PMT 2015-081 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In Revelation 20 we have the one section of Revelation that extends beyond the near-time indicators. John speaks of the “thousand years” in which Christ reigns with his martyred saints (Rev 20:4–7). In 20:11 we read of the Great White Throne of God. John informs us that “the heaven and earth fled away” at the setting of the judgment scene.

But what does the fleeing away of the heaven and earth mean? This is the question I will answer in this blog article.

In Rev 20:11 John adds a description regarding the enthroned one. He states that he is the one “from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.” According to Scripture, the physical universe will be physically transformed through fiery cleansing to make way for the consummate new heavens and new earth (2Pe 3:10–12; cp. Ps 102:25–27; Isa 51:6; Mt 5:18; 24:35).

Yet John is not speaking of that physical re-composition here. Rather his imagery dramatically presents the “awful impression of the majesty of the judge” (Terry 456), the “terrifying” presence of God (Boxall 289; cp. Beasley-Murray 300), as if “the natural creation shrinks back with awe and seeks to hide itself” (Stuart 2:370). For dramatic effect only, John represents the heavens and the earth as fleeing the scene, leaving only God’s glorious throne to dominate the picture of judgment day: “the great white throne stands alone, with nothing to challenge, to qualify, or even to mediate its sole supremacy” (Caird 258). This is an image of God’s terrifying majesty, an image that ultimately arises from Adam and Eve’s attempt to hide themselves from their offended God in Eden (Ge 3:8). I would argue this for the following reasons:

First, this only speaks of the fleeing away of heaven and earth so that “no place was found for them” (20:11b). In a book containing so much fiery catastrophe as Rev, we would expect a more dramatic picture of catastrophic removal if that were John’s intention. In fact, the impression left is that they flee away vainly, for despite their flight “no place was found for them” to hide from God. Elsewhere men hope to escape God’s judgment, but fail (6:16; 9:6).

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Beale (1032) is surely mistaken when he states: “the climactic nature of the punishment is also expressed by the following cosmic conflagration imagery: ‘from whose face heaven and earth fled, and a place was not found for them.’” But “conflagration” speaks of fiery destruction (L. conflagare: con [with] + flagro [blaze]). No such image appears in 20:11, even though John was not apprehensive about using fire language. In the other two samples Beale cites, while the fleeing away appears in judgment contexts, it seems to magnify the majesty of God who judges: 6:14 (see vv 15–17, where men try to hide from “the presence of Him who sits on the throne”) and 16:20 (see v 19, where Babylon is remembered “before God”). And as I argue in my commentary and on this blogsite elsewhere, both of those refer to God’s judgment on Israel in AD 70.

Second, if the heavens and earth disappear at this judgment, heaven would not remain for the great white throne (20:11a), the small and great stand would have no where to stand (20:12), and there would be no sea to give up the dead (20:13a).

Third, John’s attention here is not on the consummate new heavens and new earth brought about through his renovating power. Rather he is highlighting the judgment that befalls the unrighteous. We almost have to strain to recognize believers at this judgment, partly because the passage has such a condemnatory cast. This judgment is being portrayed as so terrifying that the universe seeks to hide from God’s wrath.

But now what happens in this terrifying scene? John continues:

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne” (20:12a). John’s primary focus here appears to be on the unrighteous dead, who will be thrown into the lake of fire (20:15). A few verses before this we can see the judgment of Satan and the destruction of Gog and Magog. Nevertheless, “final salvation is secondarily included” (Beale 1033; cp. Stuart 2:371; Swete 271; Beasley-Murray 301; Kistemaker 545, 546; Smalley 519; Osborne 722). This seems to be the case because:

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First, “the great and small” is an inclusive image, which John sometimes applies to believers (11:18; 13:16; 19:5, 18), though he can apply it to unbelievers alone (19:18).

Second, the book of life is one of the books opened, and it only only the names of believers (20:12, 15; cp. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27; cf. Ex 32:32; Ps 69:28; Da 12:1; Lk 10:20; Php 4:3). After he mentions both “the books” and “the book of life,” we hear that “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, which seems to include “the book of life.”

Third, this fits the consistent NT witness of a general judgment of all men (Mt 13:26–30, 47, 50; 25:32–33; Jn 5:28–29; Ac 24:15).

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5 thoughts on “THE HEAVENS FLEE AWAY

  1. Andrew K July 6, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Hey Ken,

    Great article. I’m curious what you think John Owen’s view that the heavens and earth in 2 Peter 3 and Isaiah 51 are also not speaking of the physical universe but are more in line with your interpretation of Rev 20:11 –

    on 2 Peter 3:

    “On this foundation I affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state” (Owen)

    on Isaiah 51:

    “The time when the work here mentioned, of planting the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth, was performed by God, was when he “divided the sea” (v.15), and gave the law (v. 16), and said to Zion, “Thou art my people”—that is, when he took the children of Israel out of Egypt, and formed them in the wilderness into a congregation of believers and a civil state. Then he planted the heavens, and laid the foundation of the earth—made the new world; that is, brought forth order, and government, and beauty, from the confusion wherein before they were. This is the planting of the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth in the world. And hence it is that when mention is made of the destruction of a state and its government, it is in that language that seems to set forth the end of the world.” (Owen)

  2. Kenneth Gentry July 7, 2015 at 7:42 am

    Andrew: Almost he persuadeth me. But I believe that the Bible teaches a present spiritual new creation and a future physical new creation. Like our present spiritual resurrection anticipating the future physical resurrection, so the present spiritual new creation anticipates the future physical new creation.

  3. Andrew K July 7, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    thanks Ken – helpful analogy.

  4. CAIQUE MATHEUS RIBEIRO CALIXTO July 24, 2021 at 11:20 am

    Hi, dr. Ken
    Is there any difference between the white throne (rev. 20:11) and the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) ?

  5. Kenneth Gentry July 25, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    I believe they are two ways of looking at the same reality.

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