This passage describes the final sentencing of the lost and is the most serious, sobering, and tragic passage in the entire Bible. Commonly known as the Great White Throne Judgment, it is the last courtroom scene that will ever take place. After this there will never again be a trial, and God will never again need to act as judge. The accused, all the unsaved who have ever lived, will be resurrected to experience a trial like no other that has ever been. There will be no debate over their guilt or innocence. There will be a prosecutor, but no defender; an accuser, but no advocate. There will be an indictment, but no defense mounted by the accused; the convicting evidence will be presented with no rebuttal or cross-examination. There will be an utterly unsympathetic Judge and no jury, and there will be no appeal of the sentence He pronounces. The guilty will be punished eternally with no possibility of parole in a prison from which there is no escape.
The language of this passage is plain, stark, and unembellished. Few details are given, and the description is utterly lacking in the vivid, eloquent modifiers that might be expected. But the scene is frightening enough in its own right that such language would be superfluous. The beloved apostle John, recording this vision in a cave or on a hillside on the island of Patmos, no doubt was shaken as he wrote of the eternal damnation of the wicked.
Ever since the Fall, Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44), has attempted to deceive people about the reality of the coming judgment. He has done his best to convince people that there will be no final tribunal. Satan has deceived sinners into believing that they can live as they please without fear of ultimate accountability or future punishment. Satan said to Eve, “You surely will not die!” (Gen. 3:4), thus voicing his denial of judgment on sin. The primary means the devil uses in his deception are atheism (particularly the godless theory of evolution) and false religion. Atheism’s denial of God’s existence means there is no moral Judge to whom people are accountable after they die. They wrongly believe that they are free to sin as they please and then simply pass out of existence. The gods of most false religions are not holy, requiring inward righteousness and heart obedience, and they are appeased by ritual and ceremony; thus these gods inspire no fear of accountability in their worshipers.
But despite the vain, foolish speculations of men, the true and living God is the Supreme Judge of the universe. His judgment of unbelievers will be just, because He is just. Deuteronomy 32:4 says of God, “His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” Job 37:23-24 declares, “The Almighty—we cannot find Him; He is exalted in power and He will not do violence to justice and abundant righteousness. Therefore men fear Him.” God cannot but be just, because the absolutely holy perfection of His nature will not allow Him to do anything but what is right. God’s will is the supreme standard of justice and equity, and He wills nothing but what is just, right, and true.
20:11 And I saw a great white throne, and I saw the one who was sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide.NLT Next, John saw a great white throne, a large and majestic throne. He saw the one who was sitting on it, but he did not identify the one on the throne. Throughout Revelation, it is God who is pictured as sitting on a throne (see, for example, 4:2; 7:10; 19:4). Daniel had a similar vision:
As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. (Daniel 7:9-10 niv)
Some suggest that the one sitting on the great white throne is Jesus, citing Matthew 25:31, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . he will sit upon his glorious throne” (nlt); John 5:22, “And the Father leaves all judgment to his Son” (nlt); and 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all stand before Christ to be judged” (nlt).
With the appearance of this one on the throne, the earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. This poetic imagery could describe the dissolution of everything material and corrupt in the presence of God as Judge; it could also depict the end of the old earth and old heavens—in preparation for the creation of the new (21:1). No one could “hide” from God, for there is no place from which anything can flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7). Other verses picture a disappearance of the heavens and the earth (quoted from niv):
- “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail” (Isaiah 51:6).
- “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
- “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Peter 3:10-12).
20:12-13 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done.NRSV The phrase “dead, great and small” probably refers to all people—believers and nonbelievers. No one will escape God’s scrutiny. Why they are called “the dead” is uncertain. Some suggest that this is only the judgment of unbelievers because they would be the ones still dead who would take part in the second resurrection (20:5). However, it most likely stands for everyone, for God “will judge everyone, both the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5 nlt). The throne before which they were standing is the great white throne described in 20:11. The picture that Christ gave of this judgment scene seems to indicate the judgment of all people:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. . . . and they [the unrighteous—the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] will go into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-33, 46 nlt)
This is the great and final judgment, the place where the books will be opened, including another book called The Book of Life. As noted in 3:5, the Book of Life is the heavenly registry of those who have accepted Christ’s gift of salvation. All believers’ names are written in the Book of Life. All people will be judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. . . according to what they had done. The idea of judgment by works is a theme throughout the Old
|and New Testaments (Psalm 62:12; Jeremiah 17:10; Daniel 7:10; Romans 2:6; 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 1:17). No one will be forgotten at this final gathering—those who had drowned in the sea will return, even Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them. In 6:8, Death and Hades were inseparable as riders of the pale horse, representing the realm of the dead.||Hell was not prepared for man. God never meant that man would ever go to hell. Hell was prepared for the devil and his angels, but man rebelled against God and followed the devil. . . . Hell is essentially and basically banishment from the presence of God for deliberately rejecting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Believers will be judged—not to see if they merit eternal life, for their names will already be in the Book of Life. This will be a judgment for rewards. Believers’ works cannot save them, but their deeds are important to God. Although “no one can lay any other foundation than the one we already have—Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11 nlt), the deeds with which believers build their lives do matter. “Now anyone who builds on that foundation may use gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But there is going to come a time of testing at the judgment day to see what kind of work each builder has done. Everyone’s work will be put through the fire to see whether or not it keeps its value. If the work survives the fire, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builders themselves will be saved, but like someone escaping through a wall of flames” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 nlt).
