Chapter 13: Christ as Judge at the Great White Throne
by David McAllister, Ireland
The portion of Scripture before us is Rev.20.11-15, a brief, terse passage. The event described will take place after the Millennium, 20.1-6, and the final satanic rebellion, 20.7-10, and before the formation of the new heavens and the new earth, 21.1.
So we are looking at a momentous point in human history: when this world has finally seen government as it ought to be: when God’s will has been done on earth, as in heaven. Yet the rebellion at the close of that one thousand year period will have revealed the true heart of unregenerate man, who rises up for one last time against God; a rebellion that, like all before it, will be doomed to failure, with Satan being dispatched to his final abode, never to trouble mankind again. The heavens and earth having been dissolved, God is about to make new heavens and a new earth, wherein righteousness will dwell forever.
However, before that glorious eternal kingdom begins, there is one final matter that has still to be settled. By the start of the Millennium, the "first resurrection" will have been completed: all saints who have died, from Abel right to the last martyrs of the Tribulation will, by that time, have been raised, albeit "every man in his own order" 1Cor.15.23. John indicates that this is not the raising of all people, since it is only those who are saved who will be raised before the Millennium: "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection" Rev.20.6. He makes it equally clear that "the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished" v.5.
Thus, at this nexus of human history, a thousand years after the completion of the first resurrection, when this world is about to be no more, there will be multitudes of people still dead; all those who died in their sins, from Cain and his family right down to the rebels so suddenly destroyed in v.9 of our chapter. They await that final assize, which is so solemnly described in the passage for our consideration.
If each reader was asked to think of one passage that shows "the glory of the risen Christ", it is doubtful that the latter part of Revelation chapter 20 would immediately spring to the minds of many. Even if one’s choice was confined to the Book of Revelation, there are other scenes in the same book that are more likely to be chosen: one thinks, for example, of chapter 5, where we see Him in relation to a throne, pronounced as "worthy", and the description by John builds up to one almighty crescendo of praise. Here, in chapter 20, we see Him on a throne, but there the similarity ends: the scene, far from being one of triumph and loud ascription of worthiness, seems to show nothing but silence and utter despair. The present writer has preached from this passage when seeking to warn sinners of their danger; he has never ministered to saints from it on the Person of Christ. It is highly probable that many readers can testify to the same fact, in their own experience.
And yet withal, it is a passage in which the glory of the risen Christ does shine out; indeed, set against the intense solemnity of the occasion, His glory is, in ways, all the more evident. We will consider a number of aspects of His glory that can be observed from the scene here described.
THE GLORY OF HIS PERSON
In this passage, we are not explicitly told Who is on the throne, He is simply referred to as "Him that sat on it", but there can be no doubt that it is the Lord Jesus Christ. He said, "For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son" Jn.5.22. Peter told those at Cornelius’ home that "it is He which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead" Acts10.42. Paul wrote to Timothy concerning "the Lord Jesus Christ, Who shall judge the quick and the dead" 2Tim.4.1. By this stage of history, He will already have judged all the living; now He is about to judge the dead. It is testimony to the greatness of the Person sitting on the throne that the reader knows Who He is, without Him having to be overtly identified.
In v.12 we read that John saw the dead "stand before God". Linking this with the previous verse, the Deity of the Lord Jesus is set forth: He is on the throne, v.11, and those before it are standing before God, v.12. Thus, in standing before the Lord Jesus Christ they are standing before One Who is God.
THE GLORY OF HIS POSITION
In the phrase, "Him that sat on it", our attention is drawn not only to Who He is, but also to where He is, on the throne. Our Lord Jesus Christ is associated with several thrones in Scripture.
- He was enthroned in heaven before He came into this world, Isa.6.1, cf. Jn.12.41
- He is now "on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens" Heb.8.1
- When He returns to earth to reign, "then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory" Matt.25.31
- In the heavenly city He shall sit upon "the throne of God and of the Lamb" Rev.22.1,3.
- For these thrones, and for the one now identified, the great white throne, He is there by right, as God, as Creator, as Redeemer.
A comparison with an earlier verse of this chapter highlights the uniqueness of the place that the Lord Jesus here occupies. In v.4 John records: "And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them." Here were those to whom judgment was given during the Millennium. They too had thrones, and were also described as sitting upon them. They were many in number, and there were many thrones. Now, when the Millennium is over, there is one "throne" (singular); "Him" (singular) Who sits upon it; and one final, unique judgment. He is apart from all others; even from His choicest, most faithful, saints.
