Rev. 20:15 – And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (HCSB)
Anyone not found
John concludes this section with the words, “And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (v. 15).
As the wicked pass through the gates of hell in Dante’s epic poem Inferno, they are greeted with these words: “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.” These words remind the damned that once inside, there is no escape from the fiery torments they have brought upon themselves.
As Charles Swindoll writes, “Though the details of Dante’s fictional picture of heaven, hell, and purgatory range from the fantastic to the heretical, he was right about this: the final destination of the wicked features a one-way entrance. All hope vanishes beyond; there will be no escape from the lake of fire…. The facts of eternal punishment are set forth without a hint of hope … because no hope exists apart from God” (Insights on Revelation, pp. 266-67).
Books are opened at the great white throne, and the wicked find their names there, along with details of their lives – perhaps even a full accounting of their deeds. Some may wish to be excluded from God’s record of their thoughts, words, and actions, for their lives are laden with every sort of evil. They stand before their Creator – who has revealed Himself in creation, conscience, Christ and Canon – with no excuse (Rom. 1:20). They have turned up their noses at God’s revealed love and turned their backs on His grace. And now they are reminded of every idle word, every selfish deed, every squandered opportunity as the evidence written in the books piles so high and wide it becomes like prison walls that cannot be scaled.
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.”
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).
Rev. 17:7 – Then the angel said to me, “Why are you astonished? I will tell you the secret meaning of the woman and of the beast, with the seven heads and the 10 horns, that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction. Those who live on the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast that was, and is not, and will be present again. (HCSB)
The meaning of the woman and the beast
The angel sees John’s bewilderment and remarks, “Why are you astonished? I will tell you the secret meaning of the woman and of the beast, with the seven heads and the 10 horns, that carries her” (v. 7). The term “secret meaning” is musterion in Greek and refers to what may be known only by divine revelation. John’s questions – and ours – are about to be answered.
The angel begins with the beast (v. 8): “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction. Those who live on the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast that was, and is not, and will be present again.”
This description harks back to that of the beast from the sea in Rev. 13. He has 10 horns and seven heads upon which are written blasphemous names. These creatures from Revelation 13 and Revelation 17 are one in the same, and their description makes it clear they are affiliated with the dragon, who also is depicted with seven heads and 10 horns (Rev. 12:3).
Rev. 13:8 – All those who live on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slaughtered. (HCSB)
The sovereignty of God and the freedom of human beings are two seemingly irreconcilable biblical truths. Just as Satan acts freely to empower a beast who acts freely, those who worship these evil beings act freely as well. They make choices for which they are held accountable, and unbelievers will join Satan, the beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire. At the same time, their deeds are known to God and always have been known by Him, just as the willful acts of believers always have been in God’s view.
While some argue that God merely foresees the faith of the righteous and the rebellion of the unrighteous, and others contend that God has determined all things (without becoming the Author of sin or the Creator of a fixed game), it appears the ways of God are beyond human understanding. If God can allow Satan and his minions to slaughter countless Christians for no other reason than their staunch faith in His Son, and through these sinful acts enable believers to conquer the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, can He not also allow unbelievers to worship a false Messiah and vindicate Himself in their judgment?
We do God a disservice when we accuse Him either of dispassionate sovereignty or spineless foreknowledge. He is sovereign. He knows all things. He has all power and authority. And in the midst of this mind-boggling transcendence, He created people in His image and entrusted them with the ability to make choices for which they are held responsible. Though the beast-worshiping unbelievers of Revelation 13 are excluded from the Lamb’s book of life, they would never have signed their names anyway – even if the Son of God opened the pages Himself and offered them a pen.