Teaching series from Revelation

The Final Judgment

Revelation 20:11-15

Teaching t23023


Briefly review Revelation as a story with characters in conflict, a climax, and a epilogue/resolution. A key part of the resolution is the final judgment, which occurs after Jesus’ return and millennial reign. John sees a vision of this which he describes (read 20:11-15). As with the other visions in Revelation, there is plenty of symbolism in this vision.

The “throne” symbolizes God’s authority to judge (see Rev. 4). The “whiteness” of the throne probably signifies God’s perfect purity and righteousness.

The “books” and the “book” symbolize the bases or reasons why God’s judgment is just (more on this later).

The “sea” probably symbolizes the old, fallen order (see 13:1).

The “lake of fire” symbolizes the final state of those who are judged.

Let’s take a closer look at two of the key features of this judgment...

2 Key Features

Who is judged at this judgment? The “dead” refers not to all humanity, but only to those who are sentenced by God. There is no mention of anyone present at this judgment being acquitted or entering into God’s eternal kingdom. All of those people have evidently already been raised by this time, never to die again (re-read 20:6). But those present at this judgment are destined for the “second death” (20:14). The picture is one of a judge pronouncing a sentence immediately after their guilt has been proven. Some (“the great”) have been powerful by human assessment (and even escaped human justice), while others (“the small”) have been weak—but all of them will stand before God as their Judge to be proven guilty and condemned.

What is the sentence of this judgment? The “first death” is physical death. The “second “death" is being sent to the “lake of fire” or “hell.” The various New Testament descriptions of this state are figurative, but they convey different aspects of a very literal reality.

The “lake of fire” and Jesus’ synonyms “eternal fire” and “Gehenna” (not “Gahanna;” EXPLAIN) both emphasize the anguish of experiencing God’s retributive punishment.

“Gnashing of teeth” probably refers (like the “wailing” that precedes it) to the regret of making a poor decision that cannot be undone (e.g., FAILING EXAM; ATHLETE EJECTED). In this life, we have the opportunity to reverse our decision on this issue (as we will see), but in hell there is only everlasting regret at having permanently blown this opportunity.

“Outer darkness” and “bottomless pit” probably refer to banishment from God’s loving presence (2Thess.1:9) and (probably from) other love relationships. See the other images of banishment (“Depart from me”...“I never knew you”...“The door was shut”). The damned will fall ever farther from all that is good and true and beautiful.

SUMMARIZE: How profoundly disturbing is this concept! I know it disturbs me; it is the teaching of God’s Word that I dislike the most. Even God regards it as His “strange work” (Isa.29:21) in which He takes no delight (Ezek. 18:32). Yet without final judgment and hell, there is no true resolution, just as there could be no true resolution after WWII without Nazi war criminals being tried and sentenced. The good news is that God has made provision so that no one has to go there (see below). But before consider this good news, let’s consider some of the most common objections to hell and God’s response to them...

Objections to God’s judgment

“It isn’t biblical.” Ironically, this view has been popularized primarily by so-called Christian theologians and pastors. Many of them say the Bible is simply the record of the evolution of humans’ thinking about God. That’s why (they say) the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath and vengeance, but the God of the New Testament is more loving and forgiving. Since we can see the direction this is headed and extrapolate it to its obvious conclusion, the most “biblical” view is that hell doesn’t exist.

It should be obvious from this passage (at the end of the last book in the Bible) that this objection is false. In fact, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, God reveals himself as both loving and judging (Ex.34:6,7; 2Pet.3:9,10,7). Jesus, who claimed to be God-incarnate, spoke about hell far more than the prophets and apostles (34 references in Luke alone). God evidently saved the most difficult issue for his Son (who died to save us from hell) to talk about most, so we wouldn’t pass it off as a human invention.

“It isn’t fair.” This is the most common objection. The sentence simply sounds too harsh. Can any crime deserve being punished eternally? But before you reject hell on this basis, consider the following:

Can we trust our ability to judge what is fair for ourselves? People tend to think that they don’t deserve the punishment they get. For example, most prisoners believe that they are sentenced too severely. Because of our imperfect criminal justice system, some of them probably are – but it is highly unlikely that all/most of them are. Children demonstrate this same attitude. This is why we don't let children or criminals choose their own punishments; they tend to go too soft on themselves. But God's judgment is perfect. He knows every evil deed (public & secret; commission & omission) – and on that day He will demonstrate that He has been absolutely fair in His judgment.

The alternative to hell—universalism—is definitely not fair. Is it fair for unrepentant evil people to never be called to account for their actions? Is it fair for Josef Stalin (who murdered 35 million Russians and raised his fist at God on his death-bed) to go unpunished? Is it fair for repentant people to have to spend eternity with an unrepentant Stalin? Is it fair for God to allow this fallen world to go on for so long if He will send everyone to heaven? If this life isn’t about making a decision about where to spend eternity, what is the point of letting it go on? Ironically, universalism raises more objections to God’s fairness than it resolves...

