The Great White Throne Judgment

Revelation 20:11-15

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2012

The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Last week we looked at many topics in Revelation 20.  We studied the punishment of Satan, the first resurrection, the millennial reign, the second resurrection and the final rebellion.   We will be looking at only five versesbut these verses are extremely important.   They describe the final judgment of the wicked.  It is not a pleasant picture.  It is one of the most frightening pictures in the entire Bible.  You may not like this section of Scripture.  It is not a passage you read to feel good.

John didn’t invent these things.  He didn’t create them, like a novel.  They were supernaturally revealed to him and he just wrote them down.  It was not pleasant for John.  He saw a vision.  He says, “And I saw”.  What did he see?  He saw four things.  He saw a throne.  He saw the Judge who sat on the throne.  He saw people brought to this court for judgment and he saw the sentence they received.  He saw what happen to them.  What happen to them is that they were cast into the lake of fire.

The first thing John sees it a throne and someone sitting on it.  It is not the only time in the book that we have seen a throne in heaven and someone sitting on it (cf. 4:2) but this is a different kind of throne.  There I no rainbow of mercy around this throne.  Two words describe this particular throne.  It is said to be GREAT and it is said to be WHITE.  It is the only time in the book that we see a throne in the book described as “great and white”.  It is great because God sits on this throne.  The eternal judge of the universe sits on this throne.  It is also described as white.  Why white?  Why isn’t this throne pink or purple?

White stands for purity.  White stands for holiness.  Revelation is a symbolic book and white is a symbolic color.  When Jesus walked among the churches, he had white hair (1:14).  He was seen seated on a white cloud (14:14).  When Jesus returns on a white horse (19:11) and why we will return on white horses (19:14).

Some judges are corrupt.  Sometimes they render decisions without all of the facts.  Some judges act as if they think they are above the law.  Some judges are biased.  They show favoritism or are unjust.  They condemn the innocent and let the wicked go free or give them a very light sentence for terrible crimes.  They can be bought.  They can be bribed.

This judge sits on a white throne of holiness and justice.  This judge is fair and impartial.  He is a righteous judge (Psalm 7:11).  He knows all of the facts.  He sees everything that happens.  He knows everything and he remembers everything.  As Abraham said in the Old Testament, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).

John was not the only one to have a revelation of this judgment.   The prophet Daniel in the OT saw the exact same judgment in Daniel 7:9-10.

“Thrones were set in place and the Ancient of Days took his seat.

His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool.

His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.

A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him.”

“ Notice the many similarities between Daniel and Revelation.  The setting is exactly the same.

Judgment in Daniel 7 and Revelation 20

1. They describe a courtroom.

This courtroom happens to be located in heaven and is surrounded by angels.  This is the Supreme Court of the Universe.  This judgment will be final and eternal. There is no appeal in this case, because there is no higher court to appeal to.

2. They mention a judge.

Court rooms have judges.  Daniel even gives the name of the Judge (The Ancient of Days).  Everything about the judge is white.  His hair is white (Daniel).  His clothing is white (Daniel).  The throne he sits on is white (Revelation).

3. They describe a throne.

This judge sits down and from this throne He judges people and decides their eternal destiny.

4. They describe the accused.

Revelation focuses on this aspect.  One of the first thing that happens is the bailiff enters the room and says “all rise” as the judge enters.  The defendants rise and the proceedings begin.  Guess what.  In Revelation, the accused are said to stand before this throne (20:12).  How do they get to this judgment?  There get there by resurrection.

John says, “I saw the DEAD STANDING”.  They were dead and now they are standing. Their soul becomes united with their body.  The body comes to life only to stand before God and to be held accountable for what they have done. The accused stand face- to-face before this judge.

5. They mention books being opened.

If any of you have been in a courtroom.  One of the first things a judge does after he sits down is to open the books to see what the charges are in the case brought before him.  The books are opened in the final judgment as well.

There are two kinds of books mentioned.  There is the Book of Life, which a book of names, and there are books of works (a book of deeds).  The second book is in the plural.  There is one book of life but there are many books of works.  There is one Book of Life that has the names of all of the saved people of all eternity.  Each unsaved person has a book of works.

You can picture billions and billions of these books stacked up.  Each book contains a list of good deeds and bad deeds.  Could you imagine a list of ALL of the sins you have committed in your entire life, not just all of the things you did but all of the things you said and all of the things you thought?

It would be a pretty long list, because we sin every day of our lives.  God keeps perfect records of everyone’s life.  This is when all the skeletons will come out of the closet and all those secret sins, things that no one knows about but you will come to light (Ecclesiastes 12:14; Romans 2:16; I Corinthians 4:5; Luke 12:2-3).

