The Great White Throne Judgment
Our text for this evening takes us to a new scene in the book of Revelation. We are no longer viewing things on earth. Rather, we now stand in heaven beholding the resurrection and final judgment.
In this part of John’s vision, he saw a great white throne. Heaven and earth fled away at the sight of the one who sat on this throne. This is the first and only time that a great white throne is mentioned in the entire Bible, but it’s color and size say everything that we need to know. It’s a great throne because the judgment of all men proceeds from it, and it is white because its judgments are pure. The fact that heaven and earth fled at the sight of the one who sat on the throne teaches us two things. First, that the one who sat on this throne —the Lord Jesus Christ — was preeminently glorious. In verse 12 he is even called God. And second, that the second coming of Christ did not occur a thousand years earlier as Premillennialists claim, for, if he had, heaven and earth would have fled then.
There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind Jesus Christ is the one who sat on the throne. Earlier in Revelation he ascended the throne as the Lamb of God (Rev. 3:6), and has thereafter been referred to repeatedly as the one who governs all creation (Rev. 11:15; 17:14; 19:16).
If any question remains as to the throne’s occupant, the rest of the New Testament is abundantly clear. Matthew 25:31 says that the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory when he returns in glory with his angels. Romans 14:10 adds, For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (cf. II Cor. 5:10). And in II Tim. 4:1 Paul wrote that the Lord Jesus Christ … shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom.
Our present text, then, describes the events that will immediately follow Christ’s return, viz., the resurrection and judgment of all men.
The first matter that John deals with in our text is the final judgment itself. This was suggested by the great white throne in verse 11, but is even more explicit in verse 12. The dead stand before God and are judged out of his books.
But as soon as we read verses 12 and 13, we’re confronted with two difficulties. One is the order of events. John seems to place the final judgment (v. 12) before the resurrection (v. 13). Another problem is that John says nothing at all about the final destiny of believers. Those whose names were NOT found in the book of life are cast into the lake of fire, but what will become of those whose names ARE in the book of life?
The fact that the judgment precedes the resurrection can be dealt with in one of two ways.
The first is to acknowledge that this is, in fact, the temporal order of these events. Since as all men sinned and died in Adam, there is a sense in which all men have also been judged already. Jesus said, He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:18). The only thing that awaits unbelievers, then, is a resurrection unto damnation. Similarly, the souls of believers will be reunited with their bodies, and we will continue to live in this completed state, being all the more appreciative of the great salvation that we have in the Lord Jesus Christ.
However, two considerations in our text tell us to look for a different explanation.
The first is what we read at the beginning of verse 12, viz., that the dead, small and great, stand before God in the judgment. This seems to presuppose the resurrection. I suppose that we could say that their standing before God is figurative, but other passages of Scripture seem to indicate that they will literally stand before Christ in judgment. Jesus said, Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matt. 7:22–23). How else will men give account of every idle word that they have spoken (Matt. 12:36)? Or we could say that it was only the souls of these dead men who stood before Christ in judgment. The problem here is Scripture describes men going immediately from judgment to their eternal reward or punishment. Again, Jesus said, And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:32–34).
The other consideration is that John does not give any time references in our text. In the previous section, he informed us twice that Satan’s little season will come after the millennium. Verse 3 says, And after that he must be loosed a little season; and verse 7 says, And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison. The order is clear: the millennium and then Satan’s release. But note that there is no time reference at the beginning of chapter 20. Why is that? It’s because chapter 19 and the first six verses of chapter 20 refer to the same period of time. Christ rides his white horse and conquers the nations with his Word during the thousand years of Satan’s imprisonment. And that’s also what we have in our text. The second coming, the punishment of Satan, the judgment of all men, the resurrection and the punishment of men all take place more or less contemporaneously.
If you look carefully at verses 12 and 13, you see that both verses really say the same thing. Both begin with the resurrection, and both end with the judgment. The only difference between them is the amount of emphasis given to the two subjects. Verse 12 highlights the judgment. Verse 13 highlights the resurrection. We might say these two verses explain each other. The resurrection in verse 13 explains how the dead stood before God to be judged, and the judgment in verse 12 explains why the dead were raised.
The great white throne judgment is also a universal judgment. Premillennialists insist that it’s really only the judgment of unbelievers. It certainly involves unbelievers. Their judgment can be found in verse 15: And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. But it is just as certain that believers will also be judged, since another book, the book of life, was also opened.
This takes us to the second area of bewilderment that I mentioned earlier. Why does John only tell us what became of unbelievers and not say a word about the destiny of believers? But the answer to this is easy: John wrote two more chapters. The last two chapters of Revelation describe the glory that awaits those who trust the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
According to verse 12, the dead were judged out of God’s books. One of his books is the book of life. The others were what we might call the books of works. The end of verse 12 says, And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
The books of works speak for themselves. They’re a record of all the sins of all men. The fact that men are judged according to their works teaches that God takes the works of unbelievers into account for assigning degrees of punishment. And believers, although justified by faith alone, will also be judged according to our works. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad (II Cor. 5:10), he wrote to believers. The same principle can be found in the words of Jesus: And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more (Luke 12:47–48).
