A Great White Throne
February 5, 2023 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Revelation of Jesus Christ
Topic: Judgment Passage: Revelation 20:11–15
In middle school, a friend took me to a basketball game. His sister was playing at the high school. But we got bored. So, we exited the gym, circled the building, and noticed some windows up high. They were opened for ventilation, and about where the girls locker-room should be. There was also a large tree beside them. My friend gets an idea: gather rocks, climb the tree, toss them through the window, run like crazy. I agree—it’s nighttime; we’re hidden. We gather rocks, climb the tree, rear back, and freeze. A blinding spotlight is upon us. Followed by a voice: “Get down!” It was the police.
We were back with his parents shortly. But I’ll never forget feeling so exposed. That spotlight was all-consuming. There was no escape. My deeds spoke for themselves. I was guilty. Perhaps you’ve had an experience like that, where your wrongs leave you exposed. That’s nothing compared to what we read about today. John sees a great white throne. God sits to judge the dead. It’s all-consuming. There’s no escape. People’s deeds will speak for themselves. Let’s read God’s word, starting in verse 11…
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it from whose presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation closes with a tale of two cities. In chapters 17-18 Babylon, the wicked City of Man, falls. This makes way for the New Jerusalem to rise in 21:9. But how does the world get there? How does the story move from the awful dominance of Babylon to the glorious peace of New Jerusalem?
John has been answering that question with another series of seven visions. They include Jesus’ return in 19:11. In 19:17, Jesus defeats the Beast, False Prophet, and their followers. In 20:1, Jesus binds Satan. In 20:4, Jesus raises his people to reign a thousand years. In 20:7, Jesus vanquishes Satan and his dreadful armies.
Today, we look at a sixth vision; and in doing so we encounter an awesome court scene. It’s like the one found in Daniel 7:9-10. The Ancient of Days takes his seat on a throne; and it says, “the court sat in judgment and the books were opened.” Courts usually have a judge, the person accused, evidence to determine their guilt, and a verdict. But notice what’s missing here—lawyers. No one has a defense. All that matters is what the Judge sees, what the Judge presents, and what the Judge decides.
Speaking of the Judge, let’s consider him first in John’s vision. Verse 11 begins with “a great white throne.” In Revelation, white can symbolize purity.[i] It could also describe the Lord’s radiant glory.[ii] But white is also the color of victory, like when Jesus appears on a white horse in 19:11.[iii] That’s crucial because Satan has a throne in 2:13. The Beast has a throne in 13:2.[iv] And he represents a whole line of kings, each having their own thrones. But since chapter 17, God has dethroned and destroyed all rebel powers. At the end of the story, God’s throne is victorious. He is sovereign.
For God to then sit on his throne is for God to exercise power in judgment. That’s the pattern in Scripture. In Isaiah 6:1, the prophet sees the Lord sitting on his throne to judge Israel. In Ezekiel 1:4-28, the prophet sees the Lord sitting on his throne to judge idolators. In Daniel 7:9-28, the prophet sees the Lord sitting on his throne to judge rebel kingdoms. John sees the same. God sits to judge the dead.[v]
But notice the other description. The ESV has a new sentence in verse 11, “From his presence earth and sky fled away and no place was found for them.” Read a certain way, it sounds like the universe dissolves in this very instance. But that’s not what John seems to be saying. It’s better read as a descriptive clause about God: “[I saw] him who sat upon it, he from whose presence earth and heaven fled away…” It recalls visions from earlier in Revelation. Like 6:14—the stars fall, the sky vanishes like a scroll, every mountain and island are removed from their place, at the coming of God and the Lamb. And he’s saying here, “The one seated on the throne, he’s the same one I saw earlier when earth and sky fled away at his coming.”
This scene is less about the upheaval of the cosmos, and more about the majesty of the one who already caused it.[vi] When he comes, God is the one before whom there is no hiding place. When he comes, all are exposed. There is no escape.
Some have also pondered whether John sees God or Jesus here. I don’t think we have to choose. In 3:21, Jesus said that he conquered and sat down on the Father’s throne. In 5:7, God entrusts the Lamb with executing his judgments. Then later in 22:1, John calls it “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” A singular throne belonging to God and the Lamb. God exercises judgment in and through the Son.[vii] He is the Judge.
