From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 8 – More bad news – Judgment, Hell and the Lake of Fire in closer detail
This is the largest and the final judgment which comes at the very end. It is the main judgment that affects all people who are not genuine Christians. In other words, it is for all people who have not been born again because they have not genuinely repented and believed in Jesus Christ. We need to be clear about that. It does not only relate to peoplewho do not believe that Jesus exists or those who do not believe that He is the Son of God. There are many people who believe Jesus exists and that He is the Son of God, but they are still not born again and they are not saved.
The Bible tells us that even demons believe in who Jesus is. They know very well who He is. In fact, they tremble when they think of Him. However, demons are not “believers” in the sense that we mean here. Thus, tragically, many people will go to the Great White Throne Judgment, and then to the Lake of Fire, even though they were ‘churchgoers’ or even church leaders. That is because, despite all appearances, they were never real Christians. That is a frightening thought, but it is the truth.
When I use the word “churchgoer”, I don’t mean it as a compliment. It usually suggests (to me) someone who has no genuine personal relationship with God, but who merely has the outward form of religion, rather than anything real and sincere. Churchgoers are not necessarily saved, because they may never have truly repented or believed. I have never heard a real Christian refer to himself as a “churchgoer.” It is usually a word used by or about nominal Christians. They attend churches and observe all sorts of man-made traditions, rituals and liturgies, but they have never truly repented. Neither have they sincerely believed in Jesus in the biblical sense, by putting all their trust in Him to save them. See Jesus’ words in Matthew:
7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:Matthew 15:7-9 (NIV)
8” ‘These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
Jesus is talking about people who appear to be believers. They attend church meetings and go inside the building and they seem to say and do all the right religious sounding things. But, they aren’t real. They are, in some way, phoney, shallow and superficial. I was one of those people myself for the first 19 years of my life when I was in the Roman Catholic Church. Many people would have said I was “religious”, but I now know that I was unsaved and unforgiven.
Mere “churchgoers“, whatever denomination they belong to, may well receive a terrible shock when they die. They may discover that all their years attending church were of no use, because Jesus might say “I never knew you”. Those are terrible and frightening words. We must therefore assess ourselves soberly and test whether we really are genuinely in the faith or just shallow and false. We must also ask ourselves whether we are willing to be openly identified with Jesus Christ. If so He will accept us and endorse us in front of God the Father. But if we deny Him now, He will deny us then:
32“Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. 33“But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.Matthew 10:32-33 (NASB)
So, the Great White Throne Judgment will be conducted by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It involves a far larger number of people than the Judgment Seat of Christ. It will involve all people throughout history who have not put their trust in Jesus by repenting, and truly believing in Him in order to be forgiven. In other words, it will involve everyone who is not judged at the earlier, and quite separate, Judgment Seat of Christ. That is solely for genuine believers.
Those two judgments are mutually exclusive. You can’t be at both. We do not know how many people will be at each of these two separate judgments. The numbers will be vast at both. What we can say, however, is that most people will go to the Great White Throne Judgment, for non-Christians. There are many reasons for saying that. The simplest would be to refer to the words of Jesus Christ Himself, who said:
13“Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many. 14For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few”.Matthew 7: 13-14 (NIV)
At the very least, we know that there will be a majority who go to the Great White Throne Judgment and on from there into the Lake of Fire. We do not know how large a majority that is. We are not told. But the clear implication of that passage, and of other passages, is that it is a large majority. That is real Christians are in a small minority. It is not just a situation of 49:51, but perhaps 1:10 or 1:20 or even 1:100. It varies from country to country and from one time in history to another.
Nobody knows how many real Christians there are, as opposed to apparent believers or mere churchgoers. Only God knows which of us are genuine and which of us are not. There is no way for us to count and no way of judging. That is because we are not competent to know the real nature of another man’s heart and motives, even if he is sitting next to us in church. You cannot know for sure whether he is saved. We can only know what we ourselves are. There are going to be many surprises in both directions when we discover, in the end, who was genuine and who was false, who really was a Christian and who only seemed to be.
