A great white throne judgment is mentioned in Revelation 20:11-15, which is a biblical passage that pertains to the final judgment that will occur during the culmination of the so-called “End Times.” With regard to this judgment, we will attempt to answer the following questions:
When will this judgment take place?
Who will be doing the judging?
Who will be judged?
What is the significance of the works of those who are being judged?
Who will suffer eternal punishment as a result of the final judgment?
Although we will focus primarily on Revelation 20:11-15, we will also consider several other scripture passages that are pertinent.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise.]
Revelation 20:11-15 states,
Then I [John, one of Jesus Christ’s inner circle of disciples] saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible explains this biblical passage, as follows:
And I saw a great white throne – This verse commences the description of the final judgment, which embraces the remainder of the chapter. . . .
And him that sat on it – The reference here undoubtedly is to the Lord Jesus Christ, the final Judge of mankind (compare Matthew 25:31), and the scene described is what will occur at his second advent.
And I saw the dead, small and great – All the dead – for this language would express that – the whole race being composed of the “small and great.” . . . The fair meaning in this place therefore is, that all the dead would be there, and of course this would preclude the idea of a “previous” resurrection of any part of the dead, as of the saints, at the beginning of the millennium. There is no intimation here that it is the wicked dead that are referred to in this description of the final judgment. It is the judgment of all the dead.
Stand before God – That is, they appear thus to be judged. The word “God” here must naturally refer to the final Judge on the throne, and there can be no doubt (see Matthew 25:31) that this is the Lord Jesus. (Compare 2 Corinthians 5:10.)
And the books were opened – That is, the books containing the record of human deeds. The representation is, that all that people have done is recorded, and that it will be exhibited on the final trial, and will constitute the basis of the last judgment.
And another book was opened, which is the book of life – The book containing the record of the names of all who shall enter into life, or into heaven. . . . The meaning here is, that John saw not only the general books opened containing the records of the deeds of people, but that he had a distinct view of the list or roll of those who were the followers of the Lamb. It would seem that in regard to the multitudes of the impenitent and the wicked, the judgment will proceed “on their deeds” in general; in regard to the righteous, it will turn on the fact that their names had been enrolled in the book of life. That will be sufficient to determine the nature of the sentence that is to be passed on them. He will be safe whose name is found in the book of life; no one will be safe who is to have his eternal destiny determined by his own deeds. This passage proves particularly that the righteous dead are referred to here as being present at the final judgment. . . .
According to their works – The fact that the name of anyone was found in the book of life would seem, as above remarked, to determine the “certainty” of salvation; but the amount of reward would be in proportion to the service rendered to the Redeemer, and the attainments made in piety.
And they were judged, … – All these were judged – the righteous and the wicked. . . .
And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire – Death and Hades (hell) are here personified, as they are in the previous verse. . . The idea is, that death, considered as the separation of soul and body, with all the attendant woes, will exist no more. The righteous will live forever, and the wicked will linger on in a state never to be terminated by death.
This is the second death – That is, this whole process here described – the condemnation, and the final death and ruin of those whose names are “not found written in the book of life” – properly constitutes the second death. This proves that when it is said that “death and hell were cast into the lake of fire,” it cannot be meant that all punishment will cease forever, and that all will be saved, for the writer goes on to describe what he calls “the second death” as still existing.
Summary of the beliefs of Barnes: The Lord Jesus Christ will do the judging of all the dead – both the righteous (i.e., Christians) and the wicked (i.e., non-Christians). The righteous, whose names are in the Book of Life, will be rewarded according to their works, whereas the wicked, whose names are not written in the Book of Life, will suffer eternal punishment.
In regard to the same scripture passage, Adam Clarke Commentary provides the following explanations:
A great white throne – Refulgent with glorious majesty.
Him that sat on it – The indescribable Jehovah.
The dead, small and great – All ranks, degrees, and conditions of men. This description seems to refer to Daniel 7:9-10.
And the books were opened – See Daniel 12:1. . . . All the actions of men, whether good or bad, are written in a book, and of all they shall give account.
