The Day of Judgement
Here at last is the end of the "last days". Satan and his agents have been thoroughly defeated, the old world is at an end and the dead are now raised to be judged and weighed in the scales of God's justice. After this the old earth is finished and the new world begins in all its perfection and glory.
The first sight is of a great throne. In chapter four, the first thing John saw in heaven was a throne, the sign of God's Kingdom, and everything else which has happened since then has had that throne in the central place. It is appropriate that this final vision about the last days should also begin with a sight of the throne. God rules, and He will rule and judge us all.
When God's throne was seen before it was not described in any way but now we are told its colour. It is white, the colour of purity and holiness, because the justice of God is perfectly good, fair and right. The just rule of God, which every true christian pines for in this life, will then be executed and established over every man and woman.
In the Revelation there is but one judgement, one throne and one judge. But we shall see that there are two very different ways in which that judgement will work.
All Flesh Gathered Before Christ
EVERYONE will be raised to face Christ. Verse 13 tells us that there are no exceptions.
The resurrection of the dead poses many questions which the bible leaves unanswered. People often wonder how a body can be reconstituted after it has been cremated and has been scattered as ashes or has rotted and merged with the soil. The most extreme case of dissolution must be those whose bodies were lost and scattered at sea but we are told in 20:13 that even the sea will have to give up these dead to face judgement. God obviously has no problem resurrecting anyone.
Every citizen of Hades (i.e. all dead souls) will return to face the Lord. In scripture the souls of the dead are in a waiting state between death and the resurrection. Such souls appear to be conscious but incomplete as they await the resurrection. For those who die in Christ this is a happy condition of rest which Jesus described as paradise in Luke 23:43. We have already seen that Old Testament believers are also blessed as they await the end (Revelation 14:1-5). For those who wait outside of God's grace the experience is an unhappy one symbolised by imprisonment in 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 2 Peter 2:4-10.
This state of waiting (whether in hope or in dread) is often called the "intermediate state" because the spirits of dead men and women are not fully complete without bodies. We await that wonderful condition described by Paul as a "spiritual body", glorious and powerful. The main teaching on this glorious hope is in 1 Corinthians 15:33-58.
There is a surprising amount of reticence in modern christians - and particularly in those charged to be teachers of the churches - to meditate on what the future holds. We often talk vaguely of "heaven and hell" with very little clarity and conviction. Whilst there are many mysteries involved in trying to understand both the intermediate and final states of humanity we ought to meditate on everything which God has revealed to us.
Hope is meant to be a powerful motive for us. We are better equipped to serve Christ now if we have a lively faith in the promises he has given us for the future. In the same way, it is our duty to warn our neighbours that we will all be raised from death to face God and bear the full responsibility for our present actions. The christian gospel of forgiveness from sin hardly makes sense without the background of a terrible judgement to come when we face our Maker.
Some christians seem to think that we immediately reach our final destination when we die. This passage, and several others, tell us that when we die we do not go immediately to our final state - instead we await the last judgement. Some wait in hope in Paradise others wait in dread in "prison".
The christian hope is not purely personal. We look forward to God's name being glorified in every creature and to seeing His rule restored perfectly in a renewed universe. We could not be completely happy until that day. Not only will we be perfected but so will our environment.
Before the glories of the eternal state can be unveiled the last part of the outpouring of God's wrath must be completed. Rebellious mankind must be resurrected to stand individually before God's throne to hear His assessment and sentence upon their lives.
Every person who ever lived INCLUDING YOU will stand alone before Christ to receive either justice or mercy from His lips and everyone will know that that judgement is absolutely Holy and right.
Judged by justice
Everywhere scripture tells us that it will be "with justice" that Christ will judge. Although the lake of fire awaits those who don't receive mercy (v.15) we should not imagine that all the lost suffer exactly the same eternal experience. In the Law of Moses God's penalties were strictly matched to the seriousness of each crime. Reparations and retribution were very carefully measured so that Israel would learn that the Lord was a God of precise justice. We can therefore assume that whatever punishment may be meted from the white throne will be utterly just and fair.
