Studies in Revelation—Lesson 34
By Reta Halteman Finger
Behold, a great white throne and all the dead standing before it! Revelation 20:11-15 depicts the final judgment in a scene that, like Daniel 7:9-10, contains a throne, books, and fire. The books are opened, and the dead are judged according to their deeds. And then, before the final vision of the new heaven and new earth, Death and Hades and all vestiges of evil are put in their proper place; they are thrown into the lake of fire.
This short paragraph (Rev. 20:11-15) is either the sixth of John’s final series of seven visions, or it comprises both the sixth and seventh visions. If “And I saw…” in Revelation 20:12 begins the seventh vision, then 21:1-22:5 represents one final, glorious vision separate from the seven that precede it.
One throne and many books
We’ve seen thrones before, in chapters 4-5 and in 20:4. But this time the “great” throne represents God as the true source of political power over that of the false claims of the dragon and beast in 13:2. It is “white,” here symbolizing purity. It is so radiant that earth and heaven flee from the presence of the one on the throne—as if there is any other place to go!
The figure on the throne is unnamed. In Revelation, God is never identified apart from Christ, nor vice versa, observes Eugene Boring. Rather, these two figures “fade into each other. The Lamb is never independent…but always Lamb-as-representative-of-God; God is never a figure defined apart from Christ, but always God-who-defines-[Godself]-by-Christ.” John thus refuses to portray a judgmental God versus a compassionate Christ (p. 211).
John sees every person who has ever lived standing before God, including those lost at sea. Then the books are opened (20:12). Consulting record books is an idea found in many traditions. Besides being aware of what scholars have discovered in non-biblical sources, see Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 7:10; Malachi 3:16 (Metzger, p. 96). Here in Revelation 20:12-15, there are two sets of books. The name and deeds of everyone, small or great, are in the first books, and each is judged by what he or she has done in life. The second book is called the “book of life.” It contains only the names of those who are not thrown into the lake of fire (20:15).
Their works follow them
Note that persons are judged by their works, not by what they have believed. This repeated emphasis in verses 12 and 13 function as a warning to John’s churches. He wants to remind them that the things Jesus has against them in the letters in chapters 2 and 3—such as the lukewarm Laodiceans’ compromise with wealth (3:15-22)—are written in these books.
Some commentators see the difference between the two sets of books as a paradox—with the first books emphasizing works and the book of life as God’s grace. Can these two concepts be reconciled? Charles Talbert thinks this paradox “can be resolved only when one goes back to one’s own experience with God and finds divine grace and human responsibility bound together in indissoluble union” (p. 98). Though “all have sinned,” I believe that true repentance before God and (often) others is required. Many people refuse to recognize and accept personal responsibility for their own sins. We can imagine “God-in-Christ” holding out hope of including the name of each person in the book of life up until their last breath.
Is there really a final judgment? Should we expect even a symbolic “lake of fire” to mete out justice? Talbert asserts that “the Christian belief in a last judgment at which God’s settles accounts according to God’s standards . . . is decisive for human behavior” (p. 98). He quotes Luke Johnson, who says that, without divine judgment, we ourselves must assume responsibility for justice being done in the world. And without heaven or hell, we humans must punish evil now. Unfortunately, this legitimates—even demands—taking vengeance on those we think are unjust, often leading to even more violence (Johnson, Faith’s Freedom [Fortress, 1990], p. 23). How many wars are fought because both sides think they are doing justice by punishing their opponents?
Recovering our moral data
In the technological culture in which we now live, it is easier to imagine keeping records of the thoughts and deeds of every person than it was in the past. Since Google created “the Cloud” in which are stored vast amounts of information in immaterial cyberspace, why couldn’t God have figured something like that out a long time ago? Then God can recover the billions of neuronal connections in each brain when “the dead are judged” (Rev 20:12).
But humans misappropriate vast amounts of data, as we learn from various data breaches and most recently from the revelation of Facebook’s misuse of the personal data of over 87 million users. And now that each individual’s genome can be recorded, further questions arise about privacy issues. Those more knowledgeable about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (collectively summed up in the acronym STEM) could surely add other examples. All this is to say that human beings are not God, and human greed will continue to thwart justice in the world, no matter how advanced civilization becomes. We are in no danger of outgrowing our need for a God who will judge the deeds of humanity in perfect righteousness and justice.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Do you believe in a final judgment? Why or why not?
- If John had written this scene today in the American Empire, might he have pictured it differently? In what ways?
- What do you think will happen to people when/if they face God’s judgment with resentments and other unresolved issues in their lives?
Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation Commentaries. John Knox Press, 1989. P. 211.
Johnson, Luke. Faith’s Freedom. Fortress, 1990. P. 23.
Metzger. Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Abingdon, 1993. P. 96.
Talbert, Charles. The Apocalypse. Westminster John Knox, 1994. P. 98.