A. Review of Past Lessons
B. Text of Rev 20:11-15
11Then I saw a great white throne with someone sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence. No place was found for the earth and sky. 12Then I saw the dead—the great and the small—they were standing before the throne. The books were opened, then another book was opened which is the Book of Life. The dead were judged from what had been written in the books according to their deeds. 13The sea gave up the dead that were in it. Death and Hades also gave up the dead that were in them. Every person was judged according to his deeds. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire—this is the second death—which is the lake of fire. 15If someone’s name is not found written in the Book of Life, he is thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:11-15)[ref]Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own based on the NA28 Greek text[/ref]
Photo Credit: “The Last Judgment” (Stefan Lochner, 1400-1451)
C. General Remarks about Rev 20:11-15
“The account in these few verses, in spite of their brevity, is one of the most impressive descriptions of the Last Judgment ever written.” Metzger, Breaking the Code, 97
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II. THE GREAT WHITE THRONE (20:11)
Καὶ εἶδον θρόνον μέγαν λευκὸν καὶ τὸν καθήμενον ἐπʼ αὐτόν, οὗ ἀπὸ °τοῦ προσώπου ἔφυγεν ἡ γῆ καὶ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ τόπος οὐχ εὑρέθη αὐτοῖς.
Then I saw a great white throne with someone sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence. No place was found for the earth and sky. (Rev 20:11)[ref]Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own based on the NA28 Greek text[/ref]
A. Who Sits on the Throne
The one sitting on the throne is the Father and probably also Jesus. In the New Testament the Father is described as providing the last judgment (Matt 6:4; 10:32-33; 18:35; Mark 8:38; Rom 14:10; also see Dan 7:9, 10, 22), but Jesus has been given authority to judge (Matt 7:22-23; 25:31-46; John 5:22, 30; 2 Cor 5:10).
B. The Earth and Sky Gone
The earth and sky flee because of the evil that has infiltrated there. Regarding earth, it has been corrupted since humanity’s sin in Gen 3:6-7. Regarding the sky, it has been corrupted as the place of Satan’s initial rebellion (Isa 14; Ezek 28). Furthermore, both the Old Testament and New Testament teach that this world is temporary (Pss 95:5; 102:25-26; Isa 51:6; Matt 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 16:17; 21:33; Heb 1:10-12; 2 Peter 3:10).
III. THE DEAD JUDGED BEFORE GOD’S THRONE (20:12-13)
A. The Books Reveal Fate (v. 12)
καὶ εἶδον τοὺς νεκρούς, τοὺς μεγάλους καὶ τοὺς μικρούς, ἑστῶτας ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου. καὶ βιβλία ἠνοίχθησαν, καὶ ἄλλο βιβλίον ἠνοίχθη, ὅ ἐστιν τῆς ζωῆς, καὶ ἐκρίθησαν οἱ νεκροὶ ἐκ τῶν γεγραμμένων ἐν τοῖς βιβλίοις κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν.
Then I saw the dead—the great and the small—they were standing before the throne. The books were opened, then another book was opened which is the Book of Life. The dead were judged from what had been written in the books according to their deeds. (Rev 20:12)
1. The Great and Small
The phrase “great and small” is used throughout the book of Revelation to describe humans who are wicked and follow Satan (Rev 13:16; 19:18). But, it is also used to describe good people who follow Jesus (Rev 11:18; 19:5). It is similar but different than the phrase “earth dwellers” or “those who live on the earth” as a term that exclusively describes those who reject God and follow Satan during the seven years of tribulation (Rev 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14; 17:8).
2. Books Open
The unnamed books contain the records of the acts of each individual. Those acts provide the basis for judgment. It may be good and bad deeds. Or, it may just be bad deeds. Other areas of the Bible also mention a place where actions are registered (Deut 32:34; Pss 56:8; Isa 65:6; Dan 7:10; Mal 3:16; Matt 12:37).
