The final scene of judgment culminates in Revelation 20:11–15. We see “a great white throne” and “the dead, great and small, standing before the throne.” Then books are opened, presumably the databases on every person’s life. The “book of life,” which first appears in Genesis and indicates who’s ultimately saved and who’s not, is opened. Verses 13–14 need to be stated as they are: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” So the sea, whatever that is, gives up it’s dead. Death and Hades give up their dead. And each dead person stands for what can be called a second judgment, essentially a second appearance before God’s throne.
The basis of the second judgment centers on deeds. Yet John’s gospel and Peter’s letter say Jesus preached to the dead, which could indicate that faith also plays into the equation. Considering general revelation, people who never had an adequate hearing of the gospel, yet lived a life of goodness and integrity in light of what they knew, may have a chance. Here the love and mercy of God is clearly demonstrated—and it does not contradict the gospel mandate of believing in Jesus.
In the end death and Hades get thrown into the lake of fire, which we can confidently equate with images of Gehenna, to be with Satan and his demons.
Verse 15 concludes, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Besides the clear statement on some being thrown into the burning lake, the wording also implies that some people’s names will indeed be found in the book of life, and they would not be thrown in. Would this mean in the very end that people who didn’t make it into Heaven when they died physically would—if they never adequately heard the gospel message, yet, as we’ve seen, lived a good life according to the law written on their hearts and perhaps responded to Christ’s voice in the afterlife—have a chance of redemption at the second judgment? That’s what Scripture seems to imply.
Would that include people who in their earthly life rejected faith in Christ? This is a whole different matter from those who never heard. In his teaching Jesus indicates bad news for those who refuse him, for example when he states in John 3:18: “Whoever believes in [God’s Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” So a person who rejects Christ is far worse off than one who hasn’t heard. The former gets a permanent stamp of eternal judgment, presumably marking them for Gehenna.
What about people who don’t outright reject Christ but die without truly following him either? The same overall criteria would apply as it always does. The issue for each particular person is where they fit in—presumably judgment at death with the Hades and second judgment scenario in effect. Yet again, God is the judge—and I’m glad I’m not.
What To Do
Maybe we don’t need to worry about evangelizing everyone. God loves everyone after all, so let’s consider everyone part of the family. Bad idea. First, if we consider Luke 16, Hades is a condition of torment, at least for some. And at best it’s a dark, miserable condition, as depicted in the Old Testament instances of Sheol (often translated “the grave”). Second, there are no promises of salvation, no guarantees, not even a percentage. We are given no idea. To bank on getting into Heaven on the second judgment would be somewhat like playing Russian roulette. Maybe you’ll live; maybe you’ll die. That’s no way to plan for eternity.
So when we see the whole picture, we still find that Jesus is the only way to Heaven. We also see how God’s merciful love continually operates and offers chances for redemption. Jesus is still the way, and God is still a God of love.
And my secretary? She believed. You may also know people like her, wrestling with—or rejecting—the idea of a loving God who sends people to Hell. They too need to know what the Bible really says. It could make the difference between faith and rejection.
My whole treatment of this hellish subject has been rather clinical, I know. That’s the only way I could keep a clear focus on what Scripture says versus the fictions that so many assume. But everything the Bible describes about any afterlife separate from God is hideous—however literally or figuratively we take these passages. Either way the horrors should shake us loose from any presumptions of what a loving God would or would not allow—or what we wish the afterlife would be like.
The prospects of dying without a relationship to Jesus are fearful—yet in his love, God extends mercy to those who will respond. If anyone spends eternity in Gehenna, an unspeakable horror, Scripture seems to say they will have had a hardened heart, one that couldn’t stand being in God’s presence anyway, one that naturally consigns itself to darkness.
Jesus talks more about all this than anyone else, because he loves us. If you love someone, would you also warn them of dangers they should avoid?
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