What Does It Mean to Be Judged according to Your Works? (Revelation 20 and 21)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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12 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. 13 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. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
—Revelation 20:12–21:8

Necessary Evidence

All the dead, whether powerful or poor, stand before God’s throne to be assessed by him. Books are opened, including the book of life (cf. comment on Rev. 3:5; cf. also Isa. 4:3), meaning that the time of judgment is at hand (Dan. 7:10; cf. Rev. 11:18). The dead are judged by what is written in the book, i.e., according to their works. Scripture repeatedly says that judgment will be according to works (Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 14:12; Rev. 2:23; 22:12). Judgment according to works is not merely an OT theme but is also prominent in the NT. Those who are in the book of life have performed works warranting inclusion, while those who are punished are those who have pursued and practiced evil. Such works are not the basis for being found in the book of life but constitute the necessary evidence of belonging to God. As Daniel teaches, those written in the book will be delivered on the last day, raised to everlasting life, but those who have done evil will know “shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:1–2).

None of the powers of the world, those that terrify human beings, can withstand the voice of God or his power. The sea, Death, and Hades yield their dead (cf. 1 En. 51:1). The sea here is not a neutral entity but represents chaos and destruction, which explains its absence in the new creation (Rev. 21:1). John reiterates that the dead are judged according to their works (cf. Ps. 28:4; John 5:28–29; cf. also Sir. 16:12). God’s judgment is impartial and fair, not arbitrary or spiteful. It accords with what is right and true; no one will question its veracity.

Two Deaths

There is no doubt that the end of history has arrived as Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire. Death is the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), and Hades represents the realm of death and final punishment. Everything opposing God is confined to the lake of fire (cf. Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14), defined as the second death. Death is absent from the new creation, along with the pain and sorrow it brings (cf. 21:4). The promise of Isaiah 25:8 has now become a reality: “He will swallow up death forever.” The first death is separation from God, sealed by physical death (cf. Rom. 5:12; 6:23). But the second death is eternal separation from God, as his enemies are cast into a place of torment forever and ever (Rev. 14:9–11).

If one’s name is not inscribed in the book of life, he is cast into the lake of fire. Matthew describes the place of punishment as a “fiery furnace,” a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42, 50). Matthew also tells us the “eternal fire” is “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). The punishment here is not temporary; John has made it very clear that the wicked suffer torment forever; they will never enjoy rest (Rev. 14:9–11). Again, Matthew confirms this reading, for the righteous will enjoy “eternal life” while the wicked will suffer “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). The parallel in Matthew shows that the punishment is permanent, just as the life enjoyed by the righteous lasts forever: those whose works testify that they truly belong to God will be vindicated at the great white throne; their names will be in the book of life.

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New Creation

The new creation promised in the OT (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13) has finally become a reality. Isaiah promises the new creation in two texts: “I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa. 65:17); and, “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain” (Isa. 66:22). When John speaks of a new heaven and new earth, he does not mean the old creation is annihilated. The parallel 2 Peter 3:7, 10–13 passage should be interpreted to mean the old creation is purified and renewed; the old creation is not blotted out of existence. The new creation, then, is a renewal and transformation of the old. The first heaven and earth pass away in the sense of being transformed and cleansed of all evil (cf. comment on Rev. 20:11). When John says the sea is no more, he does not mean there are no bodies of water in the new creation. The sea in Hebrew thought stood for chaos and evil, the source of hideous monsters (cf. Dan. 7:3; Isa. 27:1; 51:9–10; Rev. 11:7; 13:1). For instance, the flood—i.e., the sea—destroyed all life on the land in the days of Noah (cf. Pss. 42:7; 69:1; Jonah 2:3). That the sea is no more means nothing destructive and deforming will be in the new creation (cf. Job 38:8; Ps. 74:13).

