Dr. Chris White July 28, 2013
I am fresh returned from camp with our kids, and great stories abounded. Nothing matches the zip line, however. The zip line was the great reveal-er of mysteries. Our raucous, confident campers grew very quiet when they cleared the parking lot and first saw the tower and the distance of the cable. And after you climbed into your harness and climbed the ladder there wasn’t a lot of room on that platform for a divided mind. I assure you that everyone was talking to Jesus up there. But after the first few kids flew down the cable, the enthusiasm took over. In fact, Haley Robbins, upon returning to the top and noticing big Jay had not yet climbed the platform, said to this six-foot six-inch giant, “Just hike up your skirt and get up there.” Quite comical.
The zip line provided one of the more visceral events of camp: lurking fear, adrenaline, a watching crowd, and this laser sense of a moment. We were all very aware of ourselves—that we were afraid or not afraid, that we were going to listen to a voice of caution or we weren’t. For these kids, it felt big. It was big. Because rarely are you so exposed.
That is the emotion of the moment in our passage from Revelation today. As is the case with most of Revelation, the scene is vivid. It is a scene of judgment. And we do it an injustice by trying to describe it before we read it. Let’s just read this together: Revelation 20:11-15.
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 a 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 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.
By this time in Revelation we’ve seen harsh words to the churches of the time for their failing faithfulness, great scenes of worship in heaven, the deaths of many believers, and the calamitous events that lead to God’s intervention for the end of the world. One part of the end as we know it is the judgment of the world. Here we see a great white throne with God upon it. So great and expansive is His presence that earth and sky flee. But the real scene is the gathering of all the dead—known and unknown, well-known and forgotten. Even the sea is emptied of those who had died there. This is similar to the judgment scene in Daniel 7:9: ten thousand times ten thousand stand before God as the books were opened. The idea of a book or books in heaven speaks to God’s knowledge of us and our lives. In Rev. 3:5, those who had died a martyr’s death are assured that they will never be blotted out from the book of life. When the disciples of Jesus returned to him having seen power over demons, he told them not to rejoice over that but that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:20).
What is clear is that these books are binding. What is in them is true, authoritative, and final. More specifically, the books are about us—all humans present and past. God, it appears, records a binding narrative of our lives. On the one hand, the book of life is not only a book of those who had God’s life in them as they lived, but also a book of those who will live past judgment. If you remember the movie “Schindler’s List,” getting your name on Oscar Schindler’s work detail was the only way to avoid death in the Nazi camps. That list was often the only hope for life. With God’s book of life in heaven, that list is life.
There are only two outcomes in this judgment. Some will stand and be in the great worship assembly where, as Rev. 21:3 says, “the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The other outcome, for those missing from the book of life, is the second death in the lake of fire. This is separation from God. It is for those who were judged and found wanting. They were not in the book of life, and when judged by their deeds they were found wanting.
This scene, indeed, offers preachers a hundred rabbits worth chasing. But I am most struck by what is missing: the lack of drama. There are no long defenses of personal behavior or explanations of mistakes. There are books, there are names, and there is judgment. Judgment is not a place of ambiguity. What is not so clear about people here is very clear there. Jesus rightly tells us in the parable of the weed and wheat to give the field time so as to leave alone those that are indeed good but perhaps giving the appearance of bad (Matthew 13:24-30). The playing field of human life is not level. If life is likened to the assignment of building a fire, some people are sent to the woods with only two sticks, others a match, others a box of matches, and still others a shovel full of coals from a hot fire. We do not know one another’s stories. But the Day of Judgment is that event when God’s judgment on humans becomes clear to all creation.
And that is both the call to wake up and the call to find rest.
For those who think that an unfaithful life in this world will show up as a faithful life in that world, it is a call to wake up. Jesus had most of his criticism reserved for the religious who somehow believed that their unfaithfulness would show up as faithfulness in heaven. It would not. Nor will ours. No one should expect that a life directed toward the avoidance of God will be rewarded by God. While we can blame the culture, the age, the season of life, and the modern struggle to believe, what is actually outright rebellion in the heart will show up as outright rebellion in heaven. No matter how many times people tell God what they cannot or will not do, He knows as well as them what they can and should have done. Unfaithfulness will not show up as faithfulness. If faith in Christ was only a form of foot-dragging conformity and resentment, it will be obvious. God full well knows when He is not wanted or honored. And the books will tell the story.
This harsh warning also contains a promise: Faithfulness will show up as faithfulness. Just as there is no hiding unfaithfulness, there is no hiding faithfulness. Remember that the judgment scenes in the Bible are also celebrations. In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, those found faithful at the master’s return are rewarded. The great greeting is this: “Well done, good and faithful servant…Come and share your master’s happiness.” And in the parable of the sheep and goats of Matthew 25:31-46, he reminds those on his right, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine you did for me.” These concrete deeds, seen and unseen, were obvious in heaven. God knew full well what was done. All faithfulness on earth shows up as faithfulness in heaven.
As I like to say, judgment mean that life matters. And so you are never wasting your time in love, forgiveness, or faith.