Commentary on Revelation (covers all chapters from 1 thru 22, including Introduction)
Copyright © 2019 by Steve Sewell, Theology First. All Rights Reserved
All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
Dispensational Premillennialism: This is the most popular eschatological position. I talk about this now because we will be dealing with the only passage in the entire New Testament that gives us the idea of a thousand year earthly kingdom. All premillennialists interpret the thousand years of Revelation 20:1-6 literally. Dispensational premillennialists take it a step further and teach that God has a plan for Israel that is separate from the Church. Most who hold this position teach that the “rapture” of the Church will take place before the so-called seven year tribulation period, which is known as the pre-trib Rapture. However, some teach that the rapture occurs in the middle of the tribulation period, which is known as the mid-trib rapture. They teach that the people of Israel will come to faith in Christ during this seven years tribulation period.
They teach that at the end of it, Christ will return to judge the world and to set up His millennial earthly kingdom, where all the Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel are finally fulfilled. In this kingdom – they say – will dwell glorified saints with non-glorified saints, and with unbelievers too (they believe there will be survivors from the tribulation period who will enter this kingdom). The Jewish temple with its animal sacrifices will also be restored (as a “memorial”). At the end of this kingdom, Satan will be released to gather all the unbelievers against Christ and His people for one final battle before we enter into the Eternal Kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21 and 22). That’s dispensational premillennialism in a nutshell.
For a good explanation of the differences between dispensational premillennialism and historical premillennialism, click on the link below:
One thousand years: Again, this chapter contains the only reference in the New Testament to a thousand year reign. Premillennialists use it to validate what appears to be an Old Testament teaching about an earthly kingdom where Christ reigns. However, the New Testament doesn’t teach such a kingdom. On the contrary, if you’ve read my series regarding the Kingdom of Christ, you know that the NT doesn’t even make room for it. The idea of an earthly kingdom must be forced or squeezed (assumed) into every NT text used by premillennialists to teach this kingdom. Nowhere in the NT is an earthly kingdom of Christ taught; it’s simply not there. Again, the only way to come to that conclusion is to do so with a positional bias, where basically every mention of “kingdom” is assumed to be the 1000 year kingdom of Rev 20—except where “kingdom” is obviously referring to the spiritual kingdom of Christ that we enter upon regeneration.
I and all other amillennialists believe that the 1000 years of this chapter is symbolic for a long period of time, and specifically refers to the Church age—from the first coming of Christ to His second. It seems to me that if this 1000 year period refers to an earthly kingdom where Christ reigns upon an earthly throne, where glorified saints are dwelling with the people of this world, there would be some sort of description of it, like what we have regarding the Eternal Kingdom of chapters 21 and 22. But there isn’t anything said about it in the whole NT other than what appears to be in this one passage. One would think that if there was going to be such a glorious kingdom coming to this world, there would be something more revealed about it in the NT.
The fact that there is literally nothing said about this so-called millennial earthly kingdom in the NT (except, supposedly here), strongly indicates that there is no such a kingdom to talk about. I think the silence is very telling.
Note: I encourage you to read my series titled “Kingdom of Christ.” You will find there a strong biblical case against the idea of a millennial kingdom where Christ reigns prior to the Eternal Kingdom of Rev 21 and 22.
As for the Old Testament passages that seem to indicate an earthly kingdom, I believe those passages refer to either the Church or to the Eternal Kingdom of “the new heaven and new earth” – depending (2 Pe 1:11; Rev 21 and 22). Just as the book of Revelation contains a lot of symbolic and figurative language, so does the OT. When interpreting the OT, it’s necessary that we do so in light of our understanding of the NT. Disastrous results will occur if we do that the other way around and try to interpret the NT according to an OT understanding. We must begin with the study of the NT if we’re going to have a correct understanding of the OT—for the NT is the fulfillment of the OT.
(Rev 20:1) – 1 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand.
The “abyss” is normally associated with Satan and his demons (Lu 8:31; Rev 9:1-2,11; 11:7; 17:8). While many view this abyss as a literal place, it seems clear to me that the abyss in this passage is merely symbolic, and not a literal place. It’s just as symbolic as the “key” and the “great chain.” The symbolism in this passage has to be consistent.
