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A. Today we come to the final judgment at the end of history, when all people will be resurrected and judged according to what they’ve done and the guilty will be cast into the lake of fire.
B. Last week, Satan was thrown into the lake of fire, following the beast and the false prophet.
C. Rev.20:11-15 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
D. This is the fourth and final glimpse of the judgment day in the book of Revelation:
1. In Rev.6:15-17 we saw people calling to the rocks to fall on them and hide them from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of wrath has come.
2. In Rev.11:15-18 we heard loud voices in heaven saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” And the 24 elders said, “The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants.”
3. In Rev.14:14-20 we saw one like a son of man, seated on a cloud, with a golden crown on his head, and He swung his sharp sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped. Then an angel swung his sickle, gathered the grape harvest and threw it into the winepress of the wrath of God.
II. Let’s look at the passage in three chunks:
A. Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.
1. This takes us back to the very beginning of this vision in Rev.4, when John was taken up and behold, “a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.” Revelation 4:1-2
2. In v.11 His holy appearing causes earth &heaven to vanish: “no place was found for them.” Cf. Rev.6:14, 12:8, 16:20. This is what we’re told elsewhere, that on the last day, the present earth & heavens would be destroyed (2Pet.3:7, 10, 12) to prepare for the creation of a new heavens & new earth (Rev.21:1). Cf. Ps.102:25-27; Is.51:6.
B. Revelation 20:12-13 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
1. The Bible tells us that on the last day all men – believers & nonbelievers – will be resurrected and stand before God to be judged (Dan.12:2, John 5:28-29, Ac.24:15). And that’s what we see here.
2. There are books and then there is another book.
a. The first books refer to the record in the mind of God of everything done, said, thought, desired.
b. The Book of Life is the list of Christ’s sheep (e.g. Dan.12:1; Phil.4:3; Rev.13:8, 17:8, 21:27).
C. Revelation 20:14-15 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
1. 1Corinthians 15:26 “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And so here Death itself is thrown into the lake of fire.
2. Hades is the temporary place where the spirits of the dead go until the final day of resurrection, so now Hades goes into the lake of fire as well.
3. And just as the beast and the false prophet and the devil and death and Hades have been thrown into the lake of fire, so the wicked go into the lake of fire as well. This is their second death (the first being when they died and their spirits went to Hades).
4. Death and Hades were temporary. The lake of fire lasts forever.
5. Is it a literal lake of fire? The Bible uses many images to talk about the place of eternal anguish:
a. The outer darkness (Luke 13:23-29; Matt.8:11ff.)
b. Where their worm does not die (Mark 9:43-48)
c. Torment (Luke 16:23; Matt.18:34)
d. A place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mat.8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28)
e. A day of terror (Is.13:6-13, Revelation 6:15-17)
f. Many related to fire (Matt.3:12, 13:40-42, 18:8-9; Mark 9:44, 48; John 15:6)
6. It doesn’t seem God has shown much restraint in informing us about the horrors of that day. And the God of truth doesn’t bluff.
7. The variety suggests that none of these are literal, including the lake of fire. They are all vivid descriptions of intense and extreme suffering – in language as intense as it can get.
8. If anything, I think John Gerstner was right when he said: “They’ll wish it was a literal lake of fire!” I don’t think anyone in hell will say, “This isn’t as bad as I was led to believe!”
III. This is a hard teaching, isn’t it?
A. Because the judgment day and the lake of fire are so hard and so heavy, there is great pressure to steer clear of it. (Of course, some have the opposite temptation: to overemphasize it or treat it glibly, which might be even worse.)
1. But there is a great temptation to avoid the embarrassment of this teaching by finding ways to modify what the Bible says about hell, or ways to take the edge off of this disturbing teaching.
a. Universalism suggests that all mankind is saved through Christ.
b. Second chance theology suggests that at the end all will be given a final chance to repent.
(1) — (Both of these are addressed by Jesus’ words in Luke 13:23-29: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them,“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob & all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” See also Prov.1:20-33.
c. Annihilationism claims that the lake of fire is short term, then people are completely annihilated.
(1) — But see Rev.20:11-15 do not actually talk about the eternal nature of the lake of fire, but it was just addressed in the previous verse (Rev.20:10) “The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
(2) — Rev.14:9-11 “If anyone worships the beast and receives a mark on his forehead, he will drink the wine of God’s wrath, and he will be tormented with fire in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.” (Cf. 2Thes.1:8-10)
d. Others suggest that only those who refuse the gospel are condemned, not those who’ve never heard. (I.e. we need to reject the gospel to be condemned.)
