This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
BY DAVID J. VAUGHA, M.A.,
Revelation XX. ii— 15.
And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face
earth and the heaven fled away ; and there was found no place for
them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God ; and
the books were opened : and another book was opened, which is the
book of life : and the dead were judged out of those things which were
written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up
the dead which were in it ; and death and hell delivered up the dead
which were in them : and they were judged every man according to
their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This
is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book
of life was cast into the lake of fire.
T PASSED these words over very lightly, when we came to
^ them a fortnight ago ; partly, because I wanted the time for
another purpose ; and partly, because I wished to reserve them
for the present occasion. The last Sunday service of the
departing year always possesses, for myself . and I should
suppose for all of us, a peculiar interest and solemnity ; and
one is anxious to select a subject which shall harmonize with
the gravity of the occasion. A more solemn and a more rousing
subject than that suggested by my text, it would be impossible
to find. May God give us grace to profit by it !
I need hardly tell you, for you will understand of yourselves,
how much I shrink from commenting upon a passage so terrible
as this. The great white Throne, — the books opened, — the
THE FIAL ACCOUT. 63
dead surrendered by death and hell, — the judgment delivered,
— the sentence executed; here are elements of terror, upon
which we hardly dare to meditate. Painters and poets may
essay at their leisure to depict the scene. The forms of art
which they employ serve to subdue the terror of it, and to
throw the whole thing to a distance from the conscience. We
have to strive to confront the bare spiritual reality, in all its
tremendous truth, stripped of all the softening disguises, which
the painter's brush or the poet's pen can throw around it.
They address themselves to the fancy and the imagination ; we
would fain speak to conscience and spirit.
The passage, like so many others in the Revelation of St.
John, has points of contact with the visions of older prophets ;
more particularly with the Book of Daniel. In Dan. vii. 9, 10,
you will find the words, which approach most nearly to the
language of St. John, and which may to a certain extent have
suggested it : * I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and
the Ancient of Days did sit, whose garment was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like the pure wool : his throne was
like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery
stream issued and came forth from before him : thousand
thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten
thousand stood before him : the judgment was set, and the
books were opened.' I say, *may to a certain extent have
suggested it,' because the likeness between the vision of the
prophet of the old dispensation and that of the prophet of the
new is, after all, more superficial than real. The similarity,
such as it is, is in the form only : the substafice is different.
Daniel's vision is of some preliminary scene or interlude of
judgment ; John's is of that last account and final settlement,
after which there can be no other. It is succeeded by the new
heaven and the new earth, wherein dwelleth for ever and ever
As to the times and the seasons of this last act in the world's
great drama, John gives us, as we should expect, no information.
64 THE FIAL ACCOUT. [ser.
He describes one last conflict between the powers of evil and
of good ; and then follows, — apparently without any interval,
— the vision of final judgment. The Throne is set, — the
Judge is upon it, — the dead are summoned, — each case is
separately investigated, — sentence is passed and executed. As
to the times and seasons, I repeat, we expect no information.
For this^ surely, is that day, of which Jesus sai(i to his disciples :
' But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the
angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.'
The great assize, then, is on the point of being opened. The
Tribunal is ready ; and the Judge is placed. * I saw,' writes
St. John, * a great white throne ' ; (* great,' in distinction from the
lesser thrones mentioned in the fourth verse, * I saw thrones,
and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them : '
^ white, as seen in purest light, and symbolizing the most
blameless justice :) * I saw a great white throne, and him that
sat on it ; ' that is, Christ the J^udge, according to St. Paul's
words, * We must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ ;
that every one may receive the things done in the body,
according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad ; '
but Christ the Judge^ not in the humble garb of his humanity,
but in all the awe of his Divine Majesty, so that, according to
St John's truly gigantic imagery, * from his face the earth and
the heaven fled away ; and there was found no place for them.'
The scene on which the humanity of the future is to play its
part, is in an instant shifted and transformed, — transformed
under the spell of the gaze of Him who is seated on the
Throne. The old things pass away, and all things become, in
a moment, new : so that, when St. John looks again, he can
say, * And I saw a new heaven and a new earth ; for the first
heaven and the first earth were passed away.'
