Scripture Reference: Romans 2:15-16, Revelation 20:11-15
The King Judges UnbelieversDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 14, 2010
Selected highlights from this sermon
The Great White Throne judgment is where God will judge unbelievers. He’s been keeping meticulous records on everyone who has ever walked on Earth.
Each person will be judged individually on what they did with what they knew. Their works, their words, and their secret thoughts will all be taken into account.
Then if their name isn’t found in the Book of Life, they will be thrown into the lake of fire. And no one at this judgment will be found in that book.
So to avoid the Great White Throne judgment, you have to do one thing, and one thing only. Accept the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for your sins. He is, after all, the only one qualified to give you the righteousness that God accepts to allow people to enter heaven.
An evangelist made the statement that more people come to saving faith in Christ through preaching the love of God than through preaching the judgment of God. And that might be true, but I need to say that we don’t really understand the love of God until we understand the judgment of God. In that sense the two attributes of God are related.
Today’s message is a very hard message. It’s one that I have been thinking about for weeks actually because it is difficult to preach, and for some of you it’s going to be very difficult to receive. But I need to begin by saying that what God is going to do and the description that is laid out for us in the Scripture is not something that He particularly enjoys doing. The Bible says that He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but the judgment happens because of necessity, given the attributes that God has.
Let me say also that as I speak I hope that you will not be judging God. It would be easy to sit back and perhaps fold your hands and to say, “You know, that’s unfair.” Cowper said that, “there were those who took from God’s hand the balance and the rod. They rejudged his justice and became the judge of God,” and I warn you not to go there.
Perhaps you remember a story I have probably told you before about me being on a plane and an older woman sitting next to me. I was witnessing to her and she was from a very liberal church that didn’t believe in hell. And one thing she said was, “If there is anything I know for sure, hell doesn’t exist.” I said, “That’s interesting,” and then I smiled. You always try to work up a smile at a moment like that, and I said, “You know, you’ve put me in a really difficult dilemma here because on the one hand I wish that you were right. But on the other hand, Jesus mentioned hell at least eleven times, more than he did heaven, so you’ve put me in a predicament because either I have to go with you, or I have to go with Jesus on this one, and don’t feel too hurt, but I’m going with Jesus. All right?” (applause)
News flash! About this topic your opinion doesn’t count. Remember that! Your opinion doesn’t count, so instead of hardening your heart (and many of you are going to be tempted to do that) and saying, “How could God do that?” why don’t you pray right now and ask God to soften it? Why don’t you open your heart to what God may have to say because I have no doubt that for some of you this is your moment to believe on Jesus. And you say, “Well how do I know whether I am in that number?” and if you have no assurance that if you died today you’d go to heaven, I’m particularly talking to you. Of course, I’m talking to all of us.
Well, the topic comes up in Revelation 20, which you can turn to. I’m going to read these five verses and then we’re going to go through the text basically almost phrase by phrase, and then we’ll see what there is to learn and what God has to teach us.
Revelation 20 beginning at verse 11 says, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” This is the judgment, the mother of all judgments. This is the judgment that is frightening, and yes, chilling.
Well, let’s move through the text. First of all, we begin with the one who is seated on the throne. You’ll notice he says, “I saw a great white throne.” The throne is great because it is majestic. This is the throne of God. This is the throne indeed that is forever, the throne that exists from all of eternity. God is on this throne, and it is a white throne—absolute holiness, absolute purity. No one is able to tweak things to make them look better. There is no possibility of bribery because we are now in the presence of the sovereign Judge who will do justly and do what is right. It is a pure and a holy throne and Him who sat on it and who is sitting on it.
Well, the Bible in Revelation speaks about the throne of God and of the lamb, but here, of course, we know it is the lamb. We know it is Jesus because in John 5:22 Jesus said, “the Father has committed all judgment to the Son,” and Paul said in the book of Acts in Athens, “God has appointed a day by which he will judge the world by one man” and that is Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is on that throne. The meek and mild Jesus that people love at Christmas, the little baby that you can take out at Christmas and then tuck away for the rest of the year, and pull Him like a book off a shelf, and be there again next year, that’s this little baby. The redeemer has become the judge.
