The Great White Throne

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his 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. – Rev. 20:11-15

What an image! The world has officially come to an end. It is almost impossible to convey the impact of these verses by merely writing – greater bloggers perhaps could, but I fall short.

This is the closing of the cosmos. These verses describe the final, ultimate, overall, inescapable, complete and total judgment of all mankind. If we can read these awe-full words and not even blink, we have serious problems.

Although we only have it as an account of 120 words (in the original), John actually saw it. He saw an enormous, authoritative, white Throne on which sat God Himself in full splendour and kingly glory. And then, in a literarily world-shattering event, the earth and the sky as we know them are uncreated, destroyed, disappeared (v.11). The world we know is officially over. Every tree, rock, animal, cloud, atmospheric layer, quantum particle, black hole and galaxy is gone. All the heartache, joy, success or failure of the human race suddenly collapses into the biggest perspective ever. Every ideology, philosophy, and worldview is suddenly and aggressively ended. It’s what Peter wrote about:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. – 2 Pet 3:10

Now, I have to say this. Shouldn’t this revelation help us rein in our envo sentiments? If this world is literarily on its way out, shouldn’t that focus our energy and resources on the spiritual reality behind it? I’m not saying stand back while forests burn. I’m not saying bin your recycling bin. But I wonder if, as Christians, we should readily throw ourselves and our resources behind the next Big Green Cause at the expense of proclaiming the gospel to a world that God Himself will eventually destroy in His wrath? Something to think about.

In v. 12, the dead have risen. But this isn’t a Hollywood zombie flick; it’s even more frightening than that. The dead – every single man, woman and child that have ever walked this side of eternity stands before God. None are exempt. None are given special treatment. And then, “books were opened” (cf. Dan 7:10). It’s an image taken from the way ancient cities kept a registry of their citizens, and it is meant to communicate that God misses nothing. The thoughts, actions, intents and plans of every single person that has ever lived has been tracked and recorded better than any Big Brother system we can conjure up. This is where God’s incommunicable attributes are suddenly of grave consequence to us: God is omniscient. He knows everything and there is nothing hidden from Him (Job 34:21; Ps. 33:13-15; Heb. 4:13). And nothing is rushed – this is eternity, and time has lost its meaning. Every action of every person ever is thoroughly scrutinised to the utmost detail – because God is just. And in His justice, He will render exactly what every person deserves.

And that should scare us witless.

The standard that God expects from us was summarily defined by Jesus Christ: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat. 5:48). Other than Christ (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22), who can ever claim to live up to that?

Notice that those who are being judged before the Great White Throne are judged on the basis of what they have done – literarily “by their works”. This is significant – and frightening. The fundamental reality of the gospel is that our good works cannot save us but we are fully justified before God only by placing our faith in Jesus Christ and His perfect righteousness rather than our sad attempts to gain merit with God through our good deeds (Rom. 3:28). In fact, the Scripture refers to those deeds as “dead” (Heb. 6:1; 9:14), meaning that they are unable to actually achieve anything.

Which begs the question: If all these people who are judged before the Great White Throne are judged by their works/deeds, would any of them stand a chance of entering heaven? The tragic answer can only be no.

But, thankfully, the books of judgment are not the only ones opened. There is also the Book of Life (v.15). It is mentioned six times in Revelation (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 20:15; 21:27) and once in Phil. 4:3. It is the list of all those whom God has saved; those who have put on the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27), and their sins, obvious or secret, cannot condemn them anymore (Rom. 8:1).

Finally, a strange imagery in v.13: John speaks of Death and of Hades – the Greek word that refers to the realm of the dead (not necessarily equated to hell). In the New Testament, Hades is used ten times, mostly as a place of punishment; the place where those who die in their sins are kept pending judgement at the Great White Throne (cf. Luke 16:23). “Death”, on the other hand, mostly refers to the state of all those who have died on earth.

All three – the sea, Death and Hades – are depicted as monsters, disgorging those they have consumed over the centuries (the sea probably does this before being destroyed). And once they’re done, they themselves are cast into eternal punishment (v. 14). What else can this mean other than the ultimate defeat of death? We think of Isaiah’s words: “He will swallow up death forever” (Is. 25:8a; cf. 1 Cor. 15:54).

Death entered the world as the result of sin (Rom. 5:12). As sin is finally punished and destroyed, so is death. But the Bible tells us that, on the Cross, Jesus destroyed death and delivered those that throughout all ages were held captive to the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). And as we look at this crushing image of the Great White Throne, as we see the scales finally balanced, as we see sin and rebellion against God punished, we also witness the ultimate victory of Christ, the destruction of the most unnatural thing in God’s creation; the death of death.

We’ll continue this next time, to look at verse 15 – hell really cannot be dealt with lightly.

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