The books mentioned here were the books of the living and the dead, or the book of life and the book of death: that is, the account of the good and evil actions of men; the former leading to life, the latter to death.
According to their works – And according to their faith also, for their works would be the proof whether their faith were [sic] true or false; but faith exclusively could be no rule in such a procedure.
And death and hell were cast into the lake – Death himself is now abolished, and the place for separate spirits no longer needful.
This is the second death – The first death consisted in the separation of the soul from the body for a season; the second death in the separation of body and soul from God for ever. The first death is that from which there may be a resurrection; the second death is that from which there can be no recovery.
Written in the book of life – Only those who had continued faithful unto death were taken to heaven.
Summary of the beliefs of Clarke: Jehovah (i.e., God the Father) will do the judging of every person (i.e., apparently, everyone who has ever lived). Each person’s works will be an indicator of whether or not that person’s faith was “true,” and those who did not continue to be “faithful unto death” will suffer eternal punishment.
Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible says in reference to Revelation 20:11-15,
Him that sat on it [i.e., the throne] – the Son, to whom ‘the Father hath committed all judgment. God in Christ, i.e., the Father represented by the Son, before whose judgment-seat we must all stand.
The dead – `the rest of the dead’ who did not share the first resurrection, and those who died during the millennium.
Small and great. . . . The wicked who died from Adam to Christ’s second advent, and all the righteous and wicked who died during and after the millennium, shall then be judged. The transfigured godly, who reigned with Christ during it, shall also be present. . . .
Book of life – Besides the general book of all, there is a special book for believers, in which their names are written, not for their works, but for Christ’s work for, and in, them: ‘the Lamb’s book of life.’
According to their works. We are justified by faith, judged according to (not by) our works. The general judgment is designed for the final vindication of God’s righteousness. . . .
Summary of the beliefs of Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible: The Son of God (i.e., Jesus Christ) will do the judging of those who did not participate in the first resurrection, including the people who died subsequently. Each person’s works will be the final vindication of God’s righteousness.
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible interprets the same scripture passage as follows:
And I saw a great white throne. . . . [I]t is best . . . to understand it of the general judgment at the last day, which is the common sense of ancient and modern interpreters; though it seems only to regard the judgment of the wicked, . . . .
and him that sat on it; the throne was not empty, one sat upon it, who is no other than the Son of God; to whom all judgment is committed, and who is ordained to be Judge of quick and dead. . . .
And I saw the dead. . . . [I]t cannot be thought they were dead when they stood before the throne, but were raised from the dead; for this character is not descriptive of them as dead in trespasses and sins, though they are such as die in their sins, and rise in them, who are meant, but as having been corporeally dead; these are the rest of the dead, the wicked, who lived not again until the thousand years were ended (Revelation 20:5). As for the righteous, they will be judged upon their resurrection from the dead in the beginning of the day of the Lord; and will be declared righteous and blessed, and be called upon and introduced to inherit the kingdom prepared for them, which they shall have possessed a thousand years when these wicked dead will be raised. . . .
and another book was opened, which is the book of life: the same that is mentioned in Revelation 3:5, the book of eternal election. . . . No other use seems to be made of this book in the judgment of the wicked, than only to observe whose names were not written in it, as appears from Revelation 20:15. . . .
and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works; that is, they were sentenced to everlasting condemnation and death, according to the just demerit of their wicked works. . . .
and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them; “death”, which is here represented as a person . . .; and “hell” signifies the grave, which will now be opened, and deliver up all its prisoners, all that have been buried in the earth. . . .
and they were judged every man according to their works; some to greater, some to lesser punishment, as their sinful works deserved.
And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire,…. Death cannot be taken properly, nor hell be the place of torment, for devils and damned spirits; since that is that lake of fire, for then the sense would be, hell is cast into hell; but either by these the devil is meant, who has the power of death, and is the prince of hell, were it not that the casting of him into this lake is mentioned before in Revelation 20:10 or it denotes the destruction and abolition of death and the grave, that from henceforth they should no more have power over men. . . .
this is the second death; or the destruction of the soul and body in hell, which will consist in an eternal separation of both from God, and in a continual sense of his wrath and displeasure.
