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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Inbox: The Book of Life in the Book of Revelation

The book of Revelation contains the majority of the Bible’s references to the moderately mysterious and much-discussed “book of life”. No study of the subject (such as the one beginning here and concluding here) that failed to address these verses would be particularly useful.

This one may not be either, but let’s at least take a crack at it.

(By the way, I am not attempting to dodge our reader’s original question from Exodus 32, but I’d like to make sure we know what we’re looking at before we attempt to understand the words “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book”. So bear with me.)

The One Who Conquers

The first reference to a “book of life” in Revelation occurs in the letter from the risen and glorified Head of the Church to his people in Sardis:
“The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”
The natural question, of course, is who is the “one who conquers”? (Is it all genuine Christians or a subset who are particularly faithful?) The expression occurs at the end of all seven letters, suggesting that in each church there may be those who conquer (or “overcome”) and those who don’t. Such a picture of the church might be discouraging to us if it did not reflect precisely what Jesus himself taught: that the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a field full of both wheat and weeds (believers and unbelievers) not fully distinguishable from one another until judgment. Some NT letters (James comes to mind) treat the sad reality of the pious fraud more directly than others.

Put plainly, many people who self-identify as Christians and consider themselves “in the church” are not actually saved. The ones who are saved are called “conquerors”, or “overcomers”. This was true in Sardis, in the other six churches addressed by the risen Lord, and in probably every church since.

Plenty of New Testament verses confirm that all genuine believers are overcomers or conquerors, not through our own efforts, perseverence or unusual dedication but through God in Christ.

Thus the takeaway from the remark to the church in Sardis is that the names of believers in Christ are “never” blotted out of the book of life. Any whose names are ultimately blotted out never truly believed.

Not Written in the Book of Life

Moving forward in Revelation, we come to this rather controversial statement:
“All who dwell on earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”
Controversial, because due to differences between Greek and English syntax this verse has been translated several different ways. All manner of discussion has been had as to whether it is: (i) the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world; (ii) the names that were written before the foundation of the world (Calvinists tend to like this one); or (iii) the book of life which has existed from the foundation of the world. Most Greek scholars (as opposed to English-speaking Bible students using Greek language tools) agree that all three constructions are legitimate possibilities, leaving theologians to make their case by comparing their interpretation of this verse to other passages of scripture.

Not being a Greek scholar myself, I take their word about that. If we call the syntactical argument a three-way draw, then Kevin Bennett’s argument seems to me the most theologically persuasive (Bennett opts for Door #3, though he is in the minority). Bennett says:
“Whether or not the other options are possible, this one makes perfect sense. Obviously the Book of Life has existed from the foundation of the world, since it is the way by which God will record the names of those who will inherit life. So even if this was not what the original author meant, it would still at least be sensible and accurate. Neither of the other options seem to be.”
Makes sense to me.

“Not Written” II

A similar construction occurs four chapters later:
“The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.”
A similar difficulty presents itself here, except that the “Lamb who was slain” is not one of the available options. In this case the discussion is about whether: (i) the names have been written from the foundation of the world, or (ii) the book of life has existed from the foundation of the world.

As Mark Gill says:
“If the second clause is not integral to understanding clauses 1 and 3, as evidenced by its absence in Revelation 17.8, it is clear ‘απο καταβολης κοσμου’ does not apply to the lamb being slaughtered.”
Like Gill, I agree this eliminates the “Lamb who was slain” from contention and, with Bennett, I prefer the latter interpretation of the remaining two, which seems the more demonstrable.

Books Were Opened

We’re getting there. Only two to go. If we return for a moment to the Great White Throne judgment, we read:
“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. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
All sins are not equal. There are degrees of guilt and degrees of punishment (something I have tried to demonstrate here). The Lake of Fire is not an exercise in egalitarianism. The fact that we find books being opened that record the deeds of the dead is consistent with many other scriptures that speak of judgment for thoughts, words and deeds of this life. Further, it makes perfect sense if (i) destination is determined by the book of life, and (ii) degree of punishment is determined by the contents of the other books. That’s one possibility.

Alternatively (and also consistent with scripture), it may be that those who decline to place their trust in the saving work of the Lamb of God in this lifetime are, in effect, opting to be judged on their own merits, hence the necessity for referring to the official public record of what they have done in their lives. Sadly, it is not a matter of weighing good deeds against bad deeds on some kind of heavenly scale, as is sometimes thought, but rather a situation in which even a single violation of the law of God amounts to a violation of the entire law, and means eternal separation from him. No man or woman will see heaven on the basis of his or her good works, no matter how wonderful they may be.

Either reading works for me. Others may feel free to differ.

The New Jerusalem

Finally, of the New Jerusalem it is said:
“Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Thus, at the end of the day, it seems the consensus of the word of God that those whose names are recorded in the book of life enjoy eternal blessing and those who names are not suffer eternal torment.

Patient readers will note that I have not yet addressed our reader’s original question (and impatient readers even more so). Tomorrow, I promise!

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