So it may be with the scene on which humanity plays its
part. He who made can also unmake^ and remake, as He will;
and that in an instant, so that his mere look shall be a fulfilled
command. But it is difierent when it comes to be a question
VII.] THE FIAL ACCOUT. 6$
of the souls of men, — the individual atoms, of which the one
Whole, Humanity, is as it were composed. For the difference
between Mngs and persons, — between the things without will,
and the beings invested with will, — is an eternal difference.
He that sitteth iipon the Throne can make all fh'ngs new, with
a word, or a touch, or a looL But there are persons to deal
with as well as things ; and the renewal of the former is a very
different work and process from the renewal of the latter. The
latter may be disposed of in a moment : but not so the former.
Mark, then, what follows : * And I saw the dead, small and
great, stand before the throne ; and the books were opened :
and another book was opened, which is the book of life : and
the dead were judged out of those things which were written in
the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the
dead which were in it ; and death and hell delivered up the
dead which were in them : and they were judged every man
according to their works.'
The first thing that strikes us here, is, I imagine, the universality
of the judgment. All who have ever lived are included in it :
all must appear before the bar of Christ : all must give account
of themselves to God. * I saw the dead, small and great, stand
before the throne : ' * The sea gave up the dead which were in
it; and death and hell:' (not the place of torment, as we figure
hell to ourselves, but that *hell,' that unseen world, that
receptacle of the souls of the departed, — as to which we say of
Jesus in our Creed, — * He descended into hell : ') * Death and
hell delivered up the dead which were in them.' o soul is
kept back from the judgment-seat. The custodian of every
soul, whoever he be, — the sea, the earth, death, hell, name him
as you will, — is under bond to surrender that soul, at the
moment predetermined in the counsels of the Judge.
And in the next place, what strikes us, is, I imagine, the
individuality of the judgment. * The books were opened : and
the dead were judged out of those things which were written in
the books, according to their works : ' * They were judged every
66 THE FIAL ACCOUT. [ser.
man according to their works.' o soul can escape the judg-
ment : each is judged by itself, as though there were no other
soul in existence besides ; each, according to its works ; each,
out of the book which itself has written. For I see no reason
to doubt the correctness of the view, which, I think, is com-
monly taken, and according to which *the books* contain
the works ; each individual soul having its own separate book,
which is in fact the history of that soul ; each individual soul,
day by day, and year after year, writing that book, — ^writing
it all unconsciously, it may be, — but writing it in characters
indelible, which One All-seeing Eye at least can read ; writing
it against that day when it will be opened, and, side by
side with it, the Book of Life, for scrutiny and for final
Of course I need not tell you, that the language of St. John,
here as elsewhere, is metaphysical or symbolical. There are no
* ifooks ' actually written, and laid up in the archives of heaven,
against the great day of account. The books are really
summed up in the character. The character is the index to
the contents of each book. You may say, that the works
proceed from the character ; but the works also react upon the
character, and shape it to its final result. What we call the
character, that is, the stamp or impress, which the soul is
receiving through all which it does and suffers in this life ; this
is the all-important thing. This is the net result of life. This
is unerringly gauged at the judgment-seat of Christ. It is
compared with the corresponding entry in the Book of Life ;
the book which contains the pattern and ideal of every soul, —
pattern and ideal, which, though different in every case, is yet
always shaped upon one common model, — the image of Christ.
The two, I say, are compared together : the character of the
soul, as it actually is, and the Divine ideal for that same soul.
The two are compared together, and judgment given accord-
ingly. * The books were opened ; and another book was
opened, which is the book of life : and the dead were judged
VII.] THE FIAL ACCOUT. 6/
out of those things which were written in the books, according
to. their works.'
Let us pause here for a moment, and try to estimate the
moral pressure, the weight of it, and the nature of it, which is
thus put upon us. Far in the distance it may be, but sure and
inevitable, lies for each one of us this fact of judgment. * We
shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ,' so St. Paul
writes : and, * Every one of us shall give account of himself to
God.' The vision of St. John does but give shape and form to a
truth, to which every conscience bears witness. We confess, we
dare not deny, that we are responsible for our actions. This
natural sense of responsibility gains depth and breadth, gains
clearness and definiteness, when it is brought into the light of
the Holy Scriptures, and, not least, of this vision of St. John.
