A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky 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 he had done.Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:11-15)
The Great White Throne Judgment fits descriptions we have about the Day of Atonement, also called Yom Kippur. It was believed that on the first of Tishri (Rosh Hashanna) the books in which all the deeds of God’s people had been recorded were opened in heaven for review. The names of those whose behavior in the previous year had been exemplary in every way were immediately inscribed in the Book of Life. Those whose behavior had been totally without merit were scheduled for death in the coming year.
Obviously, almost everyone was somewhere in between these two extremes so for the next 10 days, called the days of awe, the people conducted a thorough self examination and went around frantically trying to right the wrongs they had committed during the year, because the forgiveness of God required prior reconciliation between men (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance). On the 10th of Tishri, Yom Kippur, the books were closed and those who had righted the wrongs of the previous year were inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. During the 10 days of awe, a common greeting among friends was, “May your name be written in the Book.”
The difference in Rev. 20:11-15 is the absence of the 10 days of awe. The unsaved dead will be resurrected and immediately taken to judgment without any opportunity to make things right. Anything that was not dealt with before the person died will be there to condemn him or her at the Great White Throne. Therefore only those who died in a state of total righteousness will find their names written in the Book at the resurrection of the unsaved.
Traditional Or Conditional?
There’s a lot of talk these days about degrees of good and evil, and some of it has even evolved into a re-thinking of our traditional view of the eternal state of unbelievers. The traditional view is that anyone who fails to personally accept the pardon that God purchased for us with the blood of His son will spend eternity in a state of agonizing punishment in the Lake of Fire.
But some have begun to question this view, asking why an unbelieving humanitarian who led an exemplary life in service to others but failed to acknowledge the Lord as his Savior should receive the same punishment as someone like Hitler or Stalin who murdered millions of people in cold blood. They say it’s not like God to do this, and back it up by quoting Revelation 20:12that says in part, “The dead were judged … according to what they had done.”
To them this verse indicates that a spirit of cause and effect resides in the judgment, and reveals God’s intention to make the punishment fit the crime, so to speak. Therefore, they claim, God who is just and merciful will look upon unbelievers who lived otherwise fruitful lives and hand out a punishment for them that’s shorter and less severe than the mass murderers and torturers receive. But since no matter how good a person is, dying in a state of unbelief must result in eternal death, then at the end of their term of punishment they’ll be destroyed and cease to exist in any form. So, as a reward for their good life on earth, they’ll be put out of their misery after a shorter and more tolerable time of punishment. This is called the “Conditional View” of Hell.
Let’s Back Up For A Minute
Is there Biblical support for this? Let’s take another look at history’s first judgment for sin to find out. By studying the first time an important concept is mentioned in Scripture, we’ll often discover clues to understanding that will help us interpret subsequent similar situations. Scholars refer to this as the Principle of First Mention.
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Adam was created in the image of God, immortal, with talent and ability you and I can only imagine. The same was true of Eve. They were both full of goodness and purity, and they walked and talked with God. They only had one rule and they only disobeyed it once.
But when they did, in spite of the fact that the good in them far outweighed the bad, and though they had only committed one sin, they died and the creation was cursed, as was all their progeny. We all lament the consequences brought upon us by this one act of disobedience. As Paul wrote, “The result of one trespass was condemnation for all mankind.” (Romans 5:18)
Yet they were relatively good, maybe even better than most of us, for the Bible never mentions another sin in their lives. Did their punishment fit their crime? Did God weigh the good of their lives against the bad? Or did He do exactly what He told them He would?
For what it’s worth, I don’t see any shades of gray in God’s dealings Adam and Eve then or with mankind since. I think that applying a scale of relative goodness to the life of each person is a man made idea. For example, take the reverse situation. How are believers granted entry into the Kingdom? Is there any scale of relative merit applied there, or are we all 100% in forever? Some say that the punishment of unbelievers is too extreme, but how many believers deserve the reward we’re getting? Isn’t that kind of extreme, too? If our reward is based only on belief, why wouldn’t their punishment be based only on unbelief?
In Islam, it’s said that at the final judgment Allah will compare the good and bad in each person’s life and then decide whether or not to allow him or her into paradise. (The only guaranteed ticket in is to die in battle as a martyr.) As Christians, we react poorly to that idea. We say it’s unfair, because no one could ever know in advance whether they’re saved or not. And yet some are OK with having that same uncertainty be part of an unbeliever’s lot in terms of judgment.