THE GLORY OF HIS PRESENCE
In v.11 we read the solemn words, "from Whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them." How awesome will His presence be on that occasion, as depicted in this reference to His face! This is the face that sinners had the temerity to spit upon, Mk.14.65, to blindfold and to strike, Lk.22.64. It is the face that was "marred more than any man", Isa.52.14. It is the face that shone "as the sun" on the mount of transfiguration, Matt.17.2, doubtless depicting His kingdom glory. It is the face of which we read those blessed words in Rev.22.4: "they shall see His face", an extremely attractive prospect to all the redeemed.
However, the effect of His face in the passage before us will be totally different; far from being attracted by His face, the earth and the heaven will flee from His august presence. Here we have a brief description of the dissolution of the present heavens and earth, as described for us in 2Pet.3.10, "the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up." How glorious is His presence if it will bring about such a cataclysmic event!
While this statement is literally true, that at that time "all these things shall be dissolved", 2Pet.3.11, the language here in Rev.20.11 is surely highly suggestive of the fact that those who will be raised from the dead at that time would also desire to flee from His awesome presence, and that they will have nowhere to hide. The phrase "and there was found no place for them" would aptly depict the impossibility of sinners finding any hiding place from the One Who sits upon the throne: One Whose presence will strike fear into all who will stand before Him there.
THE GLORY OF HIS POWER
One of the many trilogies of Scripture that believers rejoice in is the omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence of Deity. All three are seen in the Lord Jesus Christ in this passage:
This is evident in that He will be able to gather the dead from throughout the earth. There will be no place that He cannot reach, and no-one will be able to hide from Him. We read in v.13 that "death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them". These two entities, "death" and "hell", bring before us what happens when a person dies: the material and the immaterial parts of the person are separated from one another. The material part (the body) is, in the normal case, buried in the earth, and its state is referred to here as "death". The soul (which is, of course, immaterial) departs, in the case of unbelievers, to "hell" (hades). This separation will remain in place until the occasion that is the subject of our study. At that fearful time, "death" will yield up all the body, "hell" will yield up the soul, and they will be reunited, so that each person will once again exist as a complete human being. The Lord Jesus is the One Whose action will extend to every part of the world, in a moment of time, to bring into effect this momentous event. No place will be beyond His reach.
This is evidenced by the fact that all the deeds of all who are raised at that time are known to Him. In v.13, John records that "they were judged every man according to their works." In the previous verse, we read that "the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." This would strongly indicate that the books contain a record of the life history of every person standing among that vast throng. How solemn it is to think that no-one has ever done anything that escapes the eye of that One Who sits upon the throne, and yet how glorious to think that this One is omniscient, as this fact clearly shows.
While, as we have seen, the events recorded in this passage indicate His omnipresence and omniscience, it is His omnipotence that is particularly prominent here. Perhaps there are three ways in particular in which this is impressed upon us from the events narrated:
The throne on which He will sit is described as being "great". Without doubt, it is great as to its size; it is great in splendour; and it is great in that it will take the centre place in the scene. Yet, as is so often the case in the Revelation, there is symbolic significance to this designation. Many reasons could be put forward for the word "great" being used, such as the momentousness of the event that will be transacted from it; the fact that it is the final great assize; the vastness of the number who will hear the sentence from it. Yet, if a throne symbolises anything, surely it represents power and authority, and we cannot doubt the reality of the demonstration of the infinite power of the Lord Jesus, denoted by the very "great" throne upon which He will sit on that dreadful day.
We have already alluded to those who will sit on thrones in v.4 of our chapter. One further way in which they contrast with the Lord Jesus Christ is that the thrones on which they will sit are not described in any way. Only His throne is called "great". Sitting on their thrones, they will pass judgment, under His authority, during the Millennium. Their power will be a delegated power. Only He Who sits upon the great white throne has absolute power, which is inherently resident in Himself.
