What is the book of life in the Bible?
The Bible often speaks about a “book of life” in which people’s names are written. But what is this book? If your name was written in it, how would you know and what would it mean?
We find the mention of a book of God in the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. So, we’ll start there.
Moses and the book of God
Since the time that God called him, Moses felt a tremendous responsibility for the Israelites. As they travelled through the desert toward the promised land, he saw them as one undivided nation chosen by God. But while Moses was on the mountain receiving God’s commandments, many Israelites were rejecting God by making and worshipping a golden calf. God knew what they were doing and threatened to destroy them (Exodus 32:10).
After Moses came down from the mountain and saw their revelry and idolatry, he was grieved and cried out to God:
Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written. (Exodus 32:31-32)
Moses instinctively knew that God had a record of all who were his people, those who were to inherit his promises, who belonged to his chosen nation. And he assumed the names of all the Israelites were in God’s record book.
But many Israelites had just rebelled against God. What would happen to them? Were they still his people? So, Moses asked God to forgive them for their rebellion that they might still inherit his blessings. He loved these people to the degree that, if God chose not to forgive them, he would be willing to be condemned along with them. In his mind, the nation was inseparable, and if they were going to be punished, he would go down with them.
God condemns only those who reject him
But God reminded Moses that when he judges, he separates the wicked from the righteous. And he separates out the wicked even from within the people of Israel—the nation he chose. So, he assured Moses,
“Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (Exodus 32:33).
God promised that only the names of the Israelites who rejected him and deliberately sinned against him—who worshipped the golden calf—would be removed from his book. Moses would not be punished with the rebellious. Neither would all the others who had stayed faithful to him—their names would remain in his book also. They would inherit all the blessings promised to the people of Israel.
In this story God’s book is a metaphor for his record of all those who are his people. This helps explain the many references in the Bible to the “book of life.” The basic lesson is that we aren’t the people of God because of our physical lineage or cultural identity, but because of faith and obedience to the truth of God.
Book of life in the Psalms
David’s declaration to God in Psalm 9 confirms that God’s record book excludes the wicked from any future with God:
You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked; you have blotted out their name for ever and ever. (Psalm 9:5)
The Lord knows the life and deeds of every human on earth. At God’s judgment there will be no reward for the wicked, only destruction. David’s prayer in Psalm 69 concerning the wicked is even more explicit:
May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous. (Psalm 69:28)
Psalm 69 described David’s sufferings at the hands of his persecutors. But it also foreshadowed the sufferings of the future Messiah and the judgment of those who would reject him. Spiritually, David’s persecutors belonged to the same group that rejected and killed the Messiah, who will also be excluded from God’s book of life.
The book of life in the New Testament
We find the book of life mostly in the New Testament. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the disciples had been rejoicing over the fact that they had power over demons. But Jesus told them there’s a much greater cause for celebration:
However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20)
Jesus assured his disciples that their names were written in God’s book of life. He reminded them how valuable it is to have your name established before God in heaven and to be assured of an eternal destiny with him.
Toward the end of his life, the apostle Paul assured Timothy that God knows those who belong to him and who don’t:
Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” (2 Timothy 2:19)
God’s record books are accurate and flawless, since he can see into the heart of every human being.
The book of life in Revelation
Most of the references to the book of life in the Bible are found in Revelation. To the victorious—the faithful—Jesus promises:
The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. (Revelation 3:5)
The victorious here refers to those who overcome the world and its evil system by trusting in Jesus and being united to him in his death and resurrection. It’s a victory over death, evil, sin, and the oppression of the devil. Death can never touch them again! On judgment day God will recognize the names of all who loved him, and he will keep their names in his book of life forever. Once their names are there, he will never blot them out.
But for the wicked, the judgment day will be a total loss. All of the worthless and evil endeavors that they pursued on earth will go up in smoke. There will be nothing left. And even for the righteous—the victorious— it will be a day of purification. They will suffer loss when the “wood, hay, and stubble” burn up under the intense heat of God’s judgment (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
The deception of the world
Revelation also speaks of those whose names are not found in God’s book of life:
All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. (Revelation 13:8)
The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come. (Revelation 17:8)
Those that worship the beast in these passages parallel those that worshipped the golden calf in the story of Moses. In both cases, they exchanged the true and glorious Creator for a false god.
