We know that from the time of Jesus, the only way to eternal life is through Him (John 3:16). Believers who have died and risen, and those alive and translated in the Rapture, will all be justified by grace through Jesus for their works in Christ at His mercy seat (Hebrews 9:5; Romans 3:24-25). Their sins have been covered; His righteousness has clothed them. They will not appear naked and without defense. Their Advocate on high will represent them and keep them from the judgment they deserve. It’s an amazing promise that God has given us; it is our hope and confidence.
It’s easy enough to conclude the fate of unbelievers from the time of Jesus onward. That’s fairly simple. They either know Jesus as Savior and Lord or they don’t. If not, their destiny is written: they will be cast into the Lake of Fire. But what about all the rest of the people in the world who died prior to Jesus’ coming?
There is another judgment at the end of the age. Following the 1,000 years that Jesus reigns on the earth in the Millennial Kingdom, when that period comes to an end and Satan is thrown into that fiery lake for all eternity to join his henchmen – Antichrist and the False Prophet, whom God sent there after the Tribulation – the Great White Throne Judgment will determine who goes where forever and ever.
Jesus speaks of this when He describes the gathering of nations before Him once He has appeared in His 2nd Coming. All people great and small are resurrected to stand before Him. This is the point in time that every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11; Romans 14:11). In this assembly, He places the sheep on His right and the goats on His left (Matthew 25:33). The goats are surely those throughout the ages who have rejected God to one degree or another; perhaps through apathy, perhaps willfully and violently. But who are the sheep?
Revelation 20:10-12 describes this dreadful time:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 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.
The books contain the life history of every individual from the very beginning. They describe every thought made and act done by those gathered before this throne of righteousness and purity. Among the books opened is the Book of Life. This is the book in which all being judged hope at that very instant that their names are written.
What is the criteria for this? Jesus spells them out by describing acts of kindness: giving food, drink, and clothing; by welcoming a stranger or visiting someone in prison. In this evaluation, there are those who did these things and may not have even recognized the righteousness of the act: “Lord, when did we…?” (Matthew 25:37) Jesus will say these Words of comfort and hope as Matthew 25:40 shows:
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
It is to these that Jesus gives life.
In contrast will be those who had no part in the righteous acts described in these passages, and who will tremble at what is coming. Through hatred of God or purely self-interest, these lived in such a way that they rejected the One who created them and gave them blessings in their existence. They rejected God by refusing to seek Him out or even do acts of kindness. They were so self-absorbed, perhaps they didn’t have a clue. To their question in this regard, Jesus gives them the death sentence in Matthew 25:45-46:
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
What is this death sentence? Revelation 20:15 makes the decree:
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
That day is coming. Thankfully, God has made a way that we who believe in His Son will not face it. It’s not clear where believers are at that time – perhaps we’ll be onlookers in the divine courtroom. What we do know for certain is that through the blood of the Lamb we have been redeemed and are saved from the fate of the wicked.