Sunday, January 25, 2009

Names In the Book of Life




Adapted from Chapter 9 of Heaven for Skeptics © 2008 by Bert Gary for FaithWalk Publishing

The theme of John’s vision is Jesus, just like the rest of the New Testament. But rather than presenting the story of his life as the four gospels do, and rather than interpreting him doctrinally as the various New Testament letters do, the artist—John the Revelator—paints Jesus with symbolic images. He’s a radiant Son of Man, he’s the Lion of Judah, he’s a standing slaughtered Lamb, he’s a newborn, he’s a conquering horseman, he’s the Morning Star, he’s the temple, he’s the lamp, he’s the book of Life, and more.

The subject of this blog is the book of Life. Our text is Revelation 20:11-15. Let me summarize.

John sees the Great White Throne again. But the one on the throne is not alone. All stand before him. Then books are opened. These books are the accumulation of everybody’s deeds. But there is an additional book, and it is different. It’s called the book of Life. (Later we are told that it’s the Lamb’s book of Life. Revelation 21:27) The moment John envisions is resurrection day. Those buried in the ground and those who died at sea are raised for judgment. Everyone is judged by their works found in the record books. Then John sees that Death (Thanatos) and the Grave (Hades) are destroyed in the lake of fire. And if your name is not in the Lamb’s book of Life, you are thrown in to the lake of fire. (See my blog, The Lake of Fire Defined.)

In this next-to-the-last scene in the final vision, out pop the record books. Can you feel the dread? Everyone is judged by their deeds listed in John’s symbolic scrolls. There appears to be no hope. Just as there was no hope in Revelation 5 because there was no one found to open the seven seals of the scroll of the Father’s eternal plan, here in Revelation 21 there is no hope for humanity because its deeds are evil. Again, it appears there is no hope. If no one is righteous and everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, as the Scriptures insist (Rom 3:10 & 23), then who can stand in this judgment? Absolutely no one! That’s John’s point.

Our deeds are judged as evil, as they must and should be. Do the math. We’re all goners if the record of our deeds is the sole criterion by which we are judged. But, according to John, there is another single volume that appears containing humanity’s only hope. All hope is in this one little book. It’s called the Lamb’s book of Life.

The Lamb’s book, logically, contains the accomplishments of the Lamb. What accomplishments? Oh, little things like . . . he took away the sin of the whole world. Unlike our sad records, there are no black marks in the record of Jesus’ life. All of humanity’s hefty scrolls are full of sin, but not the Lamb’s little scroll. So what in the world does this vision of John’s mean?

It means that while our sins are judged, and thus we are all judged as guilty sinners, there is another book that stands in for humanity’s pitiful record. We have a pinch hitter. It’s the Lamb’s blemish-less book. So what is the Lamb’s judgment on humanity’s fate? It’s his own Life. The Lamb’s book of Life trumps all the other books. Life is the point and the criteria for everything. Look again at John 12:

John 12:48 “[O]n the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge,”

John 12:49 “[T]he Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak.”

John 12:50 “And I know that his commandment is eternal life.” (italic mine)

Life is the word that judges. Jesus says that he is the Life. So if the Lamb’s book of Life is a symbol of Jesus’ judgment on the last day, then doesn’t that mean we’re covered? He gave us Life already. He took away our sin already. There’s no point in trying to fix a totaled car. So hitch a ride with the Lamb. The only way to miss this Life is to continue embracing non-Life, that is, sin, death, and evil, even though the Lamb’s book already made those things null and void. Our evil works are condemned by Life, true. Our deeds are evil, true. We are wrecked and totaled, true. But not even sin and death can stand against Life.

Let’s go ahead and clear this up. John’s books of deeds aren’t literal books (or scrolls). They are a symbol of the voluminous record of sin against us all. The Lamb’s book of life then is not a literal book either. It is the Life of the Lamb himself. His Life both judges sin and blots out sin. John shows in pictures that Jesus is greater than our sin. Just as he is the bread of Life in John 6:35 & 48, here in Revelation 20 Jesus is the book of Life.

It took Jesus’ Life to cancel sin. It took his resurrection Life to cancel death. Life burns up sin and death and evil. Do you see it? It’s the Lamb’s book. It’s the Lamb’s lake of fire. And his book and his lake seem to be doing the same thing! They are judging sin and death and evil.

