The Great White Throne Judgements Rev. 20. 11-15



Just before beginning this article, I read about a man who the previous day had been sentenced to thirty years in prison for a particularly heinous crime. Due to his age, the probability is that the man will never be reprieved but will die in prison. His will truly be a life sentence.

What a daunting prospect! Yet it is possible that at some point during his incarceration he might trust in the Lord and be saved. If that was to happen, he would be able to declare, like the Apostle Paul, ‘I obtained mercy … And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus’, 1 Tim. 1. 13, 14.

Unlike this man, the people who will be summoned to appear before the Great White Throne have no possibility of mercy. How many opportunities they had in their lifetime to obtain mercy we cannot tell but, alas, they had rejected them all. This judgement is not a trial to ascertain whether they are guilty or not guilty, it is a judgement to confirm their guilt and to consign them, not to a life sentence, but to an eternal sentence.

The time when and the place where

It is not possible to be dogmatic as to where this Great White Throne will be located. What we can state with certainty is that it will not be on earth nor in the created heavens for verse 11 informs us that such is the majesty and authority of the throne sitter that from His face ‘the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them’. Space, or as it is termed in Genesis chapter 1, ‘the firmament’, is part of the original creation, being made on day two of the creation week, so it ceases to exist at the point when this throne is set up. Therefore, whether this judgement takes place in the void created by the total dissolution of every created place, or some other sphere sovereignly chosen by God, we cannot say.

In respect of the timing of the event, we can be more prescriptive, for it occurs in the interval between the ‘dissolving’ of the existing universe, 2 Pet. 3. 10, 11, and the creating of the new heaven and the new earth. God’s first act in time was to create the universe. His final act in time will be to burn it all up. As time is an integral part of the original creation, it too will cease to exist, as we now know it, when that creation is destroyed in God’s cosmic conflagration. So, we may state that this judgement occurs in eternity.

The people judged

All who stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ are saved people, the saved of this church age. Those who appear before the King when He sits upon His throne of glory and judges the Gentile nations at the end of the Great Tribulation will be a mix of believing and nonbelieving people. Everyone who will be judged at the Great White Throne will be unforgiven. These are people who have never repented of their sins.

In verse 12, they are described as ‘the dead’ and although that is true of them spiritually it is a description of their physical state also; they have all died. The verse does not specify how long they have been dead and, therefore, as a general statement it refers to the aggregate of the wicked dead throughout the entire period of human history from Genesis chapter 4 to Revelation chapter 20. This is a vast number, and their status in society whilst living, be it substantial or inconsequential, exempted none of them, for John saw ‘the dead, small and great, stand before God’. However, there are some exceptions to this general statement, including those who are cursed by the King in Matthew chapter 25, for they are cast into ‘everlasting fire’. These will not need to appear before the Great White Throne for their eternal doom will have been settled over a thousand years before.

Although these people are dead, death does not place them beyond the reach of God’s authority. Their bodies are exhumed by a divine fiat from both the sea and the grave, even though, in many cases, they will have lain and decomposed in those places for centuries or even millennia. Barnes in his commentary makes the point that this reference to the sea is literal not metaphoric, adding that it includes ‘all such who have been drowned in the waters of it, as were Pharaoh and his host; or have died upon the mighty waters, and have been cast into them, and devoured by the fishes; and particular regard may be had to the men of the old world, drowned by the flood; these shall be raised from thence; the sea shall deliver them up’.1

The appointed judge

Though not specifically mentioned by name, we know that the execution of all judgement has been committed to the Son of God so that here, just as in previous judgements, He is the appointed judge.

Throughout the various dispensations, beginning with the age of innocence and culminating in the millennial kingdom, man will prove himself to be utterly incorrigible. Adam and Eve were placed in paradise and failed. The millennial age will be the nearest earth will ever get to those Edenic conditions, yet after 1000 years of the most benign rule and an idyllic environment man will once more rebel against God and align himself with the devil. Left to himself, man is an abject failure, yet despite this God has brought within the reach of all peoples the means of salvation. That salvation is possible on the basis of the sufferings, sacrifice and triumphant resurrection of the One who will sit upon this Great White Throne.

How fearful is this event, and how terrible the moment when retrieved from the sea and the grave the bodies of all the unforgiven are reunited with their souls which had been in hell and are made to stand before the very One they had rejected throughout their lives. Blinded by the god of this world, they had chosen to have nothing to do with God’s Son and had shut Him out of their thinking. Now, they have no choice and no longer can they avoid Him.

Two thousand years ago men got close enough to His face to drench it with their vile spittle, close enough to rip off the hair from His cheeks and to blindfold His eyes. Now, in terror, they behold that august face, but whereas inanimate creation is made to flee away from it they are compelled to stand before it.

The throne on which the judge sits is described as great and white. This is not the first throne that John has seen in the book of Revelation. He saw one set up in heaven in chapter 4, which had a rainbow round about it. Here there is no rainbow for there is no promise of mercy. In chapter 4, the throne is ‘set’, indicating permanence and in contrast to the thrones on earth which are going to be overthrown. This Great White Throne is not permanent, it is in place for one event only, the final judgement of sinners. Once that is concluded it has no further purpose.

The basis of the judgement

One of the final descriptions of the Lord that the Apostle Paul makes is found in 2 Timothy chapter 4 verse 8, where he describes Him as ‘the righteous judge’ and the rightness of His justice is displayed here at the Great White Throne. There is a reference in verse 12 to ‘the books’ and to ‘another book’ and the sentence imposed is based on the records found in the books and the absence of an entry in the book.

No title is given to any of the books, but the verse makes it obvious that they are the record of the lives of each person standing before the throne, ‘the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works’. All that these people have done that was contrary to God, or that they failed to do that He had required them to have done, will be laid out as a condemnatory documentation of their guilt. This divine record will neither be overstated nor diluted but will be a precise record of every sin. Mellish states, ‘It is not how a man is born that is judged, but how he lived. It is not the root, but the fruit of his life that is brought into judgment’.2

There may have been a time when a similar catalogue of our sins existed, but the moment we got saved that record was removed and hence Paul can state in Romans chapter 8, ‘Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us’, vv. 33, 34.

As though to doubly verify their guilt, there is another book. It is the Book of Life, but whereas there is much written about them in the books there is nothing written about them in the Book of Life. Eight times in the New Testament we read about this book; on one occasion it is called the ‘Lamb’s book of life’, Rev. 21. 27.

It contains a record of all who have eternal life, life obtained on the basis of being redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God.

The sentence

Having been judged, everyone is banished to the same place. They are cast into ‘the lake of fire’. However, although all are in the same location, they are each punished according to their works, indicating that there must be different intensities of punishment, each receiving what is appropriate for them. However, no matter what the degree of the punishment is, it is relentless, inescapable, and eternal.

This is the judgement we also deserved, but with wonder and thanksgiving we can say like Paul, ‘the Son of God … loved me, and gave himself for me’, Gal. 2. 20. How sweet the words of the hymn of the 1904 Welsh revival,

‘Here is love vast as the ocean,
Loving kindness as a flood,
When the prince of life our ransom,
Shed for us His precious blood’.

[William Rees]



Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: Explanatory and Practical, Online Bible Resource.


Norman Mellish, Revelation: From Tribulation to Triumph, Gospel Folio Press, 2008, pg. 403.


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