What everyone seems to be in agreement with is that this abyss is associated with Satan and his demonic rulers of darkness. In Rev 9, we see demons (depicted as locusts) coming out of the abyss. In Rev 11:7 and Rev 17:8, we see what I believe to be the “man of sin” (2 Th 2:3) – totally indwelt by Satan – coming up out of the abyss. In none of these places should we understand that they are literally coming up out of some abyss or “bottomless pit” (some translations). Reason being is that Satan and his demons are free to roam this earth, fully involved in deceiving the people of this world (within the limitations God has placed on them). Likewise, the “man of sin” is a real person, and therefore, we cannot believe that he too literally comes up out of an abyss—even though he will be totally indwelt by Satan.
Generally, I believe that the abyss refers to the kingdom of darkness, which Satan and his demons rule over. However, I believe it can also refer to the lake of fire, as in Luke 8:31. I believe that the demons in that passage were asking that they not be thrown into that place “before the time” (Matt 8:29; Luke 8:28,31). Whichever context we’re dealing with, the abyss is always associated with Satan and his demonic army.
In the context of this passage (Rev 20:1-3), I believe that this abyss is referring to the limitations that God has placed on Satan within that kingdom of darkness. More specifically, it’s a limitation that prevents Satan from gathering the nations against His Church on a worldwide scale—which is what the “chain” signifies. The “key” signifies the removal of that limitation when the time comes within God’s plan.
(Rev 20:2) – 2 And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years,
As I explained in the introduction, this “thousand years” is symbolic for a long period of time. More specifically, the entire Church age. We see that Satan is “bound” during this time. As I indicated in verse one, this is a matter of control over the activities of Satan. God places limits on what he and his demonic army can do. In this context, Satan is restricted from gathering all the nations against the people of Christ, as verses 7 and 8 indicate. Just prior to the return of Christ when He judges the world, the restriction on Satan will be removed, and he will then be allowed to gather all the nations against the Church (see commentary Rev 11).
By the way, I believe this binding of Satan is the “restraint” that Paul referred to in 2 Thes 2:6-10:
(2 Th 2:6-10) – 6 And now ye know that which restraineth, to the end that he may be revealed in his own season. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work: only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way. 8 And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to nought by the manifestation of his coming; 9 even he, whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, 10 and with all deceit of unrighteousness for them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
Satan, working through the “lawless one” (“man of sin” – vs. 3) is being “restrained” from gathering the nations against the people of Christ until the time that God has set, which is just before Jesus returns in judgment of them. This “gathering” (vs. 8) is what is known as the “War of Armageddon” (Rev 16:16).
(Rev 20:3) – 3 and cast him into the abyss, and shut it, and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years should be finished: after this he must be loosed for a little time.
NET – 20:3 – The angel then threw him into the abyss and locked and sealed it so that he could not deceive the nations until the one thousand years were finished. (After these things he must be released for a brief period of time.)
This casing of Satan into the abyss is figurative language for the limitations that God has placed on Satan, as explained in verse 2. During the Church age, Satan and his demonic rulers of darkness are limited in their activities. They’re not allowed to fully carry out their will according to all the power that they possess.
While there’s a general restriction placed on them, in the context of this passage, this restriction applies directly to the gathering of the nations against the Church worldwide. Again, we see this in verses 7-8. In order to gather the whole world against God’s people, Satan would have to be able to “deceive” all the people of the world. They would have to be of “one mind” to do that. We see this in 2 Thes 2:10-11 and Rev 17:17. Of course, by this time, everyone who is going to get saved, will be saved—and the Church complete.
The 1000 Years and Second Death
(Rev 20:4) – 4 And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they lived, and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
“I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them”
A “throne” represents authority. The thrones in this passage are either the thrones of the Apostles (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30) or the thrones of the twenty-four elders (Rev 4:4; 11:16), which would be the representatives of both Old and New Testaments. Or it’s the thrones of all Christians.
In context, I believe these are the thrones of all Christians— because we “reign with Christ” (Eph 2:4-6; Rev 5:9-10). As followers of Christ, we are His representatives in the world. As King of kings, Jesus sits upon His throne now, and reigns in His kingdom now, and we “reign with him” — throughout the whole “thousand years,” which is symbolic for the whole Church age. We “reign” with Christ and “judge” in the sense that as His representatives, we have the truth, and we have been given authority to judge between the truth and that which is false.
