Then I saw a great
white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his
presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and
small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.
Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged
according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up
the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in
them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.Then death
and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second
death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of
life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev.
The Great White Throne Judgment fits descriptions we have
about the Day of Atonement, also called Yom Kippur. It’s was believed
that on the first of Tishri the books in which all the deeds of God’s people
had been recorded were opened for review. The names of those whose
behavior in the previous year had been exemplary in every way were
immediately inscribed in the Book of Life. Those whose behavior had been
totally without merit were scheduled for death in the coming year. Almost
everyone was somewhere in between these two extremes so for the next 10
days, called the days of awe, the people conducted a thorough self
examination and went around frantically trying to right the wrongs they had
committed during the year because the forgiveness by God required prior
reconciliation between men (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance). On the
10th of Tishri, Yom Kippur, the books were closed and those who had righted
the wrongs of the previous year were inscribed in the Book of Life for
another year. During the 10 days of awe, a common greeting
among friends was, “May your name be written in the Book.”
The difference in
Rev. 20:11-15 is the absence of the 10 days of awe. The unsaved
dead will be resurrected and immediately taken to judgment without any
opportunity to make things right. Anything that was not dealt with
before the person died will be there to condemn him or her at the Great
White Throne. Therefore only those who died in a state of total
righteousness will find their names written in the Book at the resurrection
of the unsaved.
There’s a lot of talk these days about degrees of good
and evil, and some of it has even evolved into a re-thinking of our
traditional view of the eternal state of unbelievers. The traditional view
is that anyone who fails to personally accept the pardon that God purchased
for us with the blood of His son will spend eternity in a state of agonizing
punishment in the Lake of Fire.
But some have begun to question this view, asking why an
unbelieving humanitarian who led an exemplary life in service to others but
failed to acknowledge the Lord as his Savior should receive the same
punishment as someone like Hitler or Stalin who murdered millions of people
in cold blood. They say it’s not like God to do this, and back it up by
quoting Revelation 20:12 that
says in part, “The dead were judged …
according to what they had done.”
To them this verse indicates that a spirit of cause and
effect resides in the judgment, and reveals God’s intention to make the
punishment fit the crime, so to speak. Therefore, they claim, God who is
just and merciful will look upon unbelievers who lived otherwise fruitful
lives and hand out a punishment for them that’s shorter and less severe than
the mass murderers and torturers receive. But since no matter how good a
person is, dying in a state of unbelief must result in eternal death, then
at the end of their term of punishment they’ll be destroyed and cease to
exist in any form. So, as a reward for their good life on earth, they’ll be
put out of their misery after a shorter and more tolerable time of
punishment. This is called the “Conditional View” of Hell.
Let’s Back Up For A
Is there Biblical support for this? Let’s take another
look at history’s first judgment for sin to find out. By studying the first
time an important concept is mentioned in Scripture, we’ll often discover
clues to understanding that will help us interpret subsequent similar
situations. Scholars refer to this as the Principle of First Mention.
And the LORD God
commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you
must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you
eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Adam was created in the image of God, immortal, with
talent and ability you and I can only imagine. The same was true of Eve.
They were both full of goodness and purity, and they walked and talked with
God. They only had one rule and they only disobeyed it once.
But when they did, in spite of the fact that the good in
them far outweighed the bad, and though they had only committed one sin,
they died and the creation was cursed, as was all their progeny. We all
lament the consequences brought upon us by this one act of disobedience. As
Paul wrote, “The result of one
trespass was condemnation for all mankind.” (Romans
Yet they were relatively good, maybe even better than
most of us, for the Bible never mentions another sin in their lives. Did
their punishment fit their crime? Did God weigh the good of their lives
against the bad? Or did He do exactly what He told them He would?
For what it’s worth, I don’t see any shades of gray in
God’s dealings Adam and Eve then or with mankind since. I think that
applying a scale of relative goodness to the life of each person is a man
made idea. For example, take the reverse situation. How are believers
granted entry into the Kingdom? Is there any scale of relative merit applied
there, or are we all 100% in forever? Some say that the punishment of
unbelievers is too extreme, but how many believers deserve the reward we’re
getting? Isn’t that kind of extreme, too? If our reward is based only on
belief, why wouldn’t their punishment be based only on unbelief?
In Islam, it’s said that at the final judgment
Allah will compare the good and bad in each person’s life and then decide
whether or not to allow him or her into paradise. (The only guaranteed
ticket in is to die in battle as a martyr.) As Christians, we react poorly
to that idea. We say it’s unfair, because no one could ever know in advance
whether they’re saved or not. And yet some are OK with having that same
uncertainty be part of an unbeliever’s lot in terms of judgment.
