And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. Revelation 20:12
The Final Judgment
Then I saw a great white throne and the One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne. And there were open books, and one of them was the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their deeds, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead, and each one was judged according to his deeds.…
And I saw the dead, small and great . . .—Or rather, And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before (not “God,” as in text, but) the throne, and books (or, rolls) were opened; and another book (or, roll) was opened, which is (the book) of life; and the dead were judged out of the things which had been written in the books (or, rolls) according to their works. And the sea gave forth the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave forth the dead who were in them; and they were judged each according to their works. The latter of these verses is added to assure us that the dead, in whatever quarter, must appear before the judgment throne. Death and Hades—“the grave world,” and “the great watery grave”—the sea, “the universal hidden region of the dead,” give up its prey; for there is One who sits upon the throne who has the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). It has been said by some that the dead here spoken of as coming forth from the grave are not all the dead, but only “the rest of the dead” mentioned in Revelation 20:5. Those who believe that the first resurrection there mentioned is a literal physical resurrection are compelled to limit the resurrection here to the resurrection only of the remainder of the dead. But the verses before us suggest no limitation, and the language most assuredly tends to the idea that saints and faithful servants of God take part in this later resurrection. If all the saints and righteous men of old are raised prior to the millennium, and take no part in this last judgment scene, then only the faithless and wicked are left to be judged before the great white throne, and as none of these can be found written in the book of life, the bringing forth of that book becomes meaningless. This is one result of vicious literalism of interpretations. The real significance of the scene lies in the vivid picturing of that great and solemn truth that we must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, and that before Him there is nothing hidden which shall not be revealed (Matthew 10:26; comp. 1Corinthians 4:5). Then shall every human life appear in its true light. stripped of all the deceptive adornments which have given a fictitious respectability to ingenious fraud, and a fatal popularity to adroit wickedness and splendid vice. Then shall men be judged, not by rank, or success, or achievement, but according to their works, as it is twice stated here, and according to whether they have any life towards God. The works and the life towards God must be combined. A man may have, from the activities of his Christian works, a name to live, and yet be dead: the life-book and the workbook combine to mark the real servant of Christ. If he labours more abundantly than all, it is Christ who works in him, for his life is a life by the faith of the Son of God. (Comp. Galatians 2:20; 1Corinthians 15:10; James 2:14-26.)
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible
And I saw the dead, small and great – All the dead – for this language would express that – the whole race being composed of the “small and great.” Thus, in other language, the same idea might be expressed by saying, the young and old; the rich and poor; the bond and free; the sick and well; the happy and the unhappy; the righteous and the wicked; for all the human family might, in these respects, be considered as thus divided. The fair meaning in this place therefore is, that all the dead would be there, and of course this would preclude the idea of a “previous” resurrection of any part of the dead, as of the saints, at the beginning of the millennium. There is no intimation here that it is the wicked dead that are referred to in this description of the final judgment. It is the judgment of all the dead.
Stand before God – That is, they appear thus to be judged. The word “God” here must naturally refer to the final Judge on the throne, and there can be no doubt (see Matthew 25:31) that this is the Lord Jesus. Compare 2 Corinthians 5:10. None can judge the secrets of the heart; none can pronounce on the moral character of all mankind, of all countries and ages, and determine their everlasting allotment, but he who is divine.
And the books were opened – That is, the books containing the record of human deeds. The representation is, that all that people have done is recorded, and that it will be exhibited on the final trial, and will constitute the basis of the last judgment. The imagery seems to be derived from the accusations made against such as are arraigned before human courts of justice.
And another book was opened, which is the book of life – The book containing the record of the names of all who shall enter into life, or into heaven. See the notes on Revelation 3:5. The meaning here is, that John saw not only the general books opened containing the records of the deeds of people, but that he had a distinct view of the list or roll of those who were the followers of the Lamb. It would seem that in regard to the multitudes of the impenitent and the wicked, the judgment will proceed “on their deeds” in general; in regard to the righteous, it will turn on the fact that their names had been enrolled in the book of life. That will be sufficient to determine the nature of the sentence that is to be passed on them. He will be safe whose name is found in the book of life; no one will be safe who is to have his eternal destiny determined by his own deeds. This passage proves particularly that the righteous dead are referred to here as being present at the final judgment; and is thus an additional argument against the supposition of a resurrection of the righteous, and a judgment on them, at the beginning of the millennium.
And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books – The records which had been made of their deeds. The final judgment will proceed on the record that has been made. It will not be arbitrary, and will not be determined by rank, condition, or profession, but it will be according to the record.
According to their works – See the notes on 2 Corinthians 5:10. The fact that the name of anyone was found in the book of life would seem, as above remarked, to determine the “certainty” of salvation; but the amount of reward would be in proportion to the service rendered to the Redeemer, and the attainments made in piety.