The new creation that dawns is a city, a holy city of no unrighteousness or evil, consecrated and dedicated to God (cf. Isa. 52:1; Rev. 11:2). It stands in stark contrast to Babylon, a detestable prostitute. The city of God is identified as the new Jerusalem. It is not the earthly Jerusalem but a transcendent one, coming down from heaven, from God. The earthly Jerusalem pointed forward to a heavenly Jerusalem far surpassing the one located in Israel. Other NT writers refer to Jerusalem in a similar way. Paul speaks of the “Jerusalem above,” calling it “our mother” (Gal. 4:26), and Hebrews refers to a heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22; cf. comment on Rev. 3:12). A new and heavenly Jerusalem is anticipated in the OT and in Second Temple literature of the day (cf. Heb. 11:10, 13–16). This language is apocalyptic, and we should not see it as a literal description of the coming new creation. The heavenly city stands in contrast to the earthly city of Babylon, which defaced the world and dehumanized others.

Death is dethroned and defeated as the last enemy.

The city is also described as a beautiful bride adorned for her husband. Isaiah anticipates what John writes here about Jerusalem:

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isa. 62:4–5)

The question arises as to whether the new creation, the new Jerusalem, is a place or a people. Both options are possible, but perhaps the best answer is that it is both. The new creation is like a city, with all the beauty and excitement sparked by a bustling metropolis. At the same time, the new creation also means the formation of a people, described as a radiant and perfect bride (cf. Rev. 19:7; Isa. 61:10; Eph. 5:26–27). The coming new world includes both a people and a place.

God’s Dwelling Place

A loud voice is heard from the throne, declaring that God’s dwelling, his tabernacle (skēnē), is with human beings (cf. 7:15). God will dwell (skēnōsei), i.e., “tabernacle,” with his people forever. In the OT, the Lord specially dwelt in the tabernacle (cf. Exodus 25–31, 35–40; Lev. 26:11–12; Zech. 2:10–11) and the temple (1 Kings 6:1–38; 8:12–13; Psalm 84), but the tabernacle and temple pointed to something greater (cf. 1 Kings 8:27). Jesus himself is the new temple (John 1:14; 2:19–22), and the Spirit indwells the church of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16). Now, in the new creation, he dwells in the new Jerusalem, and the whole world, the entire universe, is his temple. As we shall see shortly, both God and the Lamb will be the new temple (Rev. 21:22). The covenant formula of the OT is now realized fully (cf. Gen. 17:8; Ex. 29:45, 46; Lev. 26:44, 45; 2 Sam. 7:24; Jer. 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek. 11:20; 37:23, 27), for the redeemed will be God’s “peoples” (laoi; cf. ESV mg.) and God will be their God. The plural “peoples” is significant, denoting the diversity of the people of God. The fulfillment of God’s promises is not limited to Israel but includes all peoples, just as he said to Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). The greatest blessing of the new creation is the presence of God with his people. What makes the new creation so thrilling is fellowship with the living God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

The sorrow and sin of the old creation do not continue in the new creation (a theme anticipated already in the book; cf. 7:17, e.g.); all the troubles and pain that bedevil human beings are absent in the new Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 43:19). Every tear will be removed; there will be no occasions for mourning, crying, or pain. Death is dethroned and defeated as the last enemy (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26). Since death is part of the former things thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14), the story of the new creation is one of life and fruitfulness and a deep and lasting joy transcending and surpassing any joy we have tasted in this world. We cannot improve on the way Isaiah describes future joy: “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10; cf. 51:11; 65:19).

The old things have passed away, and the one who sits on the throne (cf. 4:2, 9; 5:1; 20:11), who rules and reigns over history and has appointed its end, declares he is making everything new (cf. Isa. 43:19; 2 Cor. 5:17). We could call this a performative statement, for the words of God are effective. What he declares to be new becomes new, just as the words of a minister declaring a couple husband and wife effect a new reality. It is particularly important that those who belong to God believe the words spoken here. If they doubt that a new world is coming, they will be prone to side with the old world, with the harlot and the beast and the false prophet and the Devil. But if they trust the words contained here, they will sacrifice everything to be part of the coming new world. It is important that the words be written so that they are not forgotten but are preserved for future generations. What is written is true and reliable, as is the case with every word of God (cf. Rev. 22:6).

