I saw the dead, small and great
Every category of man now stands on an individual basis before God. Wealth, power, fame, is all immaterial now. As the cross stands as the great equalizer among people of faith on the road to salvation, so the Great White Throne Judgment is the equalizer among those on their way to eternal damnation.
standing before God
For saints who pursue after God and desire to be in His presence, this is the ultimate blessing of the eternal state: They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads (Rev. Rev. 22:4+). Just the opposite is true for the unrighteous dead about to be judged. The immediate presence of God will be a terror unimagined by them, for they are the object of His wrath in righteous judgment. This will be their only time of intimacy with God and it results in devastating negative consequences. While living, they expressed their desire to be independent from God. Soon their desire will be an eternal reality.
The flight of earth and heaven underscores the awful reality that nowhere remains to hide from God. Those in the Tribulation had attempted to hide in the rocks and caves from the wrath of God (Rev. Rev. 6:15-17+), but now the entire material universe is gone and all that remains is a perfectly just, righteous, all-powerful God face-to-face with sinners without any covering for their sin. Previously there was the illusion that sin could be hidden from God, but all illusion has ben stripped away.
books were opened
These books record the good and bad deeds of those about to be judged. This is the record of their works prior to death.
And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life
This book is singled out from among the other books because of its paramount importance. Unlike the books which record their works, this book records their faith, or lack thereof. The mere appearance of this book in the judgment is proof that access to God is by faith alone. For if salvation could be by works, the books recording their deeds would be sufficient for judgment.
Those who have not trusted in the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, will be sadly disappointed to find how they have been deceived. Their self-righteousness is no righteousness after all. While living, they sought to establish their own righteousness and refused the gift of righteousness provided by God:
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of Gods righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. (Rom. Rom. 10:2-3)Membership in beneficent organizations and associations, participation in righteous causes, attending Church, and all earthly activities will be of no avail in the ultimate determination of the final destiny of the unsaved. Good deeds will serve to mitigate punishment to some degree, but the ultimate destinationwhether heaven or hellis determined entirely by the presence or absence of ones name in the Book of Life. See commentary on Revelation 20:15.
Those who worshiped the Beast at the time of the end were never written in the book (Rev. Rev. 13:8+; Rev. 17:8+). See Beast Worshipers are Unique. Others were written in the book, but were blotted out as they came to their death without having exercised faith in God (Ex. Ex. 32:32-33; Ps. Ps. 69:28; Rev. Rev. 3:5+). See Book of Life. They are not the overcomers. See Who is the Overcomer? Anyone not found written in the Book of Life is cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. Rev. 20:15+). Those who are written in the Book will be able to enter the New Jerusalem (Rev. Rev. 21:27+).
the dead were judged
This is the final judgment of those who have rejected God. There is no second chance, no possibility of repentance beyond death:
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (Heb. Heb. 9:27-28)
They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1Pe. 1Pe. 4:5)The judgment will be absolutely righteous and truesomething to be celebrated by the righteous dead (Ps. Ps. 9:7-8; Ps. 96:12-13), but feared by those who have not been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. Rev. 1:5+; Rev. 7:14+). Their robes are not white like the righteous, but scarlet. Like the Harlot, they are stained with sin (Isa. Isa. 1:18). The very Lamb of God, whose blood they rejected, will be their judge: And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead (Acts Acts 10:42). In the same way that He judged the living sheep and goats at His Second Coming (Mtt. Mat. 25:31), now he judges the dead: I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom (2Ti. 2Ti. 4:1).
The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, small and great, and should destroy those who destroy the earth. (Rev. Rev. 11:18+)
Christ will also be the final Judge of all moral creatures, whether men or angels. These judgments can be itemized as referring (1) to the church (2Cor. 2Cor. 5:10-11) (2) to Israel nationally and individually (Mtt. Mat. 24:27-Mat. 25:30) (3) to the Gentiles at the time of His second coming to the earth (Mtt. Mat. 25:31-46) (4) to angels, probably at the end of the millennium (1Cor. 1Cor. 6:3; 2Pe. 2Pe. 2:4; Jude Jude 1:6) (5) to the wicked dead (Rev. Rev. 20:12-15+).1The faithful dead will not stand in this judgment: Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life (John John 5:24).