And whosoever was not found written in the book of life,…. Upon the opening of it, Revelation 20:12 as all that worship the beast, and wonder after him, Revelation 13:8 and all wicked men, everyone of them:
was cast into the lake of fire; where are the devil, beast, and false prophet. . . .
Summary of the beliefs of Gill: The Son of God will judge the wicked (i.e., non-Christians). Their works will determine the degree of their eternal punishment. [Note: Insofar as we can determine, Gill does not think that any Christians will be present at the final judgment, not even those who became a Christian during the Millennium (i.e., the 1,000-year reign of Christ that will begin soon after His triumphant return to earth).]
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible says with regard to Revelation 20:11-15,
In the heavenly world there are no physical thrones and neither the Father nor the Son need to sit on one in order to judge. . . . It indicates that God will call all men into solemn judgment. Every man will have to give account of himself to God.
For those who are not the true people of God . . . the judgment is based on how they have responded to God, how they have responded to the words of Jesus and the prophets, both old and new, how they have responded to the word of God and His law, for ‘works’ include all three (Matthew 5; Matthew 16:27; Luke 16:31; John 6:28-29).
[T]he primary purpose of the lake of fire is to burn up that which is at enmity with God’s final purposes. . . . Death and Hades are not existing entities, they are ideas (compare Revelation 6:8). . . . [I]t is only the fallen spiritual beings who are described as facing an unending future of remorse and misery.
[A]ll men are involved in this judgment. It is an all-embracing scene into which all other pictures of the judgment have to be fitted. And fitted they can be if we recognise that what is important is the spiritual lessons and not the physical descriptions. The significance of the book of life is that it contains the names of those who have been cleansed from sin, who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). . . . [A]s Paul constantly stressed, while our works cannot justify us, they can certainly condemn us, and those who are not His [i.e., God’s] will be found doubly guilty, for they have not only broken God’s law but they have also rejected His mercy. For them there is no future. There is only the lake of fire.
Summary of the beliefs of Pett: God the Father will judge everyone who has ever lived. Each person’s works will determine how they have responded to God, Jesus Christ; the prophets, God’s Word, etc. Everyone who has not only broken God’s Law, but also has rejected His mercy, (i.e., those who have not trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior) will suffer eternal punishment.
Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible, in reference to the same scripture passage, provides the following explanation:
The former verses gave us an account of Christ, the great Judge of the quick and the dead in the last day; the Lord Jesus Christ sat upon a throne of glory, about to execute his last holy and righteous judgment. Now he describes the persons to be judged, viz. all, both small and great.
And the books were opened: to show the justice and righteousness according to which this Judge would proceed, books are said to be opened. What books? The book of God’s law; the book of God’s omniscience; the book of men’s consciences. In the former is contained what all men should have done; the two latter will discover what they have thought, spake, or done in the flesh.
And another other book was opened, which is the book of life; the book of life, mentioned in Revelation 3:5, by which is to be understood the book of God’s election, wherein are the names of all those who, being from eternity chosen to life, were redeemed with the blood of Christ, and afterwards effectually called, justified, and sanctified.
And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works; according to these books shall the last judgment be, Romans 2:16, with respect had unto every one’s work.
By hell is meant all places where the dead are; whosoever shall be at that day in the state of the dead; the bodies of men, whether buried in the earth or sea; and the souls of men, whether they be in the place of torments or happiness, shall all be re-united to their bodies, that they may both in soul and body receive their final doom of eternal happiness, or eternal misery, accordingly as they have lived in the world; and those who shall be alive at that day, who shall be changed, (as the apostle [i.e., Paul] speaks in 1 Corinthians 15:51), are to be counted dead in the sense of this text, their change being instead of death to them. It is not said they shall be judged for their works (though that as to the wicked is true), but
according to their works; which is true as to the elect, who though their names be written in the book of life, yet must work righteousness; and they shall have judgment of absolution, not according to the perfection, but the sincerity, of their works, done in obedience to the will of God.
