A number of passages in the Bible refer to a book called “the book of life,” a figurative expression that originated from the ancient customs of (a) keeping various kinds of records like genealogical records (Neh. 7:5, 64; 12:22, 23) and of (b) registering citizens for numerous purposes (Jer. 22:30; Ezek. 13:9). Accordingly, God is represented as having records of men, of their works, and of God’s dealings with them. One such record is called “the book of life.”
There is some evidence that in the city of Sardis a person’s name was sometimes removed from the city register before death if he had been convicted of a crime. This is undoubtedly behind the promise given to the overcomer in Revelation 3:5, “I will not erase his name from the book of life.” But what is the meaning and significance of the various references to the book of life in relation to salvation, to the believer, and to the unbeliever? Is it a record of all who are saved or could it be a record of all those for whom Christ died, which under the doctrine of Christ’s unlimited atonement, would include all the world?
Passages Referring to the Book of Life
(1) Psalm 69:28 “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.”
(2) Daniel 12:1 “Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued.” Though the word “life” or “living” is not used here, it is part of the same concept.
(3) In the gospels Christ says, “… but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20). “Are recorded” is a perfect tense and looks at an abiding condition. This is evidently another reference to the book of life.
(4) In Philippians 4:3, Paul speaks of “the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
(5) Revelation 3:5 “I will not erase his name from the book of life.”
(6) Revelation 13:8 “all who dwell on the earth will worship him (the beast), everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.”
(7) Revelation 17:8 “… And those who dwell on the earth will wonder, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.”
(8) In Revelation 20:12 “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.”
(9) Revelation 20:15 “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Categories of Books in Scripture
In addition to the book of life, there are other categories of records or books mentioned in Scripture. These are:
(1) Book of Wars: Numbers 21:14. This was a collection of war songs celebrating the glorious acts of God on behalf of Israel.
(2) The Book of Jasher: Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18. This was an early chronicle of the history of Israel.
(3) Book of Remembrance: Malachi 3:16-17; Psalm 56:8. This was a book of remembrance for special blessings and rewards for faithfulness.
(4) Book of Those Physically Alive (a dooms day book): Exodus 32:32-33. This refers to a register of the physically living. To be blotted out meant to experience physical death (cf. Exodus 17:14; Deut. 29:20; Psalm 9:5-6).
(5) The Book of Works: Revelation 20:12-13. This consists of a record of the deeds of unbelievers as a basis of their judgment proving they all fall short of the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Dan. 7:9-10; Rom. 3:19-24).
Thoughts on the Book of Life
IN RELATION TO BELIEVERS
First, believers are told their names stand permanently written (recorded) in the book of life. The tenses used in Luke 10:20, Hebrews 12:23, and Philippians 4:3 suggest an abiding state. Both Luke 10:20 and Hebrews 12:23 use the perfect tense which can carry the idea of “stand recorded or enrolled.” The perfect tense in its basic meaning, unaffected by context or a particular verbal idea, refers to completed past action with existing results. But when used in context, the emphasis may be on the accomplished action; this is called the consummative perfect. On the other hand, the emphasis may be on the existing state, the results without any thought or emphasis on the past; this is the intensive perfect. And of course, the emphasis can be on both elements, completion and results. The intensive perfect is much like an emphatic or intensive present. “The attention is directed wholly to the present resulting state, the past action of which it is the result being left out of thought.”
In Philippians 4:3, the verb in the clause, “are in the book of life,” is a present participle suggesting a continual condition and would likewise stress the permanence of this record.
Second, in Revelation 3:5, overcomers are promised that their names will never be erased or blotted out of the book of life. The negative “not” represents the emphatic double negative ou mh in the Greek. The idea and emphasis is “by no means or under no circumstances will I erase …” As discussed in the lesson on the church at Sardis (see lesson 9), this statement in Revelation 3:5 is an illustration of litotes, a rhetorical device designed to stress the positive by the use of a negative. If I were to say, “That’s no small problem!” you would immediately understand, “That’s a big problem!” This promise not only stresses the security of the believer, for every believer’s name stands permanently written in the book of life, but by stating the promise in this way, the Lord is promising something special to the overcomer in the kingdom and eternal future.