Is there a sense in which he is the slaughtered Lamb, he is the book of Life, and he is the lake of fire? I think so. John places the lake directly in front of the Son of Man’s (Jesus’) feet. (Revelation 14:10) The lake is a heavenly fire in the throne room of God. The fire of Life burns up sin and death and evil. If I’m right, and I think I am, then the lake is not a literal afterlife “hell” run by Satan, nor is it anything remotely akin to that. (See my blogs, Hell Defined 1 and Hell Defined 2, and The Lake of Fire Defined.) It’s the judgment of Jesus’ own white-hot fire of Life. It’s his “burning bliss”. (Caird, p. 258) Jesus said that his very purpose was to bring fire:

Luke 12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

So is your name in the book or not?

You might argue that John seems to want it both ways, however. On the one hand, you’re given grace (via the Lamb) regardless of what good or bad things you do. On the other, if you worship the beast and persecute Christians in 1st Century Ephesus, then you’re in trouble. Yet what John is showing you is that no matter what you do, grace is stronger. At the same time, however, if you remain an unrepentant, idolatrous, grace-rejecting meanie, you’re in grave danger spiritually. Does what you’ve done matter or not? Will your actions be held against you or not?

OK, so is your name in the symbolic book of Life or not? This book mentioned in six verses in the Book of Revelation. Here they are. I’m using Young’s Literal Translation here because I like the way that it calls the book of Life “the scroll of the life."

YLT Revelation 3:5 He who is overcoming -- this one --
shall be arrayed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the scroll of the life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before His messengers.

YLT Revelation 13:8 And bow before it shall all who are dwelling upon the land, whose names have not been written in the scroll of the life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world;

YLT Revelation 17:8 'The beast that thou didst see: it was, and it is not; and it is about to come up out of the abyss, and to go away to destruction, and wonder shall those dwelling upon the earth, whose names have not been written upon the scroll of the life from the foundation of the world, beholding the beast that was, and is not, although it is.’

YLT Revelation 20:12 and I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and scrolls were opened, and another scroll was opened, which is that of the life, and the dead were judged out of the things written in the scrolls -- according to their works;

YLT Revelation 20:15 and if any one was not found written in the scroll of the life, he was cast to the lake of the fire.

YLT Revelation 21:27 and there may not at all enter into it any thing defiling and doing abomination, and a lie, but -- those written in the scroll of the life of the Lamb.

Note that you can get your name blotted out of the Lamb’s book of Life, or so says Revelation 3:5 above. But note what that implies. It must mean that your name must start out in the book, and you already have salvation in Jesus Christ. Guess what? That’s the Good News. Salvation was given to the world. Still, if you don’t want Life and grace and stuff like that because you hate God, or you love doing evil, or if you just think it’s unfair of God to save people who aren’t as good as you, then you have the right of refusal. You can exercise the free will he gave you (in love) to reject the salvation you had from the get-go.

It must be remembered that the book of Life is the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21: 27) The Lamb of God took away the sin of the whole world. (John ..1:29.. & 36) That means everybody. So what’s the logical conclusion? Everyone’s name starts out in his symbolic book. Everyone’s. Can I give more prove of that? Yes.

John doesn’t give any instructions on how to get your name added to the Lamb’s book! Actually, you don’t have the power to get your name in there. But the Lamb did it for you, says Scripture. That’s why it’s his book. The Lamb’s book is Revelation’s symbol of gracious Life given to the world—every name in the
world. You don’t get this Life by striving or merit. No verse of the Bible says you have to do anything to get your name in there. But it specifically says you can get your name blotted out. Here’s 3:5 again:

Revelation 3:5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.

Therefore, if there is no instruction in Revelation for getting your name added to the Lamb’s book of life, and if there is warning that you can get your name blotted out of the Lamb’s book of Life, then your name—and everyone’s name—must have started out in there. That supports the gospel proclamation that the Lamb saved everyone (the world) when he finished his work. (“It is finished.” John 19:30) He drew all men unto himself. (John 12:32) He fulfilled all righteousness as a gift. (Matthew 3:15) He reconciled all things to himself, and he made universal peace between God and humanity with his own flesh and blood. (Colossians 1:20) Scripturally, Jesus is indeed the savior of the world. (See my blog, You’re Saved.)

