Harry Whittaker
Revelation - A Biblical Approach

Chapter 40 - The Sixth Vision: A Throne and Judgement (20:11-15)

It is by no means certain that the vision of One on a great white throne, “before whose face the earth and the heaven fled away”, is to be read in association with the description of judgement which follows. It may belong to the vision of final retribution on the Gog-Magog rebels. There would be certain appositeness about this view, and such a reading would also mean that the great rebellion is assigned separately to one of the last Seven Visions and is not to be regarded as a contrasting appendage to the Vision of the thrones of the redeemed.

It is, however, more usual to regard the great white throne as the Lord’s throne of judgement (compare Solomon’s ivory throne: 1 Kings 10:18) at the time when “the books are opened: and another book ... which is the book of life” (20: 11, 12).


But what is the time referred to in this vision? A very popular interpretation makes this a judgement, which is to take place at the end of the Millenium - a judgement of those who have lived during the Kingdom age. This is part of a common assumption that this section of Revelation (20:12-22:5) has reference to the time beyond the Millenium. Such a point of view is hardly justified, even though three separate arguments can be presented in support of it. These are worth examining:

Ch. 20:5: “This is the first resurrection” seems to imply, as plainly as can be, a second resurrection, which must be the one described in verses 12, 13: “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God... and the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them”. Then, since the first resurrection is certainly at the return of the Lord, when else can the second resurrection be but at the end of his millenial reign? In effect this argument has been anticipated and answered by the suggestion in Chapter 39 that the first resurrection concerned certain of the more privileged and blessed of the servants of the Lord. The phraseology of 20:4 seems to point to this. In that case, the second resurrection will be the raising and judgement of the main body of believers, who were not already raised.

The phraseology of 21:4 seems to be decisive: “no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither ... any more pain”. Taken by themselves the words would seem to be so comprehensive as to require reference to a time when these evils have been completely and finally abolished. But the context shews that this is actually a description of the experience of the glorified saints in the Millenium: “a bride adorned for her husband ... God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (v. 2, 4). The words just quoted are cited from Isaiah 25: 8, a passage to which no one would dream of giving a post-millenial application.

20:14: “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.” Here both argument and answer are similar to what has just been written. Do these words require reference to the final abolition of death, or is their scope more limited? Again, read in its context, this passage is seen to refer to the blessing of those accepted before the great white throne. Verses 12, 13 picture the judgement itself. Then verse 14 describes the glorification of the worthy - for them “death and hell are cast into the lake of fire”. Verse 15 then tells the dire fate of those who are rejected: “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire”. The shape of the passage seems to require this interpretation.


Over against these arguments, which are anything but insuperable, should be set the mass of details which either demand or strongly suggest a reference of all this concluding section of Revelation to the time of Christ’s Kingdom and not to the aion, beyond it.

The earlier Visions in this set of seven certainly concern events at the beginning of the Millenium. It would be strange if this series is so broken up that a gap of a thousand years is to be read between the fulfilment of some and of the rest.

20:11: “I saw ... him that sat on the throne, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away.” The heaven and earth, which flee away, must be the old human order (compare Revelation 6:14). Is there much point in such a description if this judgement takes place a thousand years after the earth and heaven fled away?

“...and there was no place found for them” is a phrase quarried out of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:35). Again the words suggest the work of Messiah in destroying the kingdoms of men. There is little relevance to the end of Messiah’s kingdom.

21:1: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” Isaiah 65:17and 2 Peter 3:13 are equally emphatic that this is the setting up of the kingdom of Christ.

The allusions in ch. 21: 2, 9 to “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” are difficult to harmonize with a time when all are redeemed. It is impossible to believe that the Bride waits a thousand years for union with her Lord. This new Jerusalem is “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”. The symbolism requires reference to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” at the time of his coming. The context of Revelation 19:7-9 puts this conclusion beyond argument.

20:12: “and the books were opened: and another book ... which is the book of life.” These are unmistakable allusions to Daniel 7:10 and 12:1. Would anyone argue for an application of these passages to the end of the Millenium?

21:3: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” This is a very slightly modified quotation of Ezekiel 37:26b, 27, the time of reference of which is again unmistakable.

The description of the New Jerusalem includes this: “the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour unto it ... they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it” (21: 24, 26). Will there be “nations” and “kings of the earth” when Christ’s reign has been concluded?

The same passage has a long series of undeniable allusions to Isaiah 60: “The city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it ... And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there” - these are two examples but the whole of ch. 21 :22-27 should be studied. Again, the question has an easy answer: What epoch does Isaiah’s prophecy describe? Then what does Revelation 21: 22-27 refer to?