“the souls of them that had been beheaded”
The fact that martyrs for Christ are highlighted in this verse, does not mean that they are the only ones who are in view here. As I’ve talked about throughout this commentary, the book of Revelation is largely about Christian persecution. This book is meant to provide encouragement to those who are persecuted (or may be someday) for the name of Christ and for His gospel, to give them a glimpse of what they have to look forward to. This book serves as a reminder that life in this world is only temporary, a life that merely prepares us for eternity in the presence of God. Furthermore, just as martyrs for Christ are the focus of this passage, I believe that there will be a special reward for them that the rest don’t get to enjoy.
To be clear, then, while the focus is on those who die for Christ in this passage, I believe all Christians are in view, for we all “reign with Christ” in this world and we’re all given authority to “judge” between the truth and the false—which is contained in the Scriptures. Christ’s kingdom (the Church) is a spiritual kingdom, and we serve in that kingdom now. As servants of Christ, we reign with Him in the world as those who have the truth in a world of falsehood.
“such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand”
As I’ve discussed many times now, “the beast” is the kingdom of darkness—all that opposes the truth, all that opposes Christ. Its “image” is the kingdom of the world (whole world system), and the “mark” of the beast is the symbolic mark that identifies unbelievers with the kingdom of darkness and the whole world system. This is not a literal mark, but an identification that God sees (see commentary on Rev 13).
These martyrs for Christ – and all other Christians – since we belong to Christ and are members of His kingdom, we are not a part of the kingdom of darkness or the kingdom of this world. We are not identified with either. As followers of Christ, we are identified with Him by our faith and our allegiance to Him. We “worship” the true God.
“They came to life” (NET, NASB, ESV, NRSV, NIV)
As the next verse reveals, this refers to the “first resurrection.” In order to identify the first resurrection, we have to allow Scripture to interpret itself. The following verses make it clear that the first resurrection occurs upon our faith in Christ:
(Eph 2:4-6) – 4 but God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), 6 and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus:
(Col 2:13) – 13 And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses;
(Col 3:1-3) – 1 If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. 3 For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
(Also Romans 6:1-11)
The resurrection discussed in these verses is a spiritual resurrection, where we are raised to new life in Christ. At the moment we place our faith in Christ, we experience a death and resurrection—where we are “raised up with Him.” This is the first resurrection that we experience, so how is this not the “first resurrection” spoken of in this passage or Revelation? I think one has to go way out of their way to interpret this any other way.
Upon this spiritual resurrection, John says that we “reigned with Christ a thousand years,” which is symbolic for a long period of time, which is the whole duration of the Church age.
(Rev 20:5) – 5 The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished. This is the first resurrection.
NET – 20:5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.) This is the first resurrection.
This verse should be read with a parentheses, as the NET has it (also the NIV, NRSV, LEB, EXB, Mounce, NCV).
We have to remember that there is no punctuation in the Greek NT language, so oftentimes in order to correctly interpret a phrase or sentence correctly, we have to consider punctuation. The parentheses is needed, because the sentence actually continues from verse 4 to “this is the first resurrection.”
The “rest of the dead” are those who are dead spiritually and remain dead. All of us are dead spiritually until we come to faith in Christ. Thus those who “came to life” are those who were once dead, but came to life spiritually via their faith in Christ. Again, this is the “first resurrection.” Therefore, “the rest of the dead” are those who remain spiritually dead. Thus they have no part in the “first resurrection.” Therefore, their resurrection, the one spoken of here (“did not come to life until…”), has to be a physical resurrection. This resurrection doesn’t occur until after “the thousand years are finished.” In other words, it doesn’t occur until the end of the Church age when Christ returns in judgment.
So then, the “first resurrection” refers to believers and is a spiritual resurrection, and the other resurrection refers to unbelievers and is a physical resurrection. Of course, both believers and unbelievers experience a physical resurrection, but here the Apostle John is distinguishing between the spiritual resurrection of believers and the physical resurrection of unbelievers.
