20 Studies in Bible Prophecy
Study 19 - The Great White Throne
Revelation 20, having described cosmic blessing, cosmic rebellion and cosmic destruction, follows on with cosmic judgment (vs. 11-15). This will be the Final Session, the last Great Assize. Dr. Myrddin Lewis observes in GOD'S ULTIMATE, "In this amazing twentieth chapter of the book of Revelation, we see the doom and end of this earth, the doom and end of Satan, and finally the doom and end of all wicked dead. It is the most frightening scene in the Bible, and no one can read it without a feeling of great awe and horror."
This will be the judgment of the unchristian dead. No redeemed soul will stand at this judgment since the sin question for believing sinners was settled at Calvary (John 5:24; Rom. 8:1). All Christians will rise at the first resurrection to eternal life (John 5:29; 1 Thess. 4:16), and the rest of the dead will not live until the close of the millennium. Man must meet God at Calvary or at this final judgment.
John beholds this scene of judgment as conducted in space. The earth and heaven, in accordance with (2 Peter 3 : 10), will pass away, and those appointed for judgment will be suspended in space by divine power. Dr. Tatford points out, "A century ago the description of a final assize conducted in space seemed unrealistic, but no one today would question the practicability." In this day of advanced scientific achievement, is it beyond the limits of God to do as it reads in these verses?
John says twice over (in vs. 11, 12), "I saw" -
(1) The Judgment Throne
The throne is described as "a great white throne", and these adjectives denote the majesty and holiness of God. Bengel said, "The throne is white as an emblem of the glory of the Judge, and great as befits His great and infinite Majesty."
The throne at the beginning of Revelation (4:3) had a rainbow surrounding it, indicative of covenant mercy. This throne is naked for it is bereft of mercy. The first throne had its singing and the adoration of God and the Lamb, but here there is no song, no paean of praise, for the sequel here is retributive justice. There will be no avoiding this final tribunal; the verdict will be final. As Dr. A. Skevington Wood argues, "The throne of God is everlasting. It was from the beginning. It was set up before all worlds, so it will survive the shock of dissolution. Before that immovable tribunal all the dead will be assembled when the sea has yielded its grim harvest and death and Hades deliver up their victims.
(2) The Judge
John makes no attempt to describe the occupant of this final judgment throne. He simply states: "And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away." The next verse identifies Him with Deity, and there can be no doubt that He is indeed the "God Man", Jesus Christ, to whom all judgment has been committed by the Father (John 5:22). Here is Jesus, Son of God and the Son of Man. What a change is here! The One who was condemned by men to die on a Roman gibbet will sit as Judge. He who stood condemned before the tribunal of man, albeit innocent, will on that day decide the destinies of the un-righteous dead. Now He tenderly says "Come". Then He will order "Depart from Me."
Paul charged young Timothy in the light of the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ, to judge "the quick and the dead", to proclaim the gospel and do the work of an evangelist. The consciousness of Christ's judgeship saddles the Christian worker with tremendous responsibility (2 Tim. 4:1-5). The Rev. Geoffrey King is of the opinion: "If we are saved, then we do not come to the great white throne at all. But we do come into the subject in this sense: that we are responsible for rescuing as many as we can from having to appear before the great white throne. If we really believe in the second advent then we must be keen winners of souls. Let us seek, by the power of Christ, to pluck perishing souls as brands from the burning, while there is yet time and opportunity to do so."
(3) The Judged
John says, "I saw the dead small and great stand before God" (v.12). From the context it is clear that these are the wicked dead, who have not participated in the first resurrection (Dan. 12:2; John 5:29; Acts 24:15; Rev. 20:5). It is very clear from (Rev. 20) and the other relevant Scriptures that one thousand years will intercalate between the first resurrection, that to life eternal, and the resurrection to damnation. Prof. Dwight Pentecost observes: "That the only way that the obvious teaching of (Rev. 20:11-13) can be obviated is to spiritualise it so that the passage is not speaking of physical resurrection, but rather of the blessedness of the souls who are in the presence of the Lord." We cannot but take these verses literally.