The Accused (“the dead”)
Next, John sees the accused. Verse 12, “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne.” For some, “the dead” in verse 12 represent everyone—the righteous and wicked alike.[viii] Others have suggested “the dead” in verse 12 represent the righteous, while “the dead” of verse 13 represent the wicked.[ix] And I can understand the difficulty. John uses “the small and great” elsewhere, and sometimes it refers to the righteous and other times to the wicked.[x] Same with “the dead”—sometimes it refers to the righteous dead and other times to the wicked dead.[xi] Then there are passages outside Revelation that might suggest both are in view. Maybe Matthew 25:31, for example, when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats. Maybe 2 Corinthians 5:10 that says to Christians that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
At the same time, nothing in verse 12 itself broadens “the dead” to include the righteous. In fact, the immediate context suggests the opposite—that we should limit “the dead” to the wicked.[xii] In 20:4, God renders judgment for the saints. The martyrs and all who refused to worship the Beast—God vindicates them and raises them to life to reign with Christ. Then 20:5 says, “the rest of the dead [that’s the Beast’s worshipers] did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” He then describes the saints’ “coming to life” as the “first resurrection,” implying there’s a second reserved for the wicked. Also, when “the books” are opened in Daniel 7:10, the scene focuses on punishing the evil kingdoms, and punishment is the focus here as well.
So, I take “the dead” of verse 12 to represent the wicked, “the rest of the dead” who did not come to life and reign with Jesus. To be clear, Christians will still appear before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account for their deeds. That’s true. The question is whether John makes that his focus here. I think his focus is the wicked only. He’s only describing that side to the judgment in these verses.
Taken that way, verse 13 then explains where the wicked came from and how they got there: “the sea gave up the dead who were in them, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them.” In 13:1, “the sea” symbolizes the realm of God’s enemies. The Beast rises from the sea. But again and again in Scripture, God proves his power over the sea. No enemy will stay lurking in the deep. God forces the sea to give up the dead.
The same with Death and Hades. Hosea 13:14 once personified Death and Hades—“O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol [or Hades], where is your sting?” They were a gruesome pair that devoured sinners and held them captive. They appeared this way in Revelation 6:8 as well. A rider on a pale horse brings sword, famine, and pestilence. Death and Hades follow him, again devouring sinners, holding them captive.
Luke 16:23 even describes Hades as a holding place for the wicked that comes with its own torments. Unlike Lazarus who’s at rest in Abraham’s bosom; the rich man in Jesus’ parable suffers in torment. “I am in anguish in this flame,” he says. People saw Hades as a powerful force; it held sway over sinners. But as we saw in 1:18, Jesus has the keys to Death and Hades. Death and Hades couldn’t hold Jesus in the grave because Jesus wasn’t a sinner. God raised him up and gave him authority over the grave. If Jesus says, “Give ‘em up!” Death and Hades obey him.
In sum, the sea and Death and Hades represent an underworld that teems with the wicked. For them, the sting of death hasn’t been removed. They remain guilty and await their final sentence. But here God raises all the wicked from all time for judgment. John sees all of them standing before the throne…
They don’t stand very long, though. How could they when John’s vision also considers the evidence. In verse 12, “books were opened.” We can speculate the contents, but it seems safe to conclude that the books contain the works people have done. The end of verse 12 says, “the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” Again, at the end of verse 13: “and [the dead] were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.” The books contain records of their deeds.
Final judgment is according to works; and that is taught throughout the Scriptures. The idea isn’t that God looks at their evil deeds and weighs them against their good deeds; and if they have more evil than good, they don’t make the cut. Rather, the works stand as witnesses to their identity. The works stand as the external evidence to what’s true within. The quality of the works point to the true state of the heart.
If you glance over at 21:8, you get a sense for the types of deeds characterizing their lives. “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire…” To this we could add other deeds like imprisoning the innocent—2:10; pretending like you have no need of Christ—3:17; trusting the works of your hands over God—9:20; worshiping the Beast—13:4; blaspheming God’s name—13:6; locking arms with the world’s system of evil—17:2. These works are proof that their allegiance was not to the Lamb but to the Beast; their heart didn’t belong to Christ but to idols.
Further evidence then comes with the book of life. It too is opened in verse 12. The book of life belongs to the Lamb who was slain (Rev 13:8). It contains the names of the Lamb’s followers. God wrote their names in the book before the foundation of the world (Rev 17:8). Their names are present not because of works but because of grace. For this reason, they refuse to worship the Beast. They love the Lamb and follow him wherever he goes. For these who endure, Jesus says, “I will never blot his name out of the book of life” (Rev 3:5). They will enjoy the life of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:27).
But those not written in the book of life worship the Beast (Rev 13:8). Those not in the book of life refuse to repent and glorify God.[xiii] They are guilty.[xiv] Thus, when you look at these books together, either you’re undeservingly saved, or you deservingly perish. The books next to the book of life make the case abundantly clear.
