Here’s irony: fairness inspires the unfair.
We human beings are often guilty of wrongdoing, secret indiscretions, unfairness, unethical, and even criminal behavior. Yet, oddly enough, we like the idea of justice. That’s why courtroom drama is so popular on television. We love the process of penetrating the subterfuge of lies, finding the truth, and then assigning appropriate justice to it. We all get a certain gratification out of seeing the innocent vindicated, and the guilty nailed. Even our flawed selves find an unjust universe unacceptable.
Today we’ve arrived at a part of the Bible that deals with this subject—final justice. We’re torn when we get to these passages, because part of us knows that it’s right for there to be a reckoning for all the things done on this earth. On the other hand, we don’t like it, because it might involve our getting in trouble.
There are all kinds of ways to deal with our dislike of final judgment. One of them is to simply deny such a thing will happen, that it is only a trick pulled by evangelical preachers to get more money into offering plates. Another is to attack the authors of the Bible, as having lurid, barbaric imaginations (although it is difficult knowing what to do with Jesus, since He spoke of hell more than anyone else in the Bible).
I’ve heard people tell me that if there is a day of judgment, “I’ve been a good person, and I’m hoping my good works will outweigh my bad ones.” I’ve also heard people say they were going to wait and ask forgiveness on that day, as if maybe they would collapse into a puddle of tears, and God would feel sorry for them and let them off.
Even Christians, who know better, have suggested these verses should be reinterpreted to make God look less mean, or hell not so bad. At least, they say, we should pass over such thoughts in silence, since they seem so, well, embarrassing.
None of these attitudes reflects how to deal with the judgment of God. In fact, they strongly demonstrate we don’t understand the seriousness of even one sin, let alone thousands of them committed over the decades.
God originally intended His creation as a canvas for His glory. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps. 19:1-2). Against this canvas of infinite glory, even the smallest stain becomes an infinite vandalism. And we have all contributed to staining that canvas— “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:21). Now that is something to be worried about.
The little deed you did that seemed to disappear so long ago, is actually still there. Time might heal all wounds, but it doesn’t cleanse sin.
Think of a man who spills a bottle of ink on his pants. In order to get the stain out, he decides to hang those pants up in a closet for twenty-five years—out of sight, out of mind. Then, when the quarter century has elapsed, he pulls the pants out again, expecting that time has caused the stain to evaporate. Of course, it hasn’t. And neither has your sin. Nor will God pretend it isn’t there.
And so here in Revelation 20, this entire old creation closes with a courtroom, where God sits as judge.
How could anybody ever possibly make it through His exacting judgment? Walk with me through the verses.
“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” (20:11).
The scene should convey to us a judgment of purity, with no corrupt agenda, no standard, except the very glory of God Himself–the sum of His righteousness, holiness, and love, His goodness, and kindness, and wisdom, His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. It is beautiful and terrible at the same time. From the presence of that glory, the very earth and sky, comprehensive descriptors of the old creation, retreat like a thing startled.
“Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Ps. 102:25-27).
No trees, nor rocks, nor clouds will furnish a place to hide from this kind of judgment.
“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” (Rev. 20:12).
Everyone will be resurrected, despite their personal beliefs and opinions, and regardless of what happened to their bodies after death. And no one will be able to hide behind his or her status. Great persons of rank will find no refuge in their entitlement—I was a king, I deserve special consideration. I was allowed to do those things! Nor will the small people be able to conceal themselves in anonymity—No one knew me, I had no influence, I didn’t hurt anybody. I was a victim, myself! At this point, every person’s life becomes an open book. The exhaustive record of their personal history tells the truth about them without spin, or censorship.
The open exposure continues, with John writing, “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” (v. 13). Even the sea with its mysterious unknown depths can no longer conceal the dead, their secrets, their stories. Nor can hoary death itself cover indiscretions long past.
“Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (v. 14). The regions of death and hades that had functioned like a temporary holding place for departed souls, receives permanent retirement.
“And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (v. 15). This is the critical verse for us, and where our eternity hangs in the balance. Only entry in this book prevents one from perishing in the lake of fire. No last minute begging, reasoning, negotiating will suffice—no exhibits of homegrown righteousness. Only one’s name recorded in the sacred registry prevents the soul from this awful place of torment.
But how does an individual’s name get there to begin with? What quality or character must be connected with it? The answer lies in the fuller title of the book itself: “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain,” (13:8). And perhaps that implies all we need to know.
Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who was slain for our sins, and when we believe in Him and receive Him, the blood He shed for us, even today, answers all our evil deeds that were fast filling up the books, the terrible volumes that were set to be opened on that day—One has died for these sins already, they say. The price has been paid. The judgment has been passed. And it was, on Calvary, as the Son of God “bore our sins in His body onto the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). In that moment of receiving the slain Lamb, God’s claim of final justice upon us falls silent, and we receive eternal life.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24).
Because of this life, one’s name fittingly goes into the book of life.
If you’ve ever looked hard at graffiti, a lot of it is just names—tags, they’re called—most of which you can barely decipher. But if you lived in Chicago during the late nineties, there was one name everybody knew: Kiser. It was tagged everywhere, and that was the aim of the artist (whose real name was Peter Berry). Though it was illegal, he wanted his nickname to become an art form, and to show up in every unlikely place, especially the dangerous ones that required climbing, and risk-taking.
Berry was eventually struck and killed by a commuter train. But the tagging of his name continues, even globally. He achieved the success he wanted, postmortem, and it’s what a lot of us desire—our names, associated with accomplishment, notoriety, goodness, humanitarianism.
If we spend so much time on those pursuits, certainly we can make sure our names are in the most important place of all, the book of life.
You could afford to make any mistake in the world, even the worst ones, but the one you can’t afford is to stand before God with a long record of sinful works and the wrong life. That’s the awful moment when you realize your name is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or the Sports Hall of Fame, or in the history books, or at the patent office, or on top ten lists, but not in the book of life.
Come to Christ, now!