You say, “Well, where is this throne?” You’ll notice that the text says that everything fled away from his presence and there was found no place for them. There was found no place for this throne. Now we have to back off and remember the rest of the series that we’ve had this far. Do you remember last time I spoke to you about the millennial kingdom and how Jesus rules, and then at the end of that kingdom He delivers it to the Father, the Bible says, and that transitions into the eternal kingdom? And it’s during this period of time of transition that the Scripture is fulfilled—that the world and all of its works shall be burned up. Scholars differ as to whether God is going to annihilate the present universe entirely and create a new one out of nothing, or whether or not the earth is going to be recreated. But one thing is sure. It’s going to be burned with fire, and during this transition period when people are standing before the great throne there will be nothing to see except the throne. No galaxy is in sight, and they are all standing there with a fear. If you think that people fear judgment today when they are being tried, multiply that by about a hundred because they have a good inkling as to what it is that is in store for them.
So there is the judge sitting before the throne, and then we have the defendants. I’m not sure that I should call them that because this isn’t exactly the same kind of trial that you would find on earth. But it says, “I saw the dead small and great standing before God.” Where did they come from? Well, later on in the text you’ll notice that it says that the sea gave up the dead, which were in it, and Death and Hades gave up their dead. You know, they are there because God summons them from the entire world. From the beginning of time all unbelievers are summoned to this judgment.
You know, it was said in ancient times that if you died in the sea (if you were drowned) of course probably the sharks would eat you, or if you were cremated and your ashes were sprinkled on the sea, not even the gods could ever retrieve you for an afterlife. It was sort of an assurance that once you died that way, you are secure from any final judgment. God takes those who are in the sea and calls them forth. These dead come from tombs long ago forgotten. They come from earthquakes where bodies have been destroyed and turned into dust. God calls them forth from coffins that were lined beautifully with satin, as well as those who have died in horrendous conditions because of hunger and because of poverty. They were all called forth.
One writer said, “God knows every speck of human dust and every strand of DNA and he calls it forth from deserts, caves, jungles, seas, tombs, ghettos and palaces, and they are all there. Their bodies have been resurrected. Judgment day has come. And then what does it say? It says Hades delivered up the dead, which were in them.
Well for that we need a little bit of review again, don’t we? Do you remember in the first message in the series I preached how that when the rapture comes, Christians go up? Because today, when a believer dies their body is put into the grave, and yet their souls are in heaven. And so what happens is they are raised from the dead and they are joined with their souls. People in heaven today are in some sense incomplete. That’s a separate topic but they are in some sense incomplete and they are joined together to become fully the human beings they were here on earth with, of course, some radical changes in their bodies and their souls. The same thing happens here.
Hades, as we learned from the New Testament, used several times, is the place where unbelievers go today. It has absolutely nothing to do with purgatory. That’s also a separate subject, but it is there that Jesus talked about Hades, you remember, which is a translation of the Old Testament word Sheol. And there they are today, and so because their souls are there, those souls also have to be joined now to their bodies. So the same people who lived on earth have indestructible bodies and here they are now standing before God fully cognizant of who they were in whatever generation they lived, and they are there standing before God because judgment day has come. It’s payday today.
Now you’ll notice it says that the small and great stood before God. John undoubtedly wants us to understand that this means people of different rank. A king over here is standing with those who died of poverty and sickness. Hitler is standing there and next to him are some people who spent their lives in good work in helping the poor and raising funds for the less fortunate. They are all standing together. There is diversity in rank. There is diversity in works, as we shall see. Undoubtedly there’s also diversity in religion. It is chilling to think that some people who are listening to this message today someday may find themselves in this judgment if they don’t take advantage of what God has prepared for them, as will become clear a little later on in this message. And so there will be Protestants there. There will be Catholics there. There will be Buddhists and Muslims, and all the different religions of the world. You say, “Well what is it that unites them?” What unites them is that they do not have the one thing that God requires for entrance into heaven. So there they are lacking the one thing they desperately need, and so they are all united, standing before the throne.
