This is the last of the four scenes in chapter 20; like the second scene (vv. 4-6, cf. the prior note), it is centered on the throne of God in heaven, and refers to the heavenly aspect of the great Judgment.
“And I saw a great white ruling-seat [qro/no$], and the (one) sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven(s) fled (away), and a place was not found for them (any longer).”
The color white, as a divine symbol, indicating both purity/holiness and victory, has been used repeatedly in the book of Revelation (4:4; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:11, 14, etc). Here it specifically characterizes the qro/no$, or ruling-seat of God in heaven, which features prominently in the visions of chapters 4 and 5, as elsewhere in the book (1:4; 6:16; 7:9-17; 8:3; 12:5, etc). Since the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) rules alongside God the Father (at His right hand), he shares this same throne, and the People of God in heaven—i.e. the raised/exalted believers, and symbolized by the 24 Elders—also sit upon heavenly thrones (4:4; 11:16; 20:4), in the presence of God and Christ.
The reference to the earth and sky (“heaven[s]”) fleeing from God’s face is a traditional apocalyptic motif, indicating that creation itself cannot stand before the manifest presence and power of God. Moreover, here it alludes to the dissolution of the ko/smo$ and the end of the Age. Various upheavals in the natural order would already have taken place during the end-time period of distress, and more so with the return of Jesus and beginning of the Judgment, as depicted vividly in the sixth seal-vision (6:12-17) and all throughout the trumpet- and bowl-vision cycles (chaps. 8-9, 15-16). This corresponds to the more concise reference to the events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus—Mark 13:24-25ff par, drawing upon Old Testament passages such as Isa 13:10; 24:23; 34:4; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15. This “Day of YHWH” imagery (cf. Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15, etc) has ancient roots in Near Eastern and Israelite tradition. The difference is that here, as in other apocalyptic Jewish writings of the period, the imagery is unquestionably eschatological—it refers to the end of the current Age (and to the end of the world/universe as we know it).
“And I saw the dead—the great (one)s and small (one)s (alike)—having stood in the sight of the ruling-seat. And the paper-rolls were opened (up), and another paper-roll was (also) opened, which is the (roll) of life, and the dead (one)s were judged out of the (thing)s having been written in the paper-rolls, according to their works.”
This is the heavenly Judgment—that is, the end-time Judgment in its heavenly aspect—which is itself a reflection of the more ancient afterlife Judgment scene, widespread in religious thought throughout the ancient Near East (and in other cultures). Here the afterlife setting is preserved, since it clearly refers to the dead. Presumably it involves all human beings, though believers have already been set aside, having passed through the Judgment, as is indicated by the passing reference to the “roll of life” (3:5; 13:8; 17:8). The idea of election/predestination is strong in the book of Revelation, though this does not preclude the need for believers to remain faithful, nor negate the real danger of being led astray by the evil/wickedness in the world. These bi/blia, or scrolls (lit. paper-rolls), draw upon two lines of tradition: (1) a record of a person’s deeds which will be used in the (afterlife) Judgment, and (2) rolls of citizenship, in which the names of those belonging to a particular city or locale are recorded. The visions in Revelation make use of both images, which are also attested elsewhere in Scripture (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Mal 3:16; Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20-4:3). Here the former tradition—the record of a persons deeds (e&rga, “works”)—is emphasized.
“And the Sea gave (up) the dead th(at are) in it, and Death and the Unseen realm gave (up) the dead th(at are) in them, and they were judged, each (person), according to their works.”
In the book of Revelation “the sea” (h( qa/lassa) is primarily a symbol, signifying the dark and chaotic domain of evil, especially as it exerts influence over the peoples of the earth (the nations). For more on the ancient roots of this symbolism, cf. my recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series. Here the “Sea” is fittingly paired with Death and the realm of the dead (the “unseen” realm, a%|dh$, hades). This generally indicates that we are dealing with the Judgment of the wicked, the heavenly Judgment against the nations. While elsewhere in Scripture, believers are also said to have their works judged (Rom 2:15-16; 1 Cor 3:13-15; 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10, etc), here it is primarily, if not exclusively, the wicked (unbelievers) who are being judged by their works.
“And Death and the Unseen realm (of the dead) were thrown into the lake of fire—this is the second death, the lake of fire.”
The fact that Death and Hades (= Hebrew Sheol) are thrown into the lake of fire, just as the Satan was (v. 10), suggests a mythic personification of Death—i.e. Death as a person, ruler over the realm of the dead. This is well-established in Biblical tradition, even if the authors of Scripture did not necessarily take the personification in a literal, concrete sense (cf. Rom 5:14ff; 6:9; 1 Cor 15:26, 54-56; Rev 1:18; 6:8). The idea of a second death reflects the distinction between earthly and heavenly Judgment, especially as it pertains to the wicked—the earthly Judgment results in physical death (19:21, etc), while the heavenly Judgment ends in a final death of the soul. All human beings (including believers) must endure the physical death of the body, but believers are saved from the second death (2:11). Fire is a primary motif of judgment, and especially of the heavenly Judgment (cf. the previous note). While the specific image of a lake (or river) of fire is traditional, stemming from ancient conceptions of death and the underworld, it is possible that, in the book of Revelation, it alludes to the visionary symbolism associated with the Sea.
“And if any (one) was not found (with his name) having been written in the paper-roll of life, he (also) was thrown into the lake of fire.”
This statement is a simple and traditional description of the fate of the wicked in the heavenly (afterlife) Judgment. It serves as a fitting conclusion to the entire complex of visions that depict the end-time Judgment, particularly those spanning chapters 15-20 (cf. also 6:12-17; chaps. 8-9; 11:13ff; 14:6-20).
The final two chapters of the book of Revelation deal specifically with the New Age, the blessed and eternal life of believers, the People of God, in heaven. Before proceeding with a study of chaps. 21-22, it is necessary to attempt a summary of the book’s eschatology, as it pertains to the Last Judgment, and to give further consideration to the traditional background (and meaning) of the “thousand years” in chap. 20, the so-called Millennium. This will be done via a pair of supplemental articles.