John 4:42 They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

1 John ..4:14.. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.

Back to the contradiction

But this brings us back to the contradiction above: John seems to want it both ways. No matter what you do, grace is stronger. At the same time, however, if you remain an unrepentant, idolatrous, grace-rejecting persecutor of the church, you’re in grave danger spiritually. Does what you’ve done matter or not? Will your actions be held against you or not?

So, as we’ve seen, John affirms all names starting out in the Lamb’s book of life. Grace wins, period. But, strangely, then John also writes that some names weren’t in the Lamb’s book of life to begin with! How can this be? Could the Lord have created creatures damned from the get-go?

Revelation 13:8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life.

Revelation 17:8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.

Revelation 20:14-15 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation ..21:27.. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.

For complete clarity’s sake, let me summarize John’s provocative contradiction:

  1. Since the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world, that means that all sin was taken from the world, all were forgiven, and all names must start out in the Lamb’s book of Life. Since no one can make himself righteous, the Lamb did all the work. He finished it. There’s no way (and no need) to get your name added, but there’s a way to get it removed.
  2. Since some people worship the beast instead of the Lamb, this indicates that their names were never in the Lamb’s book of Life from the start.
How can both be true? It does seem that John is having it both ways. John affirms God’s eternal foreknowledge from God’s end, yet he also affirms our temporal free will from our end. I have a suggestion. Perhaps it is a matter of perspective.

From my perspective, my rejection of grace results in the blotting out of my name. But from God’s perspective, the absence of my name is from the beginning. Do you see it? Is this what John is telling us? I think so. It’s a temporal “both/and.”

Yes, all names start in the book because of the finished work of Christ from the foundation of the world. And yes, the absence of a name from the book is both foreknown by God and a result of a person choosing to have his name blotted. So what is John saying in a nutshell?

That which is clearly self-blotting to us is foreknown by God as absence from the beginning.

Let’s keep it simple. Here’s what I hear John saying step by step:

  1. From the Lamb’s perspective, all names are in his book of Life originally,
    affirming his gift of Life and redemption to all.
  2. Yet we can by our choosing get our names blotted out, affirming God’s gift of choice for all too.
  3. But at the same time, from God’s vantage point (which obviously includes the future), the self-blotted names were never in the Lamb’s book to begin
    with.
This is not predeterminism, however. God doesn’t create some folks just so he can hate and damn them. He allows self-condemnation and self-judgment to operate freely within our temporal flow. From your temporal perspective, the question is: Do you embrace the Life he gives or not? From his eternal perspective, however, he is from the beginning aware of who the blotters will eventually be, just as Jesus was aware from the beginning, it seems, that Judas, for example, was a betrayer.

Jesus didn’t create Judas just to damn him. He made him and loved him and chose him and taught him. Judas may have damned himself (Who am I to judge?), but Jesus’ foreknowledge didn’t cause it. Therefore:

  1. From the Alpha perspective (the beginning of time), all names begin in the book of life.
  2. Yet in the course of time (our present, temporal life-spans), some choose to blot their names out by rejecting Life.
  3. But at the same time, from the Omega perspective (the end of time), the blotters’ names were never in the book of life to begin with.
It sounds contradictory, I know. John’s paradoxical time perspective doesn’t fit neatly into our western, Enlightenment-locked, Newtonian mindsets. But it’s John’s intention to express 1) the universal gift of Life and atonement, and 2) the gift of human free will, and 3) the foreknowledge of God concerning who chooses Life and who doesn’t. Here’s an example that I think will help. Look at the crucifixion of Jesus:

  1. From the Alpha perspective (the beginning of time), Jesus was the non-bodily, pre-existent Word of God.
  2. Yet in the course of earth-time (during his lifetime), from a temporal
    perspective, Jesus was a human being crucified bodily.
  3. But at the same time, from the Omega perspective (the end of time), Jesus was “slain from the foundation of the world”, a human being slain bodily all along.
Again, it sounds contradictory. But John insists that Jesus Christ is both the pre-existent, non-corporeal Word of God and the forever-from-the-beginning crucified and risen corporeal, first century, flesh and blood human being named Jesus of Nazareth. The second letter to Timothy agrees:

2 Timothy 1:9 This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,

It’s about temporal perspective

I think I’ve demonstrated that for John it’s a matter of temporal perspective. From an eternal perspective, isn’t the blotting out of your name the same as it never having been there? Yes, it really does sound contradictory, but it’s really a mysterious paradox of time that John embraced. Just because God sees from the beginning that Billy’s name is not in the book does not mean that Billy’s choice to blot it out wasn’t real—especially to Billy.