It is a dreadful prospect to think that most of the people who have ever lived on the earth will end up standing before the Lord Jesus Christ at the Great White Throne Judgment for unbelievers. They will have to give an account of all the sins they have committed in their lives. This will not be to decide whether or not to allocate rewards to them, as at the Judgment Seat of Christ, which is for real Christians. On the contrary, it will be in order to assess and publicly expose the precise level of sin in a non-Christian’s life and the intensity of punishment that will be given to each of them. I do not want to be at it. Consider the following passages:
11Then I saw a Great White Throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 14Then death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of Fire. The Lake of Fire is the second death. 15If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the Lake of Fire.Revelation 20:11-15 (NIV)
Note that in the passage above, Hades, which is the Greek word for Hell, is itself thrown into the Lake of Fire in its entirety. That shows the vastness of the Lake of Fire. It also proves that Hell is not the same thing as the Lake of Fire. Hell is only temporary. It is where non-Christians are held until they are finally judged at the Great White Throne, whereas the Lake of Fire is eternal. Let us look at a description of some of the people who will go to the Lake of Fire at the end:
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.”Revelation 21:8 (NIV)
Jesus will judge each of the unbelieving dead (non-Christians) at the Great White Throne Judgment. He will do so according to what particular sins they have committed in their lives. Note that in the passage above the first type of person listed is the cowardly. That is perhaps more significant than you may realise. Many would not even consider cowardice to be a sin. In fact it is a major one, because it causes us to fail to do our duty across the board and to persistently avoid pressure or conflict. We often choose to sin rather than do what is right, purely because of our cowardice. It is a form of selfishness. No action, word or thought, however small, will be forgotten or ignored at the Judgment. Everything will be dealt with:
36But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”Matthew 12:36-37 (NIV)
And, what’s more, it will all be made public. That is very significant. Each person’s own judgment will not be a private or confidential matter. Things will be revealed publicly. Every spiteful, selfish, cowardly, dishonest, corrupt or manipulative thing that a non-Christian has ever said or done will be publicly revealed. Everyone, or at least everyone who needs to hear it, will do so. That is a very sobering thought.
It may be that through carefulness and deception you have managed to conceal something you have done. There may be crimes or sins that nobody knows about. If so, you can only cover them up during this life. After your death, if you go to the Great White Throne Judgment, they will be made known to everyone who was ever affected by your actions or words. Nobody who goes to that judgment will ever get away with anything.Neither will they be able to keep anything hidden any longer:
2There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofsLuke 12:2-3 (NIV)
So, anything an unsaved, non-Christian person does, even in secret, and even if it was when they were on their own with nobody watching, will all come out at the Great White Throne Judgment. Everything an unsaved person has ever done will be revealed. Even the things that have been whispered in private rooms will be made known to everyone. Thus, even the most secret murder, lie, adultery or theft, that no one has ever detected, will be revealed publicly and punished at the Great White Throne Judgment.
But, note that this public exposure of sin does not apply in the same way at the Judgment Seat of Christ, i.e. for genuine Christian believers. Their sins have been forgiven and will not be exposed, publicly, or at all. It is vital to keep that distinction in mind. However , the only way we can avoid this public disclosure of our sins is to seek God’s forgiveness now and become a real Christian. (See Book Four for a much more detailed discussion of the types of things which will, and will not, be publicly revealed about the lives of real Christians at the Judgment Seat of Christ.)
No unsaved person will ever truly get away with anything. If a man’s crimes have gone undetected in his earthly life, he is no better off. They will all be revealed publicly at the Great White Throne Judgment. It will be a day of terrible shame and humiliation. Punishment will then be given that will match the crimes exactly. Therefore we can trust God to correct all the injustices of this present life. We know that in this world most crimes are never detected. Even those that are detected are not properly punished.