Well now it’s time for the evaluation. It is time for the records to be examined, so we open our Scriptures and we see here that the books were opened. We don’t know exactly how many books. We know that there were at least two because there is this one book that contains all their works, and then there is the book of life that we shall comment on in a moment. So they are standing there and the books are opened, and suddenly they realize that God has been keeping meticulous records regarding their record. It is an individual judgment as indeed it must be. Everyone singular is judged according to his works. Obviously if it’s to be a just judgment it has to be a singular judgment, person by person. We don’t know how long it takes God to do this, of course, because it’s taking place in another realm. Time may be different as we understand it today, but every one of them has their moment before God, and the books are opened, and their works are examined. And it’s not just their works. The Bible says that their words will be examined. Jesus said, “By your words you will be exonerated or condemned.” So all of their words, every word, Jesus said, “Every word men speak they will give account for in the Day of Judgment.” Can you imagine those who really swear a lot and say base things? I mean it’s all there. I mean there’s not a single thing that is overlooked. It’s there in the book.
But more than that, it says in the book of Romans that there is another way that the book can be viewed, and that is that God is going to judge the secrets of man. Oh my, now we get to motive. The people are going to see their secrets. You know those secrets that lie hidden, and all of the lies that have been told to cover up those secrets? Guess what! They are all exposed and God looks at it and the person looks at it. Nobody debates what God sees because you will know intuitively it is meticulously accurate. The person, you know, who did good works and they even paid money because they wanted to help the poor, in effect their motives will be exposed and the motives were actually much more selfish than they appeared. It’s just that in doing good they felt good about themselves and they could tell other people about the good that they did, and what appears to us to be good may have some very base motives, but it’s all there.
Now you have to understand that the principle by which God is going to judge is simply this: People are going to be judged on the basis of what they did with what they knew, based on their conscience, based on the light of nature, and based on whether or not they ever heard the Gospel. All of that factors in. I mean, nobody is going to stand there who has never heard of Jesus, they’ve never heard the Gospel, some pagans somewhere, and God is going to say to them, “Well, I’m sending you to hell because you didn’t believe on Jesus.” I mean, that would be manifestly unjust. How can you hold people accountable to respond to a message that they never heard? So that’s not going to be a part of it. The thing is going to be what they did with what they knew. Intuitively because of conscience they knew that lying was wrong, and yet they lied. Intuitively because of conscience they knew that immorality was wrong and yet they were immoral. There was something deep within them that told them that this is not the way it is to be, and they squelched their conscience. The light of nature reminds them of the greatness and the grandeur of God. If they had contemplated that, they’d have known that as well. And then if they heard the Gospel, my—how much more responsibility they would have.
Jesus made the statement—He said that it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment than it will be for those cities that rejected me when I was here on earth. Why? Because of so much more light! It all is factored in.
M. R. DeHaan, who was a Bible teacher of another era, said that for the headhunter who never heard of Jesus his hell will appear as heaven in comparison with the person who listened to the Gospel and hardened his heart against it and did not believe. Jesus made it very clear that responsibility is based on knowledge. The one who knew God’s will is punished more than the person who didn’t. It is all fair. And then not only that, but they are judged also on the basis of the impact that they had in terms of the perpetuation of evil. You know, Jesus said that if you offend a little child, if you cause a child to stumble, it would be better for you if you were drowned in the sea. Actually, it would be better to do that because if you take a child, and he’s not just talking about predators. He’s talking about parents who don’t live for their children and teach them the way of righteousness. He’s talking about causing little ones who believe in Christ to stumble. Very serious!