(1) — But Rom.1:18-20 says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
(2) — The wrath of God is not just toward those who hear and reject the gospel, but for those who reject the light that they’re given through creation. We are rebels from the get-go. From the very heart & the very start, we have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness & have no excuse.
(3) — Whether the light be bright (like the person who grows up hearing the gospel every day), or whether it be less than that (like what can be gleaned from creation), our nature is to resist the light. Though, of course, the judgment is greater for the one who rejected greater light.
e. There are those who claim that hell is mere separation from God’s light and blessing.
(1) — This comes from 2Thes.1:9 “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power...”
(2) — Yes, those thrown into the lake of fire are separated from the Lord’s grace and glory, but they are also “tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb...and they have no rest day and night” (Rev.14:9-11)
2. There is in the human heart a very strong propensity to conform one’s beliefs to one’s preferences. But if we give in to that, we live in a dreamworld.
a. We must face the fact that not only has the love of God been revealed in Christ Jesus, but also “the wrath of God has been revealed from heaven” (Romans 1:18).
3. In fact, the revelation of God’s wrath helps us to understand His grace more richly.
4. Look at this from the perspective of an angel. He stands in the presence of the almighty One Himself. He grasps the holiness and justice of God. He well understands the lake of fire, and the just wrath of God against sinners. What amazes him is that God doesn’t send all men there, but has shown grace and mercy to some by sending His Son to die and take the punishment for their sins. God never did that for their fellow angels who rebelled.
5. But since we DON’T grasp God’s holiness and justice, we tend to question or downplay the reality of the everlasting torment we deserve and which is coming upon nonbelievers.
6. If we begin to grasp the holiness and justice of the One who sits on the white throne, we will be able to trust Him as far more wise and more just than we are. We will be able to let Him be God.
B. On Facebook recently a former member of our church who lost his faith was expressing outrage at this very passage, ridiculing how the Christian God is so unloving to do this to people just because they don’t believe.
1. But the better question is, How could nonbelievers be so unloving? God blessed them in thousands of ways with life and sustenance and protection, and yet instead of appreciating Him and serving Him, they despised Him.
2. When He so loved the world that He gave His Son, instead of welcoming Him and worshiping Him, they rejected Him and killed Him.
C. Others have asked, Wasn’t it actually Satan’s fault? Why are the deceived punished just like the deceiver? (2Corinthians 4:4)
1. We all cheer when we read about the devil being thrown into the lake of fire. After all, he was the serpent of old who tricked Adam & Eve into sinning in the first place!
2. Have you ever heard of the Stockholm syndrome? In 1973, a convict on parole tried to rob a band and took four employees hostage in one of the bank's vaults in Stockholm, Sweden for six days. Strangely, when the hostages were released, none of them would testify against their captor in court. Instead, they began raising money for his defense. So, they had to be punished for their participation in his crime, even though originally they were his victims and captives.
3. It is similar with mankind. In spite of the fact that we were originally deceived by the serpent, instead of repudiating his influence, we chose to continue living in his lies even though we knew the truth (Rom.1:18-22 Cf. Rom.3:9-12, 8:7). So, they have no excuse.
IV. Verse 13 says that people are judged according to what they had done.
A. And there are many times in the Bible where it says this.
B. And there’s a big problem with what this means. It is commonly assumed that this merely means that each person is judged by how many good things versus how many bad things were done during their lives. It’s sort of like the concept of Santa Claus: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town...He sees when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
1. Santa gives good gifts as rewards to good little children, but he is going to give a piece of coal to those who have done bad things like crying, pouting or not sleeping when you’re supposed to sleep. So, here’s the problem:
a. Some people pout more than other people. But all of us pout every once in a while.
b. Some people are selfish more than other people. But all of us are selfish every once in a while.
c. Some people are ungrateful more than other people. But all of us are ungrateful to some extent.
d. Some people worry more than other people. But all of us worry every once in a while.
2. People’s lives are on a spectrum of how much they pout and how much they act selfishly and how much they are ungrateful and how much they worry.