3. The Book of Life
The Book of Life is God’s way of saying, “You did not chose me; I chose you.” This was taught by Paul (Rom 8:28-30; Eph 1:5, 11) and by Peter (1 Peter 1:2). While the Book of Life has numerous references throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, no book provides as much emphasis to the Book of Life as Revelation. The Book of Life was written before the world was made (17:8), but is first mentioned in Revelation in Rev 3:5 in Jesus’s letter to the angel of the church in Sardis. Revelation also makes it clear that the book belongs to the Lamb (13:8; 21:27). In the midst of the trumpet judgements and bowl judgements John says that the people who worship the beast are the ones who names are not written in the Book of Life (13:8). The Book of Life is open here at the Great White Throne Judgment. Anyone’s name that was not found in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire (20:15). Lastly, in the new Jerusalem the only people allowed to enter the city are those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (21:27).
B. All Judged according to Deeds (v. 13)
καὶ ἔδωκεν ἡ θάλασσα τοὺς νεκροὺς τοὺς ἐν αὐτῇ καὶ ὁ θάνατος καὶ ὁ ᾅδης ἔδωκαν τοὺς νεκροὺς τοὺς ἐν αὐτοῖς, καὶ ἐκρίθησαν ἕκαστος κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν.
The sea gave up the dead that were in it. Death and Hades also gave up the dead that were in them. Every person was judged according to his deeds. (Rev 20:13)
1. The Release of the Dead
This is the resurrection from the sea, Death, and from Hades. This is the fulfillment of what was predicted several times in the New Testament:
- “and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment.” (John 5:29, NLT)
- “I have the same hope in God that these men have, that he will raise both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15, NLT)
- “This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years” (Rev 20:5–6, NLT).
2. Judged according to Deeds
There are only unsaved believers here. This passage does not say that happens to the saved, therefore believers are not here at the Great White Throne judgement. Thomas summarizes this verse well, “The point of this passage is not to prove salvation by works, but condemnation by works. A person does not receive salvation through works, but neither does he receive it without works” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 433).
3. Sea and Hades Distinct
According to N.T. Wright the sea and Hades are separate because “in ancient cosmology, the sea was not thought to be part of Hades, so those who died by drowning in the sea, and were never recovered for burial, formed a separate category of the dead” (Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 184).
1. One Judgement
This view sees the “great and small” standing before God’s throne to be the righteous believers (Rev 20:12). This view also sees the dead in the sea and Hades being the unrighteous who are not believers (Rev 20:13). This is a possible fulfillment of Dan 12:1-2, “At that time Michael, the archangel who stands guard over your nation, will arise. Then there will be a time of anguish greater than any since nations first came into existence. But at that time every one of your people whose name is written in the book will be rescued. Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace” (NLT). Other Scripture that supports the view that there is only one judgment are Matt 25:31-46; John 5:24-29; Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10.
This view is held by Osborne, Revelation, 721-722, 725.
2. Two Judgements: One for Believers and One for Unbelievers
Within the context of Rev 20:11-15 there are two judgments: one is for believers and one is for unbelievers. In my view, the judgment of believers occured earlier either at the rapture of the church or at the resurrection. This judgment is described as the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 Cor 5:10; also see Rom 14:10; 1 Cor 4:1-5; 9:24-27; 1 Thess 2:19; 2 Tim 4:8; James 1:12; Rev 2:10; 3:11; 4:4, 10).
While some passages such as Matt 25:31-46 and John 5:24-29 seem to indicate a simultaneous judgment of believers and unbelievers at the same time, there is support for the idea that these judgments might be separated based on the resurrection. For example, numerous NT passage describe the resurrection as if it happens all at once. Yet, when we read Rev 20:4-5, we learn that there are two resurrections that are separated by a thousand years. It is possible that the judgments described in the NT for believers and unbelievers could also be separated by a length of time.
3. Eight Distinct Judgments
Lewis Sperry Chafer provides a succinct and accurate summarization of the judgments described in the Bible. In his view, there are eight judgments. One has already occurred, two are present, and five are future judgments.