Dr. Seiss observes that "There is no trumpet, for the sounding of the trumpet is for those in covenant with the King... There is simply the going forth of eternal power, into the sea, into the graves, into Hades, into all the depositories of the souls and bodies of the unholy dead, and all the vast multitude in them suddenly stand in the presence of the throne." What a company! The dead "small and great" indicates that those appearing before God will come from all walks of life and degrees of greatness. The fact that they are described as "standing before God" suggests the imminence of the sentence. None will escape. Not just the bad, or the deep-dyed sinners, but the respectable and moral-living who have excluded Christ from their lives. As we read in (Rev. 21:8), "... the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake of fire which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death." All the unrighteous from Cain to the millennial rebels will be there. They will come from the sea, and from the graves. Whatever their mode of death or burial-place, they will come to stand before Jehovah's awful throne. Though there will be a vast concourse of people present, they will be judged individually, as (v. 13) indicates in the statement, "every man."
(4) THE JUDGMENT
In our consideration of what Dr. Skevington Wood calls "the first recorded act in eternity - the judgment of the great white throne," there are two points to be considered. First, the standard of it. The judgment is made on the basis of "the books", described by Dr. Herbert Lockyer as "the damning records."
It is evident that the records of human conduct are preserved. Every individual will be dealt with on the basis of what he has been and is. No witnesses will have to be called as in earthly courts, those infallible records will bear their own unerring, irrefutable witness.
"The books were opened." Think of it! The records of all that vast company will be produced as evidence. As Dr. Tatford puts it, "In absolute equity, the records of human life were unrolled - the books were opened - and each individual dealt with on the basis of his deeds."
One writer refers to these books as "The Jury at the Throne" and goes on to mention the books of conscience (Rom. 2:15) the book of words (Matt. 12:36, 37), the book of secret words (Rom. 2:16; Eccles. 12:14) and the book of public works (2 Cor. 11:15; Matt. 16:27).
But John saw that "another book was opened, which is the book of life" (v. 12). Dr. Seiss refers to this as "the roll-book of the regenerated - the register of the washed and sanctified through Christ." The "books" will give the positive evidence, and the "book of life" will provide the negative evidence. To make sure that no mistake has been made, the Lamb's book of life is consulted - God's final record.
Second, the sentence of it. "Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire." From the Scriptures we deduce that there will be the "whosoever will" and the "whosoever won't". The choice is ours and upon that choice hangs our eternal destiny. Not annihilation, but eternal existence with terrible company! The angels that sinned; the beast and the false prophet; the devil himself and all who have refused God's Son.
This place of torment is a real place. If real, resurrected human bodies will go to a real heaven, then a real devil and real men and women, with real resurrected bodies, will go into a real place described in such awful terms. Emphasising that the lake of fire is a place and not just a state. Prof. Dwight Pentecost states, "It is beyond all human comprehension - a place of suffering, a place of remorse, a place of eternal separation from God."
There are those who would spiritualise the lake of fire as merely symbolic, but if it is a symbol, that symbol corresponds to reality. Dives in hell confessed that he was in torment and, argues Prof. Walvoord, "if unsaved souls in Hades, the intermediate state, are tormented by flames, it is not unreasonable to assume that the lake of fire connotes the same type of punishment. It cannot safely be assumed that there is any important difference between the physical and the spiritual reality embodied in the term 'lake of fire'. It is an awful destiny in either case."
Nor can this mean annihilation, since we find that according to (Rev. 19:20) the beast and the false prophet were cast into this inferno one thousand years before the devil and the wicked dead, and they were still alive. This will be the "second death" (Rev. 21:8), and death means separation. The first death is separation of the soul from the body; and this second death is separation of the soul from God eternally. This will be the final epitaph of all the forces of darkness and the last great reckoning. Little wonder (Heb. 10:31) says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."