Which brings us to the verdict. First is the verdict for Death and Hades. Verse 14, “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Now, the “lake of fire” appeared twice before. The Lamb throws the Beast and False Prophet there in 19:20. Later he throws Satan there in 20:10.
The lake of fire symbolizes the horrors of final punishment. Some will liken it to the river of fire in Daniel 7:9, where the Beast of Daniel’s vision is burned. It’s also possible to compare John’s “lake of fire” with the Gehenna of fire in Jesus’ teaching. Our Bible’s translate Gehenna as “hell.” But it refers to an unclean valley outside Jerusalem where they burned trash; and Jesus borrows that image to symbolize something of what final punishment is like with an ongoing fire.
Whether those stand in the background, though, we can say that John’s “lake of fire” symbolizes a punishment of irreversible ruin. That’s why we’re told in 19:20 that it burns with sulfur.[xv] It recalls God’s punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah when he rained on them sulfur and fire. We also learn that it’s a place of torment in 20:10—the Devil, the Beast, and the False Prophet experience torment forever and ever.[xvi]
But what’s surprising is that John sees Death and Hades thrown into the lake of fire; and he equates that lake of fire with the “second death.” Death gets the second death. Hades—already known for its fiery torments—gets a worse fire.[xvii] In the Greek world that’s a surprising twist. This pair, Death and Hades, were known as the powers. Death threatened everybody. But here Death and Hades will no longer be able to threaten humanity—God ends them right here. There’s no place for them in the New Heaven and Earth. As he will say in 21:4, “death shall be no more.” The deadly forces of the underworld will no longer threaten God’s people in the New Jerusalem.
The second verdict comes for those without Christ. Verse 15, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” God opens the books. The spotlight of his purity exposes them. There’s no escape. Their deeds speak for themselves. They’re guilty. He casts the wicked into the lake of fire. They will not know the peace of New Jerusalem. They will experience the same punishments as the ones they chose to worship. Irreversible ruin, torment forever.
How Final Judgment Affects Us
Now, how should this vision affect us? First, it should motivate repentance. If you’re not a Christian, you should consider it a mercy from God that you heard this prophecy today. In his love, God has warned you of final judgment. He will hold you accountable for your deeds. The world will tell you everything will continue as always—eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. But Jesus is taking the world to judgment. Now is the time for repentance. Turn from your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
But the message of repentance is also for Christians, especially Christians living in ways that are out of step with their identity. In 2:22, Jesus commanded the church in Thyatira to repent from tolerating Jezebel’s idolatry. If not, he promised to “strike her children dead, and all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Rev 2:23). Jesus will hold us accountable for our works. Can you imagine hearing that rebuke and then hearing God judging the dead according to their works?
Suddenly, tolerating a false teacher becomes more serious. Suddenly, idolatry and sexual immorality and every other sin have eternal consequences. Listen to these words from Romans 2:6-8. “God will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” No matter who you are, final judgment means that we’re all accountable. Wherever necessary, repent and devote yourself more carefully to Jesus’ words and teachings.
Second, don’t be intimidated by the world’s wrath. God’s is greater. In Revelation, the world’s system is full of wrath. In 12:12, the Dragon comes down to earth in great wrath, knowing his time is short. But how does Satan’s wrath play out day-to-day? He spreads lies through false teaching. He leads people to despise Christians. Others he leads to imprison Christians. Satan uses political power, economic corruption, and religious deception to create a culture that makes obedience to Jesus difficult. In 13:17, he made it impossible for Christians to buy or sell unless they conformed to the Beast. Once you conform, the world leaves you alone. But as soon as you stand with Jesus morally, as soon as you favor his word over their passions, there’s wrath to pay.
You’re watching this play out too. It comes out in things like, “Conform to the sexual revolution, or you will no longer have a job.” “Your insurance policy must provide free access to the week-after pill, or we will take you to court.” “Support abortion or we will destroy your pregnancy center.” Brothers and sisters in China, Iran, Pakistan—they experience the world’s wrath. Just baptize somebody and find out. Translate the Bible for others and the government ransacks your apartment. The world has all kinds of wrath stored up against Christians, and Satan stands behind it.
But here’s how final judgment helps us. It reminds us that if we choose to escape the Dragon’s wrath by conformity—if we choose to escape the world’s wrath by compromise—then we will get an eternity of God’s wrath. But if we fear God more than the world, if we endure the 80 years of hardships that come in the path of obedience, we gain an eternity of life in God’s presence. It’s like Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Don’t compromise to avoid the world’s wrath. He who sits on the throne is far greater. In the end, only his throne remains.
