Rev. 20:12b – 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. (HCSB)
The book of life
In Revelation, the “book of life” refers to a divine record of all believers – those who live eternally with God in the new heavens and the new earth. This book is mentioned several times:
- In Rev. 3:5, Jesus promises the faithful in Sardis that He will never erase their names from the book of life – a comfort to those familiar with the common practice of erasing the name of a condemned criminal from the citizenship registry.
- In Rev. 13:8, we are reminded that unbelievers’ names have never been written in the book of life.
- In Rev. 17:8, we are told that those who live on the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel when they see the beast whose fatal wound is healed.
- In Rev. 20:12, 15, we see resurrected unbelievers stand before the great white throne as books are opened in judgment, including the book of life; they are cast into the lake of fire because their names are not written in the book of life.
- And in Rev. 21:27, we see that only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life enter the New Jerusalem.
Additionally, in Luke 10:20, Jesus’ followers are assured that their names are written in heaven. In Phil. 4:3, Paul writes about his coworkers whose names are in the book of life. And in Heb. 12:23, the author tells of the “assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven.”
Context and comfort
“The Christian understanding of the phrase as a roster of the righteous is rooted in Old Testament passages such as Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; 87:6; Malachi 3:16; and especially Daniel 7:10; 12:1 where the context is one of final judgment” (Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times, p. 71).
What a comfort it is for believers to know their names are written in the book of life, and what a shock it must be for countless unbelievers who discover before the great white throne that their names are absent from heaven’s roll. On earth their deeds earned a place in many great books – books of valor, conquest, heroics, feats, discoveries, inventions, charities, religious quests, political coups, scientific breakthroughs, medical advances, social progress, military campaigns, community activism, and legendary leadership.
Perhaps their names are inscribed on grand buildings, or chiseled into monuments, or painted on the hulls of ocean-going vessels. At the very least the newspapers noticed their entrance into the world – and their departure from it. Somewhere, their names are inscribed in family trees or scribbled in the opening pages of family Bibles.
How can it be that the God who created all people does not ensure that their names are in His book of life? There must be some mistake. “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name?” some cry out. “Didn’t we drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in Your name?” The One seated on the throne does not deny they invoked His name on numerous occasions, no doubt producing some earthly good. But He reveals there is no relationship between them when He utters the seven most tragic words in human history, “Depart from Me, I never knew you” (Matt. 7:22-23).
Rev. 20:15 is as clear as scripture can be: “And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
According to their works
John writes that the dead are judged according to their works by what is written in the books. The books that record the unbelievers’ deeds are opened in order to show them at least two truths: the full extent of their lifelong wickedness, and the failure of their good deeds to earn the favor of God.
There are no doubt degrees of punishment in hell just as there are varying rewards in heaven. Eternity in hell is not the same for the mass murderer as for the law-abiding citizen, but it is outer darkness nonetheless.
Jesus saves some of his most graphic depictions of the darkness and loneliness of hell for the most religious of His day. He tells the Jewish leaders they will receive greater condemnation because they know the scriptures, which point to Jesus, and yet persist in their hypocritical and destructive work against the kingdom of God. He tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man in front of the Pharisees to illustrate that wealth and privilege are not the entitlements God owes a righteous person; rather, heaven awaits those who humbly trust in Him for salvation.
There is but one way a person’s name is entered into the book of life: God writes it there and never blots it out. Just as He chooses believers in Christ from the foundation of the world, He keeps those who belong to Him and never lets them go. Many debate whether God’s election means a hard determinism, or even fatalism. No doubt, much about the mind and will of God are beyond our understanding. Yet it appears that God’s sovereignty encompasses His decision to entrust all people with the ability to make choices for which He holds them responsible.
Imagine the grief, wailing, and gnashing of teeth before the great white throne when men and women discover their names are not written there. And yet there is no mistake, and John records no changing of God’s mind.
As Joseph Seiss writes, “Exalted as they may have been in their own goodness and morality, they have not believed on the only begotten Son of God, and therefore have not life, and so are not written in the book of life. The record of their own deeds is therefore not enough for the determination of their proper place and standing. Men may appear well in these, and still not be prepared to pass the final inquisition. There is another and still mightier question in the case, and that is whether they have come to a regenerate and spiritual life through faith in Christ Jesus” (The Apocalypse: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, p. 480).
It should be noted that the book of life and the Lamb’s book of life either are the same book or, by the time of the great white throne judgment, have exactly the same names written in them.
Some commentators believe that every individual’s name is originally written in the book of life, and that unbelievers’ names are blotted out only when they have rejected the full measure of God’s grace and have for the last time refused His offer of eternal life.
As for the Lamb’s book of life, some argue that this is a separate book from the book of life and only has the names of the redeemed written in it. In any case, at the end of time, only the redeemed have their names recorded in both books. Those of a more reformed persuasion argue that only the names of the elect are entered into the book of life.
Paige Patterson writes, “However this is resolved, the point of the text is that the recording of one’s name in the Lamb’s Book of Life is the antidote to the condemnation of God brought on men by the deeds of their hearts and lives. So, therefore, men are twice condemned. First, they are condemned by their works; and second, the condemnation of their works holds because they have chosen to reject the proffered gift of God, which is eternal life. The result is that they are thrown also into the lake of fire” (New American Commentary: Revelation, p. 360).
Next: Death and Hades gave up their dead – Revelation 20:13