The Psalmist says, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” (130:3). That is a scary thought.  On this day, God will have a record of sins, recorded in a book and will hold sinners accountable and punish them for each and every sin.

There will be two stages to the Great White Throne Judgment.  Stage one will determine if you are saved or lost.  The presence of your name in the Book of Life (20:15), is what saves people not their works.  Stage two is the penalty phase (based on the book of works).  Works do not determine salvation but determine the degrees of reward or punishment.  Judgment will be based on what is written in the book of works.  “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (plural).

Applications and Lessons

1. Believers and unbelievers will be judged at different times.

Many believe that they will be judged at the same time in one final end-time judgment but that view is not supported by Revelation 20.  There are two separate resurrections.  The first is for believers (who cannot be hurt by the second death) and the second is for unbelievers (who are hurt by the second death).

The Great White Throne Judgment will be a judgment of all of the unsaved dead throughout history.  It will involve billions and billions of people.  These people will come from all different time periods and will involve all classes of humanity (every race, religion, nation and social class).  John says that the small and the great will be there (“from truck drivers to presidents,” as my pastor puts it).

The rich and powerful will stand before this throne (famous celebrities and athletes, movie stars, CEOs and even heads of state).  There will be millionaires there, along with poor people. There will be some highly educated people with PhDs.  There will be other people there who have never been to college, some who cannot even read or write.

There will be some very wicked people at this judgment.  Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Jack the Ripper, Osama Bin Laden and all of the mass murders and serial killers throughout history will be there.  Many moral people will be there as well.  Some of your own family members may be there.  Big sinners and little sinners will stand before this throne.

Critics ask if there can be good people in hell (e.g., Gandhi). There will be “good people” in hell but good only from man’s point of the view.  The Bible says that “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). Paul not only says that there are not good people; he says that there are no exceptions. Anyone who rejects Christ will stand before this throne.

There will be people at this judgment who have no religion or a false religion.  Atheists will stand before this throne.  Won’t that be embarrassing?  There will also be some professing Christians there.  Jesus said there will be some people there who call him Lord and know who he is but are lost.  There will even be some Baptists there.  One of the Apostles will be there (Judas).

Christians and This Final Judgment

If you are a Christian, you may think that none of this applies to you.  No Christian will go before the Great White Throne Judgment.  Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life”. 

The Bible says that “there is NO CONDEMNATION to those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1) and that “Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come” (I Thessalonians 1:10).

It is true that not a single saved person will stand before the Great White Throne but there are two ways this applies to us.

  • Christians will not stand before this throne but they will stand before another throne.  II Corinthians 5:10 says “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”
  • People who stand before the Great White Throne Judgment will be judged by works and the Bible teaches that believers will also be judged by works (2:23; 11:18b; 14:13; 22:12).  We are saved but grace but will be judged by works.

2. This judgement will involve complete transparency.

People will not be able to hide from this judgment.  Death cannot hide them.  The grave can’t hide them.  Even the sea can’t hide them.  There is nowhere to hide.  The Great White Throne Judgment takes place AFTER the destruction of the earth.  II Peter 3:10 says that this earth is going to burn up.

Even Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).  John describes this poetically.  Revelation 20:11 says, “The earth and the heavens fled from his presence” .  The next chapter in the book alludes to this.  Revelation 21:1 says, “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”  It will be so terrifying that people would like to run away from this judgment but there will be absolutely nowhere to go.

People will not be able to hide from this judgment, not will they be able to hide what they did on the day of this judgment.  It will all come out.  They may have been able to hide it from men but they will not be able to hide it from God.  He sees all, knows all and records all (book of works).

Jesus said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3).

3. The Final Judgment will be Terrifying.

There is not a more frightening picture in the entire Bible.  This is one of the scariest passages in the Bible.  If your name is not in the Book of Life, not only do you end up in the Lake of Fire.  That is mentioned three times in two verses (20:14-15).  Not only do the unsaved end up in the Lake of Fire and not only do they stay there forever without the possibility of getting out or escaping but they will be THROWN into the Lake of Fire.  The Bible says that it is “a fearful things to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).  It is scary for sinners to stand before an infinitely holy God alone without anyone to represent them or stand as a mediator.

4. This Final Judgment will be Completely Fair.

Everyone who goes to hell will get exactly what he or she deserves.  Sinners will receive their wages.  They will get what’s coming to them.  If you go to heaven, you get what you don’t deserve.  Hell will be fair because the punishment will be individual.  How do we know this?

Two times in the text that this judgment will be according to works (20:12, 13).  People will be held accountable for exactly what they have done on earth.  They will not be held accountable for what others have done.  Since this judgment will be according to works, everyone could not receive exactly the same punishment, because different people have different works.