At the same time, find relief that complete justice will come. I was doing some reading this week on the moral argument for God’s existence. If objective moral values exist, then God must exist. Objective moral values exist, therefore God exists. Of course, some will question that objective moral values exist. But as C. S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, they soon contradict themselves. Just take their seat on an airplane; shove in front of them at Starbucks; take a bite of their sandwich—you’ll soon be getting an ear full. Innate to human nature is a sense of right and wrong; and this Law of Human Nature ultimately points to a Law Giver.
But related to this innate sense of right and wrong is this longing for justice—and not merely justice on an earthly level but justice at a supernatural level. As one apologist put it, we know that “Some acts are so desperately wicked that they demand a punishment greater than what earth has to offer. [There are] a class of human experiences ‘in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.”[xviii] I’ve read news articles just this week that left a sick feeling in my gut like, “No earthly court will complete justice for these victims. No earthly system will fulfill justice for those these men have harmed.”
The Holocaust, Jim Crow, the Rwandan genocide, the terrorist attacks on 9/11—no human court will be able to hold everyone accountable, and even where they try, justice isn’t satisfied. God’s court will. His books will miss no injustice. His sentence will be perfect. His punishment will be full. We will have our final sigh of relief when all evil is accounted for and judged fully and put away forever.
Finally, warn and welcome others in Christ.[xix] If God will hold the world accountable, and we have the only hope of escape in the free offer of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, the most loving thing we can do is warn others and welcome them in Christ. If final judgment is real, we must live that way. As John Piper once put it, “We care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”
I’ve been in Romans lately; and I’m just struck once again by Paul’s ongoing concern for the lost. “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (Rom 1:14). “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart…” (Rom 9:1). “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1). “I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Rom 11:14). There’s a man who felt the weight of final judgment. He knew what’s coming for the world—and he knew what it meant to be saved from it. This compelled him to others saved from judgment as well.
So, let’s warn others and then welcome them in Christ. How awesome that there’s not just a warning in Scripture, but also a welcome. We get to welcome others to life in the New Jerusalem by sharing the gospel of Jesus. John sees the dead “standing” before the Lord’s great white throne. But given their guilt, they don’t stand for long. The Lord sentences them to eternal punishment. The cry of the wicked in 6:17 was accurate: “Who can stand?” At the same time, we can’t forget another group before God’s throne. In 7:9, we find “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” But these are not sentenced to the lake of fire. They keep standing and singing and serving in God’s presence. Why? 7:14, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
There’s your welcome. All of us, like the wicked in this picture, have a record of debt as well. We have evil deeds and thoughts and desires that would condemn us to the lake of fire. But in his gracious, loving plan to punish his Son in our place, God wrote our names in the book of life. By Jesus’ blood your guilt is removed. By Jesus’ righteousness, your deeds are covered. By Jesus’ work, you will stand and enjoy life with God; and the same is true for everyone who trusts in Jesus. This is the good news we get to share with others. Warn them and welcome them in the blood of the Lamb.
[i] Rev 7:9, 14; 19:14; cf. 3:4-5, 18.
[ii] Rev 4:4; 14:14; cf. 15:6.
[iii] Also cf. Rev 2:17; 6:2, 11.
[iv] Also Rev 16:10.
[v] Cf. Joel 3:12.
[vi] See Mealy, After the Thousand Years, 166; Hoskins, Revelation, 414-15. Beasley-Murray, Revelation, 300, also comments: “His subject is not geophysical and astronomical changes in the universe, but the majesty of God in judgment.”
[vii] Cf. John 5:22, 27; Acts 17:31; 2 Cor 5:10.
[viii] Beale, Revelation, 1032.
[ix] Osborne, Revelation, 721-22.
[x] Rev 11:18; 13:16; 19:18.
[xi] Rev 1:5; 11:18; 14:13; 20:5.
[xii] Hoskins, Revelation, 415; Jan Lambrecht, “Final Judgments and Ultimate Blessings: The Climactic Visions of Revelation 20:11-21:8,” Biblica 81.3 (2000), 368-69.
[xiii] Rev 9:20; 16:9, 11, 21.
[xiv] Rev 9:20-21; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24.
[xv] Also 20:10; 21:8.
[xvi] This recalls imagery from Rev 14:11, where the Beast’s followers will experience torment and have no rest day and night.
[xvii] J. David Woodington, “Crafting the Eschaton: Second Death and the Lake of Fire in Revelation,” JSNT 41.4 (2019): 501-18.
[xviii] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for the Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 341-42.
[xix] Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 660.
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