Revelation 20:14-15 might be the most tragic passage in all of Scripture--the Apostle John gives us a graphic look at that place called hell.
Farewell to Hope
It was one of the most widely followed crimes in recent history. The Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff had amassed billions of dollars. For decades, he had been a leader on Wall Street – an impressive businessman who gave millions to charities, universities, social causes and, most importantly, his investors.
But then, to the shock of the financial world, Bernie Madoff was found guilty of leading a Ponzi. A Ponzi is an old scam – named after Charles Ponzi who was caught in the first lucrative scam in 1910 where he convinced investors of incredible gains, all the while simply taking the money of his newest investors and giving it to older investors.
As long as new investors could be found the scam would grow until it finally collapsed under its own weight.
Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi goes down in the books as the largest Ponzi of all time. When he was finally caught in the net, he had misused as much as 64 billion dollars and for several decades financed his own lavish lifestyle . . . from his yacht and Villa on the French Riviera to his million dollar apartment in New York.
His attorneys argued that the Ponzi had grown beyond his ability to shut it down . . . that people had become rich off his returns – that charities had been helped by the goodness of Madoff’s heart – even though Madoff merely gave his clients money that belonged to someone else.
In the end, all his investors lost everything – their savings, their homes; charities and schools lost million dollar endowments and there were even some who took their lives.
I read a small book written by Brian Ross, Investigative Correspondent for ABC who covered Bernie’s life and especially the collapse of his Ponzi – the book is called, The Madoff Chronicles – I was struck by the gravity of this final courtroom scene.
It was time for the judge to deliver the sentence. The courtroom was packed with reporters, family, business associates, charity leaders and some of Madoff’s high profile investors.
The judge said, “Mr. Madoff, please stand. It is the judgment of this court that the defendant, Bernard L. Madoff, shall be and hereby is sentenced to a term of imprisonment of one hundred fifty years.” The judge added, “As a technical matter, the sentence must be expressed on the judgment in months. One hundred and fifty years is equivalent to eighteen hundred months.” This was guarantee that 70 year old Bernie Madoff would spend the rest of his life in prison. / Brian Ross, The Madoff Chronicles (Hyperion, 2009), p. 229
There were cheers and applause from the victims in the courtroom. Many people wept. Justice had been served.
As much as people intuitively appreciate and believe in justice in a courtroom setting, ask the average person on the street what they think about the justice of God and you will get a dozen different answers.
Ask the average person about Hell, and you will get a dozen more.
Frankly, any discussion about a literal place where eternal justice is served has long since moved out. Ask the average church member when was the last time they heard a Sunday school lesson or sermon on Hell and they’ll give you a blank stare.
Historian, Martin Marty wrote, “Hell has disappeared and no one noticed.” A recent Newsweek article said, “Today, hell has become theology’s H-word – in other words, good people never say it – it’s rude an impolite. Gordon Kaufman of Harvard Divinity School believes this is a good trend – he wrote, “I don’t think there is any future for . . . hell.” / Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die (Moody, 1997), p. 97
Evidently, Hell is out of bounds and out of step with the world, and the average church member in America.
One evangelical theologian delivered this timely challenge to the believer when he wrote, “If we come to the Scriptures with our minds made up, expecting to hear from it only an echo of our own thoughts and never the thunderclap of God’s thoughts, then He will not speak and we will only be confirmed in our own [conclusions]. We must allow the Word of God to confront us, to disturb [us] and to overthrow our personal patterns of thought and behavior.” / John Stott, quoted by Erwin Lutzer in, Ten Lies About God (Word Publishing, 2000), p. 80
The question isn’t, “What I do you and I think? What do we say? What do the majority of churchgoers think?”
The question is, “What does God say . . . what has He revealed in His word?”
And guess what? He has actually revealed a lot!
When the famous North Carolina evangelist, Vance Havner, now with the Lord, was beginning his ministry, he pastored a country church where a farmer didn’t like the sermons he preached on hell. One Sunday, the man came up to Havner and said, “Why don’t you preach about the meek and lowly Jesus.” Havner replied, “That’s where I got my information about hell!” / Robert J. Morgan, Stories, Illustrations and Quotes (Thomas Nelson, 2000), p. 431
Ladies and Gentlemen, the shocking truth is the fact that nearly every single New Testament reference to eternal punishment in Hell comes from the lips of Jesus Christ. As if to imply that this place is so terrible that no human being can be depended upon to describe it but the creator of it – God Himself.” / J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Dunham Publishing, 1958), p. 555
According to the Bible, there is a coming judgment and eternal consignment in the lake of fire.
