What will to happen to those who never even heard the name of Jesus Christ? What does the Bible say will occur at the Great White Throne Judgment?
Revelation 20 describes a series of stunning events that will unfold after the return of Jesus Christ.
As rightful heir of the universe, one of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ first orders of business upon His return will be to imprison Satan the devil (Revelation 20:1-3).
Then will begin the glorious millennial reign of Jesus Christ and the saints—resurrected servants of God—who will oversee a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for mankind.
Following that, Satan will be let loose for “a little while” so that he can deceive the nations once again, before being put away for good (verses 3, 7-10).
Next, the chapter describes a breathtaking vision of “a great white throne and Him who sat on it” and “the dead, small and great, standing before God” during a time of judgment—known as the Great White Throne Judgment (verses 11-12).
The scene raises a few interesting and vital questions: Who are these dead? How can the dead be standing? How will be they judged? What is the Great White Throne Judgment?
Is God trying to save everyone now?
In order to understand who “the dead” in Revelation 20 are, and what takes place during the Great White Throne Judgment, we have to first examine the idea taught by many churches that now is the only day of salvation.
This idea is based on the mistaken belief that the eternal fate of literally billions of people currently hangs in the balance. If true, this would mean that billions who never heard the gospel message throughout history would have already been condemned. These people are often referred to as “the unsaved dead.”
But the inspired Word of God says no such thing. God is not in a contest with Satan the devil to see who can win the most souls right now. If that were the case, we would be forced to conclude that God is woefully losing the battle—and God does not lose!
The misapplication of certain scriptures to support that belief is evidence of the deception Satan has perpetrated upon a confused humanity (Revelation 12:9; see “Are Most People Eternally Lost?”). But that doesn’t mean Satan is winning. It only means that God has allowed it for now as part of His long-term plan to offer salvation to all.
Several passages in the New Testament show that God offers salvation in this age to those He decides to call. (For more information on what it means to be called, see our article “Many Are Called, but Few Are Chosen.”)
Notice Jesus’ own words in John 6:65: “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” In other words, God the Father initiates the process whereby a person becomes a Christian. A person doesn’t just wake up one day and decide on his or her own to be a Christian.
An invitation is needed.
Earlier, Jesus had said essentially the same thing: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44).
God has not given up on the untold billions who lived before Jesus of Nazareth ever left a footprint on earth.Years later, the apostle Paul confirmed that God Himself “chose us” (Ephesians 1:4). That is, He personally selected the members of the early Christian Church and those who would comprise it down through time.
So, what about those who aren’t called or chosen now? Many will passionately, but incorrectly, maintain that anyone who does not accept Christ today, in this age, is doomed.
But seeing the Bible says that Satan is the god of this world and that he has spiritually blinded the overwhelming majority of mankind (2 Corinthians 4:4), ask yourself, Would God condemn billions of people He has not called, who have simply been blinded through no fault of their own?
That would contradict Peter’s statement that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
God has not given up on the untold billions who lived before Jesus of Nazareth ever left a footprint on earth.
It’s just a matter of timing.
That is the basis to understanding what happens during the Great White Throne Judgment.
All of humanity can be labeled in one of two ways: called or uncalled—those who have had their chance at salvation through Jesus Christ or those who have not.
Jesus referred to those called in this age as a “little flock” (Luke 12:32). These will be in the first resurrection, as John wrote about in Revelation 20:4: “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them . . . And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
But, in the verse that immediately follows, John says, “The rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:5).
The question is, Who are the “rest of the dead” during this Great White Throne Judgment? Can we know with absolute certainty?
One major clue that many seem to overlook is found in one of Jesus’ exchanges with the religious leaders of His day. Concerning a specific time in the distant future, He said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it” (Matthew 12:41).
Jesus was describing a time when groups of people from completely different eras—the men of ancient Nineveh and the people of His generation—would be raised up, or resurrected, simultaneously.
He continued, “The queen of the South,” who had died nearly a thousand years before these words were ever uttered, “will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it” (verse 42).
Now, what did the queen of the South and the people of Nineveh have in common?
They had not heard the name Jesus of Nazareth. They had not been called to salvation.
This resurrection, then, is for those who never knew Jesus Christ during their lifetimes, as well as the generations who knew somewhat about Him but were not called by God and were spiritually blinded by Satan the devil.
These passages make it clear that the “rest of the dead” in Revelation 20:5 refers to the inhabitants of ancient Nineveh, the queen of the South and the billions from every generation who will join them in being raised to physical life at the end of the Millennium.
This second resurrection will include every human being who will have ever lived without having a genuine chance at salvation.
To know more about what the Bible teaches about resurrections, see our article “What Are the Resurrections?”
Judged by what standard?
But what will happen to all those people who will be resurrected? Is this simply when they will be sentenced based on whatever good or bad they did in their former lives? Since they weren’t called to understand God’s truth and way of life, can they be judged fairly against a standard they didn’t understand?
God knows every person’s heart, but will He bring them back to consciousness just to hand them a formal sentence? Will they be resurrected only to be condemned?
What does the Bible say?
The truth of the Great White Throne Judgment constitutes one of the most awesome, eye-opening revelations that has ever entered into the mind of a human being.After sending out the 12 apostles into various cities to preach the gospel of the Kingdom, Jesus said that for the cities that rejected their message, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!” (Matthew 10:15).
Why would Jesus say “more tolerable” if the Great White Throne Judgment were strictly a time to punish everyone? That makes no sense.
Notice the full quote of what John saw in vision in Revelation 20: “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” (verses 12).
The word books comes from the Greek word biblos, from which we get the word Bible, and “standing before God” can imply some kind of formal instruction.
Ezekiel shows God’s plan to offer His Holy Spirit to those raised to physical life in this second resurrection (Ezekiel 37:14).
Putting these pieces together, and remembering that the majority of mankind has been ignorant of the truth of the Bible because of Satan’s blindfold, we can see that this resurrection is a time when people’s minds will be opened so they can be taught.
This is when they will be given an opportunity to know what they had never known before. Then they can be judged based on how they live.
And seeing that they are judged according to their works after the books—the Bible—are opened tells us that they will be judged on the basis of what they will do with what they then will know.
You can be sure that no prior atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or anyone else for that matter will be given eternal life on the basis of whether he or she was a relatively decent person according to man-made ideas of what is good.
The Bible actually condemns the popular belief that there are multiple paths to salvation.
It flies directly in the face of Jesus’ statement in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (See more in our article “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”).
Also, consider Peter’s statement about Jesus Christ: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
“No other name” means exactly what it says.
It’s really that plain: a person either accepts the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ or rejects it. One option leads to eternal life; the other, to eternal death.
But either option requires that a person first have a genuine opportunity.
Because God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), the Great White Throne Judgment will be a time when He will give each and every individual the chance he or she never had in this life.
Hope at the end of the tunnel
God’s plan has always been to bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). But the Bible shows that this happens in stages (1 Corinthians 15:23).
For God to give some an opportunity for salvation but neglect the vast majority of mankind would be totally against His character. The Bible tells us that He is not a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).
The truth of the Great White Throne Judgment constitutes one of the most awesome, eye-opening revelations that has ever entered into the mind of a human being.
News headlines down through time have featured the untimely deaths of many, be it because of accidents or violence or epidemics. As painful as it is to see death, especially of the young and innocent, there is great comfort in knowing their deaths are temporary.
The wonderful message of Revelation 20 is that God, in His rich love and mercy, will raise up those same people and offer them a future they could not have in their former lives.
May God hasten the day of the Great White Throne Judgment.