Because the penalty must match the actions of men the "books of deeds" must be opened and examined. God's justice demands that every person be judged and treated as their deeds deserve. Verse thirteen assures us each persons judgement will be "according to what he had done". The worst and most rebellious sinners will receive the worst retribution and we must assume that there will be degrees of suffering in hell.
Throughout this book the connection between our present actions and our future state has been stressed in a number of ways. Positively, we saw the encouragement given to "overcomers" in chapters two and three which is repeated in many ways subsequently. Negatively, we have seen the warnings and signs of God's wrath against "the inhabitants of the earth" who give their loyalty to the Beast and their love to Babylon. This short life we have on earth determines our future destiny because we shall be judged according to our deeds. Dreams of reincarnation or any sort of probation beyond the grave are ruled out by these verses.
Before God's perfect standard no one is innocent. Our characters, words and actions condemn us all. God's justice is wonderful to behold and it is the sure moral bedrock on which the universe is laid but it is a terrible and fearful thing when it falls on sinners like us. This is why everyone whose name is not in the book of life has to share the devil's fate in the lake of fire.
Here, as elsewhere in this book, we find humanity divided into two classes. There is no middle ground, no purgatory for the souls of the half-hearted, weakly committed or ignorant. All who failed to live by faith go to the fate prepared for God's enemies.
Judged by mercy
Thank God for the other book! As well as the books of strict record there is a book of life. This book also records the acts of men - but these are the ACTS OF FAITH. It records those who confessed Christ as Lord and Saviour. These are not acts which earn merit but acts which are signs of faith. The thief who died with Christ and said no more than a prayer to Jesus is recorded in this book. Every believer who ever prayed from the heart to Christ is in this book. Even those who gave one christian a cup of cool water in Jesus' name are here (Matt. 10:42).
This is the book of MERCY. It records persons for whom mercy triumphs over justice (James 2:12/13). In God's mercy our imperfect works are actually REWARDED because they are acts of faith in Christ. Here is a completely different judgement where the dictates of strict justice are laid aside for the sake of a higher justice.
The idea that God had a "book of life" which listed all those who were under His mercy occurs elsewhere in the bible. We have already met this book in Revelation 3:5, where a permanent, unerasable entry is promised to those who overcome in Sardis. Having one's name in the book is contrasted with mere "nominalism", bearing the name of a christian on earth but not having spiritual life.
Such mercy may sound somewhat unfair and it would indeed be unjust if Christ had not died on the cross for the sins of men. The book of life would have no names in it at all if He had not borne the full penalty for human sin on the Cross. The right to have a book of life cost God the agonies and death of His Son.
The important message of this passage is that justice and the dreadful fate of the second death awaits EVERYONE unless their names are written in the book of life. The second death is not simply destruction but eternal torment in the lake of fire. All those who have rejected Christ are servants of Satan, usually unwitting, and their own actions will condemn them to suffer his fate.
The very last of God's acts of wrath is described in 20:15. The earth has been purged and every enemy of God consigned to their eternal fate. After that the world and the survivors of mankind will receive unalloyed blessing from His hand. The times of wrath are over for ever.
Even "death and Hades" are thrown into the fire. We are told in 1 Corinthians 15:25/6 that Christ must reign until he has defeated all his enemies and that the very last to be defeated will be death itself.
We might think it odd that Death should be seen as God's enemy since it was He who first condemned us all to suffer death in the beginning. But, as the early chapters of Genesis make clear, it was never His will that we should either sin or die. Furthermore, Christ has taken our side in the argument with death. When he became a man, sharing our flesh, and offered as judge to forgive our sins he took upon himself the guilt of our sinfulness and the punishment which that entailed.
Jesus suffered death in order to defeat it and empty it of its power. That victory will be completed on the day of resurrection. After that there will be no more dying (Revelation 21:4).
In the same way Hades will be destroyed. That odd "in-between" state in which our souls exist apart from their proper homes (appropriate bodies) will be done away with. The abode of the dead will have been emptied and everyone will have gone to the resurrection of either the saved or the condemned.
The first death and Hades were necessary and good only as a temporary response by God to the abnormal state of mankind while we were in an unresolved rebellion against Him. When perfect justice is restored there will be no place for them. They are thrown into the Lake of Fire to show that they belonged to the state of rebellion and spiritual anarchy which Satan and sinful man embraced.