And death and hell were cast into lake of fire; there shall be no more natural death, nor any more separate state of souls. . . .
This, as to the wicked of the earth, is the second death, mentioned Revelation 2:11.
Summary of Poole’s beliefs: Jesus Christ will judge everyone who has ever lived. And, apparently, Poole thinks the righteous will be judged to determine the extent of their absolution (i.e., forgiveness), whereas the “wicked” (i.e., non-Christians) will suffer the second death (i.e., eternal punishment) as a result of this judgment.
Now, we will consider the other scriptures that we regard as pertinent.
Revelation 20:4 states,
And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
Since this verse of scripture precedes verses 11-15, which we previously discussed, it is clear that the Millennial i.e., (1,000-year) reign of Jesus Christ will occur before the great white throne judgment.
Matthew 25:31-46 is a biblical passage in which Jesus Christ declares,
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . . . Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . . And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In this scripture passage, which is apparently in regard to the final judgment, Jesus Christ declares that He (i.e., the Son of Man) will administer judgment from a throne and that the consequences for those who will be punished are eternal.
Romans 14:10 says,
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
This verse of scripture also says that Christ will be on the judgment seat, presumably in reference to the final judgment.
2 Corinthians 5:10 asserts,
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Like the last two verses of scripture that we have cited, this one states that Christ will be on the judgment seat, evidently at the final judgment.
Revelation 20:10 states,
The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
This verse, in conjunction with verse 15, which we discussed previously, strongly infers that the the punishment for everyone who is thrown into the lake of fire will be eternal.
Understanding the biblical prophecies of the so-called “End Times” is certainly difficult, and the Great White Throne Judgment (i.e., the final judgment) is no exception. Nevertheless, we have reached the following conclusions regarding the significance of this Judgment:
When will the great white throne judgment take place? Revelation 20:4 makes it clear that the great white throne judgment mentioned in verses 11-15 of the same chapter will occur after the millennial reign of Jesus Christ that follows soon after His return to Earth (i.e. Christ’s second Advent).
Who will be doing the judging? Revelation 20:12 specifically says that God will be the Judge, but three other scriptures that we have cited clearly state that Jesus Christ (who is part of the Trinity of God and, therefore, can be referred to as God) will do the judging.
Who will be judged? Although there is disagreement among Bible commentaries as to who will be judged during the final judgment, we believe Revelation 20:11-15 indicates that every person who has ever lived will be there. Our primary reason for this belief is that if only the wicked (i.e., non-Christians) will be judged at this time, then verse 15 surely would not state that “anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” If none of the people at this judgment will be genuine Christians, the passage presumably would indicate that the name of no one at this judgment was found in the Book of Life, and therefore everyone at the final judgment would be cast into the lake of fire. However, the focal passage seems to indicate that there will be people at the final judgment whose name is found in the Book of Life, and therefore they will not be cast into the lake of fire.
[Note: If “all the dead” at the final judgment will include those who became genuine Christians after the first resurrection (i.e., during the Millennium), their names would be in the Book of Life, along with the names of the Christians who participated in the first resurrection. Thus, the wording in verse 15 would be appropriate under these circumstances also. However, we do not think it would be logical for these Christians to be at the final judgment, if the Christians who participated in the first resurrection will not likewise be there.]
What is the significance of the works of those who are being judged? Because no person’s works will be adequate for them to be deemed by the Judge to be righteous, no one will be given eternal salvation on the basis of their works alone. However, although none of the previously cited scriptures make it clear if the works of each person whose name is written in the Book of Life will determine the extent of that person’s eternal rewards, several other scriptures indicate that there will be rewards for good deeds (see Matthew 6:1-4; 16:27 and Luke 6:35]
Who will suffer eternal punishment as a result of the final judgment? Only the people whose name is written in the Book of Life (i.e., those who have sincerely trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior) will have eternal salvation. Revelation 20:15 declares that everyone else will suffer eternal punishment.