As mentioned above, there is historical evidence that in the city of Sardis a person’s name was sometimes removed from the city register before death if he had been convicted of a crime. When these messages were written, Christians were under the constant threat of being branded as social rebels and stripped of their citizenship if they refused to recant or denounce their faith in Christ. In other words, they were branded as criminals. Thus, as a source of motivation and encouragement the Lord personally reminds the overcomer not only of the safety of his heavenly citizenship, but of the special acknowledgment the Lord Himself will give him before the Father and before His angels.
Blotting names from the book of life is never applicable to a believer in Christ because believers are secure in Him, being kept by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5) and held secure in both the hand of the Son and of the Father (John 10:28-30).
When we examine Scripture as a whole, there is evidence that some names, however, will be blotted from the book of life. In relation to Revelation 3:5, Walvoord writes:
On the basis of this some have considered the book of life not as the roll of those who are saved but rather a list of those for whom Christ died, that is, all humanity who have possessed physical life. As they come to maturity and are faced with the responsibility of accepting or rejecting Christ, their names are blotted out if they fail to receive Jesus Christ as Saviour; whereas those who do accept Christ as Saviour are confirmed in their position in the book of life, and their names are confessed before the Father and heavenly angels.
(1) Psalm 69 is a messianic Psalm portraying the suffering of Christ caused by His enemies. The passage is clearly talking about unbelievers for verse 21 reads, “They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” This was prophetic of actions that would be carried out by unbelievers against Christ during His crucifixion. Then, in Acts 1:2 Peter specifically applied Psalm 69:25 to Judas. Judas was a Christ rejecter and a representative of unbelieving Israel as a whole.
(2) In Psalm 69:27 David said, speaking of these enemies, “… and may they not come into Your righteousness.” Why could they not come into God’s righteousness? Because of rejection of Christ. In the Jew’s zeal to pursue their own self-righteousness they rejected the gift of God’s righteousness through faith in His Son (see Rom. 10:1-6).
(3) Then, in Psalm 69:28, still talking about the unbeliever, David adds, “may they be blotted out of the book of life and may they not be recorded with the righteous.” In the context, “be recorded” means either remain recorded, or it may point to the goal or end result—so they may not remain on the same register. “Be recorded” is in the imperfect tense in the Hebrew text which may, depending on the context, express an aim or result. It may be that David was not just praying for the untimely death of his enemies, but for removal from the book of life. Why? Because their actions not only demonstrated unbelief, but such a hardened condition of the heart that it precluded repentance or ever coming to faith in the righteousness of God through Messiah.
(4) Exodus 32:31-33:
Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. 32 But now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written!” 33 And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.”
This was probably a register of those who were physically alive and to be blotted out of this book meant an untimely death. However, God’s physical and material dealings with Israel were often types and pictures of God’s spiritual dealings with man, and especially with the church today (1 Cor. 10:1f). For David’s enemies in Psalm 69 “blotting out of the book of life,” as in the case of Judas and the unbelieving in Israel, meant removal from the book of life and from remaining recorded with the righteous. This is supported by the fact that in Christ’s day all unbelieving Jews were not put to death, though Judas died by suicide. So likewise this Exodus passage may typically portray the removal of the sinner, the unbeliever who rejects Jesus Christ, from the book of life (John 16:8-9).
(5) Revelation 20:11-15 refers to the judgment of the unbelieving dead. These are those whose names are not in the book of life and are condemned to the eternal lake of fire. As will be suggested below, it may be that their names were originally there, but were removed because they never trusted in the person and work of Christ as their Savior.
LIMITED VS. UNLIMITED ATONEMENT
Some believe in a doctrine of limited atonement (that Christ died for only the elect), but Scripture states plainly that Christ died for the sins of the entire human race. This is the doctrine of unlimited atonement.
From the human side or perspective, Christ’s saving work is limited only by man’s rejection or failure to respond to God’s grace (cf. 1 John 2:2; John 3:16, 36; 2 Pet. 2:1; Isa. 53:6; 1 Tim. 4:10; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; John 7:17; 1:9, 11; Rom. 2:4).
