There is good news for all believers in Christ. You won’t have to appear before Jesus at the final judgment. We know this because Jesus issued a pass when he said,
“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.1
He lets us know that as long as we have believed in him, we are excused from the final judgment. The final judgment is the last event that the world will see before everything is made new. It’s a good thing that we’ve been pardoned from the proceedings of the high court of the King of Kings because it is not going to be a pleasant occasion for those who appear before him.
In this chapter, we are going to compare two of the judgments that the Bible tells us about. Many may not realize that the Great White Throne Judgement and the Judgement Seat of Christ represent separate events for different groups of people. Let’s start by looking at what the Bible has to say about the white throne judgment in Revelation 20:10.
The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.2
This is the preamble to the white throne judgment. It sets the stakes, so that we know what the consequences are for those who have to stand before the white throne of the King of Kings. The narrative goes on with these words.
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.3
A white throne comes into John’s vision, and on it one who sits. In the ancient world, the sight of a king on his throne often meant that he would judge cases of high importance. Although, this is no ordinary king. John makes a point to tell us that the earth and heavens fled away from his face. It’s not completely clear what is meant by this, but the event that follows the white throne judgment is the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. So, it seems that this appearing of the King of Kings on his white throne tears the universe apart. Image how terrifying it will be for those who have to stand before him and give an account, especially considering that he just ripped up the cosmos like an old piece of paper. The narrative continues to unfold as we meet more characters.
And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.4
Judgment time has arrived. This verse tells us the method and measure by which the judgment will be performed. There are separate books that are referenced in this judgment. It says first, “books [plural] were opened.” There is also a single book opened which carries the title, the Book of Life. John then makes it clear that it is the plural books which are referenced for this judgment. The people that stand before Jesus at that time will be, “judged based on their works.” This tells us what appears in the plural books. They are a collection of volumes which recount ever action each person has ever done whether good or bad. For the sake of simplicity, we will call the plural books, the books of works. So we know what the books of works are but what is the Book of Life? We will find out shortly. Let’s read on.
The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.5
John clarifies who they are that will be judged and how they arrived. The mass of humanity that stands before the white throne are those who had previously been residing in what we might think of as a holding tank for the dead. There is some distinction given to the sea, death, and hades. Regardless of how these are distinct from each other, one thing is for sure, it is unbelievers who are resurrected for this event. John uses the word dead to mean unbelievers in another place when he is explaining this coming judgment.6
When unbelievers through history have died, they’ve been held in a kind of temporary prison. You could think of it as the short-term jail that an accused criminal waits in before he stands trial. Jesus talked about this holding place for the dead in his lesson about the rich man and Lazarus.7
When the white throne judgment arrives these temporary prisons for the dead spits out everyone who they had been holding. This represents the event that Jesus promised when he said one day everyone who has ever lived would be bodily resurrected, some of which would experience a “resurrection of condemnation.”8 In the final act of this judgment narrative we find the outcome of the white throne judgment for all those who were brought back to life.
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.9
The outcome for those who stand trial on that day will not be good. They will be thrown into the lake of fire. Now, there are a few important things that we need to notice. The previous verses tell us that these unbelievers are judged based on their works, however here it tells us that they were thrown into the lake of fire if their names were not found written in the Book of Life. It’s not the books of works that determines if they get thrown into the lake of fire. It is whether their name is in the Book of Life. So while they were judged based on their works, no one’s works were good enough to justify them gaining entrance into God’s eternal Kingdom. After all Paul said, “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight…”10
If these people had only believed in Jesus, they would have been given everlasting life. In fact, that is exactly what the Book of Life represents. The Book of Life is a list of names containing all those who have been born again by faith in the Savior.11
While the Book of Life will determine where those judged will spend eternity, the books of works will be used to determine how they will spend eternity. As you might already know, not everyone’s experience in the Lake of fire will be identical. In fact, Jesus describes some people’s experience in hell as “more tolerable.” So the books of works, will be used as Jesus determines who will have a more tolerable eternal experience in the lake of fire. Regardless of tolerability, this judgment will be a terrible day for those who appear before the white throne. None will pass this judgment without being thrown into the lake of fire.
Aren’t you glad that believers get to skip this judgment, as Jesus promised?12 I know I am. I can’t imagine how horrible that day will be for those who refused God’s gift of everlasting life.
Now that we have a picture of the white thrown judgment, it’s time to consider another judgement that Paul calls the Judgment seat of Christ. Whereas the white throne judgment is only for unbelievers destined for the lake of fire, we find that the judgment seat of Christ is only for believers destined for Heaven. Here is what Paul says about it in 2 Corinthians 5:10.
For we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.13
Paul shows us here that believers too, must appear before the judgment of Jesus. In the previous section, though, Jesus promised that those who believe would not “come under judgment.”14 How do we harmonize these two ideas? Simple. The white throne judgment and the judgment seat of Christ are two different events for different groups with very different outcomes. When Jesus promised believers would not come under judgment he was talking about the final judgment as can be seen by the context in which the promise appears.