3. So, you would think God’s judgment would also be on a spectrum. But that’s not the case here and elsewhere.
4. When the perfectly just God judges this wide spectrum of humanity, He sends them to only two destinations, destinations extremely opposite to each other: some get thrown into the lake of fire and some are exalted into the glorious city of God.
5. It would make sense if all people were either a Mother Teresa or an Adolf Hitler. But they’re not, are they? There’s a big spectrum in between: in terms of beliefs, in terms of treatment of others.
C. There have been, of course, attempts to invent a spectrum of results to take the place of these two.
1. But it is contrary to Scripture. The whole concept of purgatory comes to mind.
2. But there’s nothing here or elsewhere which would imply some kind of purgatory. There are two destinations here, plain & simple. There isn’t even the slightest suggestion of a third alternative, where one gets purified by fire for 1000s of years before being worthy to enter the heavenly city.
D. But if there is no hint of a spectrum of destinations, how could it possibly be just to have only two?
1. How can it be that when God looks at mankind with His perfect eyesight, He sees not so much a wide spectrum, but two distinct kinds of people?
2. It just doesn’t make sense – if indeed the Santa Claus model is the correct way to interpret the idea that God judges by what people do.
E. But maybe the fact that there are only two ultimate outcomes – the lake of fire and the city of God – implies that the meaning of being judged by what we have done isn’t what many have assumed.
F. What else could it mean? When God looks at a person’s life, what does God see that we don’t see?
1. Well, in order to understand this we need to look at what this passage says about the Book of Life. Because, you see, though v.13 says that people will be judged by what they had done, it also says in v.15 that salvation is determined by whether or not a name is written in the book of life.
2. So, these two must be the same. The people cast in the lake of fire for what they had done are the same people whose names were not written in the Book of Life. And the people who ascend into the new Jerusalem (Rev.21) because of what they’ve done are the same people as those whose names ARE written in the Book of Life.
3. To complicate matters, in other places in the NT, it says that people are saved by faith (John 3:15-16, Acts 16:31, 1Cor.1:21, Eph.2:8). But the key to understanding all this is to realize that these aren’t contradicting each other. Rather, they are designed to interpret each other.
4. Those who are cast into the lake of fire on account of what they did are those who don’t believe and they are also those whose names are not written in the Book of Life.
5. And those who ascend to the new Jerusalem on account of what they did are those who believe and those whose names are written in the Book of Life.
G. It all makes sense if we think of it this way: before the creation of the world, God chose some to be His own, and their names were written in His book of life.
1. Then at some point in their lives, each of those people are brought to faith by the work of the HS in their hearts.
2. This work in their hearts transforms the way they think, the things they desire, the way they live, the things they do. One thing they do is love God, something no one else does.
H. And so when God looks at a person, He sees all of this. It all goes together in one package. It’s either all there or none of it is there.
I. We get more detail from the fuller title for the Book of Life: Rev.13:8 calls it “the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain,” and 21:27 “the Lamb’s book of life.” This helps us see that the distinguishing factor has to do with the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God.
a. You see, all men are sinners, and deserving of God’s wrath.
b. But those whose names are written in the book of life, who believe and love the Lamb do not suffer judgment for their sins because the Lamb has already suffered it for them.
(1) He has freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev.1:5).
(2) By His blood He ransomed people from every tribe, language, people and nation (Rev.5:9).
c. These people are saved through the Lamb’s righteous deeds and especially through His death.
J. So, some kings and queens go in the lake of fire, some go to the new Jerusalem. Some slaves go into the lake of fire, some to the new Jerusalem. Some pastors go into the lake of fire, some go to the new Jerusalem. Some children who died before they reached adulthood go into the lake of fire, some go to the new Jerusalem. The determining factor is whether their dead and sinful hearts have been made alive by the power of God, which inevitably leads to a transformed life, or whether their hearts remain dead and unyielding.
K. But how do you know if your heart is dead or if its been made alive?
1. And how do you know if your name is written in the Book of Life?
2. One good question to ask yourself is,
a. Do I WANT my heart to be made alive? Do I WANT my name written in the Book of Life?
3. And how MUCH do you want it? Do you want it more than everything else in your life? Are you willing to be rejected by your loved ones? (I’m not saying you WILL be rejected, but you need to be WILLING to be.)
4. The great thing is that if you have an abiding passion to be in it, you ARE in it. Not because you want it, but because He’s working in you to want it.