Now you take, for example, a man who is absolutely committed to immorality. He wants to be the most immoral man that you could possibly imagine. Now that’s one thing. That will incur one kind of judgment. But now take this man and not only does he want to be immoral. He wants to dedicate his life to make sure that others are immoral too, and to glamorize it, so he begins publishing pornographic magazines that are sold by the millions every month. And throughout all the world there are people who are hooked on pornography because he introduced it to them. The Bible says in Romans 2 that there are those who not only do evil, but they take pleasure in those that do it. So he gets pleasure from knowing that his own life style, which has been so immoral, has now been passed off on to so many, and he will incur much more severe judgment.
False teachers! Oh, we could just go into the New Testament, because it’s one thing to be wrong about your view of hell and salvation. It’s another thing to preach it to millions and to get them to believe, and so all of the judgment is going to be meticulously meted out in accordance with what they did, what they talked about and who they were. So much then for the records and their examination!
Next we find that the sentence is pronounced and they are brought forth, and this is the second death. There’s a second book here now. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life… What’s that book of life? We’ve encountered it before in the book of Revelation, haven’t we? The book of life is the book of the redeemed. Do you remember chapter 13 when we mentioned it and I commented on it. It is the book of those who have been purchased by Christ and belong to Him. And so far as we know nobody in this judgment is found in that book. Those whose names are found in that book had a separate judgment but they are in heaven with Jesus. If you’ve been following this series of messages, you will know that. And so I can imagine that there are people who are going to argue and say, “Well look again. My name should be there. Lord, did we not cast out demons in your name, and in your name do many wonderful works?” And the Lord will say to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of iniquity. Your name isn’t in the book of life,” and so everyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
You say, “Oh, Pastor Lutzer, this is overkill. What do you mean the lake of fire? Okay, so they sinned against God. Okay, so they were evil, but why such a strict judgment?”
Well let’s think about that for a little bit. What if the greatness of a sin was dependent on the person against whom it was committed? Let’s just assume that. You know when we were boys growing up on the farm (someone has given this illustration which I am using) we used to throw snowballs at one another. It was no big deal, but you know if you throw a snowball at the mailman you might be in a little bit of trouble. If you throw it at a policeman you might be in even more trouble. If you throw it at the president and you are arrested. And you say to yourself, “Wait a moment. I just threw a snowball. We used to do it all the time when we were growing up in Iowa.” Well, what’s wrong with throwing a snowball at the president? Wait a moment. The higher you go up the ladder the more culpability, and those small petty sins that people commit thinking it’s no big deal, it is a big deal because all sin ultimately is against a holy transcendent pure eternal omnipresent omnipotent God, and that makes it a big deal. So sin is a much bigger deal than you and I think it is because of whom it is committed against.
Here’s another thing. You are an eternal being. Whoever you are today, listening by whatever means, let me tell you, you will live somewhere eternally, and remember this, that those who find themselves in this judgment are eternally guilty. Wow! You say, “Well, is the fire of hell literal?” I don’t know because on the one hand it says the fire, and on the other hand it says outer darkness where you are separated from others. Both of those descriptions are in the scriptures. Even if it is symbolic it has to be symbolic of something—something horrendously awful, and catch this now, for all of eternity. And I could give illustrations to help us understand the dimensions of eternity. I won’t do that but it is a long, long, long time with no end. And so they are thrown alive into the lake of fire. The regrets are eternal.
