The Book of Life


Posted by Matt Postiff May 30, 2019 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Theology  Death  Eschatology 

Today's question is an interesting one:

I have a question about names written in the Lamb's Book of Life. It was my understanding that our names are added to the Book of Life when we accept Jesus' atonement for our sin natures (i.e., saved by grace through faith). But some verses seem to indicate that all people are in the Book of Life until they reject that God-designed provision. These texts include Exodus 32:33, Deuteronomy 29:20, Psalm 69:28, Isaiah 48:19, and Revelation 3:5.

The first book is the "book of the living" which is mentioned in Psalm 69:28. It is poetic way of referring to the census or list of all people who are alive at a given time. So, to wipe someone out of that book is a very poetic or euphemistic way of saying that the person would be killed. In other words, they would be "cut off out of the land of the living." Other phrases express the same thing. For example, Deut. 29:20 says that someone will be blotted out from under heaven. This means that they will be killed. Isaiah 48:19 is a bit different because it is used in a corporate way to refer to the offspring of Israel (48:1, 12). The "cutting off" is the same as above, that is, ceasing to exist on the earth. With this background, we can better understand Exodus 32:32-33 in which Moses wishes to die physically. If the Lord will not forgive Israel, Moses prefers death to life. This idea is found mostly in the Old Testament.

The alert reader may remember a similar case in Romans 9:2-3. There, Paul says that he wishes he could be accursed from Christ for his Israelite brothers, that they might come to faith in Messiah. This does not necessarily include the idea of physical death (at least, immediately). The real focus is on spiritual separation from Christ. That is, if it were possible, Paul would trade his salvation for theirs. Paul would have his name erased from the book of the saved so they could get theirs put into that book. And that is the second book, to which we now turn.

The second book is the Lamb's book of life. This is revealed mainly in the New Testament (but see Daniel 12:1) and is not the same as the first book. The book of life is the registry of all the redeemed of all ages, whether in the church age, Tribulation, Kingdom, or Old Testament period.

I'm not big on emphasizing that there is an actual codex/book in heaven, made with paper and cardboard and glued at the spine, that has a huge list of names in it. But in effect we can think of it that way. God knows that list of names intuitively and instantaneously, and the reason for that is that He has graciously chosen to bestow eternal life on each person listed in the book. Passages that refer to this book are Philippians 4:3, Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 21:27, and 22:19.

Of these, several passages offer difficulties to the Bible reader. Revelation 3:5 says, "I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life." I take this not to say that names will be or can be erased, but that they will NOT be erased! Most people read this and believe that there is a possibility of erasure, particularly if you fail to "overcome." I don't read it that way, and I believe that it is an Arminian tendency to emphasize the erasure view. Overcomers (by faith, 1 John 5:4) will never lose their salvation. They will never be erased from the book.

Revelation 13:8 attaches the phrase "from the foundation of the world" to "the lamb that was slain." This is a good interpretation based on the word order, but it can be understood to refer to the names of the people not in the book of life. Revelation 17:8 makes it clear that "from the foundation of the world" is associated with the names not written in the book of life. The point is this: there are names that are NEVER written in the Lamb's book of life. In other words, there are people whose names have never appeared in there. By implication, (1) those names cannot be erased, since they have never been present; and (2) there must be names in the book which have been present since the foundation of the world.

Revelation 22:19 is another passage that indicates the possibility of a name being taken away from the book of life. But there are major textual transmission problems at this point in the Textus Receptus (and thus the English KJV and NKJV translations). The correct text is not "book of life" but "tree of life." (Why? The critical text AND the vast majority of Greek manuscripts say "tree of life.") Reading it as "tree of life" eliminates the only other verse in the Bible that could suggest a person's name can be removed from the book of life. The "removal" is simply a statement of judgment—if you mess with God's book, God will see to it that you have no share in the tree of life = basically heaven.

To summarize: the "erasure" view is that the names of all humans who ever exist are written in the book of life from the start, and names are erased as people die without exercising faith in Christ. One problem with this view is that there is no text that clearly says names WILL be erased. Furthermore, Revelation 17:8 tells us plainly that there are some names which are not written in the book ever. Therefore, we could also call this the "start full" view, but it fails at Revelation 17:8.

Then there is the "start empty" view. It would seem to make more sense to have zero names in the Lamb's book of life at the beginning—because we are all sinners deserving of eternal punishment from birth, our names don't deserve to be there. One's name could be added when one comes to faith in Christ. I think that is a very common understanding. But even that doesn't work, because it seems there are some names that are present in the book from the foundation of the world, and some that are not (see above explanation).

Neither the "start empty" nor the "start full" views of the book of life work.

Think about this very important related issue. Who has the power to put a name in or out of the book of life? If your answer is "people" then you will likely have a start-full or start-empty view. You are reflecting the idea that salvation not only involves a person's participation, but it is ultimately based on that person's choice. If your answer is "God," then you have an entirely different perspective. Then you are saying that salvation is ultimately based on God's choice. The latter better fits the Biblical revelation--God is the author of the book of life.

But since God knows everything and in fact has decreed everything to come to pass as it does, He never has to make edits to His book. Consequently, I understand that names are not ever added or subtracted from the book of life. The names were set down there from before the foundation of the world and that list is fixed and inviolable for all eternity. It is the list of those known as the elect. Some of them have already come to faith, and some shall come in the future, but all will eventually come to faith while they are alive. (I believe that even infants who die in infancy are listed in this book, and God graciously regenerates them so they can partake in the eternal kingdom. But I digress into an area of some debate among theologians.) The impossibility of erasure reflects the doctrine of eternal security. The impossibility of addition means that people who are not elect won't be saved. This may sound harsh, but follow the next paragraphs.

Now, who are the elect? I don't know, and no one but God knows. Well, we can know if someone comes to genuine faith, and we can know about ourselves if we are believers. We do know there those whom God has graciously chosen to bless with salvation because of certain clear texts of the Bible (2 Thess. 2:13, 1 Thess. 1:4, 2 Timothy 2:10, Titus 1:1, and others). But as for the billions of people on the planet, we cannot know who the elect ones are in advance. Consequently, we preach the gospel widely, praying to reach people who will respond. Ultimately we won't know who is elect until after the fact. God knows the elect before the fact.

If there is someone who genuinely wants to get saved, and is afraid they are not elect, I would quickly disabuse them of that thinking by telling them that God commands us to repent and believe the gospel. If you do that, you are saved, and thus prove that you were listed in the book. From the human perspective, since we don't and can't know who is "in" and who is "out," we should not worry about who is in the book, and instead focus on obeying God, and everything will be fine. This goes for evangelism too. Our job is not to figure out if someone is elect. Our job is to proclaim the gospel.

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