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. 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. 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. 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. (Rev. 20:11-15 KJV)
There’s a lot of talk these days about degrees of good and evil, and some of it has even evolved into a re-thinking of our traditional view of the eternal state of unbelievers. The traditional view is that anyone who fails to personally accept the pardon that God purchased for us with the blood of His son will spend eternity in a state of agonizing punishment in the Lake of Fire.
But some have begun to question this view, asking why an unbelieving humanitarian who led an exemplary life in service to others but failed to acknowledge the Lord as his Savior should receive the same punishment as someone like Hitler or Stalin who murdered millions of people in cold blood. They say it’s not like God to do this, and back it up by quoting Revelation 20:12 that says in part, “The dead were judged … according to their works.”
To them this verse indicates that a spirit of cause and effect resides in the judgment, and reveals God’s intention to make the punishment fit the crime, so to speak. Therefore, they claim, God who is just and merciful will look upon unbelievers who lived otherwise fruitful lives and hand out a punishment for them that’s shorter and less severe than the mass murderers and torturers receive. But since no matter how good a person is, dying in a state of unbelief must result in eternal death, then at the end of their term of punishment they’ll be destroyed and cease to exist in any form. So, as a reward for their good life on earth, they’ll be put out of their misery after a shorter and more tolerable time of punishment. This is called the “Conditional View” of Hell.
Let’s Back Up For A Minute
Is there Biblical support for this? Let’s take another look at history’s first judgment for sin to find out. By studying the first time an important concept is mentioned in Scripture, we’ll often discover clues to understanding that will help us interpret subsequent similar situations. Scholars refer to this as applying the Principle of First Mention.
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Adam was created in the image of God, immortal, with talent and ability you and I can only imagine. The same was true of Eve. They were both full of goodness and purity, and they walked and talked with God. They only had one rule and they only disobeyed it once.
But when they did, in spite of the fact that the good in them far outweighed the bad, and though they had only committed one sin, they died and the creation was cursed, as was all their progeny. We all lament the consequences brought upon us by this one act of disobedience. As Paul wrote, “The result of one trespass was condemnation for all mankind.” (Romans 5:18)
Yet they were relatively good, maybe even better than most, for the Bible never mentions another sin in their lives. Did their punishment fit their crime? Did God weigh the good of their lives against the bad? Or did He do exactly what He told them He would?
For what it’s worth, I don’t see any shades of gray in God’s dealings Adam and Eve then or with mankind since. I think that applying a scale of relative goodness to the life of each person is a man made idea. For example, take the reverse situation. How are believers granted entry into the Kingdom? Is there any scale of relative merit applied there, or are we all 100% in? Some say that the punishment of unbelievers is too severe, but how many believers deserve the reward we’re getting?
You know, this relativity can be found in Islam, where at the final judgment it’s said that Allah will compare the good and bad in each person’s life and then decide whether or not to allow him or her into paradise. (The only guaranteed ticket in is to die in battle as a martyr.) As Christians, we react poorly to that idea. We say it’s unfair, because no one could ever know in advance whether they’re saved or not. And yet some are OK with having that same uncertainty be part of an unbeliever’s lot in terms of judgment.
Couldn’t that uncertainty have the effect of causing someone who doesn’t really believe in Hell anyway to be more confident in putting their decision off, thinking that since they’ve lived a good life they’ll be able to work something out with God after they’ve died? Didn’t we all think we were living relatively good lives until we got saved?
I’m going to suggest that maybe man’s whole understanding of the phrase “judged according to their works” is flawed. Adam and Eve had one rule, and when they disobeyed it nothing else mattered. There was no negotiation, no weighing in the balances. They got what the Lord had warned them they’d get. I think it’s the same with us. I think we have one rule too, and if we disobey it we’ll get just what the Lord warned us we’d get.
What Is The Work That God Requires?
After Jesus had fed the 5000 the crowds that followed Him understandably grew exponentially. He knew they just wanted Him to give them more bread. He warned them not to be so preoccupied with working for food that spoils but to work for food that endures to eternal life.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
There you have it, Mankind’s one rule. Believe in the One He has sent. It’s our equivalent to “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the only thing that God requires. If we disobey, nothing else matters. Those who deny Jesus go to eternal punishment according to Matt. 25:46 while the righteous go to eternal life. Isaiah 66:24, Daniel 12:2 & Mark 9:48 all agree.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I know we’re called to live lives that reflect our beliefs and are even promised additional rewards for doing so, and I’d be the last one to advise someone to profess their faith and then forget about it. But the simple fact is that faith is the only work that God requires and none of the other things we can do count for anything until we’ve taken that one required step. We’re saved because of what we believe, not because of how we behave. Nowhere in all of Scripture is there even a hint that an unbeliever’s destiny can be altered in the slightest by the “goodness” of his or her life. In fact, it would appear that where He’s concerned the Lord equates unbelief with disobedience. His existence is simply too obvious to be missed. If so, then unbelievers have disobeyed the one rule He gave us, and in response He’ll do exactly what He said.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
It bruises our egos to learn this, but none of our good works help God at all, just as none of our sins hurt Him. (Job 35:6-8) God only considers the works of believers good to the extent that they’re done out of gratitude, in an effort to please Him, because of what He’s done for us. (1 Cor. 4:5) It’s like when your 3 year old proudly hands you a barely recognizable drawing. It has no intrinsic value to you. But you know your child was trying hard to please you, and it’s the thought that counts.
Unbelievers aren’t trying to please God with their good works, they deny that He even exists. They’re only trying to make themselves feel better. If their good works don’t help God and are motivated by selfishness, where is the justification for considering them when determining their punishment for rejecting Him? This idea makes no more sense than the one allowing rich entertainers and politicians to purchase “carbon credits” to offset their huge carbon footprints. The checks they write don’t nullify the effects of their extravagant lifestyle, they’re just trying to make themselves feel better.
And so I think it’s just possible that when unbelievers are judged “according to their works”, only the work that God requires will be at issue. Have they done the one thing that He asked them to do, and that’s to believe in the One He has sent? Remember, in the absence of that one thing, there is nothing that man can do to be considered good according to God’s standards. Rev. 20:15 agrees. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. You can only be written in the Book of Life by being 100% righteous. And you can only become that way by having the Lord’s righteousness imputed to you by faith (Romans 3:10 & 4:5). In other words, to believe in the One He has sent. Selah 07-22-07