Rev. 20:12b – and books were opened … (HCSB)
Books were opened
As unbelievers stand before the great white throne – alone, without a defense, and with no escape – John notes that “books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books” (v. 12). What are these books, and how many are there? What is different about the book of life that it should be named, while the others are mentioned as a group without distinction?
It seems clear that God keeps a record of our lives and holds us accountable for how we manage the time, talents, relationships, and other gifts He has entrusted to us. He knows our thoughts, which form the action plans for good and evil deeds (see, for example, Matt. 5:27-28). He hears our words, which reveal the true nature of our hearts and for which we must give an account (Matt. 12:33-37).
In various places, the Bible depicts God’s record of our lives as contained in heavenly books. No person escapes the Creator’s interest or avoids a day of reckoning with Him. “Myriads of human beings have lived and died of whom the world knows nothing; but the lives they lived, the deeds they wrought, the thoughts and tempers they indulged, still stand written where the memory of them cannot perish. Not a human being has ever breathed earth’s atmosphere whose career is not traced at full length in the books of eternity” (Seiss, p. 479).
What are these books?
Bible commentators differ in their opinions about the unnamed books. David Aune notes three types of books mentioned in the Old Testament and early non-canonical Jewish and Christian literature: 1) The Book of Life, which records the names of the righteous; 2) the Book of Deeds, which catalogues people’s good and bad works; and 3) the Book of Destiny, which records the history of the world and/or the destinies of people before birth (quoted in Dictionary of Bible Prophecy and End Times, p. 71).
The New Testament supports the existence of the first two books, but not necessarily the third. Matthew Henry writes that the unnamed books opened are the “books of God’s omniscience,” which include His record of our words and deeds, and the record of the sinner’s conscience now exposed.
Warren Wiersbe adds that one of the books is the Bible, which reveals God’s holy standards, man’s universal sinfulness, and the redemptive work of Christ. Jesus says, “The one who rejects Me and doesn’t accept My sayings has this as his judge: The word I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (John 12:48). In addition, writes Wiersbe, there is the book of mankind’s works, which are insufficient to save anyone but necessary for determining the unbeliever’s degree of punishment in hell.
R.J. Utley remarks that John’s mention of “books” is an allusion to Dan. 7:10, where the prophet sees a heavenly vision of the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. Daniel reports, “The court was convened, and the books were opened.” Utley writes that there are two books mentioned in scripture: “the book of deeds or remembrances and the book of life…. The book of deeds or remembrances is described in Ps. 56:8; 139:16; Isa. 65:6; Mal. 3:16 and Rev. 20:12–13. These are metaphors for God’s memory. God will deal fairly with His creation; humans are responsible for their actions and motives and are accountable to God” (Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation. Study Guide Commentary Series, p. 140).
In traditional Judaism there is another meaning to these “books,” according to David H. Stern: “they determine what a person will experience in this world, not in the world to come.” In other words, grave sins against God may cause the sinner’s name to be blotted out of the Book of Life and transferred into the book of those who will be destroyed.
Stern concludes from everything written in the scriptures, along with the Pseudepigrapha and non-biblical early Christian writings, that “it is possible to fall from grace, to have one’s eternal destiny changed from salvation to condemnation, in consequence of unrepented sin in one’s life, even though such passages as Eph. 1:3-14 and 1 Peter 2:9 suggest that salvation is predestined. One way to deal with this antinomy is to suppose that everyone’s name is initially written in the Book of Life – babies who die before the age of responsibility go to heaven. But upon reaching the age of responsibility, everyone sins (Rom. 3:23); and only those who turn to God through Yeshua the Messiah can know that they are saved. A name is not removed from the Book of Life unless the person has committed the unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit, of finally and definitively rejecting God and his Son Yeshua” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 848).
Jurgen Roloff contends that angels open these books, and there are only two: “In the one are recorded the deeds and the failures of human beings (cf. Ezra 6:20; Dan. 7:10; 2 Apoc. Bar. 24:1). The second, to be distinguished from the first, is the Book of Life; in it are written the names of those whom God has chosen for salvation (cf. Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27; Phil. 4:3; Luke 10:20; Heb. 12:23). The judgment ensues according to works; the entire life of human beings, with all its deeds, is now disclosed in God’s light. What is determinative is not the outcome of the calculation of the negative versus the positive balance but rather God’s free decision. The deeds of a human being – one’s faithfulness to Jesus, one’s steadfastness in testimony and confession of faith – all of this is not one’s own achievement but a consequence of divine election” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, p. 231).
As we can see, opinions abound regarding the “books” that are opened, and even with respect to who opens them. But one thing is clear: The sum total of an unbeliever’s life, no matter how noteworthy, is insufficient to merit favor with God, for without exception the men and women who stand before the great white throne are excluded from the Book of Life and find their everlasting dwelling in the lake of fire.
Next: The Book of Life – Revelation 20:12b