A wise man said many times, "The Bible is like a jigsaw puzzle." One has to piece together God's Word properly. Each passage has its proper role in enabling us to correctly understand biblical doctrine. The apostle Paul aptly described our part in this process as "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15, emphasis added throughout). More modern translations usually render the phrase "correctly handling."
Another way of understanding this important principle is reflected by the biblical saying, "Here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28:10, 13). Clearly one scriptural passage of and by itself usually does not fully convey the complete truth about any specific biblical teaching. Normally, it should be carefully compared with other passages dealing with the same topic.
Neglected, misunderstood and misinterpreted
Few passages in the entire Bible, if any, have been more neglected, misunderstood and misinterpreted than Revelation 20:11-15, which refers to what is commonly known as the Great White Throne Judgment. Here misinterpretation happens principally because a crucial principle of Bible study (mentioned above) has been carelessly overlooked by theologians whose understanding has been darkened by erroneous doctrinal beliefs.
The timeline of Revelation 20 summarizes a number of crucial occurrences in the latter part of God's overall plan for saving mankind. We may gain essential supplementary details from other scriptures. But first let's look at Revelation 20:11-15 in its entirety:
"Then I 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 [plural] were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life [not death]. 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 [the grave] 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."
An erroneous doctrinal assumption
Mainstream Christianity wrongly assumes that the White Throne Judgment described here consists of condemning many millions who never converted to Christianity during their lifetimes to an ever-burning hellfire. Yet vast numbers of those who died in past ages never even heard of Jesus Christ. They had no real opportunity to experience Christian conversion or to be saved.
Wholesale condemnation of many millions would be directly contrary to God's very nature. The apostle Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:3-4, "For this is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (New Revised Standard Version).
We should also recognize that most everyone who died in past ages—even those who did hear of Christ—never truly knew or really understood biblical truth, or ever had the opportunity to do so. And if they never had an opportunity for salvation in the past, would not a just God give them an opportunity in the future?
Although Revelation 20:14-15 clearly demonstrates that there is indeed a lake of fire for the punishment of incorrigible sinners, this passage does not indicate an ever-burning hellfire. The apostle Paul plainly tells us that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23)—not an eternal existence of interminable suffering in hellfire.
Contrary to those who teach that death merely means separation from God, death in fact means a complete cessation of consciousness (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10). (For a much more complete explanation, request or download our free booklet Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?)
Now let's consider what our Savior actually taught concerning Revelation 20:11-15.
What did Christ personally teach?
Who is the actual author of the great resurrection just prior to the White Throne Judgment period? John plainly tells us in his gospel account that Jesus said, "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in their graves will hear His [Christ's] voice" (John 5:28).
Several scriptures show that God the Father has committed all judgment of human beings to His Son (verses 22, 30). So Jesus Christ Himself is the one who will exercise judgment during the time described in Revelation 20:11-13. The Father remains in heaven until that time arrives for Him to usher in the glorious, everlasting panorama of joyful never-ending existence described later in the last two chapters of the Bible.
Few realize that important collateral passages—clearly explaining events that will occur during the White Throne Judgment—are found in Matthew's gospel account. Consider carefully what Christ actually taught: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! [These were cities of His day.] For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon [earlier cities], they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:21-22).
Consider this remarkable statement for a moment. Jesus talks about a future judgment in which the people of His day and age will be judged alongside those of the long-dead cities of Tyre and Sidon, destroyed centuries earlier!
And how will they be judged? Revelation 20 clearly states that those resurrected will be judged "according to their works," the things they actually did coupled with the opportunities they had to know and understand God's truth. But again, will God condemn these ancient peoples who never once had the opportunity to know or respond to God's truth?
During this future judgment period they will have a sufficient period of time to sincerely repent of past deeds, be baptized and receive God's Holy Spirit. Ultimately, those who do prove obedient to their Creator will inherit eternal life in His Kingdom. In sharp contrast, those who continue to reject God's truth and stubbornly refuse to repent will be sentenced to suffer "the second death" (verses 14-15)—again, it is a death, not an eternal existence in a lake of fire.
The ultimately encouraging fate of Sodom
Let's continue in Matthew's account: "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades [the grave]; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day" (Matthew 11:23).
Can we grasp what Christ is really saying here? Firstly, recall the unlawful deeds of these ancient peoples: "But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord" (Genesis 13:13). Yet during His human life Jesus Christ told a prominent city in Galilee that it came up short even when compared with ancient Sodom!
Jesus continued: "But I say unto you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the Day of Judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:24). Again, Christ spoke of a future judgment, comparingthese ancient peoples of Sodom with the citizens of Capernaum during His generation.
The only conclusion one can reach is that the resurrected men and women of Sodom, who had died almost 2,000 years earlier, will be given an opportunity for salvation during this future period of judgment!
God is merciful toward all those who are willing to really repent. Christ said that the men of ancient Sodom would have repented during their previous lifetime had He done the great miracles there that He performed in Capernaum many generations later. So why didn't He do those works for those of Sodom? Because it was not yet time for them to be offered salvation.
A resurrection of people from different periods in history
Jesus Christ's next statement is even clearer and more specific. Notice it: "The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here" (Matthew 12:41). The ancient Ninevites and Jonah had lived and died more than eight centuries earlier. Yet Jesus plainly states that they will rise up in the future with those of His generation!
Jesus then alters the focus of his comparison to just one well-known individual of ancient times. "The queen of the South [i.e., the Queen of Sheba] will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it [by comparison with her own], for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and indeed a greater than Solomon is here" (Matthew 12:42). The Queen of Sheba and Solomon lived almost a thousand years earlier. But again, Jesus says she will rise with those who lived in Jesus' day and heard His words!
Clearly Jesus is describing a resurrection in which people who lived and died centuries apart will rise from the grave together, learn God's truth for the first time and have the opportunity at last to repent and receive God's gift of salvation! What a remarkable and little-understood truth!
In these passages Christ referred primarily to ancient gentile (or non-Israelite) countries. But what about the peoples of Israel—past, present and future? Can they be saved?
The apostle Paul answers, "And so all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:26). But again, how can that happen when so many of them never even had the opportunity to hear God's truth?
The prophet Ezekiel explains what will happen. "The whole house of Israel" will be part of a great resurrection in the future occurring just after the close of Christ's millennial reign. Read about this resurrection of physical bodies brought back to life in Ezekiel's remarkable vision recorded in Ezekiel 37. The participants will then be given an opportunity for salvation during the White Throne Judgment period.
The surprising truth about the resurrections
But a thousand years beforehand, at the time of Christ's second coming, true Christians will be resurrected to eternal spirit life as the firstfruits of God's salvation. They will then assist Jesus Christ in ruling the nations during the 1,000-year Millennium and the White Throne Judgment period to follow (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; Revelation 5:10; 20:4-6; Romans 8:18-19, 23).
As important as Revelation 20 remains in helping depict God's overall plan for humankind, this crucial chapter cannot be fully understood without clarifying and supporting passages in other parts of the Bible.
The great mercy of God defies the limits of our imaginations. Paul wrote: "Blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in. And so all Israel shall be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer [Jesus Christ] shall come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob [Israel]; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins'" (Romans 11:25-27).
Hebrews 13:8 tells us that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." Today He remains deeply concerned for the salvation of all peoples. He is the Captain of their salvation and the Author and Finisher of their faith (Hebrews 2:10; 12:2). And as we have seen, He will personally carry out an important part of the latter phase of God's plan for the salvation of humanity during the Great White Throne Judgment period!