Couldn’t that uncertainty have the effect of causing
someone who doesn’t really believe in Hell anyway to be more confident in
putting their salvation decision off, thinking that since they’ve lived a
good life they’ll be able to work something out with God after they’ve died?
Didn’t we all think we were living relatively good lives until we got saved?
I’m going to suggest that maybe man’s whole understanding
of the phrase “judged according to their works” is flawed. Adam and Eve had
one rule, and when they disobeyed it nothing else mattered. There was no
negotiation, no weighing in the balances. They got what the Lord had warned
them they’d get. I think it’s the same with us. I think we have one rule
too, and if we disobey it we’ll get just what the Lord warned us we’d get.
What Is The Work That
After Jesus had fed the 5000 the crowds that followed Him
understandably grew exponentially. He knew they just wanted Him to give them
more bread. He warned them not to be so preoccupied with working for food
that spoils but to work for food that endures to eternal life.
Then they asked
him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The
work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
There you have it, mankind’s one rule. Believe in the One
He has sent. It’s our equivalent to “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the
only thing that God requires. If we disobey, nothing else matters. Those who
deny Jesus go to eternal punishment according to
Matt. 25:46while the righteous go
to eternal life. Isaiah 66:24, Daniel 12:2 &
Mark 9:48 all agree.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I know we’re called to live
lives that reflect our beliefs and are even promised additional rewards for
doing so, and I’d be the last one to advise someone to profess their faith
and then forget about living it out. But the simple fact is that faith
is the only work that God requires and none of the other things we can do
count for anything until we’ve taken that one required step. We’re saved
because of what we believe, not because of how we behave. Nowhere in
all of Scripture is there even a hint that an unbeliever’s destiny can be
altered in the slightest by the “goodness” of his or her life.
In fact, it would appear from scripture that the Lord
equates unbelief with disobedience. Paul wrote that God believes His
existence is simply too obvious to be missed (Romans
1:18-20). And in 2 Thes. 2:10
he said that unbelievers will perish because they refused to love the truth
and be saved. To refuse something is to decline it. It’s a specific
action. By doing so, unbelievers have disobeyed the one rule He gave us, and
in response He’ll do exactly what He said.
Let’s Get One Thing
It bruises our egos to learn this, but none of our good
works help God at all, just as none of our sins hurt Him. Remember
Elihu’s words to Job about the impact our life has on God.
If you sin, how
does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him?
If you are righteous, what do you give to him,or what does he receive
from your hand?
Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your
righteousness only the sons of men(Job
Isaiah explained this even more clearly. About the
religious works of unbelievers, He wrote,
sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb,
like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one
who presents pig’s blood and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who
worships an idol.
They have chosen
their own ways,and their souls delight in their abominations; so I also will
choose harsh treatment for them and will bring upon them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,when I spoke, no one listened.
They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me” (Isaiah 66:3-4)
God only considers the works of believers good to the
extent that they’re done out of gratitude, in an effort to please Him,
because of what He’s done for us. (1
Cor. 4:5) It’s like when your 3 year old proudly hands you a barely
recognizable drawing. It has no intrinsic value to you. But you know your
child was trying hard to please you, and it’s the thought that counts.
The same is true of our good works.
But unbelievers aren’t trying to please God with their
good works, they deny that He even exists. They’re only trying to make
themselves feel better. If their good works don’t help God and are motivated
by selfishness, where is the justification for considering them when
determining their punishment for rejecting Him? This idea makes no more
sense than the one allowing rich entertainers and politicians to purchase
“carbon credits” to offset their huge “carbon footprints”. The checks they
write don’t nullify the effects of their extravagant lifestyle, they’re just
trying to make themselves feel better.
If all this is true then you may wonder why God goes to
all the trouble to record every one of our actions? If only one of
them matters, why bother with the others? The Bible doesn’t answer
that question but since God is just, I think that by having everything
recorded He can demonstrate that his records are complete and accurate, and
that he didn’t overlook a single detail of any person’s life. This will
prove that a person’s omission from the book of life wasn’t due to an
accident or oversight, but the result of that person’s refusal to do the one
thing He requires of us.
And so I think it’s just possible that when unbelievers
are judged “according to their works”, only the work that God requires will
be at issue. Have they done the one thing that He asked them to do, and
that’s to believe in the One He has sent? Remember, in the absence of that
one thing, there is nothing that man can do that’s considered good according
to God’s standards. Rev. 20:15
agrees. If anyone’s name
was not found written in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.
You can only be written in the Book of Life by being 100% righteous. And you
can only become that way by having the Lord’s righteousness imputed to you
by faith (Romans 3:10 &
4:5). In other words, to believe in the One He has sent. Selah