- Judgement of the Cross. Sin has been judged by Jesus as the substitute for everyone whom he died for (John 5:24; Rom 5:9; 8:1; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; Heb 9:26-28; 10:10, 14-17; 1 Peter 2:24). Satan has also been judged on the cross (John 16:11; Col 2:14-15).
- Judgement of Self. When we commit to follow God we judge ourselves because we acknowledge that righteousness is not based on our merit. Instead, God is the source of righteousness so we judge ourselves inadequate and then commit to follow God (1 Cor 11:31-32; 1 John 1:9).
- Judgement of Believers. When believers do not confess sins to God and do not see themselves as sinfull they are judged by God (Heb 12:3-15; also see 1 John 15:2; 1 Cor 11:30-32; 1 John 5:16)
- Judgement of the Believer’s Works. At some point in the future (rapture or resurrection or great white throne) the works of believers are judged (1 Cor 3:9-15; 2 Cor 5:10; also see Rom 14:10; 1 Cor 4:5; Eph 6:8; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 22:12).
- Judgement of Israel. Before Israel finishes the end of the great tribulation (Rev 4-19:10) they must receive judgment. Ezek 20:33-44 is the main passage for this with further clarification of Matt 24:37-25:30 and Joel 3:11-15). Also see Ezek 37:1-14; Dan 12:1-3; Mal 3:2-6.
- Judgement of the Nations. In the future the Gentile nations will appear before God’s throne (Matt 25:31-46) and God will make nations subordinates to his nation of Isarel (Pss 2:1-10; Isa 63:1-6; Joel 3:9-16; 2 Thess 1:7-10; Rev 19:11-21)
- Judgement of Angels. During Christ’s millennial reign on earth he will put all his enemies under his feet. This includes Satan and the angels that fell with him (1 Cor 15:24-26; Matt 25:41; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; Rev 20:7-10
- Judgement of the Great White Throne. All of unsaved humanity must be raised for judgment (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:11-15). (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 4 [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993], 402-412; Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 7 [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993], 213-217.
IV. THE LAKE OF FIRE (20:14-15)
A. Death and Grave Thrown into the Lake of Fire (v. 14)
καὶ ὁ θάνατος καὶ ὁ ᾅδης ἐβλήθησαν εἰς τὴν λίμνην τοῦ πυρός. οὗτος ὁ θάνατος ὁ δεύτερός ἐστιν, ἡ λίμνη τοῦ πυρός.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire—this is the second death—which is the lake of fire. (Rev 20:14)
1. Lake of Fire
The lake of fire is a description for the limited human understanding that we have of what eternal punishment will be. People in the lake of fire have to endure punishment forever.
B. Views on Death and Hades
1. Physical Death
This is based on 1 Cor 15:26, “And the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (NLT). Also see 1 Cor 15:54-55; Isa 25:8; Hosea 13:14.
Hades is an intermediate state where the unsaved suffer while awaiting the judgment of the great white throne. The Lake of fire is the enternal punishment that follows the great white throne (Walvoord, Revelation, 319).
2. N.T. Wright
“Death” is both the fact and power of death. “Hades” is the abode of the dead where they cannot escape except by a great powerful act of God (Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 184).
B. Book of Life Absentees Are Thrown into the Lake of Fire (v. 15)
καὶ εἴ τις οὐχ εὑρέθη ἐν τῇ βίβλῳ τῆς ζωῆς γεγραμμένος, ἐβλήθη εἰς τὴν λίμνην τοῦ πυρός.
If someone’s name is not found written in the Book of Life, he is thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:15)
“Language like this leaves no room for universalism, soul sleep, an intermediate state, a second change, or annihilation of the wicked” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 434).