No-one, except the Lord Himself of course, knows the exact number of people who will be raised from the dead to face the judgment of the great white throne. Certainly it must be in the billions, as we consider the people who have died all over the world, over thousands of years, in different circumstances. Yet each one will be raised, in a moment of time, and summoned to stand before the great white throne, a summons that none can refuse. What a testimony to the omnipotence of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Let men state that it is impossible for those who have been dead for many years, and whose bodies have long since returned to dust to be raised bodily. What seems impossible to men is possible with the One to Whom nothing shall be impossible. We have already commented on the phrase in v.13: "death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them." There is another phrase in that verse, which is pertinent to what we are currently contemplating: "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it." Why is this statement made? One reason must surely be in anticipation of those who would try to deny the teaching of resurrection by stating that many people have not received a burial, and that it is impossible for them to arise. John’s reference here to those who have died and been lost at sea establishes beyond all doubt that drowning will not militate against resurrection. In our day, cremation is becoming an increasingly popular practice. It will not, however, free a person from the prospect of resurrection. The all-powerful Lord Jesus Christ will raise all the unbelieving dead, and summon them to stand before the great white throne.
Here is One Whose authority to pass sentence is summarised briefly but unmistakably. Twice we read of a casting "into the lake of fire". According to one definition, a lake is "a large area of water, localised in a basin, surrounded by land, apart from any river that serves to feed or drain the lake." The lake referred to in this passage will certainly be a large and localised body, but the element of which it is composed will not be water, but fire; it will not be surrounded by any land and there will be no outlet from it. How terribly solemn facts these are!
The two references to the lake of fire are:
- "And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire" v.14
- "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" v.15.
The first reference, v.14, is general; the intermediate condition, in which body is separated from soul will be no more. Thus "death and hell" will have fulfilled their purpose, and will go where they rightfully belong for ever, the lake of fire. The second reference, v.15, is personal: "whosoever", showing it is as individuals that people will experience this sentence. So, the intermediate state of the unrighteous dead and all those in that state will depart to the place of endless torment.
Even the most powerful judge in this world is limited in his sentencing power. For example, his decision may be subjected to appeal, or the sentence he passes may be shortened years after the original decision has been made. It will not be so for this omnipotent Judge; His sentencing will be absolute, final and irrevocable.
Earthly judges are said to "sit", and the bench on which a judge sits is a symbol of his power; earthly judges have the power to summon people before them and they possess the power to pass sentence. However, these aspects of judgment in this world fade into insignificance when we look at these things for the omnipotent Son of God and His sitting in judgment on that day. His throne will surpass all the benches of worldly tribunals; He will summon all instantaneously and irresistibly, and He will pass sentence with full authority.
THE GLORY OF HIS PRINCIPLES
The Lord Jesus Christ acts according to righteous principles; He always has, and He always will. In this passage, brief as it is, His righteousness and justice shine forth. We see this in three ways, related to the three points discussed in the previous section:
The Brilliance of the Seat
The throne is "white", v.11. The word is derived from the word for "light", and it likely denotes not merely the colour of the throne, but the dazzling splendour of the light irradiating from it. While this is literally the case, there must also be symbolism in this description. We are reminded of other words from the pen of John, "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" 1Jn.1.5. Here we see depicted the absolute purity of the One Who will sit on the throne. We are assured, even by the appearance and character of the throne, of the justice of the judgment that will there be carried out.
The Breadth of the Summons
There will be no distinction in those called before the great white throne. John says, "I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God" v.12. It will make no difference if one has been a tramp or a king; poor or rich; unknown or famous; despised or distinguished. There will be no discrimination on the basis of status in this world. All who die in their sins will be called and treated impartially.
How different this is from the courts of this world. We sometimes hear of cases where someone is suspected of a crime, but because of his exalted position in society, the case never comes to court. Bribery, or other immoral influences can be brought to bear to let a person "off the hook". There will be none of that with this judgment; no-one will be exempt from appearing because of who he was in this world. The Lord Jesus will call all equally to appear before Himself.
We read that "every man" will be judged, v.13. This also highlights the righteousness of the judgment, in that each person will be judged individually. Probably many a reader has, in his or her youth, experienced the injustice of punishment meted out to a school class, where the teacher, knowing of a misdemeanour, but failing to identify the culprit, punishes the whole class corporately. There will be nothing of that here; each one will be assessed individually, and punished accordingly.