Many object that the type of resurrection in this passage must be the same in both cases. So if the “rest of the dead” have a physical resurrection, then those who “came to life” must also be referring to a physical resurrection. However, that’s an unwarranted assumption, because unbelievers do not have a spiritual resurrection, only a physical resurrection. That’s the only “life” that they will ever know. Therefore, when John says that the “rest of the dead did not come to life until….,” he’s speaking of the only kind of “life” that unbelievers will ever know—which is a physical resurrection of judgment (verses 11-15).
Accordingly, the interpretation makes perfect sense, that the “first resurrection” refers to the point of salvation when believers are raised up spiritually, and unbelievers (“the rest of the dead”) are raised up physically. Again, John is making the all-important distinction between the two types of resurrections.
In summary, believers are resurrected spiritually at the point of salvation, and “reign with Christ a thousand years,” which refers to the Church age up to the time of Christ’s return. When the “thousand years” (Church age) is over, when Christ returns, then all unbelievers (the spiritually and physically dead) will be resurrected physically to stand before Christ in judgment.
Second resurrection: It should be noted that a “first” resurrection implies a “second” resurrection. As we already discussed, the “first resurrection” is a spiritual resurrection that people experience upon their faith in Christ. The “second” resurrection obviously must refer to the physical resurrection that both believers and unbelievers will experience upon the return of Christ.
(Rev 20:6) – 6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: over these the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
“Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: over these the second death hath no power;”
I think this statement confirms our interpretation of verses 4-5. Both believers and unbelievers take part in the “second” resurrection, which is physical. That leaves us with the “first resurrection,” which has to be spiritual. In other words, it’s only through the new birth (regeneration) that we become “blessed and holy” in the eyes of God. And if that’s the case, then “reigning with Christ for a thousand years” has to be referring to the period between the first and second advents of Christ (Church age). Furthermore, these verses make it clear that our “reign with Christ” begins upon our resurrection. That is, it doesn’t wait for some literal, 1000 year kingdom. Let’s go over this again to be clear:
NET – 20:4 – ….They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 20:5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.)
Those who “come to life” spiritually, begin their “reign with Christ” immediately (does not wait for a so-called literal 1000 year kingdom), which puts the reign of believers in the Church age. We know this to be true because John then says that the “rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.” That is, when the physical resurrection takes place. That, of course, has to be the second resurrection, which is a resurrection that both believers and unbelievers share—as opposed to the “first resurrection” which is spiritual, which only believers experience.
To be clear, the physical resurrection occurs approximately the same time for both believers and unbelievers, and that’s upon the return of Christ, which is what John reveals in John 5:28-29 (also Matt 25:31-33, 41-46; Matt 13:30, 36-43, 47-50). However, I believe Rev 11 makes it clear that believers are resurrected first (in proper order), followed shortly by unbelievers after they’ve been judged by Christ at His return, which ends the so-called “War of Armageddon.”
Premillennialism: Basically, Premillennialism teaches that the “first resurrection” is physical and that it refers to believers only, and that it occurs before the so-called literal 1000 year earthly kingdom. The physical resurrection of unbelievers occurs after that kingdom. But there’s absolutely no biblical justification to separate the physical resurrection of believers and unbelievers by a 1000 years. In fact, according to the premillennial view, believers will die during this 1000 year earthly kingdom. And so, quite obviously, they too will need to be resurrected at some point. So now we have believers being resurrected before the 1000 year kingdom and either during or after the 1000 year kingdom. How can both be part of the “first resurrection?” Furthermore, where do these millennial kingdom believers go when they die? To Heaven? But how can that be, when all of God’s glorified people are on earth, living in the “kingdom of Christ.” Makes absolutely no sense.
It should also be noted that proponents of the pre-trib rapture, believe that there is a resurrection of God’s people before the “seven year tribulation,” and then another one at the end of that tribulation period. So confusing.
Another point about the premillennial view: Some premillennialists may teach that during the millennial kingdom, the believers who die, are instantly resurrected in their glorified bodies. But if that’s the case, then what we’re looking at here are perhaps millions of individual resurrections—not just one general resurrection, as the Scriptures indicate.