Throughout the book of Revelation readers see the active call of God for people to follow him. Time after time God attempts to show his people that he is the true supreme God. Yet, humans reject God at every opportunity. Examples of this:
- But the people who did not die in these plagues still refused to repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. They continued to worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that can neither see nor hear nor walk! And they did not repent of their murders or their witchcraft or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (Rev 9:20–21, NLT)
- “Everyone was burned by this blast of heat, and they cursed the name of God, who had control over all these plagues. They did not repent of their sins and turn to God and give him glory.” (Rev 16:9, NLT)
- “and they cursed the God of heaven for their pains and sores. But they did not repent of their evil deeds and turn to God.” (Rev 16:11, NLT)
- “When the thousand years come to an end, Satan will be let out of his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations—called Gog and Magog—in every corner of the earth. He will gather them together for battle—a mighty army, as numberless as sand along the seashore.” (Rev 20:7–8, NLT)
D. Views on Hell
Description. The literal view of hell includes physical, psychological, and spiritual punishment. Based on Rev 20:15, “And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire” (NLT) Thomas comments, “Language like this leaves no room for universalism, soul sleep, an intermediate state, a second change, or annihilation of the wicked” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 434).
Furthermore, this appears to be an eternal state of punishment. People who go there stay there forever. Evidence of this is seen in the descriptions in Rev 19-20 about the beast and false prophet. In Rev 19:20 the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire. One thousand years later Satan is thrown into the same lake of fire where he joins the beast and the false prophet (Rev 20:10). As Walvoord explains, “Many have attempted to find some escape for the wicked so that they would not be the objects of eternal punishment. From a human viewpoint, this may be desired, but the Bible never suggests that the punishment of the wicked continues only for a time” (Walvoord, End Times Prophesy, 161).
Scriptural Support. Pss 16:10; 30:3; 55:15; 88:11; Prov 9:18; 15:11; 27:20; Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; 33:24; Ecc 12:14; Ezek 28:8; 31:14; Matt 5:29-30; 8:12; 12:36; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 12:2-3, 47-48; 20:47; Rom 2:5; 1 Peter 4:12; Rev 14:10; 19:20; 20:14-15; 21:8.
Historical Support. Most of traditional Christianity has seen hell as a real place of physical punishment that lasts forever. Among those are Ignatius, The Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Tertullian, Jerome, Basil, and Chrysostom.
Modern Scholars. Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 434; Walvoord, Revelation, 320-321; Osborne, Revelation, 724; Walvoord, “The Literal View” in 4 Views on Hell, 9-39
Description. The metaphorical view of hell believes the Bible uses “Hades” and “Death” to describe graphic imagery for spiritual suffering. This is based on the idea that certain descriptions in the Bible appear to clash (fire vs. darkness; destruction vs. non-destruction). Because of this, some have said that the imagery is figurative. In this view hell is a spiritual description of alienation from God. The main weakness of this view is that it has to ignore the numerous descriptions of hell that cause it to appear to be a real place.
Scriptural Support. Sees “fire” as metaphorical in Matt 3:12. Sees the “darkness” as contradictory to “fire” in Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17; Jude 14. William Crockett, “The Metaphorical View” in 4 Views on Hell, 41-88.
Description. Some sectors of protestant Christainity and most Catholics believe in “purgatory.” Purgatory is a state, place, or condition in the next world between heaven and hell. It is a state of purifying suffering for those who have died but still need purification (Zachary Hayes, “The Purgatorial View” in 4 Views on Hell, 93)
Scriptural Support. Uses “diminished shades” in Gen 37:35; Pss 6:5 and sees a distinguishment between reward and punishment in Dan 12:1-2. Most important texts are 2 Maccabees 12:41-46 (a second century B.C. apocraphyal book); Matt 12:31-32; 1 Cor 3:11-15.
Modern Scholars. Zachary Hayes, “The Purgatorial View” in 4 Views on Hell, 89-131.
4. Conditional and Annihilation
Description. In stead of broadly describing the conditional view of hell (meaning annihilation or universalism) I would like to list the strenths and weaknesses of this view. Because this view is becoming more and more common in our world today, I feel a more throughout examiniation of this view is needed.