So, how do you keep your name in the book of Life? To endure to the end without being awed by the beast, or seduced by the beast, is to know that your name is in the book of Life, says John to his churches. Again, Jesus and his message and his resurrection and his kingdom of heaven are all about love and Life. Remember how Young’s Literal Translation put it: “the scroll of the life.” The scroll of the Life is Revelation’s symbol for the completed redemptive work of Jesus Christ. “The Life” that we are talking about, remember, is Jesus. He is “the Life,” as he insists to his disciples in John 14:6.

Loving this Life, says John, is resisting and enduring the forces that resist this Life. That keeps your name in the Lamb’s symbolic book. To love this Life and to resist and endure the forces that resist this Life is to remain in this Life that has found you and embraced you.

I have a concern

There is an unfortunate emphasis today on decisional salvation—pressuring unbelievers to make “a decision for Christ.” Revelation in particular is used as a weapon to frighten and coerce unbelievers. But John’s book was not written to unbelievers at all! His message is for believers only. I might go so far as to say that the Book of Revelation was written to believers with advanced, mature understanding of the Christian faith.

I see zero evidence that John intended to use fear and death to get unbelievers to “make a decision for Christ.” “Decision for Christ” isn’t biblical language. And the subject matter in Revelation has nothing to do with who in the end will “make a decision for Christ” (again, a phrase not found in the Bible) and who won’t. John is addressing and encouraging believers, period.

John tells his churches that they are to continue resisting the pressure to worship the State, the Ruler, and his idolatrous, religio-political temple practices. (20:11-15) They are to continue to share the Good News that in Jesus you are already reconciled to God from his end, says John. And they are to continue to endure the persecution of those who react negatively, even violently, to the free and universal gift of light and Life-filled relationship to which they witness with their words, their lives, and sometimes even their deaths.

It’s not about a decision whereby you get Life. It’s about a relational Life that came and got you.

Postscript: God Hated Esau?

For those who’ve believed that God creates some people just to hate and damn them, let me add this postscript about Esau. It’s often said that God predetermined to hate Esau for no good reason. Some translations of Romans 9:13 seem to say that very thing.

Romans 9:13 As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated (Hebrew: sane') Esau.”

Some see Romans 9:13 as an example of God creating someone to love and someone to hate—Jacob and Esau. Paul in Romans was quoting Malachi from the Old Testament:

Malachi 1:1-3 An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. 2 I have loved you, says the LORD. But you say, "How have you loved us?" Is not Esau Jacob's brother? says the LORD. Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but I have hated (sane') Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals.

Yet loved and hated in this context mean chosen and rejected. It’s saying that God preferred Jacob over Esau concerning his first covenant. Some English versions of the Bible translate sane' as rejected:

NET Malachi 1:3 and rejected Esau.
NLT Malachi 1:3 but I rejected his brother, Esau,
TNK Malachi 1:3 and have rejected Esau.

Here’s a helpful example:

RSV Genesis 29:31 When the LORD saw that Leah was hated (sane' - here meaning un-preferred), he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

Jacob wouldn’t have born children with Leah if he literally hated her. He didn’t detest her. She’s his wife and the mother of his children. It’s just that Jacob preferred her little sister Rachel in his heart. He did from the moment he met her. Here’s another example:

Genesis 25:28 Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

See again how loved means preferred?

Paul then in Romans 9 uses the Malachi quote as an example of God’s freedom and right to choose whomever he wants to, not just including the Jews, but also in Jesus Christ choosing Gentiles too. This is the second or new covenant, the New Testament. It’s a covenant with the world.

For more on the Book of Revelation see my blogs 666Rapture InterruptedThe Giant Flying CubeThe MillenniumPearly Gates and Streets of Gold, and The Lake of Fire Defined.

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