But not before the final judgment takes place.
If you have your Bibles, we have been witnessing this very judgment through the vision of John the Apostle.
Turn to Revelation chapter 20 and no doubt, the most overlooked paragraph in the Bible today – verses 11-15.
I have outlined our study into 4 sections:
- First, there is an unforgettable setting
Verse 11 reads, Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away.
In other words, you have the truth of 2 Peter 3:10 coming to pass, following the Millennial Kingdom where the earth and universe will violently terminate – burned away in a catastrophic fireball to make way for the reconstruction of a new heaven and new earth – as we’ll learn in Revelation chapter 21.
In between the destruction of the universe by its Creator and the creation of a new universe – this unforgettable scene takes place – a courtroom where the judge sits to deliver His sentence.
This is that terrifying moment where everyone will be confronted with the truth they denied and dismissed – that all unbelieving mankind will stand before God – and they will stand, virtually alone – with no defender – no Advocate – for they denied the gospel they heard or saw – the gospel of conscience; the gospel of creation and/or the gospel of Christ.
And all the world of unbelievers will stand in His presence – and He will not be some cosmic therapist or grandfatherly friend, but a holy, righteous judge (Romans 3:19).
- Second, we listened in on an unavoidable summons.
Verse 12 records, And I saw the dead, the great and the small – that is, the important movers and shakers of planet earth – the emperors and dictators; the wealthy and the well connected – standing alongside the small – the insignificant – those who were nothing much on earth but they were still too proud to acknowledge their Creator God in heaven.
And they are summoned – every one of them – to have the record of their lives examined, by an undeniable standard.
- Our third division is an undeniable standard
Verse 12 goes on to say, “And the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged form the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.
The books were opened.
We considered in our last session the book of God’s law written on their hearts which silently witnessed to them of their guilt which they suppressed – they told their conscience to hush.
And now they stand to see and hear the record of these books – the books of the Bible, perhaps, applied to their own lives to reveal their lost condition; the book of words; the book of deeds and the book of secrets.
The books were opened and, just as Paul declared in Romans 3:10 – there was no one righteous, no, not even one!
I mentioned in our last discussion that the purpose of these books being opened will not be to determine their eternal place but the degree of their eternal punishment.
All will suffer in Hell, but not all will suffer to the same degree.
The Bible teaches there will be varying degrees of punishment in Hell.
Jesus Christ Himself taught this truth. When Jesus sent His 12 disciples on a preaching tour, Matthew’s gospel records Christ telling them, “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. (Matthew 10:14-15).
Jesus Christ also warned that the hypocritical scribes “who like to walk around in long robbers; who like respectful greetings in the market places and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets . . . who for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater punishment.” (Mark 12:38-40)
In Luke’s gospel, the Lord made a distinction between the punishment of two servant when He said, “The servant who knew the master’s will and did not . . . act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, but committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few (Luke 12:47-48).
In other words, they both sinned against the master, but they will be judged by how much they knew about the master’s will.
They will both be punished for sinning against their master, but they will not be punished to the same degree.
One Bible commentator put it his way, “All unbelievers will be miserable in Hell, but not equally miserable.” / John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Moody Publishers, 2007), p. 309
There are people who’ve said to me, “How can God send the pagans to Hell who’ve never heard about Jesus Christ?” I’ve answered that in our previous session in detail – the unbeliever the world over has denied some measure of truth – even if he didn’t have enough truth to save him – the truth about Jesus Christ – for salvation is only through Christ alone.
However, as we’ve already learned, God will reveal at this great, white-throne judgment that every unbeliever condemned to hell actually had truth which he denied. He denied the truth of conscience and the truth of creation.
But, whenever I’m asked that question, How can God send to hell someone who never heard the gospel, I always return that question with another question – “Regardless of what the pagans did with whatever measure of truth they heard, what have youdone with the truth you’ve heard?”
The very fact that there are degrees of punishment in Hell is a severe warning to those, especially in this country, who have been surrounded by the gospel.
M. R. DeHaan wrote, “Hell for the pagan headhunter who has never heard the Word of God is going to be heaven compared to what it will be for you who have heard the pleading of the Gospel and have rejected it.” / M. R. DeHaan, Revelation (Zondervan, 1946), p. 280
In other words, those who had the maximum opportunity to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and yet rejected Him will experience the maximum punishment in the fire of Hell. / Ibid, p. 281
I wonder . . . is that you? Have you had a multitude of opportunities to believe, yet in the secret place of your heart, you’ve refused to give Christ anything more than a Sunday glance and a casual nod.
