What is the Great White Throne Judgment?
Is there opportunity for repentance at this judgment?
“The Lord is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3 verse 9)
And 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.Revelation 20:11
Of the many obscure visions recorded in Revelation, Charles Spurgeon argued:
This particular vision is so instructive and so unattended by serious difficulties that all are invited to consider it . . . John saw a scene of the last day [emphasis added]
In other words, John’s vision should be studied by believer and non-believer alike because it concerns a person’s eternal future. And, as Spurgeon points out, it takes place on a symbolic last day (see later).
Key Points about the Great White Throne
- It is a time of sentencing and righteous judgment
- The throne is white, implying a scenario of divine holiness, purity and justice
- Christ is the judge (John 5:22)
- It seems a person’s life is continuously being recorded in “books”, and what is written in the books determines the degree of punishment a person receives. Although, seemingly, all will be “lost,” the measure of their punishment will coincide with the degree of spiritual truth they received and rejected in their lifetimes, link. When their names are not found in Christ’s Book of Life, they will have no basis for objecting to the fairness of the Judge for omitting them
- Christ’s Book of Life is used to deliver the final sentencing
More Obscure Points
- The dead are raised at different times, depending upon their spiritual status
- All mankind, including professing believers, will appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give account of themselves (Romans 14:10-12). But only the spiritually dead will appear at the great white throne, to face “the second death”. In contrast, the dead in Christ will receive judgment in the form of rewards (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) at “the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:6). The giving of rewards is commonly referred to as “the Bema seat of Christ”, and some see this as taking place in heaven immediately following the Rapture of the Church (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10)
- The great white throne judgment appears to occur after the Millennial reign of Christ (but before the new heaven and earth) when the present earth and heaven are literally no more. Only the great white throne is seen, in all its awesome whiteness
Jesus summarised this mystery as follows:
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His [Christ’s] voice and come forth — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear [the Father] I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent MeJohn 5:28-30
The First Resurrection
Those who have “done ‘good” in God’s sight are blessed and take part in the first resurrection. This has been likened to a harvest which is gathered in three phases. The Firstfruits were gathered as Christ led the Old Testament saints from Paradise to heaven (Matthew 27:52,53). The Main Harvest occurs at the rapture of the true church, and harvest ‘gleanings’ are gathered at the end of the Millennium (Revelation 20:6).
The Second Resurrection
This occurs after the Millennium (Revelation 20:5) and involves all the unsaved from the beginning of time. Those who have done evil (the spiritually ‘dead’, Revelation 20:12) have died once, only to be resurrected and judged at the great white throne. A straight reading of the text implies that these receive degrees of punishment in the Lake of Fire according to their works. This is the second death, (Revelation 20:6).
A simple way of expressing this mystery is to say: “born once, die twice. Born twice, die once“. Think about it!
The great white throne of judgment (Revelation 20:11-15 ) is where Christ will ultimately judge the wicked. As Jesus said, all who are in the graves will hear His voice, but it is only those who have done evil who are resurrected to appear at the great white throne. As mentioned, this is the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:28). They will be raised to life and judged according to their works (their thoughts, words, and actions) written in the books.
Jesus warned of an end-time judgment because many will simply not be ready or even willing to enjoy communion with God in the new earth. Referring to this time of judgment, link, Jesus said:
Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessnessMatthew 7:22–23, emphasis added
These are people who have never really known Jesus (false prophets) and they will have their names blotted out from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5), with horrific consequences:
And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the Lake of FireRevelation 20:15
That said, it seems the degrees of punishment will be affected by how much revelation each person was exposed to and disobeyed. Jesus alluded to this in a parable:
And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightlyLuke 12:47-48
Taking the extreme case, is it fair to send to eternal damnation a person who had never heard about God (the God of Israel), or never heard the gospel of Christ? Thankfully, God, who is perfect and possesses infinite knowledge, will judge each person righteously and fairly, link, link.
As Paul says:
I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”Romans 7:7
Hebraic background to the Great White Throne
An understanding of the great white throne is enhanced by a study of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. In particular, the Book of Leviticus lists Israel’s seven mandated annual “feasts of the LORD”, link, link:
- Pesach (Passover), Mar-Apr
- Feast of Unleavened Bread, Mar-Apr
- Feast of First Fruits, Mar-Apr, May-June
- Feast of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost), May-June
- Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), Sept-Oct
- Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Sept-Oct
- Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot or Feast of Booths), Sept-Oct
Some of these feasts are to be held as “statutes for ever” e.g. Leviticus 23 verse 41, throughout all generations for all time. Paul instructed those Jews who followed Yeshua to continue to follow such Jewish customs, although such observance was not for Gentiles (Acts 21:20-25). On the other hand, in a symbolic sense these feasts are relevant to both Jew and Gentile today since they contain a coded message (a timeline) for mankind.