Final points about the premillennial view: Premillennialism teaches that resurrected, glorified believers will live in this millennial kingdom with non-resurrected, non-glorified believers. In other words, mortals like you and me. So in this kingdom we have glorified believers living with mortal believers. But that’s not all, we also have unbelievers living there, as well. To top it off, there is a Jewish temple where animal sacrifices are again taking place!!! As you can see, the premillennial view has serious issues. From my perspective, in many ways premillennialism is very bizarre.
“but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”
NET – (1 Pe 2:5) – 2:5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
NET – (1 Pe 2:9) – 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
NET – (Rev 1:6) – 1:6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power forever and ever! Amen.
The “priesthood” of believers is now. It doesn’t wait for a so-called 1000 year earthly kingdom. I don’t even know how this can be up for debate. Peter states it as plain as it can be stated, that we are a “holy priesthood,” we are a “royal priesthood.” We are “priests of God and of Christ” now, during the present Church age. That’s also what the Apostle John reveals in this verse, because as priests, we “reign with him a thousand years.” In other words, throughout the Church age. Don’t let the word “shall” [be priests] throw you off, for this merely refers to those who will be born and raised to new life during the Church age.
“over these the second death hath no power”
As John reveals in Rev 20:14 and Rev 21:8, the “second death,” is the “lake of fire.” This is the place of eternal torment of those who die in their sins without Christ as Lord and Savior. This is the eternal dwelling place of unbelievers. So, of course, as believers, the “second death has no power” over us. We will never see that place, but will dwell in the everlasting kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-7).
The Gathering of Nations
(Rev 20:7-8) – 7 And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, 8 and shall come forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
“Loosed out of his prison” is figurative language. When the Church age has ended (“the thousand years”), and the Church is complete, the restraint upon Satan will be removed, and he will be free to “deceive the nations” and gather them against the Christians of the world just before Jesus returns in judgment upon them (see commentary on Rev 11).
Refers to the war of “Armageddon” of Rev 16:16. Armageddon is not a true battle, but a coordinated, worldwide assault against the people of Christ, where a large number of Christians will be killed (see commentary Rev 11).
“Gog and Magog”
This is clearly a reference to Ezekiel 38 and 39, since this is the only other place in the whole Bible where these two terms are used together. Premillennialists don’t believe the war of this passage is the same war that’s described in those two chapters of Ezekiel. They believe they’re two different wars at different times. However, I believe they are one and the same. We have to allow Scripture to interpret itself. Therefore, it makes better sense to interpret the “God and Magog” of Rev 20 as the same “Gog and Magog” of Ezekiel 38 and 39. John, knowing that these two OT chapters are the only other places in the Bible where these terms are used together, I don’t believe he would confuse us if he wasn’t referring to them. We have to allow the obvious to lead us. Besides that, all the passages below also point to the same war. It all fits.
The war described in this passage is very brief, while the war described in Ezekiel 38 and 39 is very extensive and detailed. However, “brief” does not mean different, but only a shorter version of the same. And again, this is the same war that is described in the following passages:
(Rev 20:9) – 9 And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down out of heaven, and devoured them.
NET – 9 They went up on the broad plain of the earth and encircled the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and devoured them completely.
The “camp of the saints” and the “beloved city” (Rev 21:1-2), refers to the people of Christ, the Church worldwide: “over the breadth of the earth.” As explained in chapter 11, the “man of sin” will lead the nations against all the Christians of the world. It will be a worldwide mission to exterminate all those who profess the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the beginning of the “War of Armageddon.” After the extensive slaughter of Christians, they will be brought back to life again via the resurrection for all the world to see. Those Christians who are still alive at that time, will be caught up together with them (1 Th 4:13-18: 1 Cor 15:51-54).
“fire came down out of heaven, and devoured them”
Soon after God’s people are resurrected, Jesus will return in Judgment against the world. That is what we see in the plagues of Rev 16 (see commentary) and in the destruction of “Babylon the great” of Rev 18.
While I can’t be certain, I believe that this “fire coming down out of heaven” could involve the release of nuclear weapons. It seems like a reasonable scenario, considering all the nuclear weapons there are on the planet. When God reigns down His fire upon the earth, I think it’s logical that it would set off all those weapons of mass destruction.