From the divine side or perspective, Christ’s saving work is limited by God’s elective purposes, but this does not alter the clear statements of Scripture that Christ died for all and the offer of salvation is for all. God’s sovereign election and man’s volition and responsibility to believe constitute a difficult concept for man to grasp. It is an example of what some theologians have called an antinomy, two laws or principles that are true, but that seem contradictory to the human mind.
(1) Since Christ died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2), since God is perfectly just, fair, and impartial in His dealings with man (Rom. 2:2, 4, 11), and since all men are potentially saved in Jesus Christ (provision is made for all [cf. 1 Tim. 4:4-6; 4:10; 2 Pet. 2:1; 3:9]), it may be that the name of every person born into this world was written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.
(2) Since the issue for salvation is receiving Jesus Christ by personal faith (John 1:12), the unbeliever’s name is blotted out at death because of rejection of Christ or negative volition to the grace of God, including the pre-salvation work of the Spirit of God that attempts to lead him to Jesus Christ. Romans 2:4 reads, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Obviously, all do not come to repentance or faith in Christ. This is what grammarians call a conative present pointing to what God desires and attempts to do, but He is hindered by man’s hardness and rejection.
(3) This can never happen for those who have believed in Christ, however, since they have trusted in the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.
But what about Revelation 13:8 and 17:8?
(1) In both these passages the words, “has not been written,” are in the perfect tense. Remember that the perfect tense, unaffected by context or a particular verbal idea, refers to completed past action with existing results. Depending on the verb and the context, the emphasis may be on the accomplished action, the consummative perfect. Or, the emphasis may be on the existing state, the results without any thought or emphasis on the past, the intensive perfect. And of course, if the context suggests, the emphasis can be on both the completion and results.
(2) The verb used to illustrate the intensive perfect in grammar after grammar is the word “to write,” graptein, which in the perfect, gegraptai, means “to stand written.” When the negative “no” is added, it could mean: (a) it was never written in the book, or (b) it does not stand (remain) written. Why does it not remain written? If the above proposal is correct it is because their names are blotted out at death because they had refused to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
(3) Some might argue that in Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 the names of the beast worshippers are already viewed as removed from the book of life, that is removed or absent from the book of life before death. But those mentioned in these two passages are the earth dwellers, those who worship and marvel at the beast and who receive his mark. Receiving the mark of the beast is a clear indication of complete rejection of Jesus Christ; it demonstrates that the possessor of the mark has reached such a place or condition of hardness that it precludes repentance or faith in Christ. Receiving the mark of the beast, then, terminates one’s chance to receive Jesus Christ. It is equivalent to death for Tribulation people. It is proof they will never receive Jesus Christ, and God knows this absolutely. This is similar to the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that could only occur during the life of Christ on earth (Matt. 12).
(4) By contrast compare Isaiah 4:1-3 and Daniel 12:1. Both of these passages anticipate the blessings of the millennium following the Tribulation. Further, they are dealing with the remnant, those left at the end of the Tribulation who were not killed by the beast and who did not receive his mark, those whose names are still recorded in the book of life. These believers will go into the millennium and will experience its blessings.
(5) What about the words “from the foundation of the world”? In Revelation 13:8 these words are grammatically connected with “the Lamb who has been slain.” Literally the Greek reads, whose names “do not stand written in the book of life of the Lamb, who was slain from the foundation of the world.” This statement compares with Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:20. It is the Lamb whose death was ordained from the foundation of the world. In Revelation 17:8, however, the construction is different. Here “from the foundation of the world” is connected with “the book of life.” Literally the Greek says, “whose names do not stand written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” The book itself exists from the foundation of the world. The removal of names does not occur until death, or in this case, until they take the mark of the beast.
THREE CATEGORIES OF PEOPLE
Finally, there are three categories of people that we might consider in relation to the book of life:
(1) Normal individuals who have reached the age of accountability; they must receive Jesus Christ as Savior, or at death their names will be blotted out and they will face the great white throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15).
(2) The child who never reaches the age of accountability, but dies before he or she is capable of understanding and is thereby incapable of either rejecting or receiving Jesus Christ. Since Christ died for all, and since the issue is accepting or rejecting Christ, these names remain written in the book of life (cf. John 16:8-9; 1 Cor. 7:14).
(3) The mentally retarded, the person who can never reach the age of accountability because of their inability to understand the gospel. Such a person would also fall in the same category as number two above.