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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Judgment of the Dead (20:12-15)
The Judgment of the Dead (20:12-15)

John goes on to describe a universal judgment on the dead, great and small (v. 12). These dead must be "the rest of the dead" (v. 5) who did not come alive to reign with Christ in "the first resurrection." Consequently they are not "blessed and holy" nor immune to "the second death" (v. 6). After books are opened, and above all the book of life, the dead are judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books (v. 12). As to the distinction between the plural books, or "scrolls," not mentioned before in the Revelation (see Dan 7:10) and the singular "book of life" (see Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27), Beckwith comments, "The former contain the record of . . . deeds, whether good or bad, which form the ground for judgment; the latter contains the list of those destined for life. There is no incongruity between the two ideas, for the deeds determine whether names are inserted in the book of life" (1922:748).

But things are not quite that simple. Names cannot be "inserted" in the book of life, for every name was either written or not written there "from the creation of the world" (13:8; 17:8). Salvation to John is by divine election, grounded in the mystery of God's grace. At the same time, salvation is the outcome, if not the reward, of good works ("I know your deeds," 2:2, 5, 19, 23, 26; 3:1, 8, 15; "for their deeds will follow them," 14:12). John made no attempt to reconcile the two ideas, probably because (like most apocalyptic writers) he saw no conflict between them. It was Paul who taught us to see the conflict, and Paul's classic solution—that good works are the outward evidence of divine grace—is the solution most Christians have adopted and the one John probably would have adopted too, had he seen the problem.

The striking thing about this judgment according to deeds, or works, is that John does not mention any among the dead whose works were found acceptable to God. He tells us only that if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (v. 15). His terse language leaves many questions unanswered. Were the martyred saints who reigned a thousand years the only ones redeemed? Did the rest of the dead come to life only to die again in the lake of fire? Was anyone on earth redeemed during the thousand years? If not, what was the millennium's purpose? What about the prophets and saints of the Hebrew Bible? Are they raised to life in John's scenario? If so, is it before or after the thousand years? John answers none of these questions because he is recording a single vision with a single purpose, not providing a blueprint for the history of human salvation. His emphasis is on judgment here, not salvation: those whose names are not written in the book of life will not live. They will die forever in the lake of fire. John has already told us who they are: "the inhabitants of the earth" who worshiped the beast and the dragon (13:8; 17:8). Now that the beast and false prophet and the dragon are in the lake of fire (v. 10), their followers must inevitably join them there.

Yet even the second death, or the lake of fire (v. 14) has its positive side. It is not made first of all for human beings, but for supernatural entities and institutions that oppress human beings—Babylon implicitly (17:16; 18:9-10; 19:3), and the beast, the false prophet and the dragon explicitly. It is, as Jesus said, "prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41). More important, the lake of fire swallows up death and Hades (compare Is 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54). After the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and after all the dead were judged, says John, death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire (vv. 13-14).

This is all very confusing for modern Christians who were taught that "Hades" is a biblical word for hell (see the KJV "death and hell were cast into the lake of fire") and that "hell" in the book of Revelation is itself the lake of fire. How can hell be thrown into hell? The eighteenth-century Welsh hymn writer, William Williams, captured the meaning in the third verse of his great hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah":

When I tread the verge of Jordan,

Bid my anxious fears subside;

Death of death, and hell's destruction,

Land me safe on Canaan's side.

Quite a number of hymnals, unable to make sense of Williams's bold imagery, substituted "bear me through the swelling current" for the third line. But Williams himself saw clearly that the "death of death and hell's destruction" described in Revelation 20:14 is what opens the way for new life and salvation in chapter 21. The confusion stems from the fact that "Hades" is not "hell" as understood in Christian tradition, but the grave, corresponding to "Sheol" in the Hebrew Bible. It is never mentioned by itself in the book of Revelation, but only as the companion of "Death" (see, for example, 6:8). When John says that death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them (v. 13), he means the graves were opened and the dead were raised. This is the language of resurrection, the "second" resurrection if you like, corresponding to "the first resurrection" of verse 6. But instead of "the second resurrection" he calls it "the second death" (v. 14), for two reasons: (1) because his emphasis is not on being raised to life but on being raised only to die again in the lake of fire; and (2) because it is the death of death itself, and of death's grim companion, the grave.

The notion that death and the grave are thrown into the lake of fire characterizes the lake here not as a place of torment (contrast 19:21 and 20:10), but as a place of destruction or nonexistence. Death and Hades are not tortured or punished, they simply cease to exist. The message of this vivid scene is a simple one: "there will be no more death" (21:4). In Paul's words, "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:54-55). The way is cleared for the triumphant visions of chapters 21-22.

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