What we see in this passage is what we see in Rev 16 and 18. The description of this fire coming down “out of heaven,” means that it comes from God, that it’s a judgment from God. However, that doesn’t eliminate the idea that God will not use nuclear weapons as the means of this judgment—or at least in conjunction with. As I explained in Rev 16, a careful reading of what’s described in that chapter, reveals a near perfect description of what occurs in a nuclear explosion and in the resulting fallout.
(Rev 20:10) – 10 And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where are also the beast and the false prophet; and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
Once the world has been judged and destroyed, then Satan will be cast into the “lake of fire,” where “the beast” and “false prophet” are also. As a reminder, the beast is the kingdom of darkness and the false prophet is the combined rulers of that kingdom. “They” in this verse, therefore, refers to Satan and his co-rulers (demons), as described in Eph 6:11-12. They will be tormented forever and ever in this lake of fire that was prepared for them (Matt 25:41).
Note: I believe that the “eighth king” (Rev 17:11) – whom I believe to be the “man of sin” of 2 Thes 2 (Antichrist), and who is the latter day beast himself – will stand before Christ at the judgment (verses 11-15) like every other person.
“tormented day and night”
This is figurative language for continuous “torment,” for it’s not likely that there will be a “day and night” in the lake of fire, for day and night is something that is caused by the rotating of the earth around the sun. Thus it would be senseless to take this literally. This is a clear example of the symbolic and figurative language of the book of Revelation.
“lake of fire”
(See verse 15)
The Great White Throne Judgment
(Rev 20:11) – 11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
“great white throne”
This is the throne of Christ, where He sits in judgment of all mankind.
Many believe that there are two separate judgments, one for the saved and one for the unsaved: The judgment of the saved is referred to as the “Judgment Seat of God” (Ro 14:10-12) and the “Judgement Seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10) where believers are judged, not for their sins, but for the purpose of rewards according to their faithfulness. The judgment of the unsaved is commonly referred to as The Great White Throne Judgment, and of course, this verse is where that title comes from.
However, while that could be the correct interpretation, I don’t believe there are two separate judgments. I believe the saved and unsaved both stand before Christ at the same judgment. I think Matthew 25:31-33 makes that clear:
NET – (Matt 25:31-33) – 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 25:32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 25:33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Furthermore, I think a careful look at the passages mentioned above (Ro 14:10-12 and 2 Cor 5:10-11), reveals the same thing. Therefore, I believe the Judgement Seat of Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment are the same.
Another passage in Matthew confirms that both the saved and unsaved will stand before Christ at this judgment:
(Matt 12:41-42) – 41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon—and now, something greater than Solomon is here!
Here we see that both Nineveh and the Queen of the South will stand “with” the generation of Jesus’ day and “condemn it.” In what manner they will condemn that generation is unclear. However, the point is, this gives us the picture of both the “sheep” and the “goats” (Matt 25:33) standing together at the same judgment—although separated from each other.
Note: How billions of people will stand before Christ is unknown. How He will separate billions of people into two groups as they stand before Him is unknown. This is a detail we will not figure out, for God has not revealed that to us. What He has revealed, and what we’re to focus on, is that all mankind will stand before Christ to give an accounting of our lives to Him.
To be clear, we believers will not be judged to determine where we spend eternity, for that’s already been determined based on our faith in Christ. We will enjoy all eternity in His presence. Rather, believers will stand before Christ for the purpose of rewards, or the lack thereof. How we live our life in this world determines the rewards that we will receive in eternity.
Unbelievers have already been judged as far as where they will spend eternity, which is in the “lake of fire” (verses 14-15). However, there are different degrees of punishment, and so the punishment each one receives will be determined or announced at this Judgment.
The description of a “white” throne is significant. White represents purity and light, as opposed to darkness. This is a throne of holiness, where a holy and all-powerful God sits in judgment of those who are totally unworthy and fully accountable to Him. As it relates to the unsaved, it’s a contrast of light and darkness, good and evil. They who loved their sins and rejected Christ, will bow before Him and confess Him as Lord (Ro 14:11; Phil 2:10-11).