Each Feast Points to Christ
The feasts reveal God’s timeline for mankind concerning the coming of the true Messiah, man’s redemption, atonement for sin and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (the Millennial age). The first four feasts have been fulfilled:
- Passover: Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, allows God’s judgment for sin to pass over us
- Unleavened Bread: unleavened bread represents Jesus’ sinless life; He is the only perfect sacrifice
- First Fruits: Jesus as the first fruits of the dead – the first of the great harvest of mankind
- The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost: Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, resulting in the birth of the church
Between the first four feasts and the last three feasts we have the so-called ‘church age’ or ‘age of grace’, which is rapidly drawing to a close. The last three feasts (Trumpets, Day of Atonement and Tabernacles) relate to the near future. Some believe that the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (day eight) could offer mankind a last opportunity for repentance.
Trumpets: This is one of three feasts in the seventh month completing the yearly cycle of sacrifices and harvests. This is a time for reminding Jews of the coming of their King (Isaiah 60-61), and a time for reminding Messianic Jews that Yeshua will start His return at the last trumpet (1 Corinthians 15:52). For believers, the sounding of a trumpet foresees the trumpet of God at the first resurrection, when they are raised to meet Christ in the air at the end of this age (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Atonement (Yom Kippur): To make “atonement” is to make restitution for wrongs committed. As a day of humility and repentance to God, it was a time for Jews to get their hearts, consciences and lives right before Him.
Israel’s Day of Atonement was rich in symbolism and involved two male goats, (Leviticus 16:1-22). The first was sacrificed, symbolizing Christ’s future atoning sacrifice for the sins of all humanity (Hebrews 9:12). The second goat, the scapegoat, had all the blame for the deception and sins of Israel (and the whole world) placed upon its head, before being banished into the wilderness – an uninhabited and spiritually dark place, link. So the banishing of the goat symbolizes the future binding of Satan such that he cannot deceive the nations during the Millennium (Revelation 20:1-3).
Tabernacles: For Jews, Tabernacles is a seven day feast of joy and celebration following the autumn harvest. The feast commemorates the transition of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt to sovereignty in the Land of Israel; from nomadic life in the desert (living in temporary ‘booths’) to permanence in the Promised Land; from oblivion to deliverance. Throughout all this, God “tabernacled” (dwelt) with His people.
For mankind as a whole, the feast points to the time of Christ’s first advent (Isaiah 9:6), to the time when Christ reigns as King over all the earth (Zechariah 14:9), and to the time when God tabernacles with men in the new earth (Revelation 21:3).
Curiously, this is then followed by an eighth day (Leviticus 23:34,39), and it was on the the eighth day, (commonly taken as the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, link, link, link), that Jesus stood up and cried out:
On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”John 7:37-38
Some see this as not just a statement to the Jews some 2,000 years ago, but also as a vailed reference to an opportunity for repentance after the end of the Millennium, at the great white throne.
The Eighth Day of Tabernacles
As discussed, God said the Feast of Tabernacles must have an eighth day (Heb: Shemini Atzeret), which is a “holy convocation” like the first day (Leviticus 23:36 ). A holy convocation (Heb: “miqra”) is a solemn assembly or communion with YHVH, link, link. That said, the real purpose of the eighth day was much debated.
Some see it as a holiday in its own right that does not involve the special observances of Sukkot, link. On the other hand, since Leviticus clearly states that the people were to dwell in booths for 7 days (not 8), the eighth day was understood by the rabbis to be a separate festival (as indicated in Figure.1), yet one which is, in every way, connected to the 7 days of Sukkot, and maintains the character of Sukkot, link.