“I don't believe in it, so I won’t go there.” This is a very recent objection. Many people have disbelieved in hell through the centuries. But until very recently, when people said “I don't believe in hell,” they gave reasons for why their disbelief was rational, or they gave evidence for why the Bible is unreliable. But today, in our postmodern culture, this is an irrefutable response, because my belief creates reality—for me (MORALITY & SPIRITUAL BELIEFS)

How is this any different from “magical thinking” (EXAMPLE: small child who covers his eyes to make you go away) or “denial” (EXAMPLE: cancer-diagnosed mother who says she doesn’t believe it)? Why do we know that we can’t operate this way in the real world (EXAMPLE: withdrawing money because you believe you have it), but bet our after-life on this mind-set?

The reality of hell has nothing to do with your belief about it. Your belief about hell (like all important issues) should not be based on your personal preference, but on whether it is reasonable or unreasonable that it is true. We just talked about some of the ways it is reasonable. There is lots more evidence that the Bible is trustworthy in what teaches (recommend Discovering God). Evaluate the evidence—but don’t bet your soul on this foolishness!

“Other major world religions don’t teach there is a hell.” Actually, virtually all of the great world religions teach some form of retribution in the afterlife (e.g., ISLAM; HINDUISM & BUDDHISM). This is because they take seriously the reality of evil and the importance of justice. The uniqueness of Christianity is not that it teaches the reality of hell, but who can get an exemption from hell...

Who gets an exemption from hell?

All the other major religions (including “Christian” religion) teach that the only basis for exemption is living a good life.

Islam and Christian religion teach that God will weigh our good deeds against our bad deeds (SCALES: Quran citation and Orthodox mural). One problem with this is that you can never have assurance that you will make the grade. Another problem is that it makes God’s judgment arbitrary – why should 49.9999% bad deeds go to hell, while 50.0001% go to heaven? Wherever you draw the line, except for 100%, you have the same problem. And if you draw it at 100%, then everyone is going to be condemned.

Hinduism and Buddhism teach that reincarnation is the operation of karmic law – the sins of your previous life determine the station of your present life (animal or human; caste). One problem with this is that it there is no divine mercy or forgiveness for your past sins – you must pay for all of them yourself. Another problem is that there is no basis for working for social justice, because since all suffering in this life is God’s punishment, to try to alleviate it is to interfere with God’s will.

But Christianity teaches that the key to exemption is having your “name in the book of life.” The “book of life” is the key to exemption from God’s judgment (20:12,15). What is this “book of life?”

Rev.13:8 says that it is “of the Lamb who has been slain.” In other words, it is based on Jesus’ sacrifice to pay for the sins of all humanity (1 Jn.2:2). It is on this basis that God can forgive the sinful people on this list without compromising His own righteous and just character. Since Jesus has already paid the penalty for them, God will not/cannot punish the same crime twice.

That’s why Rev. 3:5 says that Jesus will never erase the names of those who are in it, and that He will personally vouch for all them on the day of judgment. In other words, to have your name in this book is to have total immunity from God’s judgment.

Who gets in this book? Those who “overcome.” This sounds like an elite group of super-saints. But John defines the “overcomers” in 1Jn.5:5 as those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God—those who entrust themselves to Jesus to pay for their sins. Jesus says the same thing in Jn.5:24 (read). Otherwise, we will face God’s judgment on the basis of our deeds (20:12)—and be found guilty.

So the key question regarding God’s judgment is not: “Have I been good enough?” It is: “Have I received Jesus’ gift of complete forgiveness?” Wouldn’t you like to have this security? You can have it today—just make this decision.

For discussion

Since Christians are permanently exempt from the final judgment, how should it affect the way we relate to other people?

It should motivate us to tell non-Christians that they can be exempted from God’s judgment through faith in Jesus.

It provides us with the basis for forgiving our enemies (e.g., abusers; betrayers; etc.). We can forgive them because God has forgiven us the far greater debt that we owed Him (Col.3:13). We can forgive them because God will judge those who refuse to repent (Rom.12:19).

The “if” clause in 20:15 is first-class conditional. Its purpose is not to communicate the possibility of people being present whose names are in the book of life; it is to emphasize the certainty that those present do not have their names written in the book of life. “If (as indeed is the case) anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life...”

This is evidently the motive for the recent evangelical shift to annihilationism. But notice how explicit 20:10 is about the fate of the two human beings who are sentenced to the lake of fire (“they will be tormented day and night forever”).