God declares to John that all is accomplished; history has come to an end (cf. 10:6; 11:17). Everything God has purposed has been realized, and the new creation has dawned. God’s purposes are realized because he is the sovereign God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (cf. 1:8; 22:13). He has always ruled and reigned as the God of the universe; things were never spinning out of his control. He declares from the very beginning what the end will be, and his purposes and plans are never frustrated (Isa. 46:9–11). The joys of knowing God and having him dwell in one’s midst belong to those who are thirsty (Isa. 49:10), who long to be satisfied with God and are tired of relying on themselves and their good works (cf. Isa. 55:1; Zech. 14:8; John 4:10; 7:37; Rev. 7:16–17; 22:1, 17). God freely quenches the spiritual thirst and longing of human beings; the water of life is a gift that comes with the asking. People do not have to work or show they are worthy of it. All they need to do is to desire it.

Future Inheritance

Those who thirst, those who receive the free gift, also conquer and overcome. The necessity of conquering is a major theme in Revelation (cf. comment on 2:7). Eternal life is free, but those who receive it freely also conquer. The gift received empowers those who drink freely to overcome the beast, the harlot, and everything opposed to God. Hence they will “have this heritage [klēronomēsei ],” probably a reference to inheriting the blessings of the new creation in verses 1–6. In the NT, the verb klēronomeō is typically used with reference to eschatological blessing: inheriting the earth (Matt. 5:5), eternal life (Luke 10:25; 18:18), the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Gal. 5:21), the imperishable body (1 Cor. 15:50), salvation (Heb. 1:14), and blessing (1 Pet. 3:9). Here John speaks generally of eschatological blessing. What is clear is that there is no life in the age to come, no enjoyment of the new creation, unless one overcomes. The next line establishes this. Those who overcome have God as their father, and they will be his sons. The text is especially close to 2 Samuel 7:14, where David’s heir is called a son of God. Israel was also God’s son (cf. Ex. 4:22; Isa. 43:6; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 1:10; 11:1), and now those who belong to Jesus Christ are sons of God (cf. Rom. 8:14, 15; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 3:26; 4:6). The covenant relationship God promised to Israel now belongs to all those who are members of the people of God.

Those who conquer will inherit the new creation as God’s sons and daughters. On the other hand, those who fail to conquer and instead give themselves over to evil will be in the lake burning with fire and sulfur (19:20; 20:10, 14, 15)—they will experience the second death (cf. 2:11; 20:6, 14). The first death is the initial separation from God experienced by all those born into the world as sons and daughters of Adam (Rom. 5:12–19; cf. Rom. 6:23). The second death, however, is eternal separation from God, and there is no redemption or salvation for those who experience the second death; they will be tormented forever (Rev. 14:9–11). Unbelievers are excluded from the city for cowardice and unbelief. Cowardice expresses itself in conforming to and following the beast instead of risking one’s life for allegiance to Jesus. Unbelief or unfaithfulness means trusting in one’s own resources instead of staking one’s life on God. Murder and sexual immorality also separate one from God. It is not as if these sins automatically exclude anyone; the point is that one is excluded by engaging in such sins instead of repenting and turning from them (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9–10; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:9; Rev. 22:15). Sorcery or magic is regularly condemned (Ex. 7:11, 22; 8:18; Isa. 47:9, 12; Gal. 5:20; Rev. 18:23; cf. Wisd. Sol. 12:4; 18:13) as a way of trying to manipulate circumstances to bring about one’s desired ends instead of trusting in God. Idolatry, like sorcery, represents rejection of God’s lordship (cf. Rom. 1:21–25). Liars do not trust God’s providence in their lives and thus distort the truth to accomplish their own desires and schemes.

This article is written by Thomas R. Schreiner and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Volume 12) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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