Fig.1: The Seven Feasts of the Jewish Calendar. Click image to enlarge
Symbolism of the Eighth Day
Seen as a timeline for mankind, Figure 1 implies that the seven days of Sukkot, and the eighth day, have special prophetic significance. Certainly the number eight has deep symbolism in the Hebrew scriptures:
- Young sheep were kept with their mother for seven days (for preparation) but given to God on the eighth (Exodus 22:30)
- Moses prepared Aaron and his sons for their service as priests at the Tabernacle by instructing them to stay in the Tabernacle for seven days. On the eighth day, after their seven-day consecration, they came out and made a sin offering for the people (Leviticus 8:33, 9:1)
- Cleansing of a leper involved a cleansing period of seven days followed by an eighth day when the priest offered sacrifices (sin offerings) to make atonement for the leper (Leviticus 14:1- 32)
- In the Millennium, Jesus will reign as King from the new temple in Jerusalem. Here, for a period of seven days, the priests will “make atonement for the altar” and cleanse it before sacrifices can be made. Then on the eighth day the priests offer the burnt offerings to the Lord (Ezekiel 43:18-27)
In these examples, there are seven days of consecration and cleansing followed by sanctification and acceptance by, or communion with, God on the eighth day. This is the pattern found in the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:36). Note also that the eighth day is the first day of the week, and the eighth year is the first year of a new sabbatical cycle. So it is also taught that the eighth day always refers to new beginnings.
Taking the common Pre-Millennial view of end-times, let’s now expand Figure 1 around the eighth day with these concepts in mind. A possible timeline is:
- The Pre-Millennial rapture of believers in Christ (both deceased and alive) at His return to earth (Matthew 24:36-44, 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). Some believers are martyred during the great tribulation and so have their part in the first resurrection (Revelation 7:14, 20:4-6)
- The Millennium: the seven days of Sukkot can be likened to the Millennial or Kingdom age on earth, link, link, when man learns to live alongside God as Christ reigns as King from Jerusalem. The Millennial age is not perfect (Christ rules with a rod of iron). So it might be seen as a time of consecration prior to sanctification for those on the Millennial earth. Some will accept Christ, some will still reject Him
- The Millennium ends with the destruction of the current earth and heavens (2 Peter 3:10-13); they are not to be found (Revelation 20:11). With the ending of Sukkot (aka the Millennium) God’s timeline must continue with the eighth day of Sukkot
- The eighth day must be the time of the great white throne since all previous creation has fled and the new heaven and earth are not yet in view. All the spiritually dead, over all time, are raised in a second resurrection to stand before Christ, the Judge (Revelation 20:11-13).
- The eighth day also suggests a new beginning and so is followed by a vision of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21)
Time to Repent at the Great White Throne?
Does the eighth day of Tabernacles see not only the righteous judgment of those who stand before God after the second resurrection, but also the final end-time harvest of saints (the very last of those taking part in the first resurrection), as Jesus implies in John 7:37? Recall that during the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus seemed to make a vailed reference to such a final harvest. To reiterate:
Since this call appears to be made on the ‘day’ of the great white throne, when the resurrected dead are judged according to their works, some surmise that the dead hear Christ’s call and some repent.
Consider this: for the Hebrews the eighth day of Tabernacles was to be a solemn day of sanctification and communion with God following seven days of acknowledging past sin – seven days of sin offering (Leviticus 23:36). See Scriptural Examples above. These examples suggest that, besides the righteous judgment of the wicked, the eighth day is also a time of sanctification and reconciliation with God, through Christ. So does the eighth day also look back to Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, and give those before the throne a last opportunity for repentance? Some think so:
No matter the circumstances of their death or where they died, all will be given an opportunity to know God and His way of life. Some accept Christ as Lord and Saviour and so have their part in the first resurrection [ Life, Hope and Truth ]
During this future judgment period they will have a sufficient period of time to sincerely repent of past deeds, be baptized and receive God’s Holy Spirit. Ultimately, those who do prove obedient to their Creator will inherit eternal life in His Kingdom [ John Ross Schroeder, Beyond Today September 2011 ]
After all, the Lord wants all to come to repentance:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance2 Peter 3:9
Based upon the concept of sin offering being accepted on the eighth day, some conjecture that, as the dead are raised in the second resurrection to be judged according to the things written in “the books” (Revelation 20:12), they are also given opportunity to plead guilty, repent and accept the sacrificial death of Christ. And if they repent their names are NOT erased from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5).
That said, this is not a majority view. Many insist that the great white throne judgment will not be similar to our court of law. There will be no defence attorney, no jury, no plea bargaining, no appeal, and no leniency, link.
After the Eighth Day
As discussed, prophetically, the eighth day can also be likened to a new beginning when man dwells in perfect harmony with God on the New earth (Revelation 21:3). This is partly what the eighth day is all about, YHVH dwelling among His people, as God did in the beginning in the perfect Adamic world.