Everyone who is not written in the Book of Life is cast into the Lake of Fire.  No exceptions!  They all go to the same place but the punishment for each person will be different, because it will be based on works.  Hitler’s works are different from the works of other unbelievers.  God will not punish the best person who ever lived but was lost in the same way that he would punish the worst person who ever lived but was lost.

5. The Judge is Perfectly Holy.

Many have a completely different view of God than the one who is found in Revelation 20.  Many picture God just as loving and forgiving.  Many see God just as a Savior and not as a Judge.  The God of Revelation 20 is infinitely holy.  He sits on a white throne.  He judges people.  He casts people into a lake of fire.

That is the problem with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins.  He overemphasizes God’s love.  God has other attributes.  If you overemphasize some of these attributes, you have an imbalanced view of GodI have heard some say, “God doesn’t send anyone to Hell.  You send yourself to Hell”.  It is a common argument. The problem is that it is NOT true.  All you have to do is to read Revelation 20.

Everyone who goes to hell is sent to hell by God himself.  The text says that those whose are not written in the Book of Life will be thrown or CAST INTO the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:15)[1].  They don’t jump in voluntarily.  They go in kicking and screaming.  It is a picture of absolute fear and terror.

6. There is no second chance after death.

If you notice, God does not give any of these people a second chance.  He simply looks in a book to see if their name is in the book.  No second chance is given.  If you are going to get saved, you have to get saved on earth.  That is why the Bible teaches “Now is the day of salvation” (II Corinthians 6:2).

That leads us to a few questions.  Will you be cast into the Lake of Fire?  Where will YOU spend eternity?  Will you spend eternity in heaven or in hell?  Will you accept Jesus as your SAVIOR or as your JUDGE?  Will Jesus pay for your sins or will you pay for your own in the Lake of Fire?  Will you be a part of the first resurrection or the second resurrection?

The only hope to avoid this terrible judgment is to come to Christ, get saved and have your name written in the Book of Life.  As John MacArthur says, the two options are to plead guilty and receive a pardon or to plead innocent now and face the One who sits on the Great White Throne Judgment.  You either have Christ pay for your sins on the cross or, if you reject Christ, you pay for each and every sin in the Lake of Fire.

7. You can know if your name is in the Book of Life

This passage also raises the important question on assurance of salvation.  Is YOUR name is in the Book of Life?  If your name is not in the Book of Life, your destiny is the Lake of Fire.  The question is not just whether your name is on the rolls of some church, in some church’s book, but whether you are written in God’s book.

Many will say that only God knows whose names are written.  That is not true.  In Philippians 4:2-3 Paul lists the names of some people that are in the Book of Life.  How did he know some of his co-workers were in the Book of Life?  Did God take him to the Third Heaven and let him look inside this book?

Apparently, it is possible to know right now that your name is in the Book of Life without going to heaven to see the book.  Jesus told the 70 disciples in Luke 10:20 that their names were written in the Book of Life.

We can know if our names are written in the Book of Life because the Bible says that we can KNOW that we have eternal life (I John 5:13).  We can know that we are elect.  II Peter 1:10 says that we can make our calling and election SURE.  How we can know this is a whole separate issue on assurance which we have already dealt with.

8. Some people will die twice.

Four times in the book, John speaks of “the second death” (2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). No other place in the Bible mentions the second death.  If you are saved, you will die only once.  If you are unsaved, you will die twice.  They die once physically.  Then they are raised from the dead and cast into the lake of fire to die a second time.  The second death is not physical but spiritual.  As Greg Beale points out, since spiritual beings, like Satan and his angels, are sent there as well.[2]

There is a famous quote that comes from Martin Luther.  It was found in the margin of his Bible.  It said, “Born once – die twice; Born twice – die once”.  If you are not saved, you will have to die twice.  If you are saved, you only die once.

9. We need to share the gospel with others.

This section makes us more accountable as believers to evangelize the lost.  We know what is going to happen on that judgment day.  They don’t.  If they die in their sins, they will go to Hell.  If we had a chance to share with them the message that could have saved their life and we don’t give it to them, God will hold us accountable in some sense.

If we warned them and they rejected our message, they will be held even more accountable on the Day of Judgment.  If we are saved, we have a responsibility to WARN the lost about this judgment.  Paul says that if we do not warn the lost we can become responsible for their final lostness (cf. Ezekiel 3:16-19; Acts 20:26-27).


[1] Jesus said to the goats, “DEPART from me into eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41)

[2] Gregory Beale, The Book of Revelation (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 1036.

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