Revelation: A Complete Commentary

By William R. Newell

Part One: Judgment

Chapter 19: The Great White Throne Judgment

Revelation 20:11-15

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; and they were judged every one according to their works. And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, even the lake of fire. And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire.

1. The great white throne is not dispensational or governmental in any sense, but a final, personal, eternal assize.

This is evident from the fact that the whole present creation completely disappears before the Sitter upon this throne! It is also abundantly confirmed by the silence of those judged. They are not actors in any sense. Finally, the sentence from this throne is eternal.

Let us distinguish therefore the Great White Throne judgment from all those dealings with His enemies which God has heretofore had; as for instance, at Armageddon. Hitherto God’s enemies, though vanquished, have been permitted the opportunity to oppose Him, even after such an iron-rod order as the Millennium. Eternal, final action has not been taken against those who remained unregenerate upon earth.

2. The Great White Throne judgment is not what we upon earth call a trial. Not one of the judged is asked a single question, for the facts are all in! And the “works,” (upon which judgment must be based always) are all written in the “books.” Thoughts also are known—even “the secrets of men,” all have been recorded.

3. Only one inquiry is made—Is the name in “the book of life”? Judgment indeed proceeds: the “dead” are judged “out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works”: for there are degrees of guilt. But The Determining Question In Every Case Will Be, Is The Name In “The Book Of Life?” We cannot emphasize too strongly that this judgment is Not At All A Trial; but a Great Public MANIFESTATION of Facts Settled Beforehand, and Recorded.

Let us now proceed to examine this brief but truly stupendous account of the last judgment.

A Great White Throne.

Distinguish this from all other aspects of the divine throne; whether of Revelation 4 and Daniel 7, or of Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, 1 Kings 22:19, or Exodus 24:9-11.

Weigh each word: Great,—it is the Infinite before whom the finite must stand; White,—it is the unveiled, undimmed blaze of the divine holiness and purity and justice; Throne,—it is majesty unlimited, in which inheres utter right to dispose of the destiny of creatures. Before such a throne, creatures cannot stand; but they shall stand—even the lost!

Him that sat upon it.

We must, in view of John 5:22, 27, believe that Christ, the Son, to whom all judgment and the execution thereof has been committed, is the Sitter on this awful throne. But we cannot avoid the feeling that all the Persons of the Godhead are there! It is God as He is, in infinite, holy and eternal majesty; although unto Christ, because He is the Son of man, the actual judging and execution of judgment has been committed by the Father. The simplicity of the description makes the scene indescribably awful. Eternity is involved therein! The thought is appalling—to face the unapproachable LIGHT of God’s presence—UNFORGIVEN!

From whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.

It is no place here for impotent unbelief in its tearfulness to begin to plead that these plain words indicate merely a purging of the earth by fire. Peter declares, “The earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” Our Lord plainly says, “Heaven and earth shall pass away.” Paul declares, “The things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” And again, “Yet once more will I make to tremble not the earth only but also the heaven. And this word, “Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain. Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace.” The “kingdom” referred to, does not include the old material earth and the heavens, which pass away, but our new bodies like Christ’s, and such dispensation of all things new which God shall create after the old has forever passed away!

To hold on to this old earth when God says it will “flee away” and “no place be found for it,” is to become first cousin of the pagan who holds the eternity of matter in the past, and also is of one piece with the legality that professes to be justified by faith but must hold on to Moses as “a rule of life.” The Reformation theology will not consent that our history was ended at Calvary, thus freeing us from the “bond that was against us” forever. In like manner this same theology is afraid to face eternity with no earth to stand upon and no heavens to look to, but only the throne of God left! It is thus unprepared for “the all things new”—even the “all” of the material as well as the spiritual existence of the new creation of Revelation 21. The Lord Jesus came and “stood in the midst, the doors being shut,” and said, “See my hands and my feet … handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye behold me having… . Have ye here anything to eat?” Only faith looks with joy (though mixed with astonishment) on such a scene. Only faith can receive such words as, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away.” It is unbelief which says that the earth remains, although “its characteristics are changed by fire.”

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne.

These, we believe, are all unsaved people:

1. In verse 6, we find (by implication) that the second death has authority (R. V. margin) over those not in the first resurrection: which would surely put them in jeopardy.

2. Our Lord definitely declares (John 5:24) that those hearing His words and believing Him that sent Him, have eternal life, and are not coming into judgment, but have passed out of death into life. “He that believeth on him, is not judged” (John 3:18).

3. With regard to eternal destiny, only two resurrections are known in Scripture. “The resurrection of life; and the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29, Acts 24:15, Daniel 12:2).

That these “dead” have received their bodies when they stand before the Great White Throne, is evident from Revelation 20:5. For we know, from other Scriptures, that their spirits were existing in Hades all this time. And the words, “they lived” can then be applied to them only as to their bodies; just as the same words are spoken of the martyrs of verse 4, “They lived, and reigned with Christ.” We know that certain of these martyrs’ souls were seen under the altar at the opening of the fifth seal of Revelation 6:9-11 where they not only were conscious, but knew what was going on the earth; but had not yet received their bodies.

And books were opened.

If judgment of any creature is to proceed, it must be according to what he has done—his “works.” The works of those judged are evidently fully recorded. God will have a record even of the thoughts of every creature, whether its nature is clear to us or not—it will extend to the utmost particulars. At least, it will be in accord with the memory of the creature. It is a well-attested fact that every action and thought is recorded in the memory of man, however unable he may be to “recollect” a matter at will. In that day, God judges “the secrets of men,” and men will know those secrets to be theirs, their very own (Romans 2:16).