So what is the judgment seat of Christ? We actually have a really good picture of what it will be like because Paul uses a specific Greek word to describe it. The words that we translate into “judgment seat” are a single Greek word, bēma. The bēma was a platform in Greek towns where decisions were handed down by rulers. It also referred to a place where rewards were presented in athletic games. The champions received laurels from an official who sat on the bēma.15 Therefore, the judgment seat of Christ represents both a chance of rebuke, and an opportunity for reward. This is quite different from what we learned about the white throne judgment indeed.
Paul gives us this look at the event in which believers will stand before the judgment seat of Christ in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.16
He uses a very useful building analogy to make it plain for us to understand. He starts by explains that the foundation is Jesus Christ. That’s important to us for a few reasons. First, it means that this judgment will only focus on the works that are done after someone becomes a believer. I got saved when I was six years old, so virtually all of my life will have to be accounted for when I stand before the judgment seat. There are others who became believers later in life, who will have fewer years that they must account for. It’s good news that we only have to account for our years as believers, since most are least proud of their pre-Christian lifestyle.
Secondly, we discover that since the foundation is Jesus, we need not worry about a loss of salvation. Have you ever seen a house with a concrete slab, burned to the ground? The neighborhood I grew up in used to have one. Everything was completely consumed by the fire except the foundation. We would ride our bikes on the concrete slab which was all that remained after the fire.
The fact that it’s Jesus who is the foundation should give us comfort that no matter what happens at the judgment seat, we will be saved. The minimum you can walk away with is your everlasting life. However, we discover that many will walk away with much more.
He goes on to explain that we are able to build on top of the foundation of Jesus. Once you become a believer you began the work. This is work that only saved people can do. There are different building materials available for this construction project. All believers have access to gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw. The building materials represent the actions that you take during your life post-belief. Your decision to either be a committed disciple, or a sin-chasing Christian is how you decide what building materials you use. What you build with is up to you.
So, by the time you and I take our last breath we have built something. Clearly, some people’s constructions will be better than others. In fact, there are those who built almost entirely with good works, represented by gold. On the other hand, there will be those who built almost entirely with cheap materials like straw. What comes next should get you motivated.
Paul tells us that this judgment will be like a fire sweeping through the building you’ve made. It’s as if Jesus is throwing a metaphorical match into your construction site. If you’ve built with gold, silver, and precious stones, then you can breathe easy. Your building will stand the test of fire. What’s awesome here, is that those whose metaphorical buildings are still standing after the fire will get a reward. The more left standing the more reward.
We must understand that reward is not eternal life. Reward is not salvation. Eternal life is a gift, remember? A reward is like being paid for the construction work we will have performed. He assesses the fire-resistance of your building and the most worthy builders get the most reward. Reward is above and beyond salvation. That’s why reward is always attached to discipleship. We are not rewarded by grace, we are saved by grace. Conversely, we are not saved for our works, we are rewarded for works.
Paul finishes the analogy with this powerful warning, something that motived him to live well. He tells us that there will be those whose construction sight is completely burned down to its foundation. The foundation can’t burn, but everything on top will be absolutely scorched. What happens to the person who got saved but then only built with useless materials, which represent unimportant or even bad works. If you come from a traditional background like I did, you might assume that Jesus will get so mad that he revokes that person’s salvation. However, that is not what Paul says. He puts it this way,
If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.17
Notice the words, “he will be saved.” So it is possible to be a saved person, but have nothing to show for it when you enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s possible for a Christian to bear no fruit. It’s even possible for the believer to work hard for a while, but then stop working. For the ones who have less or no works, there will be less or no rewards.
There are those who will “suffer loss,” in Heaven. Those are his words, not mine. The first time I encountered this idea, suffering loss in heaven, it startled me. I had been taught that everyone will be equal in heaven. However, that is not the case. There are those who will gain great reward in Heaven, for their work on Earth. Their eternal experience will be much better than the saved person with no reward. There are others who will have no reward in Heaven for their lack of work on Earth. Their experience will not be nearly as great as those who received a reward for their works.
We can see even more clearly the division between salvation and discipleship. Those that believe in Jesus for salvation will absolutely be saved. Those who believe and work, will be saved and rewarded. That’s what motivated me to write this little rhyming phrase that I’ve used so often.
In Christ believers have believed.
Disciples have believed and obeyed.
For the believer, salvation is received.
While, disciples are both rewarded and saved.
1 John 5:24.
2 Revelation 20:10
3 Revelation 20:11
4 Revelation 20:12
5 Revelation 20:13
6 John 5:25
7 Luke 16:19-31
8 John 5:29
9 Revelation 20:10–15.
10 Romans 3:20.
11 Daniel 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27
12 John 5:24
13 2 Corinthians 5:10.
14 John 5:24
15 Dwight L. Hunt, “The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 786.
16 1 Corinthians 3:11–17.
17 1 Corinthians 3:11–17.