Unbelievers also will be judged according to their works, but, of course, no works, no matter how good, will be able to save them.
|LIFE APPLICATION – BY THE BOOK|
|At the judgment, the books will be opened. These books contain the recorded deeds of everyone, good or evil. Everyone’s life will be reviewed and evaluated. No one is saved by deeds, but deeds are seen as clear evidence of a person’s actual relationship with God. Jesus will look at how we have handled gifts, opportunities, and responsibilities. God’s gracious gift of salvation does not free us from the requirement of faithful obedience and service. Each of us must serve Christ in the best way we know and live each day knowing the books will be opened.|
CHART: THE CERTAINTY OF THE RESURRECTION
The resurrection is a certainty based on God’s Word. The following verses are quoted from the NLT.
|Job||“I know that my Redeemer lives . . . And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God.” (Job 19:25-26)|
|David||“When I awake, I will be fully satisfied, for I will see you face to face.” (Psalm 17:15)|
|Descendants of Korah||“But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of death” (Psalm 49:15)|
|Isaiah||“Yet we have this assurance: Those who belong to God will live; their bodies will rise again! Those who sleep in the earth will rise up and sing for joy. For God’s light of life will fall like dew on his people in the place of the dead!” (Isaiah 26:19)|
|Daniel||“Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt . . . You will rise again to receive the inheritance set aside for you.” (Daniel 12:2, 13)|
|Jesus||“He will even raise from the dead anyone he wants to, just as the Father does.” (John 5:21)|
|Jesus||“And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them to eternal life at the last day.” (John 6:39)|
|Jesus||“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again.” (John 11:25)|
|Paul||“I have hope in God . . . that he will raise both the righteous and the ungodly” (Acts 24:15)|
|Paul||“The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as he raised Christ from the dead, he will give life to your mortal body by this same Spirit living within you.” (Romans 8:11)|
|Paul||“And God will raise our bodies from the dead by his marvelous power, just as he raised our Lord from the dead.” (1 Corinthians 6:14)|
|Paul||“Christ was raised first; then when Christ comes back, all his people will be raised.” (1 Corinthians 15:23)|
|Paul||“When we die and leave these bodies—we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:1)|
CHART: THE COMING JUDGMENT
Other places in Scripture describe this judgment (quoted from NLT).
“The Ancient One sat down to judge . . . the court began its session, and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7:9-10)
“For I, the Son of Man, will come in the glory of my Father with his angels and will judge all people according to their deeds.” (Matthew 16:27)
“For there is going to come a day of judgment when God, the just judge of all the world, will judge all people according to what they have done.” (Romans 2:5-6)
“The day will surely come when God, by Jesus Christ, will judge everyone’s secret life.” (Romans 2:16)
“Each of us will stand personally before the judgment seat of God . . . Each of us will have to give a personal account to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
“For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
“Christ Jesus . . . will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom.” (2 Timothy 4:1)
“It is destined that each person dies only once and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
“But just remember that you will have to face God, who will judge everyone, both the living and the dead.” (1 Peter 4:5)
“The Lord knows how to rescue godly people from their trials, even while punishing the wicked right up until the day of judgment.” (2 Peter 2:9)
“And God has also commanded that the heavens and the earth will be consumed by fire on the day of judgment, when ungodly people will perish.” (2 Peter 3:7)
“And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence.” (1 John 4:17)
“Look, the Lord is coming with thousands of his holy ones. He will bring the people of the world to judgment. He will convict the ungodly of all the evil things they have done in rebellion.” (Jude 14-15)
20:14-15 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.NIV Death and Hades, here personified, were thrown into the lake of fire. God’s judgment was finished. Paul had written, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26 niv). John exclaimed that in heaven, “there will be no more death” (21:4 nlt). Isaiah had foreseen this day, “He will swallow up death forever!” (Isaiah 25:8 nlt).
The lake of fire is the ultimate destination of everything wicked—Satan, the beast, the false prophet, the demons, death, Hades, and anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.NLT Those whose names were not found recorded in the Book of Life are those who did not place their faith in Jesus Christ. This is the second death. They died the first time physically; this time their death was spiritual (see also 20:6). John’s vision does not permit any gray areas in God’s judgment. Jesus, when describing this final judgment scene, spoke to unbelievers, “Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his demons” (Matthew 25:41 nlt). Those who do not, by faith, accept Christ as Savior and confess him as Lord, will find that they have been cast away with no hope, no second chance, no appeal.
Watch Messages: YouTube-Upwards Church
Sources: Bruce B. Barton et al., Life Application Bible Commentary – Revelation, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2000), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 237-250.
John MacArthur, MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Revelation 12-22, (Chicago: Moody Press, 2000), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 245-247.