Teaching series from Revelation

The Final Judgment

Revelation 20:11-15

Teaching t09183


Briefly review last week—Jesus returns to defeat evil and establish God's kingdom. We come now to the final judgment, which John sees as a vision of the Great White Throne (read 20:11-15). There is plenty of symbolism in this vision as well. The throne signifies God's authority to judge. The whiteness of God's throne signifies his perfect purity and righteousness. The “books” and the “book” signify the bases or reasons why God's judgment is just. The “lake of fire” signifies the final state of those judged. Let's take a little closer look at some of the features of this judgment.

Key Features

Who is judged at this judgment? The “dead” refers not to all humanity, but only to those condemned by God. There is no mention of anyone present at this judgment 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.” The picture is one of a judge pronouncing a guilty verdict at a criminal trial.1 Some have been powerful by human assessment, while others have been weak—but all of them will stand before God as their Judge and be comdemned..

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.” Hell evidently does not exist yet, because it prepared for the future judgment of Satan and his demons (Matthew 25:41). 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' synonym “Gehenna” (Jerusalem burning dump) both emphasize the anguish of experiencing God's retributive wrath. This is similar to 14:9,10, which says they will “drink the cup of God's wrath”—they will experience God's undiluted judgment (undiluted by his mercy, patience, etc.).

“Wailing and gnashing of teeth” probably refers (like wailing) to the grunt of frustration when we blow it on something important (EXAM; MEAL; SPORTS PLAY). 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 presence (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and other love relationships (THE GREAT DIVORCE). See the other images of banishment (“Depart from me” . . . “I never knew you” . . . “The door was shut”). The damned will plunge ever deeper into the abyss of their own depravity and the isolation that depravity brings.

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” (Isaiah 29:21) in which he takes no delight (Ezekiel 18:32). Yet God says it is necessary—that without hell, God's kingdom would be hellish. Before we look more closely at this passage, 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 theologians and pastors. Many of them say the Bible is simply the record of the evolution of human's 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 (Exodus 34:6-7; 2 Peter 3:9-10, 7). Jesus, who was God-incarnate, spoke about hell more than all the other human authors combined (180+, including at least 34 references in Luke). I think God did it this way on purpose. He saved the most difficult issue for his Son (who dies 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 subjected eternally to God's wrath?2 But before you reject hell on this basis, consider the following:

First, the Bible teaches that God will mete out his eternal judgment in degrees that are suited to the sins of each individual. For example, Jesus warns that those who know the truth and deliberately distort it to deceive others will receive “greater condemnation” (Matthew 23:14). Those rejected less light from God will receive less punishment from God than those who rejected more light (Matthew 11:22; Luke 12:47-48).

Second, can we trust our ability to judge what is fair for ourselves? People tend to think that what they do is not very bad and does not deserve much punishment. 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 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 all the factors, every mitigating circumstance—and on that day he will demonstrate that he has been absolutely fair in his judgment.

Furthermore, the alternative to hell—universalism—is definitely not fair. Is it fair for people to never be called to account for their actions? Is it fair that unrepentant wicked people have the last word on evil (STALIN: safe to the end, clenched fist at the end)? Is it fair for repentant people to have to spend eternity with an unrepentant STALIN? Is it fair for God to allow this world to go on for so long if he will send everyone to heaven? If people can't make a decision about where to spend eternity during this life, what is the point? 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. Not that people have only recently disbelieved in hell. People have been doing that for many centuries. But until very recently, when people said “I don't believe in hell,” they went on to explain why their beliefs made more sense than the Bible's. But today, everything has changed. In our postmodern culture, this is an irrefutable response, because my belief creates reality—for me. “WHAT DREAMS MAY COME” VIDEO.

This is certainly very appealing, but what basis is there for thinking that it is true that our beliefs create our afterlife? Why is this any different from what child-development experts call “magical thinking” (EXAMPLE: small child who covers his eyes to make you go away) or adult desperate denial (EXAMPLE: cancer-diagnosed mother who says she doesn't believe it)? Why is this same kind of thinking, which we consider infantile or insane in every other area, considered enlightened when it comes to spirituality and the afterlife?3 The value of our beliefs is not that they create reality, but that they correspond to reality.

