There is a chapter in the Book of Revelation that contains a curious passage with some rarely heard phraseology. Verses 4 – 6 of Revelation 20 read:
"I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years." (NIV)
Everything in the first part of the passage is easy to understand: Martyrs and those who do not accept the philosophy and ways of this world will live and reign with Christ after his return. They will be raised from death to life. But then follows an interesting description of this resurrection. Twice it is called "the first resurrection", and it says the rest of the dead (those who did not follow Christ in this life) will be raised only after a thousand years have passed.
Rarely will you hear a sermon about why this is called the first resurrection and what happens to the rest of the dead after those thousand years. Yet Jesus addressed it several times. He spoke of two distinct resurrections in John 5. "For an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment." (Verses 28-29 NASB)
In Matthew 12 Jesus alluded again to this resurrection of judgment when he said that the people of Nineveh "will rise in the judgment with this generation and condemn it" (Verse 41), and again in Matthew 11 when he said it would be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the in the day of judgment than for the people of his day who had rejected him (verse 24).
Revelation 20 combined with the pertinent passages of Matthew 11 and 12 tell us how God will deal with people who didn’t know better in this life. Keep in mind that the passages discussed here refer to a time after the millennium.
"I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God." For the dead to stand, they must have been resurrected. "And books were opened." Most people today claim that they don’t understand the books of the Bible, and they are being quite honest about that. It is possible that the books being opened here are the books of the Bible finally being opened to understanding.
"And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life." These people’s names had not been written in the Book of Life just yet, for if they had been, they would have been in the "first resurrection" mentioned earlier in the chapter. The Book is being opened, not to see if their names are there, but in order to write more names in it. For the first time their understanding will be opened and they will have a chance to decide whether to follow God or not. They
are going to be judged according to the things which are written in the books, just as Christians today are being judged by the things written in those same books.
I have to believe that most people, once they are face to face with God and his word, will gladly accept the salvation offered though Jesus Christ. It would be hard to deny the existence of God and the truth found in his Son when standing before him. Surprisingly, not everyone will make that commitment, and their names will not be written in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15).
But the larger issue is that God will give everyone a chance to understand, repent, and decide whether to accept the free gift of eternal life, even the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. More to the point, your loved ones who perhaps never could quite grasp it will one day have the veil removed from their eyes and the books opened to understanding. We don’t need to be in anguish over loved ones who seemed to be spiritually blind. God has a plan for them too.