More than anything else, the final judgment is the ultimate vindication of God’s righteousness before the entire creation. It makes sense, then, that God would judge men according to the kinds of things that can be observed by all, viz., his works. A man’s works demonstrate where his heart is. As Jesus said, A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh (Luke 6:45). In our text, works serve as evidence of each man’s status before God. They are not the ground or reason for that status.
The other book is the book of life. Unlike the books of works, this one is not a registry of men’s deeds, but a registry of those who belong to the Lamb of God. That’s why in Revelation 21:27 it’s called the Lamb’s book of life. Not surprisingly, it appears most frequently in Revelation, although we find it mentioned in several other books of the Bible as well. We find it, for example, in the conversation between Moses and God in Exodus 32. Moses said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book (vv. 31–33). Psalm 69:28 says, Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous. The context of this passage seems to have Judas Iscariot particularly in view. Daniel 12:1 mentions the same book, as does Philippians 4:3, where Paul listed three individuals by name (Euodias, Syntyche and Clement) along with an unspecified number of fellow-laborers and affirmed that their names are written in book of life.
As with most things in Revelation, the book of life should not be thought of as a real book. It’s obviously a figure of speech since God, being omniscient, doesn’t need to look up anything in a book. The seventh century Benedictine monk known as the Venerable Bede understood the book of life to be the foreknowledge of God. Those whom God chose to be in Christ from before the foundation of the world are said to have their names in this book.
Verse 13, as mentioned earlier, describes the resurrection in greater detail than verse 12. Here John provided some details about what it entails.
First of all, he makes it clear that the manner of a man’s death and the place of interment do not matter. Whether we die and remain in the sea or in the ground, represented here as death and hell (ὁ θάνατος καὶ ὁ ἅδης), God will raise us up in that great day.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we can dispose of our bodies any way that we please. The mere fact that our bodies are connected with immortal souls made in the image of God demands that we give them the greatest care. Once again, Jesus is our example. After he was removed from the cross, his body was carefully prepared for burial and laid to rest. We could say that he sanctified the grave for his people. Cremation, on the other hand, says exactly the opposite. Fire is a violent dissolution of the body that reminds us not of the peace that awaits those who die in Christ but of the endless misery of those who do not. I wouldn’t want to insist on this as a hard and fast rule, but I do believe that as Christians our preference should be for burial.
But whether we die peacefully in our sleep, violently in a fire or are mauled to death by lions in the Roman Coliseum, verse 13 says that our comfort is the same: our bodies will be raised and reunited to our souls when we stand before the great white throne on the day of judgment.
Another thing we see here is that all men will be raised, just as all men will be judged — those in the sea, as well as those in the earth. It doesn’t matter, according to verse 12, whether a man is small or great. His importance on earth does guarantee him a better outcome in the resurrection any more than the lower status of a poor man precludes him. As Jesus said, All that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:28–29).
Not all men have the same destination, though. For the moment, John passes over those whose names are in the book of life, but those whose names are not in the book of life are cast into the lake of fire.
The lake of fire symbolizes the punishment of unbelievers. Just how literally we should interpret it is hard to say. Elsewhere the Bible speaks of hell as a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quench (Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:44, 46, 48). Gehenna in the ancient world was a garbage pit where men dumped their offal after slaughtering animals. It was literally true that the worm never died there. Other passages describe hell as the blackness of darkness (Jude 13), outer darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and shame and everlasting contempt (Dan. 12:2). The lake of fire brings up images of fire burning all around the reprobate without any way of escape. But I suspect that all of these descriptions only tell part of the story. In reality, the Bible merely uses the worst, most disgusting things that we know in this life to give us a faint understanding of what hell is really like. But what hell is really like is probably so far beyond what we can imagine that it can’t even be put into words. Hell is the second death.
But to the believer’s mind the worst thing about hell is that it involves complete separation from the grace of God. There is no mercy or kindness there. It’s a place of endless torment, misery and punishment. But, thankfully, believers have one who bore this separation from God’s grace for us. On the cross Jesus cried out in a loud voice, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). And this is what we confess when we affirm that he descended into hell. He suffered separation from the grace of God to spare us the anguish and torment of hell.
The new scene found in our text brings world history to a close. Satan was cast into hell, along with everyone failed to find relief from the second death in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In coming sermons, John will reveal the greatness of the salvation that we have in Jesus Christ. The picture he gives is glorious, but what heaven is really like is even more so. There the Lamb will be our light. We’ll longer struggle with sin, sorrow or death.
The resurrection and final judgment transport us to that glorious day. Amen.