the grand meta-drama, the LORD God had told man that sin would result in death (Genesis 2:17). And so, ever since the fall of man in Genesis 3 death needed to continue to exist because man’s sin continued to exist. Hades is the place where the spiritually dead await the judgment, and so Hades continues to exist until the judgment. But now after the judgment, full payment for all sin has been rendered, either in Christ’s full atonement for all the sins of all true believers in Christ or in the eternal punishment in the lake of fire for all unbelievers. Sin has ceased because there are no longer any sinners. All believers are now glorified and so can no longer sin, and all unbelievers have been thrown into the lake of fire. Death is useless when sin has ceased and Hades has become useless, because all the occupants of Hades have been cast into the lake of fire. Therefore, since they are useless, both death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire.
The lake of fire is the second death. The first death is when a person dies physically. If that person has believed in Jesus, in the intermediate state they are in the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1-8; Philippians 1:23; Revelation 6:9-11; etc.) awaiting the resurrection of the righteous, when they will receive their glorified, resurrection body. Thus, the believer never experiences the second death. (Confirm with John 11:25-26.) This passage, however, is about the unbeliever. In contrast to the believer, in the intermediate state the unbeliever awaits Christ’s return in Hades, and, at the resurrection, they will “come out to a resurrection of judgment (John 5:29).” Unbelievers will go from their temporary home in Hades to their eternal home of unending conscious punishment in the lake of fire.
The judgment is made, and the sentence is passed. The book of life, or “the book of the living,” has been examined. This is the book that contains the names of all those who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Those whose names are in the book of the living are resurrected to eternal life (John 5:29), but there are many whose names are not there. All those whose names are not found in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire.
All you who are now reading this article on the final judgment are still physically alive. You still have time to contemplate the question, “Is my name written in the book of life, or am I headed for the lake of fire?” Hopefully, after reading this article, you are clear on the two, and only two, options.
- If you have already placed your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then you will never experience the second death (Revelation 2:11; 20:6), and you can be sure that your name is in the book of life. In that case, the application would be to rejoice in the faithfulness of our Savior Jesus Christ.
- If, however, you have not placed your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; if you have not confessed with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believed in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9); if you have never believed in the Lord Jesus Christ so as to be saved (Acts 16:31), then your current destiny is the lake of fire. Your application is to change your destiny! This minute you can change your eternal destiny. This minute you can believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and trust Him as your personal Lord and Savior. If you do that, “Truly, truly, I (Jesus) say to you, you will not come into judgment, but you have passed from death to life (John 5:24).”
SDG rmb 9/16/2020