Strengths. First, is the language of destruction. The terms of “perish,” “destroy,” and “die” (Phil 3:19; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thes 1:9; 2 Peter 3:7) seem to indicate that a person ceases to exist. Second, is the imagery of hell because fire destroys what it touches (Matt 25:46; Mark 9:48; Luke 16:23-24, 28; Isa 66:24; Rev 14:10; 20:10). Third, is the biblical vision of justice. Is it a logical conclusion that those are punished for what they have done (Rev 20:12)? Fourth, are Scripture related to universalism. Everyone might not be “saved” but there is a possibility that everyone has victory over evil (John 12:32; 1 Cor 15:28; Eph 1:10; Col 1:20; Phil 2:10-11)
Weaknesses. First, is the term eternal. Annihilationists say that for the unsaved “eternal” means “cessation.” But, the same word, “eternal” is also used to described the destiny of the “saved.” Interestingly, “eternal” is used to describe the saved and unsaved in the same verse (Mark 25:46). It is terrible exegesis to use the same word in different ways in the same book, written by the same author, in the same verse. Second, Satan and his angels have the same destiny as the wicked. Satan and his demons are supposed to have future torment (Matt 8:29; Mark 5:7; Rev 14:10; 18:7-8). Furthermore, a similar future suffering awaits Satan and his angels (Isa 66:24; Matt 25:30, 41, 46; Luke 16:22-24, 28; Rev 14:9-11; Rev 20:10; 12-13. Third, varying levels of punishment. If the New Testament teaches different levels of punishment for the unrighteous (Matt 10:15; 11:20-24; Luke 11:47-48), but how can there be different levels of punishment if everyone just ceases to exist? Fourth, annihilation is too simple. If someone can say that a loving God would not cause someone to suffer in hell forever, how then can a just God allow someone like Hitler to simply cease to exist? Fifth, too much of Scripture describes this place for it not to be real. Examples: unquenchable fire (Isa 66:24; Matt 3:12; 9:43, 45; Luke 3:17); the undying worm (Isa 66:24; Mark 9:44, 46, 48); the wrath of God (John 3:3). Additionally, Jesus talks about the like of fire—Gehenna—eleven times (out of the twelve uses in the NT).
Historical Support. Started with Origen.
Modern Scholars. Sectarian theologies of Seventh-Day Adventists; Jehovah’s Witnesses; John Stott (Evangelical Essentials, 314-320); Clark Pinnock, “The Conditional View” in 4 Views on Hell, 133-178.
V. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. We Must Share the Gospel
Revelation 20:11-15 describes the final judgement that will occur. Most importantly, this passage describes the destination of the people who have not accepted Jesus Christ’s free offer of eternal life in heaven (John 4; Rom 3:23-24). People that do not hear the Gospel and who do not respond will go to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. As Christians we need to do everything we can to keep people from ending up there. An example of this was the commitment I made before I left my job at Preston Trail Golf Club. I had worked there as a caddie for three years before leaving to work at Rocky Hill Community Church. When I accepted the job at Rocky Hill I made a list of every person I worked with and I committed to sharing the Gospel with every single person. As of right now, I have shared the Gospel with fifteen men and still have twenty on my list. While I might not get to share the Gospel with every single person I work with, the fact that I know hell is a real place compels me to want to tell people about Jesus and to keep people from going to hell. This should be the response of all Christians.
B. Remind People that Hell Is a Real Place
It is difficult, but when the topic arises we need to remind people that hell is a real place. However, we must be careful to present the biblical description of hell as what the Bible says about hell, not what we say about hell. People need to know what the correct interpretation of Scripture is regarding hell. Most people will have more respect what the Bibel says than what we say. Furthermore, when describing what the Bible says about hell we need to describe hell, not decide who is going there. Most non-Christians believe that Christians are hypocritical and judgmental. The moment we mention hell a non-Christian thinks we are saying that they are going there. For example, there is an atheist I used to work with while working at a golf course during graduate school. After three years of conversations he opened up to me and said that when he tells Christians that he does not believe in God most Christians responded to him saying, “Oh, you don’t believe in God. You must be a Devil worshipper.” I was surprised to hear about, but sadly that is how some Christians treat non-Christians. So, when we describe hell we need to be careful to describe it as what the Bible says it to be and to not give our opinion of who is going there.
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