The Great Judgment
Images of power introduce this scene. A “great white throne,” an undescribed but imperious “one” sits on it. Creation felling in terror but finding no place to hide. Even more terrifying, the dead are all over the place. Famous infamous, unknown, uncared about, they’re all there. From the sea and Death and Hades the dead come. Before the throne they watch as “books” are opened, full of the deeds of the deed (20:13). Death and Hades join the two beasts in the lake of fire. The sea too, after disgorging its dead disappears and has no place in the new creation. The dragon is already caged in the abyss. The powers that oppose God are defeated.
Human beings still face a reckoning before God based on what they have done (20:13). And those who have not done enough to get their name written in the “book of life” join the evil powers in the lake of fire, “the second death 20:14). The first death, of course, is our physical death. The faithful who have experienced the first resurrection (20:5) have nothing to fear from the second death. Their names are written in the book of life.
Faith and Works
Protestants get all queasy when we read God will judge us based on what we have done. That smacks of salvation by works which is just what the Reformation of the 16th century fought to reject. Instead, “justification by faith alone was counterpointed to salvation by works as the evangelical truth. Salvation was either due to God’s work in Christ or due to our own efforts and accomplishments. This was an unfortunate binary as the scripture never places faith and works over against each other in this fashion.
When the New Testament does oppose faith to works, or works of the law, the issue is how we can identify the people of God. Is it those works that most set Jews apart from all other peoples: circumcision, sabbath, and food laws? Or is it faith in Jesus Messiah that marks out God’s people? There was never any question, whatever choice one made about this, whether works appropriate to the people of God were to be expected and performed. They were!
Faith and works should never have been opposed. Instead, we should have embraced an understanding something like this: we are saved by faith without works but faith which saves is never without works. Faith indicates who we believe in; works demonstrates and verifies that faith. To be judged by our works before God is but another way of determining the genuineness of our faith. Those who fail this examination of our faith are those who have failed to believe in the true and living God. And those who pass are those who have works which validate that faith.
And the latter need never fear that such faith is in vain! They will not be disappointed but rather validated and vindicated, no matter the suffering or even death that may have befallen them. For in the economy of the Lamb suffering and death are chief marks of faith and the primary ways God’s kingdom makes its way in our world.
Now the great drama is over. The struggle is resolved. Everything is back on track, restored to the role and purpose God ordained for it. All that’s left is to explore the pictures of this fulfilled state of affairs given us in chs.21-22.