These passages reveal that those whose names are not in the book of life are easily deceived. The powers of the world greatly impress them. Lacking spiritual wisdom and discernment, they readily give their full allegiance to godless authorities, and even worship them. But those whose names are written in the book of life are impressed by God’s power and rule. They know their citizenship is in heaven and they give their allegiance to Christ because he is the true King.
Many have misinterpreted these two passages in Revelation to mean that before the world was created God arbitrarily selects individuals to be saved or not saved. Partly because of Revelation 17:8, Calvinist theologians teach that God has already predetermined the status of everyone’s name in the book before they were born. But the story about Moses and the Israelites corrects this error. In that story an Israelite’s name was removed from God’s book because of their willful disobedience to the truth and their faithlessness to God. Their status was not predetermined before they were born.
Also, we know from the apostles’ teaching that Christ’s death and resurrection were eternal events. Believers who are “in Christ”¹ share in his death and resurrection, and so have eternal life in Christ. The believer’s status in the book of life is anchored in the death and resurrection of Christ. These truths tie together and explain the similarity of the phrases “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (verse 13:8) and a person’s name “written in the book of life from the creation of the world” (verse 17:8). My article Predestination in the Bible helps explain this further.
The book of life at the final judgment
Revelation 20 gives the most complete description of the Day of Judgment in the Bible. In this scene, the book of life plays a central role. By it, God provides proof of redemption of those being judged to all those present.
And I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11-15)
The “books” mentioned in this passage are the record of the actions of the lives of those who are being judged. The book of life is a separate book, and those whose names are found in it inherit the blessings of God and promise of eternal life. Those whose names are absent are those who did not love God but rejected him. The record of their actions and lifestyle demonstrates that they are not God’s people.
The separation of the righteous from the wicked in Revelation 20 parallels Exodus 32 when God separated the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf from those who didn’t. It also mirrors the separation of the sheep from the goats in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46.
The wicked are ultimately thrown into the destructive fire on judgment day—a final and irreversible death:
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
The judgment scene in Daniel
We find a similar terrifying scene in the book of Daniel:
“As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7:9-10)
Citizens of heaven
Later in Revelation we see that only those whose names are written in the book of life will be able to enter the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city of God:
The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:26-27)
The Gentiles are grafted into God’s people
In the story of Moses, the names of all the Israelites were originally recorded in God’s book, as they were members of his chosen nation. But many of them rejected God by worshipping the golden calf, so their names were blotted out.
At the final judgment, it’s probable that most of the names in the book of life will have been added in. They were originally not members of God’s chosen nation or listed in his book. These are the Gentile (non-Jewish) believers, who previously had no standing with God, but because of God’s grace, are now included in God’s family. They inherit God’s blessing of eternal life through their faith response to the Messiah and his gospel.
In Romans, Paul wrote of a similar concept, that of believing Gentiles being “grafted in” to God’s tree, his faith family:
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. (Romans 11:17-18)
Paul portrays those Jews who rejected the Messiah as dead branches that are broken off from the tree, and believing Gentiles as live wild olive shoots grafted in. So, God gave Gentiles the opportunity to receive salvation and be grafted into God’s family. But they shouldn’t brag about their names being in the book of life. They hold their place only by God’s grace through their faith in the gospel:
You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. (Romans 11:19-20)
Trusting in Christ
Is your name written in God’s book of life? There’s an easy answer to this question. If you believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and trust in him as your Savior, then your name is there. Through faith in Jesus the Messiah, you have an eternal future with God; you have assurance of eternal life. If you have doubts, then settle this with the Lord today. Accept his promises of forgiveness and eternal life, as they are trustworthy and sure.
And if your name is found in that book, you are a citizen of heaven. And you will join the heavenly celebration reserved for all of God’s people:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. (Hebrews 12:22-23)
¹ For references to believers being “in Christ” see Romans 8:1, 2 Corinthians 5:17, and 1 John 5:20.
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