Revelation 20 The Great White Throne of Judgment

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Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation

Revelation Chapter 20 The Great White Throne of Judgment 

by I Gordon

Bible study lesson Revelation 20 Great white throne of  judgmentWelcome! We are in the second half of Revelation 20 today with just the last five verses left to go. Sounds simple don't you think? Easy-peesy-lemon-squeezy right? Well, it should be but these five verses are arguably the most sobering in the entire Bible. We are talking about the great white throne of judgment in this message and if you have been following this series you may remember when I previously made a short list of the top three 'must-miss' events of Revelation, this was numero-uno. While we will all stand before the throne of God and face our maker, this is not the day you want to do so! But many will be. So what are we going to look at today?    

  • How many judgments, where mankind will stand before God, are still to come?
  • Why is this last one, of all the judgments, specially called 'great'? 
  • Who is it that stands before the throne at this time?
  • What is the way of escape and when should one take it?

Setting the scene... the coming judgments

This is the entire passage we will explore today:

Rev 20:11-15 NASB Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. (12) And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (13) And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. (14) Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. (15) And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Clearly this is a scene of great judgment with eternal consequences. It raises the question of how many judgments, when mankind comes before God, are still to come? 

Judgments to come

There are three main judgments still to come when men and women will stand before God. Spoiler alert: You will stand before one of these three. You want to be at the first one. If you miss that, you want to be a sheep at the second one. Whatever you do, don't be one of the many who appear at the third and last one! They are, in order:

  1. The judgment (bema) seat of Christ: (1 Cor 3:10-15, 2 Cor 5:10) This is for believers and occurs after the rapture and before the wedding of the Lamb. The purpose is for rewarding the life and works of a believer. The judgment results in varying degrees of reward and responsibilities in the Messianic Kingdom age and beyond.
  2. The sheep and the goats judgment: (Matt 25:31-46) This is a separation of people from every nation at the second coming of Jesus, at the end of the Tribulation period. The judgment results in entrance into the kingdom age for the sheep and banishment into hades for the goats. 
  3. The great white throne of judgment: (Rev 20:11-15) This is the judgment before us today and is a judgment of all unbelievers from all ages. There are no believers at this judgment. It is the pronouncement and decree of judgment, resulting in the unbelievers being cast into the lake of fire.

So let's break these verses down, one by one, to try build a clear picture of what is going on.

The Great White Throne

Rev 20:11 NASB Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.

John is given a vision of a great white throne with One sitting on it. And he tells us that heaven and earth fled away leaving just this scene. So a few initial questions come to mind. Why is there a throne? Why is it great? Who is sitting on it? And has this scene been pictured before in scripture? 

  • Has this been spoken of before? When speaking of the last days, Jesus said 'Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.' (Matt 24:35). This is that exact point He was speaking of. It occurs at the end of His 1000 year reign before the eternal state is brought in.1
  • Why is the throne mentioned? This is pretty simple. A throne belongs to a king or sovereign. The scene before us is of humanity coming before the King of kings. They are coming before the creator of the universe, the sustainer of all life and the judge of the living and the dead. 
  • Why is it described as great? While the throne of God is very prominent in Revelation, being mentioned 35 times, this is the only time it is called great. It is great here because of the issues involved. Eternal judgment is handed out for those that appear before this throne at this time. It is also great because of the power of the One announcing the judgment for all that stand before Him. His word is final with no pardon and opposing argument. 
  • Who is the One sitting on the throne? It is the King of kings - Jesus. Let's explore that in more detail...
Jesus is Judge and King

Both the Lord Himself and also the apostles were clear that all judgment had been given to Jesus. Yes, the One whom most people only mention as a swear-word is the One who they will come before as their judge!

Jesus said: "For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. (22) Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, (23) that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him." (Joh 5:21-23)

Peter said: "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. (43) All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (Act 10:42-43)  

Paul said: "For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (Act 17:31)

You will note that the three judgments mentioned above (the judgment seat of Christ, the sheep and the goats and the great white throne of judgment) are all before Judge Jesus. He is everything! As someone once said "The greatest man in history had no servants, yet they called him Master. Had no degree, yet they called him Teacher. Had no medicines, yet they called him Healer. He had no army, yet kings feared Him. He won no military battles, yet He conquered the world. He committed no crime, yet they crucified Him. He was buried in a tomb, yet He lives today. His name is Jesus."

Make sure He has the right place in your life!

The ones before the throne

Rev 20:12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the 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.

So far we have seen the throne and the One sitting on it. Now we read of those that have to stand before this throne. Let's break this verse down as well.