Imagine with a heightened memory and the ability to recall everything, including this message today at The Moody Church; imagine these words being replayed in your mind. And you say, “I sat there and he gave an invitation to come forward and I wouldn’t because I was concerned by what others think of me, and now look where I am,” and imagine thinking those thoughts throughout all of eternity. As Dante said in his Inferno, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, you said that the problem with these people is they lacked something that God needed. What was it?” Well, you know the good news is this. The people who aren’t here, who are in God’s presence, they settled out of court. That’s what they did. They took advantage of a provision that God made so that you don’t have to be here. And the provision sounds something like this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. He who believes on the Son is not condemned, but he who believes not on the Son is condemned already because he has not believed in the Son of God.” Jesus said that those who believe in Him will not see death. Well, they will die physically but they will be raised, and here’s the good news. The good news is this—that these people took advantage, as I hope you have, and as I have, of settling out of court because Jesus said, “If you believe on me, if you believe that my death was a sacrifice for sinners, if you believe that and you receive it as your gift, you will be saved on the basis of my merit because I bore your hell when I died on the cross, and if you trust me, you don’t have to bear yours.” Isn’t that good news? (applause)
You say, “Well, why Jesus?” Why Jesus? It’s because there’s nobody else out there who is the savior. I mean, whom are you going to go to? Buddha? Buddha didn’t claim that he was a savior. He claimed he was enlightened, but he was no savior. Muhammad himself said that he wasn’t sure of his final destiny. He can’t help you. Sorry, but he can’t. Krishna can’t help you. Bahalala surely can’t. He said he had enlightenment but no answer to the problem of sin. You see, because Jesus was God, He’s the only one qualified to give you the righteousness that God will accept. He gives you two gifts—forgiveness and righteousness (the gift of God of righteousness) so that you are credited with His righteousness even though it isn’t inherently yours. It is His but it’s given to you, and on that basis God says, “Well, if you trust my Son like that I will welcome you into heaven as if you are my son.” You are going to be welcomed and received. And that’s why Steven, when he was being stoned, looked into the heavens and he saw Jesus on the right hand of the Father. And Jesus was in effect saying, “Steven, be faithful because when you die I’m up here for you.” I can tell you this. Steven will not be at this day of judgment, and neither will you and neither will I if we humble ourselves, admit our sinfulness, and believe on Christ.
A friend of mine said that he saw a bumper sticker, actually a very blasphemous bumper sticker, I might say. It said, “He died in 33 A.D. Get over it.” Can you imagine that? And we say, “Yeah, he died in 38 A.D. He was raised three days later. He’s coming again. We’re going to worship Him and we will never get over it.” Okay? Are you okay with that? (applause)
Have you trusted Christ as Savior? Well you say, “I am unsure.” Hey, you haven’t, because assurance comes to those who believe. Like we sang a moment ago, the vilest of sinners who truly believe, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. Listen, there are going to be people in heaven who committed sins much greater than those who show up at this judgment, but because they received Christ as Savior they will make it to the pearly gates all because of Him. It’s all about Him, but you have to receive His provision.
So what excuse have you brought to this meeting? So what mental barrier, what hardness of heart stands in the way of you responding to Jesus?
In a moment our soloist is going to come and he’s going to sing a song that we ought to sing more often. Rescue the Perishing is a song for all of us. After he sings that we are going to sing a stanza or two of Just As I Am. I was watching a Billy Graham special last night. I do that whenever I can and he was on last night, and I was reminded of that song that I love so much—the one that I want to be played when I am dying in a hospital.
Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd’st me to come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!
And I want you to come and I want you to shake my hand right down in front here to receive counsel that you might leave here today and know that your name is actually in the book of life. Don’t let your friends keep you. Couples can come together. Families can come. Boyfriends—girlfriends! You join me up here after we have prayed together, after we have listened to a song, and then we shall sing one.
Let us pray.
Father, what more could we say except that we thank You that You give us the privilege of settling out of court? We thank You today for Jesus who came to rescue us as we were perishing. Help us to spread that message to everyone we meet in one way or another, and to represent Him well because eternity is coming. For all those who have never believed on Jesus, perhaps listening by radio or the Internet, or right here in the balcony of Moody Church or on the lower floor, cause them today to believe. Overcome their resistance, and grant them salvation in Jesus. Amen.