Note: As Matthew 25:34,41 reveals, the redeemed will give an accounting of their lives first, before the unsaved do. The unsaved will hear these words as the people of Christ go into a blissful eternity:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” ESV (Matt 25:34)
When the unsaved observe and realize what they could have had, they will go into eternity filled with regret. The truth and reality regarding Christ and salvation will be firmly and forever embedded in their memory. Everything God does is by design and for a particular purpose. Therefore, I believe that this observance will be part of the punishment of sinners, particularly of those who hatefully rejected Christ and persecuted His people—the same ones whom they will see go into the glorious and eternal presence of God.
“from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away”
This has the omnipotence of Christ in view. Just as He created the heavens and the earth, the same is destroyed and replaced with a “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1; 2 Pe 3:10-13). Therefore, this judgment signifies the end of all things old, in preparation of all things new. The order will be first this time of judgment, immediately followed by the destruction of the present universe and the creation of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2), which of course, includes the everlasting kingdom that is described in Rev 21 and 22.
In this verse we see the sovereign rule of Christ over all things, that both human beings and the entire physical universe are fully subject to Him.
(Rev 20:12-13) – 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 out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
After the bodily, general resurrection of all people, both of the saved and unsaved, we see all humankind standing before the throne of Christ in these verses.
I believe that the mention of “the dead,” refers to our bodies, not to our spiritual condition.
The “great and the small” refer to one’s social standing, from national leaders to servants, from those who have professional occupations to those who clean toilets for a living. One’s standing in the community makes no difference in the eyes of God. All are sinners and “fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3:23). The sins of all is the great equalizer of us all. We’re all sinners and are accountable to God. God is not going to ask what we did for a living or what our social standing was. The only thing that will matter to God when we stand before Him is what we did with His Son. Did we receive Him as our Lord and Savior, or did we reject Him?
“books were opened”
I believe these “books” are the Holy Scriptures, the written Word of God, the Bible. All mankind will be judged according to all that’s written therein.
“according to their works”
As it relates to the unsaved, this refers to their degree of punishment, based on the kind of life they lived and the things they did. As it relates to the saved, this refers to how well our lives as followers and servants of Christ lined up with the will of God. We will be rewarded accordingly. Or no rewards at all for those who were not faithful enough to receive rewards.
“book of life”
This is God’s record of all who have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. It’s only through faith in Him that we have forgiveness of our sins and eternal “life.” I believe this is the scene given to us by Jesus in Matthew 25:34, where He says to His “sheep,” “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The judgment of “the goats” (Matt 25:41) is seen in verses 13-15 (Rev 20:13-15).
“the sea gave up the dead that were in it”
This indicates that there is no place in the world where mankind will not be resurrected from, even in the deepest depths of the ocean. No one will be able to hide from God. All will stand before Him, regardless of how we died or where we were buried.
Note: The fact that the “sea gave up the dead,” confirms that the destruction of the universe and the creation of the “new heaven and new earth,” has not taken place at this point. The “new heaven and new earth” has no sea (Rev 21:1).
“death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them”
“Death and Hades” simply refers to the grave, the place of the dead. Again, there is no place on earth where the departed dead will not be resurrected from. It’s in this resurrected body that the redeemed go to their permanent place of joy (the everlasting kingdom of Rev 21 and 22), and the unsaved to their permanent place of torment (the lake of fire).
However, in context, I believe that the mention of “death and Hades” and “the dead,” refers specifically to the unsaved—the “goats” of Matthew 25:41, as the next verse states:
(Rev 20:14) – 14 And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, even the lake of fire.
The Apostle Paul said that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). That’s what we’re seeing here. Both spiritual and physical death will be no more. God will make all things new.
When John says that “death and Hades” are cast into the lake of fire, he’s speaking metaphorically, that they’ve come to an end—because death and the grave is not something you can physically throw.
What we’re seeing here, and throughout this whole scene, is the fulfillment of what Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28:
NET – (1 Cor 15:20-28) – 15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 15:21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. 15:22 For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 15:23 But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him. 15:24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power. 15:25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 15:26 The last enemy to be eliminated is death. 15:27 For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says“everything” has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. 15:28 And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.