Couldn’t that uncertainty have the effect of causing someone who doesn’t really believe in Hell anyway to be more confident in putting their salvation decision off, thinking that since they’ve lived a good life they’ll be able to work something out with God after they’ve died? Didn’t we all think we were living relatively good lives until we got saved?
I’m going to suggest that maybe man’s whole understanding of the phrase “judged according to their works” is flawed. Adam and Eve had one rule, and when they disobeyed it nothing else mattered. There was no negotiation, no weighing in the balances. They got what the Lord had warned them they’d get. I think it’s the same with us. I think we have one rule too, and if we disobey it we’ll get just what the Lord warned us we’d get.
What Is The Work That God Requires?
After Jesus had fed the 5000 the crowds that followed Him understandably grew exponentially. He knew they just wanted Him to give them more bread. He warned them not to be so preoccupied with working for food that spoils but to work for food that endures to eternal life.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
There you have it, mankind’s one rule. Believe in the One He has sent. It’s our equivalent to “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the only thing that God requires. If we disobey, nothing else matters. Those who deny Jesus go to eternal punishment according to Matt. 25:46 while the righteous go to eternal life. Isaiah 66:24, Daniel 12:2 & Mark 9:48 all agree.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I know we’re called to live lives that reflect our beliefs and are even promised additional rewards for doing so, and I’d be the last one to advise someone to profess their faith and then forget about living it out. But the simple fact is that faith is the only work that God requires and none of the other things we can do count for anything until we’ve taken that one required step. We’re saved because of what we believe, not because of how we behave. Nowhere in all of Scripture is there even a hint that an unbeliever’s destiny can be altered in the slightest by the “goodness” of his or her life.
In fact, it would appear from scripture that the Lord equates unbelief with disobedience. Paul wrote that God believes His existence is simply too obvious to be missed (Romans 1:18-20). And in 2 Thes. 2:10 he said that unbelievers will perish because they refused to love the truth and be saved. To refuse something is to decline it. It’s a specific action. By doing so, unbelievers have disobeyed the one rule He gave us, and in response He’ll do exactly what He said.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
It bruises our egos to learn this, but none of our good works help God at all, just as none of our sins hurt Him. Remember Elihu’s words to Job about the impact our life has on God.
If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? If you are righteous, what do you give to him,or what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your righteousness only the sons of men (Job 35:6-8).
Isaiah explained this even more clearly. About the religious works of unbelievers, He wrote,
“But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,and their souls delight in their abominations;so I also will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring upon them what they dread. For when I called, no one answered,when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me” (Isaiah 66:3-4)
God only considers the works of believers good to the extent that they’re done out of gratitude, in an effort to please Him, because of what He’s done for us. (1 Cor. 4:5) It’s like when your 3 year old proudly hands you a barely recognizable drawing. It has no intrinsic value to you. But you know your child was trying hard to please you, and it’s the thought that counts. The same is true of our good works.
But unbelievers aren’t trying to please God with their good works, they deny that He even exists. They’re only trying to make themselves feel better. If their good works don’t help God and are motivated by selfishness, where is the justification for considering them when determining their punishment for rejecting Him? This idea makes no more sense than the one allowing rich entertainers and politicians to purchase “carbon credits” to offset their huge “carbon footprints”. The checks they write don’t nullify the effects of their extravagant lifestyle, they’re just trying to make themselves feel better.
If all this is true then you may wonder why God goes to all the trouble to record every one of our actions? If only one of them matters, why bother with the others? The Bible doesn’t answer that question but since God is just, I think that by having everything recorded He can demonstrate that his records are complete and accurate, and that he didn’t overlook a single detail of any person’s life. This will prove that a person’s omission from the book of life wasn’t due to an accident or oversight, but the result of that person’s refusal to do the one thing He requires of us.
And so I think it’s just possible that when unbelievers are judged “according to their works”, only the work that God requires will be at issue. Have they done the one thing that He asked them to do, and that’s to believe in the One He has sent? Remember, in the absence of that one thing, there is nothing that man can do that’s considered good according to God’s standards. Rev. 20:15 agrees. If anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. You can only be written in the Book of Life by being 100% righteous. And you can only become that way by having the Lord’s righteousness imputed to you by faith (Romans 3:10 & 4:5). In other words, to believe in the One He has sent.