There is a judgment coming and for those who’ve knowingly rejected Christ, the greatest torments of Hell await them.
One of my staff members sent me a link to a website called “Blasphemy Challenge” in which they are encouraged to publicly and audibly deny the existence of the Holy Spirit. They incorrectly assume it’s possible to commit an unpardonable sin . . . since Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty of every sin – not just 99.9 percent of sin.
But the leaders behind this web site correctly assume that denying the existence of the Holy Spirit will ultimately send them to hell – which they, of course, do not believe exists.
For someone to accept the challenge – they must videotape their verbal rejection of the God, the Spirit, and anything else they choose to blaspheme – and send the footage to this web site where everyone can see them.
I went into their archives watched one person after another – most of them in their teens and twenties, videotaping their acceptance of the Blasphemy Challenge
One young man stood outside a church building where he recorded his denial of the God’s existence – and then he leaned in to the camera and said, “And I am not afraid.”
These people literally took pride in their blasphemy. I couldn’t imagine how great their condemnation will be as God the judge reviews for them these very statements, recorded in the Book of Deeds.
Having heard the gospel, and outright rejected it, their suffering will be far greater than any of us could conceivably imagine.
And when will they give an account?
John tells us – here is this coming courtroom scene – where the books are opened.
It is an unforgettable setting . . . there is an unavoidable summons of all unbelievers of all time . . . there is the undeniable standard as the books are opened and the actions, secrets, words, thoughts and deeds are judged against the holiness of God.
- In the fourth and final division of our exposition of this paragraph, John shows us the terrible delivery of an unpardonable sentence.
God the Son opens one more book. Notice the middle part of verse 12 – and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life.
Look down at verse 15. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The only book given a title is this last book – the Book of Life.
After presenting the evidence, God the Son – to whom God the Father delivers the right to judge the world (John 5:17 & 22) – Christ now leans forward and opens one final volume.
It is the register of heaven.
This is not a book of church affiliation, by the way.
No one can step forward and say, “Wait a second, I’m a Baptist and I’ve been baptized; I’m a Catholic and I’ve been catechized; I’m a Methodist and I’ve been mesmerized.”
God never said, “Believe on the church and thou shalt be saved.”
John’s audience would have immediately understood this concept. Every king and every ruler had a roll-book of living citizens under his control. / William Barclay, The Revelation of John Volume 2 (Westminster Press, 1976), p. 196
If your name wasn’t in his roll-book, you weren’t a part of his kingdom, which is another way of saying, he wasn’t your king.
The Apostle Paul refers to believers as citizens of heaven. He wrote to the Ephesians, So then you are no longer foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints – of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19).
He wrote to the Philippians with this same idea when he told them, For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20)
Which means, we’re actually foreigners down here . . . in this land. We’re temporarily assigned to this country – we’re eternally joined to that future country.
We’ve got a green card that allows us to work inside these borders . . . but our citizenship is somewhere else.
We’ve got a passport that one day won’t be renewed down here. Which is a good thing – because I am liking my passport picture less and less.
Every renewal, there’s more and more glare – they just don’t get the lighting right . . . and then it occurs to me, that guy’s getting old! That’s the problem, isn’t it? Stop nodding your heads.
We’re heading from our temporary home to our permanent home.
This Book of Life is the roll-book of the citizens of heaven.
And John writes, God the Son is opening this book, implying the court is allowed to see it – every person who stands before Him will be invited to look . . . and Jesus Christ will do this not to show them whose name is in there, but to show them that their name isn’t. / Nathan M. Meyer, From Now to Eternity (BMH Books, 1976), p. 180
It should be right here – in between these two names – there’s my grandmother’s name . . . my father’s name . . . it skips a generation – that should be where my name is . . . it isn’t there.
No name equals no ticket in.
Truthfully, everyone would have to say, “I knew my name wasn’t written there . . . because I had no interest in You being my King and me belonging to your kingdom . . . I was more concerned about my own rule . . . I had fashioned a god out of whatever I wanted . . . I was more interested in the kingdoms of earth.”
And to them, Christ will deliver an unpardonable, eternal sentence.
It is a sentence of banishment from the king His kingdom.
Note verse 15 – and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Now that is so clear – so undeniably horrifying that people have automatically attempted all kinds of maneuvers to twist the terrifying truth of hell into something more manageable . . . something more comforting.
Something less severe; something less eternal.
You might notice in the phrase just before verse 15, the last part of verse 14 where John writes, “This is the second death, the lake of fire.”