We see several things here: We see that the Kingdom of Christ is now, and that He is reigning now. When He returns and mankind is resurrected and judged – and all His enemies are defeated, including “death” (‘last enemy”) – He will “hand over the kingdom to God the Father.” Then begins the Eternal Kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” of Rev 21 and 22, where Jesus will co-rule with His Father (Rev 22:1-5).
While the resurrection of the saved is the primary focus in the above 1 Corinthians passage, the resurrection of the unsaved is also in view. As I talk about elsewhere in this Revelation commentary (chapters 11 and 16), God’s people are already resurrected when Jesus returns in judgment against the world. All believers are with the Lord at that time. But soon after our resurrection, Jesus judges the world, and the rest of all mankind dies. It’s at that time that they too are resurrected. Therefore, there is only one general resurrection of the righteous and unrighteous, but their resurrections do not occur at the same exact moment—because again, God will resurrect His people first, followed by the judgment of the world (the last), followed by the resurrection of the lost.
As this verse plainly says, the “second death” is the lake of fire, the eternal place of punishment and torment (Rev 14:11) of those who die without Christ. An obvious question is, if this is the second death, then what is the first death? The first death is spiritual death. This refers to those who do not receive spiritual life in Christ. Therefore, the spiritually dead (first death) are cast into the lake of fire (the second death).
(Rev 20:15) – 15 And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire.
Only those who receive Christ as Lord and Savior are in this “book of life”—which may not be a literal book, but merely symbolic of the record that God has of His redeemed. Those who are not written in this record, will be “cast into the lake of fire,” where they will spend eternity away from the glorious presence of God.
As indicated in verse 11, Matthew 25 is a parallel passage of this same judgment, where we see the eternal outcome of the both the “sheep” and the “goats”:
Goats: 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels! NET
Sheep: 25:34 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. NET
In regard to the “sheep,” those who place their faith in Christ, their outcome is not mentioned in this passage of Rev 20, but it’s implied by the reference to the “book of life.” However, they’re specifically referred to in the first few verses of the next chapter. We have to remember that there are no chapter divisions in the original manuscripts.
Also, in regard to Jesus’ reference to “the kingdom,” He is referring to the everlasting kingdom of Rev 21 and 22.
Lake of fire: What is the lake of fire (eternal hell)? While I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it, I do want to spend a little time answering that question. I don’t believe that it’s a lake of molten lava, nor do I believe that it’s a place where people are completely engulfed in the flames of a literal fire. Most of my life I’ve believed that hell is a place that is nothing but a literal fire. However, I no longer believe that’s what Scripture is referring to. In some circles, you’re regarded as a heretic if you don’t believe and teach that hell is a place of literal fire.
Nevertheless, just as with so many other terms used in this book, and just as with so many other scenes in this book, I believe the term “fire” is symbolic. It fits the pattern of symbolism in this book. I believe that “fire” is symbolic of judgement, the torment of judgement—while the phrase “lake of fire,” is symbolic for the place of torment. As when someone goes fully under the water of a lake and is engulfed by the water of that lake, so will they be engulfed in God’s judgement (see commentary on Rev 11:5).
As with the everlasting kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2), we don’t have a clear picture of what the place of eternal punishment is really like. The most important thing to understand about Heaven (everlasting kingdom) is that it’s a place of total joy, where we will dwell in the glorious presence of the Lord forever and ever—completely absent of pain and suffering. Likewise, the most important thing to understand about the lake of fire, is that it’s a place of torment, absent of all joy, where sinners dwell forever and ever away from the presence of God. These are the things that most of us can agree on.
Also, as I already discussed, there are degrees of punishment. Not everyone will experience the same degree of torment. Those who lived what we would consider a good life, who had a caring heart, were kind to others, who lived selflessly and spent their lives helping others, the degree of torment they experience will be minimal. For those people, perhaps the worst thing about hell will be the complete absence of God in their lives—knowing what they could have had.
On the other hand, those who were completely evil and hateful and did cruel and heartless things to others, the degree of punishment they experience will be extreme—maximum punishment. God is a just God, and therefore, His punishment always fits the sins committed—the same way a just judge punishes according to the crimes committed. In other words, the punishment fits the crime. In the punishment of the lost, people will not experience what they don’t deserve. On the other hand, people will certainly receive what they do deserve.