Therefore most people get away with most things. However it is only for a time. In the end, every crime and every sin will be punished. The wrongdoer will not get away with anything at all. It will all be straightened out and fully dealt with at the Great White Throne Judgment. Complete justice will be done and every record will be set straight. Every person who was ever falsely accused will be vindicated. Moreover, every false accuser will be exposed. That is why the Bible says that we must not, and don’t need to, take personal vengeance for any injustice. God will do it for us:
30For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.Hebrews 10:30-31 (NIV)
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.Romans 12:19 (NIV)
We do not need to take any vengeance ourselves in this life. God will take vengeance upon all those who commit acts of wickedness or injustice. It is His responsibility, not ours, and He will not overlook it. God puts in place governments whose job it is to punish crime here and now. That is valid. It is part of God’s overall judgment. What is not valid is for us personally to seek vengeance against others individually. We are to let God do it, either through the police and courts now, or at the Great White Throne Judgment later. (See Book Two for a fuller discussion of what forgiveness really involves and why we are commanded to forgive others who have wronged us and not seek for any vengeance ourselves.)
It is impossible for us to imagine exactly what the punishment will consist of and how it will be different for one person than for another. The Bible does not tell us in detail. In one sense the question of the degrees of punishment between one unbeliever and another is not so important. The real point is that every single person who goes to the Great White Throne Judgment will be sent on from there to the Lake of Fire. Thus, it is not only the destination for famous people like Adolf Hitler, but also for every ordinary sinner who does not repent and believe in Jesus Christ. It is not just for extreme cases, as many complacently assume. The Great White Throne Judgment is for every sinner who does not put their trust in Jesus Christ.
Yet the fact is that in the Western church today judgment, Hell and the Lake of Fire are barely ever spoken about. If they are, then it is usually only to dismiss them as old fashioned imagery, mythology or metaphor. They are not metaphors. Be assured, they are real and literal. Yet, even if we were somehow to say that the Great White Throne Judgment and the Lake of Fire were metaphors, we would still have to ask, “metaphors for what?”
In other words, even if they were metaphors, which they clearly aren’t, it can still only mean that they represent something indescribably awful which is the fate awaiting all unbelievers. Thus it would not be much of a comfort to think that the Lake of Fire was not literal if, instead, it simply ‘represented’ something equally terrible. So, even those who interpret the Lake of Fire as a metaphor or symbol should still be just as concerned as I am.
Remember that, of all the references in the Bible to Hell and the Lake of Fire, most of them come out of the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself. You are, of course, free to reject Him and disbelieve Him if you wish. But you need to be very clear that if you are rejecting the concepts of Hell and the Lake of Fire and treating them as a myth, then you are directly contradicting Jesus Christ Himself. He spoke of them not just once, but many times and in very plain and clear terms.
Some people have also tried to reduce the significance of the Lake of Fire by suggesting that those who enter it are simply destroyed in its flames and cease to exist. This is called “annihilationism”. However there is no biblical basis for it. On the contrary, the Bible is clear that the opposite is the case. Those who enter the Lake of Fire do so for eternity and remain in a fully conscious state. Though they are in the flames, they are never consumed by them. That is because their resurrection bodies are indestructible, just as a Christian’s resurrection body will be eternal and indestructible. Therefore, for the unsaved, their punishment will go on forever and ever and will never cease:
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.Revelation 20:10 (NIV)
The punishment that takes place in the Lake of Fire is eternal and it is also conscious. If those who go there were not conscious they could not experience torment at all. Also, if their lives were simply ended then it would not make sense to refer to their torment as going on forever and ever. It would obviously stop at the point when they ceased to exist. Therefore ‘annihilationism’ is not true. The Lake of Fire goes on forever and those who go into it remain fully conscious forever. This is undoubtedly true of Satan, the antichrist and the false prophet. Logically, it must be equally true of all those human beings who are sent to the same place.
There can be no doubt that the Lake of Fire is presented by Jesus as real, literal and eternal. The words used are absolutely clear. It is only doubted by those who do not want to believe in it. People do not want to believe in the Lake of Fire, or judgment, or even sin, because these things offend them. They just do not like these ideas. Yet we have already made the point that a thing does not become untrue simply because we do not like it. It is either true or false as a matter of fact, irrespective of whether we are for it or against it. Judgment and the Lake of Fire are classic examples of this.
For completeness I should add that there are some other aspects to the concept of judgment, apart from the Judgment Seat of Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment. There will also be some other smaller scale judgments. However, I will explain those in later books in this series, in particular in Book Four, so as to avoid too much complexity at this stage. Those other judgments also require us to have some understanding of the return of Jesus to the earth.