(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.
The idea of world-wide judgment is common language in the prophets and should not give us the inclination to view this as the final day of judgment. The bible reader has seen judgment scenes like this throughout the biblical text; it’s important to hold fast to the things we have heard and seen from God in the past, and not get jumpy as we approach the end of Revelation. We must interpret this vision by proper exegesis, considering the details, the context, and the rest of the scriptures in order to reach a result. I used to be too quick to believe that this was a vision of the final judgment, that I neglected to consider all the details in this chapter that prove otherwise. Even more, I neglected the witness of many other scriptures that shed light on this vision.
The first thing to note about this judgment scene that ends with a lake of fire, is how it is connected to the “Gog and Magog” symbol for the previous verses, which pictured the world against the faithful. In the end of that situation, God entered into judgment and rained torrential rain, hail, fire and sulfur (Ezekiel 38:22), sending fire on Gog (Ezekiel 39:6), building up a figurative lake of fire.
“And I will set my glory among the nations, and all the nations shall see my judgment that I have executed, and my hand that I have laid on them.” (Ezekiel 39:21).
Therefore, it is natural to see a judgment scene in Revelation 20, following the world-wide figure of “Gog and Magog.”
What is important to recognize about this world-wide judgment in the text, is that this is the natural pattern which the prophets used after declaring judgment and doom on the house of Israel. We had certainly seen the judgment on the old covenant people in chapters 14-19, now we can expect that God will have a few things to say about the rest of the world who is also guilty of much wrong. They have not been forgotten by him.
Isaiah, using this pattern, spoke of the punishment of the gentile nations (Isaiah 24), following his oracle against Jerusalem (Isaiah 22), saying,
“The earth staggers like a drunken man; it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. (21) On that day the LORD will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth. (22) They will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished. (23) Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed, for the LORD of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders.” (Isaiah 24:20-23).
Later, in Isaiah 66:15-24, a prophecy after the fall of Jerusalem (70 A.D.), he spoke of God’s judgment on the rest of the world,
“For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. (16) For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many. (17) Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the LORD. (18) “For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory” (Isaiah 66:15-18).
Then there is Joel 3:1-17, which provides us with the same figure of judgment for the rest of God’s enemies after the fall of Jerusalem, saying,
“Hasten and come, all you surrounding nations, and gather yourselves there. Bring down your warriors, O LORD. (12) Let the nations stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. (13) Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” (Joel 3:11-13).
Zechariah gives us another example of this pattern of prophecy. After he spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:1-11), he turns to speak to all the wicked nations who took part in the desolations,
“And this shall be the plague with which the LORD will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths.” (Zechariah 14:12).
What have we learned, therefore, but that God does not forget the wickedness of the nations. It is the Lord’s pattern of behavior to visit them after he visits those who are nearest to him,
“For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (18) And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (19) Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:17-19).
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it.” We have seen many great examples above of this pattern of Judgment, but there is one example that we must talk about for its likeness mirrors what we are seeing in Revelation 20. In Daniel 7:9-11, Daniel records a vision of God judging the beast after the fall of Jerusalem, he writes,
“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. (10) A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. (11) “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.”
Notice the similarities between what Daniel and John saw. They both saw thrones, plural (20:4), and God seated on the throne. They both describe the fiery elements of this judgments, of the books that were opened, and of the beast given over to fire. As these two prophets spoke of the exact same timeframe, about the same peoples, and similar judgment language, the conclusion is that the judgment of Revelation 20:11-15 is the same judgment of Daniel 7:9-11. This interpretation is the only one that I can see which honors the parameters of Revelation’s timestamp of “things that must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6). Daniel is not talking about the fall of of Rome itself, and neither is John, for the fall of Rome (476 AD) was certainly not a thing that would “soon take place,” but Daniel and John are talking about the beast’s fall to the Kingdom of Christ.
“But the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end. (27) And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.” (Daniel 7:26-27).
This is why Daniel records the beast up to only ten full horns, from Caesar to Vespasian, for in the days of Vespasian came the fall of the old covenant, and therefore, the consummation of Christ’s temple and throne in heaven. If Daniel was talking about the fall of Rome literally, then, his vision would have consisted of a beast with 88 horns instead of only ten, with an eleventh sprouting (Titus).
“From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.” This is a critical point to the context. Heaven and earth passing away will give way for the new heaven and earth in the very next scene of the book, when John says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (20:1).
