The Great White Throne Revelation 20:11-15
I won’t mind going to hell. All my friends will be there.” With this flippant comment, along with others like it, some unbelievers joke about eternity. Comedian Woody Allen once commented, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying!” Everyone dies, however; and what the Bible says about eternal punishment reveals that it is no joking matter.
The concept of judgment day often crops up in conversation. Before I became a Christian, I thought God had two gigantic heavenly scales and judgment day for me would be when He weighed all the bad things I did on one scale and all the good things I did on the other. Whichever was heavier would determine whether I went “up” or “down.” The Bible, however, reveals that the truth is quite different. What most people refer to as the “great judgment day” is what the Bible calls the Great White Throne judgment.
Appropriately, the description of this last great assize appears toward the end of the Apocalypse—the unveiling of “things which must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1).
The Person on the Throne (v.11)
And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and there was found no place for them.
The word throne appears often in the Apocalypse, but we must distinguish between its different appearances. For example, the throne in chapters 4–5, as well as the one in chapter 7, is a throne of grace and mercy. Here stand the redeemed. They have been washed by the blood of the Lamb and offer their worship, praise, and thanks (5:8–10; 7:9–17). The throne in 20:11–15, however, is one of justice and punishment. Those who stand there will face only judgment. There we find no praise, no joy, no singing—only silent gloom as wrath is displayed and judgment meted out.
And who will sit on the throne of judgment? Scripture makes it clear that it will be the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said in John 5:22, “For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.” It is the Lord Jesus, the despised Nazarene and lowly carpenter, who will occupy the judge’s “bench” on that day. The apostle Paul stated, “I charge thee, therefore, before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the living and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1). He will judge the living in the Judgment of the nations at the beginning of His Millennial Kingdom (Mt. 25:31–46); and at the end of the Kingdom, He will judge the “dead” at the Great White Throne.
How appropriate that the One who died so we should not suffer punishment actually will judge those who have rejected His grace. In a powerful sermon on this text, the great 19th-century English preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, declared,
He shall be the judge. He shall lay open the thoughts and intents of the heart. There will be no witness needed to convict you, for the Judge will know all the evidence. The Christ whom you despised will judge you; the Savior whose mercy you trampled on, in the fountain of whose blood you would not wash, the despised and the rejected—it is He who will judge you.1
Since the Judge will be the Lord Jesus Christ, you can be sure the judgment will be fair and just, unlike the one He received at the hands of Pontius Pilate. No one will question the Lord’s decisions because, as Paul states clearly,
But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, Who will render to every man according to his deeds. For there is no respect of persons with God (Rom. 2:5–6, 11).
The Persons About the Throne (vv. 12–13)
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hades [hell] delivered up the dead that were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works.
The people described here, at the Great White Throne, are the unsaved dead. No one who has received Christ as his or her personal Savior will be there. There is no blowing of the trumpet, no white robes, no clean linen, no garments of righteousness—all characteristics of the presence of believers. (See 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 and Revelation 19:8.) Scripture teaches that the final resurrection will not be a general resurrection but a resurrection with two stages—one for the saved and one for the unsaved.
Consider this statement of Jesus:
Marvel not at this; for the hour is coming, in which 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 (Jn. 5:28–29).
Earlier in chapter 20, the resurrection of believers was described:
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them; and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived [came to life] and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again [did not come to life] until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection (vv. 4–5, emphases added).
If the believers are raised before the Millennium and the text states that the rest of the dead (the unsaved) will not come to life until after the Millennium, then these dead ones in Revelation 20:12–13 must be the unsaved dead mentioned earlier in the chapter.
Death and judgment are the great levelers. No privilege of rank or wealth will separate these people awaiting a common doom. No matter what their place was in society, if they died without Christ, they shall stand exposed before the Judge on that fateful day. The genteel but unconverted prince will be right beside the pagan savage.
Revelation 20:13 says “death and hades” will give up the dead they have harbored. The word death probably refers to the location of the body, whereas hades refers to the location of the immaterial part of man—his soul. As with believers in the first resurrection, the material and immaterial will be reconnected, not to receive glory but to receive “shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Even the icy depths of the oceans will “give up” those who were buried there.
Even if bodies have disappeared, the Sovereign of the universe somehow will cause them to face Him. Verses 12–13 also refer to the “works” of the wicked, which will provide a barometer of how the judgment will proceed. The final verses of this passage clarify that matter.
The Purpose of the Throne (vv. 14–15)
And death and hades [hell] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
The “first death” is physical death—something we all must experience (except, of course, for the generation of believers who will be transported into the presence of the Lord via the Rapture). The first death involves separation of the soul from the body. The second death (described in Rev. 20:14–15), will be the eternal separation of unbelievers from God. It has been said, with appropriate candor, “If you are born once, you will die twice; if you are born twice, you will die only once.”
The second death is for all those who were born only physically in their lifetimes. They were not born again spiritually (Jn. 1:13; 3:6–7). The second death will involve a conscious and tormented existence in the lake of fire. The term lake of fire is a metaphor for a place that is too horrible to be imagined. Human language can only compare it to something we can faintly comprehend. The reality will be far worse than anything we can think of.
But what is the “book of life” mentioned in verse 15? And what is its relationship to the “books” (scrolls) that were mentioned in verse 12? The book of life contains the names of all who have been saved from the second death. They belong to Jesus Christ, the Lamb who purchased their redemption. Other references to this book are Revelation 13:8 and 21:27:
And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. And there shall in no way enter into it [the New Jerusalem] anything that defileth, neither he that worketh abomination, or maketh a lie, but they who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
The “books” of 20:12 record all the evil deeds of the individuals standing before the Great White Throne. They are judged according to their “works,” or deeds. When their names are not found in the book of life, they will have no basis for objecting to the fairness of the Judge for omitting them. The “other” books will give evidence from their lives to demonstrate their culpability and the fact that they deserve the punishment they receive in the lake of fire.
The “books” will play one more role also: They will indicate the degree of punishment these people will receive. Although all will be “lost,” the measure of their punishment will coincide with the degree of spiritual truth they received and rejected in their lifetimes. (For a fuller understanding of this aspect of eternal punishment, see Matthew 11:23–24; Luke 12:41–48; and Hebrews 10:29.)
These passages are not meant for mere debate. They are meant to be pondered deeply by everyone who reads them. What is your condition before a Holy God, my friend? Will you be at this judgment, trembling before your Maker at the Great White Throne because you never received His grace provided for you in His Son, the Lamb? I urge you to trust in the blood of the Lamb today, so you will not have to face His wrath tomorrow. The compassionate words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon are my closing words to you:
See now, my whole weight leans on the front of this platform. Should this rail give way, I fall. Lean on Christ in that way. If you get a grip of the cross, and stand beneath the crimson canopy of the atonement, God himself will not smite you, and the last tremendous day shall dwan upon you with splendor and delight, and not with gloom and terror.