Just as righteous principles will be applied in the summoning to the throne, equally, there will be no perversion of justice as things proceed: the sentence will be passed on "whosoever", v.15. None will appear and then be exempted from judgment, and none will be shown to be guilty and then walk away free. In everything, from beginning to end, the righteous principles of the Lord Jesus will be clearly demonstrated.
The Basis of the Sentence
Over the history of the world, many a person has been sentenced on an unrighteous basis; often on the whim of a tyrant, frequently without a proper legal basis, or without due process having been followed. The verses before us show that the glorious righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ will be seen, in that it will be based on evidence, as any righteous judgment has to be. To consider this, we need to look to the references to books in this passage:
In v.12, we read of "the books" and of "another book". Thus we have "books" (plural) and a "book" (singular), which are distinguished from one another:
As for the "book", it is identified as "the book of life" v.12, and it is named again in v.15. Other references to it in Revelation help us to understand what it is: it is also called "the Lamb’s book of life" 21.27; "the book of life of the Lamb" 13.8, thus showing its intimate connection with the One Who will sit upon the throne. Twice we read of it being "from the foundation of the world" 13.8 and 17.8. Of unbelievers in Tribulation days, who will worship the beast, it is said that their "names are not written in the book of life" 13.8; whereas a comforting promise to believers is that their names will not be removed from the book of life, 3.5. The only explicitly named reference to the "book of life" outside the Revelation is found in Phil.4.3, where Paul speaks tenderly of other believers, "whose names are in the book of life".
Thus, taking all this together, we conclude that the "book of life", as the term is used in the New Testament, is a Divine record of all the recipients of eternal life. There, in that scene described in Revelation chapter 20, it will be complete, unalterable, and will contain the name of every person, from every age, who has eternal life.
Now, on this awful day, the book of life will be opened. Doubtless it will be scrutinised, but not out of doubt as to its contents. No, it will be examined, as evidence of the fact that no-one who appears before the great white throne has his or her name recorded in that book. This will be proof that they never put saving faith in God’s Son, and this is the basis on which their eternal destiny will be righteously pronounced, v.15. Each one there will be shown the reason for his or her eternal condition; the basis of being consigned to the lake of fire.
We note that at the end of chapter 20 there is no parallel statement to that of v.15, such as "And whosoever was found written in the book of life was taken to heaven." We have to wait until the end of the following chapter before we read such a parallel statement, "And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life", 21.27. Why is that so? Simply because there will be none appearing before the great white throne whose names are in the book of life; none will be consigned to heaven from there.
Thus the opening of the book of life and the examining of its contents will not be to determine the eternal destiny of those there, but to confirm it, and to show the righteous basis of it.
What then of the books that will also be opened? While they are not specifically identified, sufficient is told us about them for us to deduce their role in the proceedings: "the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works" v.12, and "they were judged every man according to their works" v.13. From this, we can conclude that these books contain a record of the life of each person. Each will be assessed individually, not only in the light of what they have done, but also in view of their own individual circumstances: notably what opportunities they had, or did not have. It is a principle of Scripture that greater privilege brings greater responsibility, for example, Lk.12.48. That the punishment will be appropriate for each one was taught by the Lord Jesus Himself, Who said that it would be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon and Sodom than for the people of the cities who had heard Him and rejected His message, Matt.11.20-24.
This is not a matter of salvation by works. It is important to emphasise that salvation does not enter into the issue, as there will be no saved person appearing before the great white throne. Salvation is by faith alone. However, for those who are not saved, their works, and, in particular, their response to any spiritual light to which they have been exposed, will determine the severity of the sentence.
In this, the righteous principles of the Lord Jesus are also set forth. Even in a human court, various people appear and are found guilty of various crimes. If justice is done, then all guilty are punished, but the punishment is expected to fit the crime. No-one will reasonably suggest, for example, that a shoplifter should receive as severe a sentence as a murderer. At the great white throne, the Lord Jesus will be seen to be righteous in that every person will receive exactly what he or she is due, no less and no more.
So, the book of life will show each one why he is there, and why he is going to the lake of fire; the other books will show each one why he is receiving the particular sentence that is his. In all that takes place, the Lord Jesus will be demonstrated to be completely just.