That phrase has given rise to one of two popular maneuvers around the truth of Hell.
It is the belief of annihilationism. Annihilationism . . . you’re not gonna have to spell that to get into heaven.
Annihilationism is the view that the souls of the damned are not eternal; they are eventually annihilated in the fires of hell.
Depending on how bad they sinned, their time is either long or short, but the soul of every unredeemed person sent to Hell is eventually annihilated.
Well, John called it the second death, so that must mean to cease existing.
But the Bible actually speaks of two different kinds of death; physical death and spiritual death.
In fact, the word, “death” – thanatos (qanatoV) – means separation. Thanatos refers to the separation of the material from the immaterial – the physical from the spiritual. / W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary (Thomas Nelson, 1997), p. 268
In other words, death is when the soul is separated from the body. The soul does not cease to exist.
And that separation is temporary – until the physical resurrection of the body which is reunited with the soul and spirit – a body now immortalized whether a believer or unbeliever; suited up in an infinite body that will last forever in either Heaven or Hell.
Death does not mean cessation of existence – it means separation.
In the first death, there is separation of the soul from the body. In the second death – referred to here by John for unbelievers – there is separation between the soul, in a immortal body, from God. / Daymond R. Duck & Larry Richards, The Book of Revelation: Smart Guide to the Bible Series (Thomas Nelson, 2006), p. 310
Listen, you never need to ask if a person ever ceases to exist. The question to ask is, “Where will that person exist for eternity?!” / Ibid.
Clark Pinnock of McMaster University in Toronto happens to be one of the chief proponents of annihilationism.
His favorite text is Matthew 10:28 where Jesus warned, “And do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell.”
Sounds like annihilationism, doesn’t it?
Problem is, the word “destroy” in the Greek language – available to all beginning Greek students is the word, apollumi (apollumi) which does not mean to annihilate, but to deliver up. In fact the Lord used the verb several times – and every time He used the word, it never meant to pass out of existence, but to be delivered over to misery. / Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, quoted by Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die (Moody Press, 1997), p. 103
In fact, in Hell, neither the body or soul is extinguished. Both suffer both mental and physical agonies guilt and greed and lust and pain and thirst and hatred and blasphemy and loneliness anger and despair and fear and all the while the burning sensation brought about in this lake of fire.
Annihilation – says “no way” . . . no one lives forever in hell – they are extinguished.
Jesus Christ, in one of his sermons, said that the lost will go into eternal fire (Matthew 25). And then he added, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 25:46).
That Greek word, translated eternal – aionion (aiwnion) means eternal – everlasting – without end.
And listen, Ladies and Gentlemen, the same word Jesus Christ used to tell us that hell will be everlasting is the used by Christ to tell us that heaven will be everlasting and without end.
I’ve never met anybody who said, “I’d like to go to heaven, but after awhile I’d like to go to Hell . . . I’m hoping Heaven is temporary.”
My friend, you never need to fear heaven lasting only for a while and then God changing His mind – it lasts forever.
And the person who thinks, “I guess I’m probably going to Hell, but after awhile I’ll get to go to heaven,” is misinformed. He won’t be able to. Hell lasts forever too.
The other maneuvering around this uncomfortable truth concerning Hell is universalism.
Annihilationism and universalism are the two great isms that give people false hope and deceived hearts.
Annihilationism says no one will live in hell forever.
Universalism says that everyone will live in heaven forever.
No matter which way you came – all roads lead to God. As long as you’re sincere.
Is it any wonder that Revelation chapter 20, verses 11-15 would be virtually unknown today. And if known, ignored.
For here, standing before the Throne of God’s sovereign judgment are millions upon millions of people – the unredeemed from all of human history – to hear the unpardonable sentence read against them and they are cast into the lake of fire.
The temporary places of torment for the unbeliever and the demons – the Bible refers to 2 places of temporary torment for unbelieving souls.
Sheol, in the Old Testament, which is often translated Hell; improperly I might add. The New Testament word corresponding to Sheol is Hades – the place where all the unredeemed souls have gone to await their final judgment.
Tartaros is the third word used to speak of a place where demons are even now incarcerated (2 Peter 2:4) as they also await their final judgment. It may be temporary or permanent – it’s never mentioned again.
These are places of that represent the grave, the underworld and the place of torment.
In verse 14, John says death and Hades are emptied into the lake of fire. That is, there is now no temporary place of torment, for the permanent place of torment has now received all things unredeemed.
This is the place, properly understood, as Hell; the lake of fire.