  • And I saw the dead - Who is this? This is the unbelievers of all ages. The Bible never speaks of believers as 'the dead'. It is important to understand that the Bible speaks of two categories of resurrection. There is a resurrection of the righteous and a resurrection of the wicked - but each in their own order and time. Yes, the unbelievers will be raised from the dead to stand before Jesus and be condemned.
    Dan 12:2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
    Joh 5:28-29 Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
    Act 24:15 and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.
  • Great and small - It is important to remember that God is no respecter of persons. Both the great and small, from a human point of view, will stand before God. So notable wicked individuals will be there: Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan... But so might be your neighbor, your school canteen worker. We saw this with the judgment in Egypt which was upon both the greatest and the least: 'At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.' (Exo 12:29)
  • Standing before God - Can you imagine standing before the Judge of the whole world knowing that you had rejected Him during your life and denied His offer of salvation? Some people today think that if they were to come before God they will state their case, or maybe even tell Him a thing or two! Um, excuse me... but no chance! The people before God at this judgment will not say a word. Every mouth will be silenced while they tremble before Almighty God. The judgement will be undeniable and unpreventable... though it was preventable had they listened and responded in time.

This is not a trial, trying to determine what the facts are.  The facts are in; here is the sentencing of someone already condemned.  "Their standing posture means that they are now about to be sentenced." (Walvoord)"
Pastor David Guzik

  • And the books were opened - How do people get out of judgement today? Sometimes it comes down to who they know. Sometimes bribery is involved. Sometimes a tricky or skillful lawyer is able to get their client off. Sometimes they are just skilled liars and conmen! In this world everything is left to the wisdom and integrity, or lack thereof, of man. But not so here! The books were opened and everything is noted and recorded in them. Money, contacts and clever words won't help them now. 'Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.' (Heb 4:13)
  • Another book was opened, which is the book of life - The book of life is also seen at this judgment. This has been mentioned earlier in Revelation where we read: Rev 13:8 All who dwell on the earth will worship him (the antichrist), everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. This book contains the names of all the saved and will be used at this judgment to show that their names are not in this book. It is a scary thought! So where do you want your name listed? In a sports hall of fame? The rock and roll hall of fame? The purple heart hall of honor? Maybe in the list of Nobel prize winners? Do you want your name in a star on a walk of fame? Believe me - none of these things matter if your name is not in the Lamb's book of life!2 
  • The dead were judged according to what they had done - There are none that escape judgment and prosecution in this courtroom scene. Their judgment is based on their deeds which we will explore in the next verse as it is repeated there.
The Way of Salvation
About now is a good time to emphasize salvation again! Our daily bread3 used the following story to illustrate the importance of salvation and the escape from the second death. They write: 

"A prisoner waiting on death row had a deep sense of guilt. He had killed a man in the presence of the victim’s two children during a robbery attempt. The convict was bothered so much that he refused to allow his lawyer to appeal for a stay of execution. For him, departing this life was an escape from his nagging conscience and the reproach of an angry society. He said, “It’s my way out of this living hell.”

How mistaken he was! Unless he had made his peace with God, death would open the door to something far worse—an eternal hell! The Bible says, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We may not be murderers, but we all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). As far as God is concerned, that calls for the death penalty (Rom. 6:23), but He has provided a way of escape. He gave His Son to die in our place, and all who believe on Him are delivered from condemnation. Unlike the convict who was hoping to find release through his execution, we can find true freedom. The Bible assures us, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). He’s the only way out of our sinful dilemma."

Varying degrees of judgment

Rev 20:13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.

Why is the sea mentioned here? William MacDonald writes:

"The sea will yield up the bodies of those who have been buried in it. The graves, here represented by Death, will deliver up the bodies of all the unsaved who have been interred. Hades will give up the souls of all who died in unbelief. The bodies and souls will be reunited to stand before the Judge."
Believers Bible Commentary

While everyone who comes before this great white throne will be sentenced to the lake of fire, the degree of punishment (like the degree of rewards for believers) will vary according to their deeds. Jesus said:

Luk 12:47-48 "And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, (48) but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.

The Basis of Judgment

Some of the factors that will be taken into account are: 

  • The amount of 'light' that they had and rejected: Jesus said that it would be more tolerable for wicked cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, and Tyre and Sidon, than for some that He had ministered to in Israel, because they had the light of the world in their midst and rejected Him! Mat 10:15 "Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. Mat 11:21-22 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (22) "Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.
  • The degree of sin/hardness: Rom 2:5-6 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, (6) who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 
  • The hidden motives: All secrets and hidden motives will be shown. Rom 2:15-16 ...their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, (16) on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
  • The words spoken: Mat 12:35-37 "The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (36) "But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. (37) "For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
  • The influence on other people: This is especially so with the young and impressionable - Mat 18:5-8 "And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; (6) but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (7) "Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! (8) "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.

The Second Death

Rev 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

As the Bible says, the lake of fire is the second death. The first death is physical. The second is spiritual and eternal. The first death is a separation of the body and soul/spirit. The second is an eternal separation from God. Death itself will die at this point. Death itself is the last enemy that must be overcome as scripture says:

1Co 15:25-26 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. (26) The last enemy that will be abolished is death.

There will be no more death after this, nor hades, for both are thrown into the lake of fire. There is an old true saying that goes:

"Born once, die twice, Born twice, die once."

That is, if you are born physically but not spiritually you will die both physically and spiritually. But if you are born bother physically and spiritually, you will only die physically but not eternally. The reality of these sobering verses and thoughts should force us to put these eternal matters first and foremost in our lives and in those that we love. 

