BELIEVERS AT THE GREAT WHITE THRONE?

Great White ThronePMT 2016-036 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

A reader writes

“As I anxiously await the publication of your full commentary on Revelation, I was wondering if you could give me your perspective of the Great White Throne Judgment. Growing up as a dispensationalist I was always taught that it was a judgment of only unbelievers. But then reading through several commentaries from a Reformed perspective, it sounds like it’s a general judgment of everyone (which makes sense, cf. Mt. 25:31ff).”

Gentry responds

Let’s briefly consider Rev 20:12, which is the verse in question.

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne (20:12a).

John’s primary focus here appears to be on the unrighteous dead, who will be thrown into the lake of fire (20:15). We have just seen the judgment of Satan and the destruction of Gog and Magog. Nevertheless, “final salvation is secondarily included” (G. K. Beale 1033). And this seems to be the case because:

(1) “The great and small” is an inclusive image, which John sometimes applies to believers (11:18; 13:16; 19:5, 18), though he can apply it to unbelievers alone (19:18).


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(2) The book of life is one of the books opened, and it only the names of believers (20:12, 15; cp. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27; cf. Ex 32:32; Ps 69:28; Da 12:1; Lk 10:20; Php 4:3). After he mentions both “the books” and “the book of life,” we hear that “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, which seems to include “the book of life.”

(3) This fits the consistent NT witness of a general judgment of all men (Mt 13:26–30, 47, 50; 25:32–33; Jn 5:28–29; Ac 24:15).

Though John does not expressly mention the resurrection here, he seems to imply it. As Beale (1032) observes “standing before the throne” entails resurrection in 5:6, and 20:13 has the sea giving up the dead. This passage focuses more on the significance of that day for judgment (and with the emphasis on the unrighteous) than on the mechanics of that day by means of resurrection. Interestingly, Scripture frequently (though not invariably) reserves “resurrection” discussion for believers, as we see in Paul’s writings (1Co 15:20–23; 1Th 4:13–17).

And books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds (20:12b).

Again as usual in Rev, the aorist passive (ēnoikchthēsan) suggests divine action in opening the books (Smalley 517): all human deeds are open to God (Ps 33:13; 139; Pr 15:3; Jer 16:17; Heb 4:13). This is not a picture of literal books (whether scrolls, hardbacks, or Kindle versions), but a metaphor representing “God’s unfailing memory” (Beale 1033). In this regard we must recognize that the glass sea in heaven is that through which God easily sees the earth. And we must understand that the four living creatures are full of eyes to see all of creation (4:6, 8).


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A basic survey of Revelation from the preterist perspective. It sees John as focusing on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.

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That the “books were opened” emphasizes two realities of the judgment: God’s righteousness and public disclosure.

(1) Regarding God’s righteousness: Men are not left to wonder why they are judged; their “deeds” are recorded in books that will be opened and they are judged on that basis (Ps 62:12; Pr 24:12; Ro 2:6-13; 14:12; 1Co 3:13; 2Co 5:10; Eph 6:8; Col 3:25; Rev 22:12). That there are “books” plural implies the detailed nature of the record and the great number of sins committed (cp. 18:5). “I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned” (Mt 12:36-37//; cp. Mt 10:26).

(2) Regarding public disclosure: All deeds will be publically exposed, “for nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it should come to light (Mk 4:22//; Ro 2:16; 1Co 4:5). Chilton (533) well notes: “The point of the text is not, of course, ‘salvation by works.’ The point is, instead, damnation by works.”

That believers stand before God’s throne at the judgment shows that they too must give an account of their lives (cf., Mt 16:27; Ro 2:6–10; 14:10, 12; 1Co 3:12–15; 2Co 5:10; 1Pe 1:17). But in their case, the slain Lamb’s righteousness shields them from God’s wrath (as anticipated in 1:5). In 7:9–10, 14 we saw the righteous before God’s throne proclaiming salvation through the Lamb. Their victory is through “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11; cp. 13:8; 14:4; 15:3; 17:8). The book of life was written before the foundation of the world (13:8; 17:8), which shows the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation (Ac 13:48; Eph 1:4–5; Ro 9:10–23; 2Ti 1:9). Yet, the judgment of works results in differing degrees of punishment for unbelievers, as well as differing degrees of blessings for believers (Mt 25:20–23; Ro 14:12; 2Co 5:10; Eph 6:8).


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2 thoughts on “BELIEVERS AT THE GREAT WHITE THRONE?

  1. Tom Hill May 24, 2016 at 5:46 am

    Dr. Gentry, I am confused by the “differing degrees of punishment” for the unbeliever in the last sentence of your article. Are you saying there are varying punishments for the unbelievers? A little damnation?
    I am a faithful reader of your blog. I watch for each new post. Thank you for your work.
    Lord bless.

  2. Kenneth Gentry May 24, 2016 at 6:22 am

    Yes, I do believe the Bible teaches degrees of punishment in hell. No degree of punishment will be desirable, however.

    Matt. 11:20-22: “Then He began to reproach the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 “Nevertheless I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you . . . I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

    Matt 16:27: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS.”

    Luke 12:47-48: “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”

    Lk 20:46-47: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, 47 who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”

    Rom 2:5-7: “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his works.”

    As the Westminster Confession of Faith (33:1) puts it: “God has appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged,but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.”

    Heb 10:28-29: “How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

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