The Book of Life and Faith? Judgment by Works in Revelation

Revelation (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been using Ben Witherington’s commentary on Revelation in my class on Revelation this semester. In the last class, one of the interesting discussions related to the presence of (at least) two books in the depiction of the final judgment: a record of the deeds of an individual, according to which they are said to be judged, and a “Book of Life.”

Witherington in fact “renames” the book in question, referring to it as “the book of life and faith” (p.251).

While this certainly reflects the way many Protestants understand the Book of Life – a record of those who have faith and who are thus saved in the final judgment on that basis – it seems impossible to reconcile that understanding with the reference in the immediate context to deeds having been recorded and judgment being connected with them (Revelation 20:12).

It seems that the typical Protestant perspective faces the same problems here in Revelation 20 as in Matthew 25:31-46. In both instances, to say that deeds are irrelevant is to ignore what the text plainly says, and to say that they apply only to non-Christians is to allow that some will be saved apart from faith based on works.

At the very least, my students now understand better things they were told earlier in the semester about Martin Luther considering removing Revelation from the canon.

I have a student who has found this topic interesting enough that they will be doing a final paper on the depiction of judgment here, and the relationship between the book(s) recording deeds and the book of life. And so academic bibliographical suggestions on that topic are welcome.

What do others think? Does Revelation anywhere suggest that salvation, or inclusion in the book of life, depends on one’s faith. I believe the only occurrence of pistis in Revelation is in 13:10 where it is usually translated “faithfulness.” And so I wonder whether others feel, as I did, that at this point Witherington is reading into Revelation something that reflects Paul as traditionally understood by Protestants, but which the Book of Revelation itself may have a different view on.

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  • John C. Poirier

    I think that what one of my professors said about Neusner also applies to Witherington: "Don't spend more time reading his book than he spent writing it."

  • Does BWIII justify his view? Have you asked him about?

  • According to a quick search on eSword, pistis shows up also in 2:13, 2:19, and 14:12. But "apistos," unfaithful on nonbelieving, shows up in 21:8, in the list of those who will have their part in the lake of fire, which does suggest that salvation depends at least in part on faith or faithfulness – although it's by no means clear that this refers to a Protestant-Pauline concept of faith.

  • While I am not a student of Greek, the English translation of Revelation 22:17 seems to rule out works as a requirement: “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”

  • Ahswan, it would be simple to just reverse your argument and say that it doesn't seem that salvation can be a free gift, since judgment is said to be by works in 20:12. But on a more serious note, it is not clear to whom the invitation is given and what its being freely offered implies. 22:14-15 seem to imply that some are excluded because of their deeds, and so the context might suggest that anyone who is willing to change their ways is welcome to come. Whether the water is to be understood as something literally present in the eschatological kingdom, or a metaphor, should also be discussed. My point is simply to indicate that the matter of interpretation I raised cannot be dismissed as easily as you suggest.Coleman, thanks, you are indeed right that there are other occurrences of the word and cognates that my search missed. I'm not sure why, but thanks for using technology more effectively than I did and for sharing the results!

  • James,What if these dead are only dead sinners? Those separated from God from before their physical death? After all, the others before them were given judgment and ruled and reigned with Christ. Thus it seems as though these are those who do not inherit the kingdom.That being the case, the judgment is on the basis of EVIL works (caps for emphasis).What thinkest thou?

  • jntskip, I like the asymmetry of only the lost being judged by works. In a way it suits the Almighty – His ways are not your ways 🙂

  • *** Let me try that again ***From what I have read of BWIII (as his fanboys like to call him) he can be counted on to close his eyes to the evidence at key junctures. I assume his scholarship is otherwise generally good so I guess you have to keep on your toes when reading his commentaries.

  • jntskip, it sounds like you are saying that salvation is achieved by being beheaded for your faith. Everyone else is evaluated on the basis of their works and condemned. What do I think? I'm not persuaded that John thought of salvation as belonging solely to martyrs.And as for the suggestion that God rendering to each one according to what he has done means condemning everyone because what they did was evil, that involves interpreting this Jewish-Christian author as using a well-known Jewish concept and language to mean something other than what his contemporaries would have understood, without giving them any indication that his meaning differed from what they were familiar with. And if one takes that approach, anything can mean anything.