This judgment in 20:11 is where “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” Now, the first thing that we can say about this with certainty is that this is not a literal passing away, or destruction of the earth. That’s one of the biggest problems that people must face with interpreting this judgment to be the final judgment at the end of the world. This vision is signified (1:1), it is not literal; so, we know that the earth and sky passing away is not literally true for this depiction of what “must soon take place” for the first century generation.
Heaven, or the sky, and earth passing away is common judgment language which God throughout scripture. In God’s regional judgment against the land of ancient Edom, he said, “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll.” (Isaiah 34:4). In judgment against ancient Judah, Jeremiah said, “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. (24) I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.” (Jeremiah 4:23-24). See comments on 6:12 for a large list of judgment language. So, the picture of the earth and sky passing away is a figure of the end of a nation, a people, a kingdom, a government, or a covenant. In this case, those days saw the end of the old covenant, and a King set up on God’s holy mountain to rule over all nations and put a new covenant in force upon all peoples. The purpose of this judgment is to reveal the greatness of Christ’s dominion; this is pointed out by Daniel’s vision of this same judgment,
“And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14).
(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.
Contextually, the dead, great and small, are those who were defeated in (19:21), and they were called “the rest of the dead” in 20:5. The other category of dead are those who were martyred during the conflict of those days, and they have already been resurrected in the context (20:4). So, all the dead which are left are those who followed the beast instead of Christ. Therefore, to honor the context, we must accept that this world-wide judgment scene is not the final judgment that would include all men; this is a limited world-wide judgment, those included are the dead (defeated), small and great, who followed the beast.
“And books were opened.” Daniel also recorded this detail of the scene (Daniel 7:10). What is in these books is answered by the context, for it is evident that they are judged by these books, and the text specifies that they are being judged “according to what they had done.” Therefore, these books contain the record of the things they had done.
“Then another book was opened, which is the book of life.” This is distinguished from the other books which contained “what they had done.” So, what is in this book of life? The scriptures suggest that the book of life contains names; the names of those who have life in Christ (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 21:27). Ultimately, all of these books are symbolic, there is no such thing as a physical book of life; these figures represent the knowledge of man’s deeds which are retained in the mind of the omniscient God.
None of these who are a part of this judgment had their names in the book of life, as is evident from 13:8, those who written in the book of life are not considered among the defeated (symbolized by “the dead”) who are being judged in this context. So, why bring out the book of life when not one of these could be found written therein? The figure is presented here to show that the impartial judge has all the evidence before him, and he knows those who are his, and who are not his.
(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.
“The sea” is the domain of the beast (13:1); these are they which follow the beast and worship his image. These are given over to the judge.
“Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them.” These two guys, Death and Hades, were an earlier figure in the book. They are the personified as horsemen in the figures of the book. Death was seen riding a sickly greenish-yellow colored horse; he rode through the house of Israel and killed a figurative “fourth” of them with a plague, while Hades rode behind him scooping up all the dead bodies (see comments on 6:8). Here the personification continues, and the two horsemen now give over the dead whom they had obtained during the conflict.
(14) Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
Death and Hades, the two horsemen whom God had used earlier in the book according to his will (6:8) are thrown into the lake of fire. Even though God used them for his good purposes, this does not change the fact that death is called the enemy in the scriptures. Death is not the result of God, it is the result of sin (Genesis 2:17). As discussed in the comments on 20:11, this is not the final judgment, and the “lake of fire” is never used to refer to the everlasting place called hell. Therefore, this is not the literal circumstance of death ending in the last judgment – like 1 Corinthians 15:26 deals with; but it is a symbolic message within a signified book about “things that must soon take place.” Therefore, the intent of the picture is to show that Christ’s dominion is over all, including death and hades, who he defeated by his resurrection. For comments on the lake of fire, see 20:10.
“This is the second death.” Recall how the context has used the label “second death;” it is to distinguish it from the first death which occurred in the context (19:21; see comments on 20:6). These are “the rest of the dead,” for that is all the dead which are left (contextually speaking), the others were in the first resurrection (see 20:5). The pictures of resurrection and death, whether first or second, are consistently symbolic of victory verses defeat. The faithful have seen great victory in this chapter, and the followers of the beast who followed the deception of Satan have seen nothing but defeat.
(15) And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
See comments on 20:12.