Why would you bet your afterlife on a way of thinking that you reject in everyday life? Faith is not wishful thinking—it is a decision to entrust yourself to someone who is trustworthy. There is abundant and sufficient evidence that the God of the Bible exists and is trustworthy (recommend Christianity: The Faith That Makes Sense). Why not trust what he says about this all-important issue? Let's go back to our text and ask one more question . . . 

Who goes to hell?

“It is only for really bad people.” A fairly recent survey shows that 82 percent of adult Americans believe in an afterlife that includes both heaven and hell, but only 4 percent of those people believe that they will go to hell!4 In other words, most Americans believe that hell is only for really bad people. George Barna's recent survey shows that over half of all Americans believe that people earn heaven and avoid hell by being good.5

Do you see the obvious flaw in this belief? How good is good enough to earn heaven, and how bad is bad enough deserve hell? If Mother Theresa is good enough to go to heaven, and if Stalin is bad enough to go to hell, should we draw the line exactly halfway between them (CHARTS)? What if you were one sin on Stalin's side of that line (that bad thought you had about your mother when you were ten years old)? Is this fair? No matter where you draw the line, you always have the same arbitrary dilemma. This is the dilemma for all world religions (most of which teach some form of hell--EXAMPLES), except Christianity . . . 

God has a very different basis for his judgment, which we read about back in Revelation 20:11-15. This is the significance of the two sets of books.

The first "books" (20:12) evidently signify the record of each person's deeds in light of God's perfect righteousness (CHART). This record will testify in every case to their violations against God's standard, and to their worthiness of his judgment. By this standard, of course, we all deserve God's judgment (Romans 3:23).

But there is another, more tragic reason why these people are condemned. Their names are not recorded in "the book of life" (20:15). The “book of life” signifies the record of all who are exempt from hell and guaranteed eternal life.

Revelation 3:5 implies that everyone's name got entered into the book of life when Jesus died on the cross, because his death paid for everyone's sins (2 Corinthians 5:19a). This symbol communicates the incredible wideness of God's mercy through the Cross—that Jesus death truly paid for everyone's sins and that God wants everyone to be saved—while still preserving the necessity of our choice to receive this gift.

But God won't force his forgiveness on you—you must freely choose to receive it. If you receive it, your name goes permanently into the book of life. But if you refuse to receive this gift of forgiveness before you die, you are saying (whether you realize it or not) that you don't need it and that you're ready to answer for your own sins. Why would you want to do that, when you can receive full pardon by simply asking Jesus for it? Why not make sure you have done this . . . 

How should hell affect Christians? (Q & A)

As stated above, we should not be terrified because we know we will be exempt from this judgment. Instead, the Bible teaches that hell should affect Christians in a couple of ways.

It should comfort us to know that true justice will ultimately be done. Although unrepentant evil people often evade justice in this life (EXAMPLES), no unrepentant person will evade God's ultimate justice. This is why we can forgive our enemies (explain Romans 12:19)—instead of being embittered toward them and God.

It should motivate us to share the good news of Jesus' gift of forgiveness with everyone, including those most unworthy of it!


1 Also, the “if” clause in 20:15 is first-class conditional—“If (as indeed is the case) anyone's name was not found written in the book of life . . .”

2 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”).

3 “There comes a time when you have to face the fact that the truth is true whether you want to believe it or not—it doesn't need you to make it true. The lie that everyone has their own truth inside of them has done a lot of damage and made a lot of people crazy.” Bob Dylan, 1988 (documentation?)

4 James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New York: Prentiss Hall Press, 1991), p. 204.

5 See The Barna Group, which says: “There is a growing tendency to believe that all good people, whether or not they consider Jesus Christ to be their savior, will live in heaven after they die on earth. In 1999 the public is almost divided on the matter: 53 percent agree, 40 percent disagree. This represents a significant change since 1992, when 40 percent agreed with this notion and 1994 when 46 percent agree, 47 percent disagree.