It is found to be a responsibility, not merely for what we do^
but for what we are, St. Paul felt that he might preach to
others, and do all kinds of good works, and yet at the last be
himself * a castaway.' It is possible to be immersed in good
works, and yet not be good oneself. It is possible to be
debarred from all Christian activity, and yet be so writing one's
book, that it shall bear comparison, in the last day, with the
corresponding entry in the Book of Life. The mould into
which one's own spirit is being cast, as the years run on, is the
all-important thing for each. Are we growing, year by year,
more gentle, more just, more unselfish, more charitable, more
patient, more desirous to do God's will, and to be a help and
blessing to our fellow-men? Is it so with us? or is it the
reverse of this ?
That we are judged according to our works : according to our
works, as at once revealing and determining what we are, is, I
-know, an unwelcome doctrine to many. But it is, none the less,
the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures : and it is a very
salutary teaching. Let me entreat you, my dear friends, to
lay it to heart ; and not least, on this last Sunday service of
the old year. At such a moment the past comes out in all
68 THE FIAL ACCOUT. [SER.
distinctness against the uncertainties of the future. What has
that past, with all its sins and sorrows, its strivings and its
aspirations, made us ? What are we, day by day, becoming ?
God forbid that I should question the power of his Spirit to
give a new spiritual bent and direction at any moment, and
therefore even on a death-bed, to our lives and characters ; or
the justice of his Christ to discern the untested promise of the
future in the repentance of the present But I need not tell
yoUy that it is madness to trust the awful certainties of the
judgment-day to such vague possibilities of future repentance ;
and that, if the work of a life is postponed to its last hours, it
can only be done then, at the best, in fear and trembling, in
agonizing apprehensions, in shame and bitterness of soul.
Why should we run such awful risks of perdition ; when,
/ behold, now is the accepted time ; behold, now is the day of
salvation ' ?
But we must pass on. John's vision does not end here : and
we must pursue it to its terrible climax. After judgment comes
the sentence. ' Death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.
This is the second death. And whosoever was not found
written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.'
' 7^e lake of fire' I hope you will not think that I wish to
soften down or smoothe away any wholesome fear which such
a phrase might inspire, when I remind you. that the phrase is,
of course, a symbol, not the expression of a literal fact. Such
literal lake of fire, of course, there is not ; just as there are no
actual books, stored in the archives of heaven, in which is
registered the case of each individual human soul. The truth
is, Milton's grand poetry goes with us, without our knowing it,
as we read St. John's Revelation ; and * the lake of fire '
becomes thus to us, not as St. John intended it to be, a pure
spiritual symbol, but almost (if I may say so) a geographical
expression ; or, at least, as real and local as the seas and lakes
which astronomers lay down on the surface of the moon. It
requires a strong effort of reason to shake off the fascination,
VII.] THE FIAL ACCOUT. 69
and to expound St. John, not from Milton, but from himself.
When we are able to do so, when the spell of the wizard's
poetry is no longer upon us, and we are alone with St. John
himself, strange thoughts of mingled hope and terror cross our
minds ; the terror first, the hope afterwards. The vista of the
seer, — so far as those are concerned who are not found written
in the book of life, — is closed by the lake of fire. He sees
them cast into this lake, and he sees no more. Thought of
terror, certainly ! for what a doom of anguish is embodied in
the thought ! But look a little closer, before we turn in mere
terror away. The two great elements of purification are com-
bined here : the fire; of which it is said, * He shall baptize you
with the Holy Ghost and with fire : ' the water y of which He
said Himself, * Except a man be bom of water and of the
Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.' And it
is *the lake of fire;', not the stagnant pool or marsh, or the
vast and boisterous ocean, but the bright and breezy lake. The
word is used in the Greek version of the beautiful cviith Psalm,
in the verse : * He turneth the wilderness into a standing water,
and dry ground into water-springs.' But St. John's chief
association with the word must have been in connection with
the beautiful lake of Gennesaret, whose waters had been
consecrated for him^ as for us^ by his Master's presence.
This alone is the Lake of the Holy Land ; all else is sea. It
seems to me impossible to dwell long upon this terrific s)nnbol
of St. John's vision of judgment without a feeling of hope, —
without a dim perception of the purpose and the meaning of
the doom thus described ; — di purpose, altogether consistent with
love as well as with justice ; but a meaning, which it must be left
to the ages upon ages of the future to fully disclose : yes, a
feeling of subdued and awe-struck hope, such as that which one
of our own poets essays to describe in his vision of sin : —
* And on the glimmering limit far withdrawn,
God made Himself an awful rose of dawn.'