  • Question for you Mr. McGrath,You say: 'At the very least, my students now understand better things they were told earlier in the semester about Martin Luther considering removing Revelation from the canon.'What is your evidence for linking Martin Luther's vacillations about Revelation being in the canon to the presence of a possible "works-righteousness" in the text? Can you supply some documentation from the primary sources in that respect?

  • I think Revelations falls into the works brand of Christianity. The letters to the churches include a message warning of the evils of the followers of Balaam and Jezebel who leads people astray by eating food sacrificed to idols. See 1Corintians 8:1-9. I don't thing John the Seer like Paul's compromise at all, nor would he appreciate Paul's condescending remark that his conscience is weak. I'm not sure if Balaam is Paul, but i think it is likely to be a disciple of Paul's.

  • Anonymous

    Hi James: You seem to have missed my point, if I am reading you write. I most certainly am saying that the Christian's deeds, recorded in the book, do indeed matter to their final salvation, hence the warning their names can be erased from the book. Ben Witherington

  • Modern Protestants (and I just so happen to be one) would drum the early church fathers right out of the church regarding works and their role in salvation. Have you read the Didache, Hermas, or Barnabas? I was shocked when reading them. They are filled with the same ambiguity that I later went back and found in the NT regarding the relationship of works and judgment. This is a topic that needs to be discussed more. At the very least they didn't have near the same hang-ups that modern Protestants do regarding relying on works.It seems like we have one team really worried about people relying on their works. It consists of: some of the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and modern Protestant pastors. On the other team you have those who (choosing my words carefully here) seem to clearly decide your status before God. This team includes the remainder of the Apostle Paul, the OT, the rest of the NT, and the near-entirety of the early church illustrated by the writings I mentioned above.Paul is the ambiguous figure who seems to say both and thus we get the NPP debate. But the NPP is too narrowly focused on Paul and so pretty unhelpful on a grand scale at the end of the day. So it's good to see you bring Revelation into the mix. Does anybody know of any book which has brought the large swath of early Christian writings to bear on this question?

  • James,Instead of thinking in those terms, perhaps it would be better to read Rev 20.5 in light of John 5:17-29. Of course, it is possible that it would only mean something to you if both John and Revelation were accepted by you as Johannine, or the Bible as a book with a unity of thought and theology. (I mention these things because I don't know what you do believe. One's belief on these things tends to direct his view of a system of theology.) Viewing both as Johannine would cause us to see that Rev 20.5 speaks of the resurrection of life, though most probably only the end of that resurrection period. We would then view vv 11-15 as speaking of the resurrection of damnation/death. Those raised in the resurrection of life would be those of Jn 5.24- believers. Thus the issue of works for the judgment in Rev 20:11-15 would be judgment of evil deeds.Those are the thoughts that I was trying to get across.Jason

  • Thanks to Ben (or someone impersonating him) for clarifying the point – although the moniker "Anonymous" takes our discussion of pseudepigraphy and Revelation to a whole new level! :-)Jason, I have no objection to attempting to think systematically about theological matters. But theology doesn't justify ignoring differences between works, nor ignoring the very different Greek of the Apocalypse that explicitly claims to be written by someone named John and of the Gospels that tradition associates with that name. And so you are free to say that the Book of Revelation "must" mean something other than it seems to because the Gospel of John says X, Y or Z. But then you've thrown out the inerrancy and authority of Revelation's actual words, and so I don't understand what the point of such an approach is, since usually such attempts at forced harmonization are an attempt to preserve the unity of the Bible, and inevitably the attempt seems to lead to a superficial harmonization that treats one of Scripture's voices as anything but authoritative.

  • James,To say that I'm saying it "must" say thus and such is taking it a litte too far, though I did seem to come across as a little dogmatic sounding. I'm thinking it through, as you are.I'd like to hear more from you on the issue.

  • James,How does one subscribe to the comments here?

  • There should be a box to check to subscribe to comments. If it isn't visible, I'll need to see if I can figure out why…

  • If it doesn't appear, after you've logged in and commented, a hyperlink to subscribe by e-mail DOES appear (as it just did for me).