Black Hole - A Picture of Hell
As a side (but related) note, I recently read an article about black holes. These have always been somewhat mysterious to scientists but more information is being discovered about them. From a spiritual point of view it seems that God has given them as a warning of what is to come for those that will not believe and receive His salvation. The article I read described black holes saying:

"a black hole [is] a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it... If too much matter is crammed into one place, the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap. Here, according to Einstein’s theory, matter, space and time come to an end4 and vanish like a dream... Many [black holes] are the gravitational tombstones of stars that burned up their fuel and collapsed. But others, hidden in the center of nearly every galaxy, are millions or billions of times more massive than the sun. "

I couldn't help notice the similarities of a black hole to hell. It is "a cosmic abyss so deep." A place of utter darkness for "not even light can escape it". It becomes "an eternal trap". It is a place where "matter, space and time come to an end and vanish like a dream." It is the "gravitational tombstones of stars that burned up... and collapsed." I asked above, where do you want to see your name listed? There are various 'halls of fame' that so-called sports-stars, movie-stars and pop-stars will be listed in. But if they don't know the Lord Jesus these so-called stars will collapse under the weight of His judgment.    

Conclusion - Is your name written in the book?

Rev 20:15 If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

As we conclude, let me just state, as I did at the beginning, that these are sobering verses with no bigger issues at stake. Pastor Ray Stedman wrote on these verses:

"The ultimate issues of life are all settled here. If your name is written in the book of life, you enter into eternal life. If you refuse him, then your ultimate fate is the lake of fire, the second death, along with the devil and the beast and the false prophet. That is a most sobering scene. I dislike preaching about these matters, but it is wonderful to preach against this dark background and offer to all what Jesus offers -- eternal life by faith in him, as you receive him into your heart and life. May all who hear or read these words be included in the Lamb's book of life!"
Ray Stedman

Follow the light and be a light
All this brings home the need to follow Him who is the Light and to be a light to others now. To illustrate this, I recently came back from an overseas mountain biking trip in Tasmania, Australia. During one ride in Derby, we found ourselves in a long dark tunnel. The mountain biking park was there originally an old mining town and they have a pretty famous tunnel that you can ride through. Now they had put small lights along the way every 10 meters or so that gave a very minimal amount of light... basically just enough to see your front wheel, a little on the side and a meter or two ahead. But when we got to the middle of the tunnel, the lights had gone out and we literally couldn't see anything. It was just about pitch black. My brother was riding in front of me when suddenly I heard this 'bang, crash, thud' type of sound... And then a wee groan! I heard something, but saw nothing.. It turns out that my brother thought he was going straight but with little too no light, had actually ridden (albeit slowly) into the side wall and fell off his bike onto the wet cold stony ground. Now I can't help but see the illustration here for all: 
  • For the unbelievers - This world is becoming a dark place and without the light unbelievers are heading for a crash. They, like my brother, may think they are going straight but the darkness is deceptive. We all need the true light to safely reach our destination and, as Jesus said, He is the light of the world.  If you follow Him you will safely reach your heavenly home.
  • For the believers - It reminds believers to be a light to others. You may think 'well I'm not much of a light, what can I do?' Believe me, the small little lights in that tunnel weren't much of a light either! But they were enough to keep us riding straight. They provided enough light to keep us on the right path while we looked for the next little light to get us further along! But the lights that had gone out were of no use whatsoever and that was where the crash happened. Jesus told us, as believers, that we are the light of the world but not to hide our light. So keep shining your light, as minimal or powerful as it may be, so that others can see the way forward. Don't let the world cover your light and don't hide it in fear.   

So as we close, we need to remember that the Lord God recorded this passage in Revelation 20 about the great white throne because He wanted us to know what is to come if we reject Him and His message. He did this because He loves us and desires to see people saved. He is perfect righteousness. He is perfect truthfulness. He is perfect justice. And this passage expresses all three attributes. I will leave you with the testimony of the Apostle John, who walked closely with Jesus:

1Jn 5:9-12 We accept man's testimony, but God's testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. (10) Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. (11) And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. (12) He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

God bless!


  1. A similar heavenly scene of judgment was given to Daniel, though this one in context takes place at the end of the tribulation: This is what Daniel saw: "As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. (Dan 7:9-10)

  2. Do you remember when the disciples rejoiced that demons were obeying them? What did Jesus say? "Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. (20) "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven." (Luk 10:19-20) There is nothing that compares to having your name in the Lamb's book of life that is recorded in heaven!


  4. It is interesting that according to Einstein's theory, even time itself comes to an end in a black hole. That too has interesting parallels. While I believe that the lake of fire is eternal (and I don't believe in annihilation of the wicked), we don't know what an existence outside of time will be like. What I mean is that I doubt those judged to such a place will have any concept of time. They won't be thinking 'I've been here a week... or I've been here 100 years...' - there will be no concept of time - just an existence. This is hard to grasp (or express!) for our current experience revolves around time and our minds can't comprehend what we have never experienced. And we certainly don't want to experience this! Today is the day of salvation and we want to follow Him who is salvation, Jesus, and never experience this lake of fire. This article about black holes is found here.

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