And another book was opened, which is the book of life.

The question arises, “What book is this?” Is it the “Lamb’s book of life” of 21:27; 13:8 and 17:8? The answer is that only those who belong to Christ, given by the Father to Him, are saved. Only such are in that book!

Christ is seen in charge of this book in Revelation 3:5. If there are false professors who have “escaped the defilements of the world through the acquaintanceship (epignosis) of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” who having known “the way of righteousness, turn back”; or rocky-ground hearers who “receive the word with joy” but have “no root,” who “for awhile believe, and, in time of temptation fall away”; who “taste (but do not drink), the heavenly gift” (eternal life), and then “fall away”; then the thought of being blotted out of the “book of life,” (seen also in Exodus 32:32, 33, Psalm 69:28), should not be in any wise a stumbling-block. Judas Iscariot was “numbered” among the twelve apostles, but “he fell away and went to his own place.”

In Psalm 69:25-28, which Peter quotes in Acts 1:20 as referring to Judas, (and which the context shows includes those wicked in Israel who joined then in hating Christ): “Let them be blotted out of the book of life, and not be written with the righteous.” In these awful words we see that though Christ “gave himself a ransom for all,” and “tasted death for every man,”—thus giving to the whole race of mankind a potential place in the book of life: yet this fact does not constitute them “written with the righteous” eternally. In fact there is both the “blotting certain out” from connection with “the book of life,” and the refusal to write them with “the righteous.” They had refused Him who is “the propitiation for the sins of the whole world”: so that they lose that potential ransom-benefit all men had; and will never be “written unto life.” (See Isaiah 4:3 and Daniel 12:1.) It seems plain that “the Lamb’s book of life” contains only elect names,—“Those found written in grace’s book.”

There is the mystery of the sin of man which chooses to apostatize, but there is also the mystery of the grace of God which preserves the elect.

God does not want any true believer to lack assurance of eternal safety. Christ said: “I give my sheep eternal life and they shall never perish.” But let us insist on that other mark of Christ’s sheep: “They follow me.” If we are going on in our own way, then what right have we to assurance? Remember the “seal” of the “foundation of God,” in I1 Timothy 2:19: “The Lord knoweth them that are his: and, Let everyone that nameth the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness.”

And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them.

Now Death holds the bodies and Hades the spirits of the lost of the human race. Those drowned at sea are not different from those dying in any other manner. Death holds their bodies and Hades their spirits if they are unsaved. Therefore, the dead who are in the sea, appear not to be human dead. Satan, whose doom is described in verse 10, was not a man, but was the anointed one of the cherubim (Ezekiel 28). In the following passage from the prophet, we find two classes of beings and also two distinct points of time: “In that day, (at Christ’s coming to earth) Jehovah will punish the host of the ones on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth. And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison; and after many days shall they be visited” (Isaiah 24:21, 22). This passage seems to teach plainly that Satan’s host will be judged at the great white throne judgment—after the “many days” of the Millennium. Part of his host is the demons, who seem to be the disembodied spirits of a former creation. It has been believed by many excellent students of God’s Word that the sea is connected with Satan’s host. (See Pember’s “Earth’s Earliest Ages.”)

And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.

This is a literal fulfilment of the prophecy in Hosea 13:14, “I will ransom them from the power of Sheol: I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues: O Sheol, I will be thy destruction; repentance shall be hid from mine eyes.” Death is personified because it has a personal character. We have elsewhere remarked that Death is more than mere dissolution, more than the separation of spirit and body. Because Death in Revelation 20:14 is said to be “cast into the lake of fire,” it does not for a moment permit us to consider this awful lake as unreal. This monster, this first Death, is, together with that horrible jail, Hades, cast as things hateful to God into a place of eternal wrath. It is a guarantee to all holy beings that sin will never be allowed to invade God’s new creation. (This passage is difficult. I know I have not sounded its depths. I would be thankful for further light upon it.) Of one thing I am certain: It is that this lake of fire and brimstone does not and cannot lose in the least, its terrific literality, from this or from any other passage!

They were judged everyone (Greek, ekastos, each) according to their works.

To translate this “every man” is to interpret, not translate. God said “each”: which may apply to any, and must apply to every being who stands before that awful throne that day, whether man, angel or demon.

This is the second death, even the lake of fire.

The very brevity of this verse is one of the elements of its awfulness. The finality and eternity of this unspeakable doom—how they should be preached and cried aloud these days! It is not love, or faithfulness, to avoid them because they are such terrible facts. God described creation itself (Genesis 1:1) in seven Hebrew words. Here is described in ten Greek words, a doom that will never end!

For, inasmuch as this is the “fire … prepared for the devil and his angels,” we need only to refer to verse 10 to see the state of those who will be cast into that lake of fire:

1. They are “tormented.” This is consciousness and anguish.

2. It is “day and night”; that is God’s description of ceaselessness.

3. It is “unto the ages of the ages,” God’s technical term (from Galatians 1:5 on), for unendingness, whether of God’s own existence or the blessed reign and glorified state of His saints (Revelation 22:5); or the punishment of the wicked.

And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire. Let us mark certain facts here:

1. It is not the absence of good works in the book that dooms a person. It is the absence of his name. Only names, not works, are in that book!

2. It is not the fact of evil works. Many of earth’s greatest sinners have their names in the Book of Life.

3. All whose names do not appear in the Book, are cast into the lake of fire.

4. All names there found in that day, will have been written before that day. There is no record of anyone’s name being written into the Book of Life upon that day, but rather the opposite: “If any was not found written.” How overwhelmingly solemn is this!