THE GLORY OF HIS PROVISION
While no-one who appears there will have eternal life, yet there is an allusion to the glorious provision of eternal life by the One Who will sit there. As has been noted already, twice in the passage reference is made to "the book of life" vv.12,15. Surely this is a testimony to the fact that, while they were in the world, life was available to them. As its pages are scanned, while none of the names of those present are there, there will be pages containing the names of myriads of people, who, while they were upon this earth, came to God in all their need as sinners, and put their faith in the "Lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times" 1Pet.1.19,20; the One "brought as a lamb to the slaughter" Isa.53.7; "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" Jn.1.29. Oh, the bitter regret of those there who will know that they did not need to perish; that God, in love, had sent His Son to die that they might be saved, but that they had never repented and trusted in Him, and so now, as they stand there, their names are not in the book of life. Now it is forever too late.
It is likely that the great majority of people reading this book on the glory of the risen Christ are already believers in Him. Yet, it is possible that someone reading these pages may still be in his or her sins. If that is so, then, please, dear sinner, let me turn and address myself directly to you. If you have read thus far, I trust that something of the realities of this solemn day of judgment have been impressed upon you, and have instilled in you a deep desire never to look into the eyes of that One Who will sit there upon the throne, and hear Him pronounce everlasting judgment upon you. If so, there is good news for you. You do not need to be there. Full provision has been made by the Lord Jesus Christ, in the sacrifice that He made at Calvary, when He put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself, Heb.9.26. Salvation is available to you, today, if you will turn from your sins, and put your trust in Him.
THE GLORY OF HIS PITY
The reader may well ask: "How can His pity be seen in this passage?" The answer is this: the fact that all are able to read it now, and thus to know what the future holds for all who die in their sins, is ample testimony to the compassion of the One Who will then sit upon the throne. The fact that He has given us this insight into this dreadful event is doubtless due, in large measure, to His desire that sinners turn from their sins, and trust in Him, so that they may escape from the judgment of the great white throne.
Only the Lord Himself knows the vast number of those who have been saved as a result of this passage being included in Holy Writ. Countless numbers have heard it preached upon, or have read it for themselves, and have been prompted by it to flee to Christ for refuge. He also is the only One Who knows how many believers who, through reading of these things, have been deepened in their desires and endeavours to see perishing souls saved.
May it be so for us. The Lord has recorded these words for us, whose names are in the book of life, that we may have more and more of His compassion for those who are perishing in their sins. May we be ever more thankful that our names are written in heaven; may we be more earnest in our prayers that many more will escape from that awful day and may we labour more and more to see them delivered from it.
Finally, we turn again to any who may be reading these words while still in his or her sins. The Lord Jesus has shown immense pity towards you, by coming to earth to provide a full and free salvation for you at infinite cost to Himself; by bringing the gospel message to you, that you may repent, believe and be saved; and by opening this window into the future, to let you know what lies ahead for you if you remain out of Christ. We beseech you to heed the warning, and to fly to the arms of the Saviour, Who will willingly receive you if you trust in Him for salvation.
We have noted already the reference to "small and great" in v.12. This phrase occurs four other times in the Revelation, twice referring to believers, 11.18 and 19.5, and twice to unbelievers, 13.16 and 19.18. Outside the Revelation it occurs only one other time in the New Testament, in Acts 26.22, where Paul says to king Agrippa (one of those regarded as "great" in the eyes of the world): "Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that He should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles." Paul has long since left this scene, but the witness to small and great continues, with the same message concerning Christ, Who died and rose again, and through Whom the light of the gospel goes out to the world. Praise God, this light continues to shine forth. Now is still the day of salvation; then it will be a day of retribution. Then "small and great" will stand before God to receive the righteous recompense of their sins; today the gospel goes forth to "small and great", that they may be reckoned righteous by faith in the righteous One. Be wise and respond to that blessed One today, and have the glorious assurance that you will never appear before the great white throne.
- And will the Judge descend,
- And must the dead arise,
- And not a single soul escape
- His all-discerning eyes?
- And from His righteous lips,
- Shall a dread sentence sound;
- And through the numerous guilty throng
- Speak black despair around.
- How will thy heart endure
- The terrors of that day,
- When heaven and earth before His face
- Astonished shrink away?
- But ere the trumpet shakes
- The mansions of the dead,
- Hark! from the Gospel’s cheering sound
- What joyful tidings spread.
- Ye sinners, trust His grace,
- Whose wrath ye cannot bear;
- Fly to the shelter of His cross
- And find salvation there.
- (Philip Doddridge)