  • Emerson, your point is well taken. I took a look at Luther's preface to Revelation and was struck that he doesn't mention judgment by works as an issue but focuses on other objections. I wonder whether Luther ever commented on Revelation 20:13 (he never wrote a commentary on the Book of Revelation, but I'm not sure whether he discusses that verse elsewhere).I was amused that Luther wrote "Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep."

  • If I may introduce some ideas here, I would say if we read Rev 20:12 in the light of John 5:24, 5:28-29, we are discussing the dead who were not faithful to Jesus for a number of reasons. Not simply non-Christians, but Christians who have been mislead or people who never understood or did not have the chance to hear the Gospel, etc. Because John says that people who die faithful will not be judged. Second, since death is the penalty for sin (Rom 6:23), those who have died have already paid the penalty for their past sins. So Rev 20:12 may be discussing their deeds after their resurrection as to their acceptance or rejection of the true Gospel now being revealed to them, that they formerly did not know. Because God wants everyone to make an informed decision whether to accept him or not. It would be incompatible for God to grant someone salvation without them having at least some knowledge of who he really is and what he expects of them. Again, Matthew 25:31-46 is referring to the same thing, except this time it is right before the culmination of the end of the present world. All the people of the earth are divided into two groups, the ones who accept the true Gospel, and the ones who do not. So yes, all of this is dependent on faith, but faith is not the focus of these verses, it is discussed elsewhere.

  • Hey Mr. McGrath,Thanks for the response 🙂 Thanks also for digging back into the primary sources. You still might have an insight into Luther's treatment of Revelation here, so my question was not directly polemical. It would be interesting to see if there is any hard data to help us in this respect.Incidentally, the majority of responses made to your post prove to me that we should be far more horrified at the cavalier attitudes people throw at canonical writings today than Luther's issue with Revelation. Appreciate your thoughts, and look forward to reading more on this blog.

  • Oh and one more thing,Works-righteousness (ie. God will finally declare you righteous and thus saved on the last day based on your good works), whether reserved for a so-called "final justification", the process of "sanctification" or the immediate "conversion", is NOT Protestantism. It may not even be Anabaptist Protestantism (figures like Menno Simons denounced anything other than sola fide from beginning to end with vigor and solemnity). The whole business of a "judgment according to works" is sheer catholicism. I won't call it semi-pelagianism, because people who espouse this program squirm at the word and try to play semantic games to evade the charge of heresy, but there seems to be little material and practical difference between the two. Heck, I've read some Tridentine lit. that gives me more comfort than this exegetical "discovery".Have at it boys.

  • Perhaps we simply need to look to the book of Hebrews to solve the dilemma of "salvation by the works listed in the books" and "salvation by faith which leads to being listed in the Book of Life" (if that is a fair if overly-simple way to sum up the discussion so far).Hebrews 11, the "role-call of the faithful", tells us about some of those who attained life by their faith. But what does it say?By faith, Abel did this. By faith, Enoch did this. By faith, Noah did this. By faith, Abraham did this. By faith, Isaac did this. And on and on.Perhaps the books really are, as Revelation indicates, a listing of works done by individuals, and they really are "judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done." Because the record of what they had done is simply a listing of what their saving faith led them to do – – the reading of the evidence, as it were, of saving faith.That would bring together all sides of the discussion into agreement, wouldn't it?

  • @ James F. McGrath . And so you are free to say that the Book of Revelation "must" mean something other than it seems to because the Gospel of John says X, Y or Z. But then you've thrown out the inerrancy and authority of Revelation's actual wordsThe Book of Revelation was written in such a cryptic manner as to be impossible to understand alone. Most of the book, including most of the imagery, is a cross reference to other Scriptures. A knowledge of these other passages is essential in decrypting the book. Comparing Scripture to other Scripture is an essential in sound hermeneutics.Having said that, the dilemma is resolved when faith and works are seen in context. Saving faith will produce good works. Saving faith alone is the key in our response to God, but that faith, if it is genuine, will result in good works as evidence. Because of this relationship between faith and works, it is possible to judge whether someone has saving faith by examining their works. Judging people by their works, then, is not a denial of salvation by faith but proof that they have truly believed the gospel.