We don’t know when Hell was created. It isn’t mentioned in the account of creation in Genesis chapter 1, but we are distinctly told it was created primarily for the devil and his angels. We don’t even know where it is. / M.R. DeHaan, p. 251
We could spend another entire sermon describing this place as given to us in the Bible:
- A place of isolation (Matthew 22:13)
- A place of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth (Luke 13:28)
- A place where the devouring worm never dies (Mark 9:44)
- A place of fire that never burns away (Matthew 5:22)
- A place of tormenting thirst, guilt and regret (Luke 16)
- A furnace of fire (Matthew 13:42)
- A place of total darkness (Jude 1:13)
- A place where they have no rest day or night (Rev. 14:11)
You say, these are figures of speech. A furnace of fire . . . a place of gnashing of teeth.
Here’s an English lesson for you: a figure of speech is not a license to modify the thought it expresses; a figure of speech is recognized to be nothing more than a feeble attempt to declare in language that which is beyond the power of words to describe. / Pentecost, p. 555
There is no way to describe the horror of Hell.
Dante wrote in his classic work on Hell entitled, the Inferno, that above the lobby of Hell was a sign that read, “I am the way to the city of woe.
I am the way to a forsaken people.
I am the way into eternal sorrow.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. / Dante, The Inferno, Canto 3.1-9, quoted by Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die (Moody Press, 1997), p. 114
Hell is both a death sentence and a life sentence;
Hell is eternal separation from God;
Hell is eternal torment in an immortal body;
There is no parole;
There is no appeal to a higher court;
There is no early release;
There is no second chance;
There is no escape. / Sam Gordon, Worthy is the Lamb: A Walk Through Revelation (Ambassador, 2000), p. 418
This is the end of hope.
While you were alive, you refused to settle out of court. You refused the offer of the Judge – the payment of His life for your sins.
And now, the One who would have been your Savior has become your judge.
This is farewell to mercy and love and hope. There will never again be sunshine and laughter and beauty and joy.
This is farewell to the voice of God and the invitation of grace.
And oh, what a weeping and wailing,
As the lost are told of their fate:
They cry for the rocks and mountains,
They pray, but their prayer is too late.
The exposition of this paragraph may produce one of five effects upon our audience today:
This is merely one more time to hear about Hell and one more time to walk away unchanged and even uncaring.
- Another effect could be argumentativeness – who does God think He is.
One man said, “If God sends people to Hell I’d rather worship another god.” I read another person who said, “If God judges people and sends them to Hell I will go to Hell and defy Him.”
What utter foolishness . . . what blindness of spirit and heart.
- I’m praying that instead of these effects, the Spirit of God will bring some to acceptance
Like the Philippian jailor who came trembling to Paul and said, ‘What must I do to be saved.” And Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Believe – to place your faith in Him alone; believe in the Lord Jesus – acknowledge Him as sovereign master – God in the flesh – the living Messiah.
Accept Him today.
For the unbeliever, this study will lead to apathy, or further arguing against God, or acceptance.
- For the believer, this study should lead to what I’ll call animation.
We’ve got work to do. God has commissioned us to spread the word. There is a God and He will be your savior or one day He will be your judge.
C. S. Lewis wrote that we need to keep in mind that everyone we talk to, work with and live around are actually immortals. They are going to be one day immortal horrors or immortal splendors. He wrote, there is no such thing as ordinary people. We are all immortals. / Lutzer, p. 9
- Finally, may this study provoke in our hearts appreciation and awe.
Our names are written in the Book of Life.
I’m often mindful of John Newton’s testimony in song – Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
He often said that he’s find three surprises in heaven: surprised at who was there he didn’t think would be; surprised at who wasn’t there that he thought would be and that he was there.
Someone in our congregation emailed me a poem this past week that turns this thought around a bit – rather humorously.
I dreamed death came the other night,
And Heaven’s gate swung wide;
An angel with a halo bright,
Ushered me inside.
And there! To my astonishment,
Stood folks I’d judged and labeled
As quite unfit, of little worth,
And spiritually disabled.
Indignant words rose to my lips,
But never were set free;
For every face showed stunned surprise,
No one expected me.
In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples are sent on a preaching tour during which they did amazing things, including casting out demons.
They came back all excited about their amazing ministry results and Jesus Christ said, “Don’t rejoice that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
In other words, Jesus had the perspective of eternity; and He said, listen, if you want to be excited over something really great – really wonderful – even over and above anything you might accomplish for the glory and gospel of God – just be glad that your names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Be glad that you can sing with the redeemed:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in his blood.