All the unsaved dead from all of history now stand before God Almightywith two notable exceptions. The Beast and the False Prophet of the end were cast directly into the Lake of Fire, bypassing this judgment. There is no possibility that their punishment will be mitigated by any record of good works. See commentary on Revelation 19:20.
according to their works, by the things which were written in the books
The things written is τῶν γεγραμμένων [tōn gegrammenōn] , perfect tense passive participle: the things having been written. The contents of the books were written in the past. This is the record of all their good and bad deeds prior to death. They will be judged both by their deeds and by their knowledge:
There is a principle in Scripture that does teach degrees of punishment based upon degrees of sinfulness and upon greater or lesser light or knowledge and the response or lack of it to that light [Mtt. Mat. 11:20-24; Luke Luke 12:47-48; John John 19:11].2Those who knew more and failed to respond will bear greater guilt than those who knew less (Mtt. Mat. 11:23-24). Those among the Jews, who had great light concerning God but rejected their Messiah, will be among those who bear greater responsibility for their sin:
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousnessindignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek. (Rom. Rom. 2:5-9)None will be able to claim I did not know, I did not hear because every man entering the world receives sufficient revelation to seek God. Those who did not seek him will stand condemned by general revelation.3 Although the revelation of God in nature is insufficient to save, it is sufficient to condemn those who fail to respond:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language Where their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun. (Ps. Ps. 19:1-4) [emphasis added]
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools (Rom. Rom. 1:20-22) [emphasis added]Paul tells us that they knew God, but refused to glorify him and were not thankful. The horrible result was the developing futility of their thoughts and darkening of their minds. Ultimately, professing wisdom, they actually became fools. Twice in history every man, woman, and child on earth had intimate knowledge of God: at the creation and immediately after the global flood. Yet, today great portions of the earth are cloaked in spiritual darkness. Where once their forefathers knew God, they rejected Him and actively walked away from retaining His knowledge for their children and their childrens children. No man has ever been forsaken by God. It is always man who forsakes God.
Along with His revelation in nature, God provided another form of general revelation: the law written upon mens hearts:
For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them ) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel. (Rom. Rom. 2:12-16) [emphasis added]Those who never came to faith steadfastly rejected God. It was not a passive rejection where they slowly drifted away due to inaction. Paul tells us it was an active rebellion:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness . . . And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting . . . knowing the righteous judgment of God that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom. Rom. 1:18, Rom. 1:28-32) [emphasis added]When we speak to people who reject the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and ask them by what means they hope to enter heaven, they almost universally reply with the notion that they are basically good and that by their deeds they will find entry. They are convinced: (1) that their good deeds will outweigh the bad, (2) so long as they are better than some other person then they are acceptable to Godthat God grades their sin on a scale relative to other people. The truth is, from Gods perspective their bad deeds universally outweigh the good. Moreover, God does not grade on a relative scale to other people, but relative to the perfection of God Himself. This is an absolute scale.
Blind to these realities, they are convinced they will gain heaven by their works. And so God has promised to judge them by their works:
Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors; give them according to the work of their hands; render to them what they deserve. (Ps. Ps. 28:4)
Also to You, O Lord, belongs mercy; for You render to each one according to his work. (Ps. Ps. 62:12)
If you say, Surely we did not know this, does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds? (Pr. Pr. 24:12)
For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc. Ecc. 12:14)
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. (Mtt. Mat. 16:27)Heb. 11:6). Even their altruistic works are flawed by selfish and deceptive motivations.
The unregenerate man can, through common grace, love his family and he may be a good citizen. He may give a million dollars to build a hospital. . . If a drunkard, he may abstain from drink for utilitarian purposes, but he cannot do it out of love for God. All of his common virtues or good works have a fatal defect in that his motives which prompt them are not to glorify God, a defect so vital that it throws any element of goodness as to man wholly into the shade.4The books will be opened and sin will be found. Lacking a covering for sin and unable to produce perfection, they will be unable to be in Gods presence and are destined for the Lake of Fire. Being a righteous and just God, the degree of their sin will determine their relative degree of torment. But all torment is torment.
It should be noted that while there are varying degrees of punishment in hell, everyone there will suffer intolerable, indescribable misery and torment. All sinners in hell will be utterly separated from God and all that comes from His goodness. Thus, they will be miserable, but not equally miserable.5
3 As the term general revelation is historically and universally employed in evangelical theology, the term general is intended to characterize not the character of revelation under discussion, but the audience to whom that revelation is available. . . It is general in its scope; that is, it reaches to all people.John F. MacArthur and Wayne A. Mack, Introduction to Biblical Counseling (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994), 76.
5 John MacArthur, Revelation 12-22 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2000), Rev. 20:12.