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. 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. – Revelation 20:11-15 ESV
John now receives a new part of his vision. He is shown a great white throne upon which someone is seated. John does not provide us with the name of this individual, but it is safe to assume that it is God. More significantly, it is probably Jesus, the Son of God, as the second member of the Trinity, who is prepared to judge the world. Jesus spoke of this very moment to His disciples.
25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” – John 5:25-29 ESV
We can also turn to the words of Jesus, spoken to the church in Laodicea.
“The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” – Revelation 3:21 ESV
Matthew also recorded the words of Jesus revealing this coming moment in time.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – Matthew 25:31-36 ESV
So, in this scene, it is likely that the one seated on the throne is Jesus Christ Himself. We know this, that His eminence and power are so great, that John describes the earth and sky as fleeing away from His presence. We cannot be sure exactly what John means by this phrase, but we know from elsewhere in Scripture, that God is going to completely destroy the old heavens and earth and completely remake them.
…the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. – 2 Peter 3:7 ESV
…the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. – 2 Peter 3:12-13 ESV
This fits in with the words of Jesus revealed in the very next chapter of Revelation, and spoken from the very same throne.
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21:5 ESV
His throne is white, signifying His righteousness and justice. The psalmist provides us with insight into the nature of His throne and why He is the one who is worthy to sit in judgment on the nations.
1 The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
2 Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. – Psalm 97:1-2 ESV
It is important that we note the difference between this scene and one described by Paul in his second letter to the believers in Corinth. In his letter, he was encouraging them that, while they must suffer in this life and undergo the ongoing decay of their mortal bodies, there was a day coming when they would received new, resurrected bodies. In the meantime, they were to be of good courage, to walk by faith and to live their lives in order to please God. And then Paul told them, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). This is a different scene altogether from the one John is seeing in his vision. The Greek word Paul used to describe the seat or throne upon which Christ will sit in judgment of the Corinthian believers was bēma, and not the word, thronos that John uses. The Bema Seat of Christ refers to the time and place from which He will judge all those who are part of His bride, the church, immediately after the rapture of the church. The apostle Paul told the believers in Rome, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10 ESV). Paul also told the believers in Corinth what would happen on that day, when they stood before the Bema Seat of Christ, immediately after their rapture from the earth.
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. – 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 ESV
The Bema Seat will be a judgment reserved for the church. And it will be a judgment of a different sort. Rather than judgment of our righteousness, it will be a judgment of the works we have done on this earth as followers of Christ. This will have no impact on our salvation. It will not be used to determine our worthiness to enter into God’s presence, but will reveal “what sort of work each one has done.” Paul goes on to tell the Corinthian believers, and us, that Jesus will “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5 ESV). All will be saved, but we will be shown just how many of the works or deeds we did in this life were not done in the power of God and for the glory of God. Those unworthy deeds will be burned up, leaving only those things that God did through us by the power of His indwelling Spirit.
But back to the great white throne. This is a different time and place. This scene takes place at the end of the 1,000-year reign of Christ. And John describes seeing “the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened” (Revelation 20:12 ESV). It would appear from the context, that these individuals represent all the evil or unbelieving who have ever lived and who died in their sins, apart from God. Upon death, their souls were sent to Hades, a holding place for the wicked. The reference to death in these verses has to do with not just their physical death, but their spiritual separation from God. Those who die outside of Christ, do not go to be with Him in heaven, but their souls are sent to Hades, where they remain until the Great White Throne Judgment. As John sees in his vision, at this judgment, the millions upon millions of unbelieving dead will appear before God, with newly resurrected bodies.
There are at least two books mentioned as being integral parts of this scene. One is called the Book of Life. And much like the Bema Seat Judgment, this judgment will involve a judgment of works or deeds. But in this case, the wicked who stand before God will be “judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13 ESV). And because they had no indwelling presence of the Spirit, all of their works will be tainted and marred by sin. There will be no works of righteousness. And, as a result, they will have no inherent merit or earned status of righteousness by which to gain access into God’s presence. And John provides us with a sad reality concerning this scene of judgment. Not one single person will find their names written in the book of life, because they did not accept God’s free gift of salvation, made possible through the gift of His Son. And John makes it painfully clear that, “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15 ESV).
One day, when Jesus was speaking with a group of Jews who had been following Him, He told them:
27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:27-29 ESV
Notice that they wanted to know what they must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus made it clear that they must believe in Him, the One whom God had sent to be their Messiah and Savior. That is the one work that must be present at the Great White Throne Judgment in order for anyone to find their names written in the Book of Life. And, according to John”s description of the account, there are none found standing before the throne whose lives were marked as having done that one required work: Expressing their belief in Jesus Christ.
The one thing that seems to be missing in this scene is the judgment of those who are alive at the time, but who have placed their faith in Christ during the days of the tribulation. We also are given no indication of when or how those who have died as martyrs during the time of the tribulation and those believers who die natural deaths during the 1,000-year reign of Christ are judged. The time, location and specific nature of this judgment, which most certainly will happen, is not given to us in Scripture. But the Great White Throne Judgment will be reserved for all those who have died apart from Christ and without having accepted the free gift of grace made possible through His death and resurrection.
One of the most enlightening passages of Scripture concerning what we see happening in this vision was provided to us by John himself in his gospel account.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:16-21 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.