Far, far away, beyond the utmost verge of the lake of fire,
70 THE FIAL ACCOUT. [ser.
springs a faint rosy streak of dawn, telling of light beyond.
We can say no more. But this is enough.
It may sound strange and paradoxical ; but the other terrible
phrase of these last two verses of the chapter, * This is the
second death, — ^has upon my own mind just the same effect as
the first, — of terror first, softening afterwards into a faint margin
of hope. St. Paul says, * He that is dead is freed fi-om sin. '
We all believe that the faithful servants of Jesus Christ find in
death their release and emancipation from the bondage of sin.
The chains against which they have ever been struggling are
snapped; and they are at last free. When we read of a
* second death,' and read of it as connected with * the lake of
fire : ' (one or two of the oldest MSS. read, * This is the second
death, the lake of fire ' : but even without these words the
connection between the two symbols is apparent :) it is
impossible to crush down the surmise, that possibly this second
death may do for those, who were not found written in the
book of life, what the first death had failed to do ; and, albeit
through long-drawn agonies of remorse and repentance, sign
their discharge from sin, and enter them again after ages of
suffering in the book of life. It is impossible, I say, thank
God, to crush down the surmise : but, like the hope already
described, it flutters over a sea of terror, like some flickering
beacon-light just level with a wild waste of stormy waves,
telling of land beyond.
St. John says that death and hell were cast into the same
lake of fire. Their work is done, and the seer sees them no
more. He who is described in the first chapter of the
Revelation as * having the keys of hell and of death,' — that is,
as having full power over them, and using them for his own just
and gracious purposes, — now needs their services no longer.
The decree is gone forth : * Behold, the tabernacle of God is
with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his
people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes : and there
VII.] THE FIAL ACCOUT. 71
shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither
shall there be any more pain : for the former things are passed
It may seem to some, that I have interpreted John's sombre
vision too hopefully. And there will be those who think that
it is quite wrong to whisper even the faintest surmise of hope on
such a subject, lest perchance the restraining fear of future
punishment should thereby be weakened, and wicked men feel
themselves more at liberty to please themselves, to their own
destruction. But, rightly understood, the true Scriptural doc-
trine of retributive justice, which St. Paul, for example, expresses
in the words, * Be not deceived : God is not mocked : for
whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap ; ' becomes
far more powerful for moral good, when it is emancipated from
the hideous dogma of endless misery and torture, than it can
be, so long as it is confounded with it. Men easily slip out
of the grasp of this dogma, just because it is one of such
unimaginable horror ; soothing themselves with the notion, that
a doom so dreadful must be reserved only for the worst of
sinners, amongst whom of course they do not reckon them-
selves. But let them only understand the true Scriptural
doctrine of future punishment, and reason and conscience alike
bear witness to them that it is, and must be, true. It is one
thing to risk the danger of an almost incredible doom of endless
woe; it is another thing to face .the certainty of just and
On the other hand, there will be those who will receive
with great thankfulness and joy what has been said to-night
about the faint margin of hope, which we discern beyond the
horizon of the lake of fire. They have found that the common
view puts a strain upon their faith in God, which they hardly
know how to bear. It is an unspeakable comfort to them to be
assured that the common view is not the Scriptural view. Let
me in conclusion just beg of them to be content to leave the
matter where the Scriptiures leave it, — ^where St. John leaves it.
72 THE FIAL ACCOUT.
Left so^ it is a wholesome and a rousing thought, stirring to the
conscience, bracing to the will. Pursue it on the wings of
speculation, beyond what the Holy Scriptures warrant ; and we
soon get lost in mazes, out of which we can find no escape.
In this, as in many other things, we must be content, whilst
here, to see through a glass, darkly, and to know in part;
leaving it for another world to see face to face, and to know
even as we are known.
And now, dear fiiends, farewell. God grant that what has
been said to-night may not have been said in vain ! God grant
that the last hours of the old year may bring with them many
a throb of true repentance for past sins and failures ; many an
earnest resolution of amendment ; many an upward spring of
prayer and aspiration ! Then if this be so,* — if it be genuine, and
if it be genuinely carried out, — ^whether we are spared till the
year has run its round again or not, all will be well. In that
last great day, when the judgment is set, and the books are
opened, ours will be, not the awful lake of fire and the second
death, but the name written in the book of life, — entrance into
the City of God, — ^access to the water of life and the tree of
1. 68 FREE BOOKS
2. ALL WRITIGS
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.