A similar argument can be based on Isaiah 65. Without direct quotation, no less than eight points of contact can be traced between the second half of that chapter and the first eight verses of Revelation 21. So it is reasonable to assume that the two Scriptures are about the same thing. What is Isaiah 65 about?

Ch. 22:2: “And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” So at the time spoken of there will be nations to be healed!

An accumulation of evidence such as this (and the list is not exhaustive) allows of only one conclusion - which the whole of this final section of Revelation refers to the kingdom of Christ and not to the time beyond that. Indeed it seems probable that the only place where the Word of Prophecy peers into the future beyond the reign of Christ is 1 Corinthians 15:28: “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”


“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God.” There can be no doubt that the one on the throne is Christ. In a score of places the New Testament witnesses to the fact that “the Father hath committed all judgement unto the Son”. Of course, this passage is not Trinitarian, but is simply another example of the familiar Bible idiom, which speaks of any who acts on God’s behalf - be he man or angel or Messiah - as bearing the name of God.[81]

The description of those raised from the dead is noteworthy. Not only did “death and hell deliver up the dead which were in them”, but also “the sea gave up the dead which were in it.” This is surely the Holy Spirit’s reassurance to believers that God’s resurrection power can extend even to those whose bodies have not been tidily interred in one place but whose remains may have been scattered to all parts of the ocean or otherwise dissipated to different parts of the world. Drowned at sea, burnt at the stake, or vapourized by a hydrogen bomb, the disciple of the Lord has the same confident expectation of bodily resurrection as any other.


All appear before their Judge, both small and great. The order of words here is to be noted. The great promise of the New Covenant was: “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Jeremiah 31:34). But it is the least who learn first! And it is the least who have priority when they “stand before God!” Thus Scripture teaches the greatness of a humble spirit.

The opening of “the books” and of “the book of life” is not to be pressed literally. Nor should it be inferred from this vivid figure of speech that each individual would separately be called upon to answer for each separate deed, good or bad, which the record of his chequered life preserves. In his discourse on the Last Judgement Jesus spoke of “separating them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.” Again a figure of speech, but the evident meaning is that just as a shepherd knows immediately, without even a moment’s consideration, whether the animal before him is a sheep or a goat, so also the Good Shepherd will distinguish at once, without inspection or inquisition, between the true and the counterfeit.

The phrase “small and great” is taken from Psalm 115:13: “He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great.” This is not an accidental allusion, for the suitability of the context to the events of Revelation 20 is immediately evident: “The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men (new heavens and a new earth!). The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence (this verse interprets: ‘Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire’). But he will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore (in the tabernacle of God when He dwells with men)”.


Before the great white throne there is double emphasis on judgement “according to their works”. This reads strangely in view of the continual New Testament emphasis on justification by faith. Gospels and epistles never cease their exposure of the folly of the man who thinks he can work his own passage to eternal life: “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5: 4). Yet just as explicit is the doctrine that a man is answerable for what he does: “We must all appear (be made manifest) before the judgement seat of Christ; that every one may receive in the body according to that he hath done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5: 10). And there is always the vigorous practical common-sense of the apostle James: “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

Several Scriptures build a bridge between these extremes, outstandingly John 6:29: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” Again: “Whatsoever we ask we receive of him because we keep his commandments, and do those things which are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment” (1 John 3:22, 23). This, then, is the saving work. But why did Jesus call it work? The answer is because faith in him inevitably expresses itself in things done to the glory of Christ. This is why James challenges so bluntly: “Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

Essentially the same synthesis is taught in Jeremiah: “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (17:10). Here at first is emphasis on what a man thinks and is inwardly - in a word, on his faith. But then, immediately, comes the test of his works. Not that any man’s works can be adequate to acquit him before the Lord of all!: “If Abraham were justified before God, he hath whereof to glory ... but not before God!” - not even Abraham. So Jeremiah hints at this in the words: “according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings”. No man can get there in his own strength, but God reckons his faith as righteousness if his “ways” are right, that is, if he is facing the right way. So also the Psalmist: “Unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work” (62:12). Here is a paradox, truly. If God did render strictly according to what a man does, then we are all damned before a great white throne so white as to blind with its whiteness all who stand before it. But to this Judge belongeth mercy - mercy to those who have no faith in themselves but who do have a saving faith to know that what their own achievement lacks is abundantly made up by what the Judge himself has already done for them.

[81] Two examples of each:
a. Exodus 21:6, Psalm 82:1, 6.
b. Genesis 18:13, Hosea 12 3, 5.
c. Isaiah 40:3, 9, Hebrews 1:8.
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