Are names written in the Book of Life, or blotted out of it?

Q. I’m reading a book that says names are not added to the Book of Life, they are blotted out.  The book refers to the place in Exodus where Moses prays, “But now please forgive their sin, but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written,” and God replies, “Everyone who has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.”

I’d always thought our names were added to the Lamb’s Book of Life when we accept Christ as our Savior (as in the hymn, “There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory”).  However, if our names are already there, it seems to make more sense.  After all, it is not God’s will that any should perish.  Names would only be blotted out if a person refused forgiveness of their sins.  This would explain why infants who die and the mentally handicapped are able to enter heaven: they have not attained the capacity for accountability, therefore their names have not been removed.  It also explains why the whole human race is the beneficiary of what Jesus did.  Salvation is provided for all, but only becomes an individual reality when a person asks Him for it.

A. I find the idea very appealing that God writes everyone’s name in the Book of Life when they are born (or conceived), in the hopes that they will embrace salvation, and only blots people’s names out of the book if they definitively reject salvation.  Since none of us humans can ever really tell whether another person has done that, we can keep hoping and praying and reaching out friends and loved ones, patiently inviting them to embrace the love God has shown to them through Jesus.

In addition to the Scripture passage you mention in Exodus, the letter to Sardis in the book of Revelation seems to support the idea of names being blotted out, rather than written in, based on a person’s response. Speaking of those who do not deny Him in order to save their lives in this world, Jesus says, “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.”

Moreover, in Psalm 69, speaking of those who are his “enemies without cause,” David prays, “Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.”  Interestingly, a couple of passages from this psalm are treated as Messianic in the New Testament.  John says that when Jesus cleansed the temple, “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'” And John later says, “So that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty,'” and he was given vinegar to drink.  This seems to be an allusion to another statement in Psalm 69, “They gave me vinegar for my thirst.”  All four gospels actually record this incident, and Luke specifies that the vinegar was given mockingly.  So if we see David as a type of the Messiah, then the enemies whose names he asks to be blotted out of the book of life can be associated with those who definitively choose to reject Jesus, to mock rather than accept the salvation he accomplished for us on the cross.

I would observe, however, that the case is not entirely clear-cut.  Some other Scriptures seem to suggest that names may be written into rather than blotted out of the Book of Life.  For example, there are a couple of different ways we might interpret Paul’s comment in Philippians about the co-workers whocontended at [his] side in the cause of the gospel,” that their “names are in the book of life.”  On the one hand, it doesn’t seem necessary for him to describe their genuineness this way if being written in were the default, and that nothing short of a definitive rejection of Christ would blot someone out.  On the other hand, he may be contrasting them with the people he has just described, who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” and whose “destiny is destruction.”  In that case, Paul would be saying that his co-workers, by contrast, have not been blotted out like these people.

One more reference to consider is the one in Revelation that says the beast from the abyss will impress and terrify “the inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world.”  This seems to suggest that not everyone’s name is written in from the start.

So how we might resolve this difference?  We should admit that it’s unlikely that there’s an actual physical book somewhere in the spiritual realm into which names are entered in ink, or blotted out with ink. Instead, we should perhaps understand the Book of Life as a metaphor that biblical writers use for salvation, speaking either of names blotted out (most commonly) or written in (in a few apparent cases).

Nevertheless, this metaphor represents a genuine spiritual reality.  As Paul put it in his second letter to Timothy, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.'”  In other words, the Book of Life, however physically or spiritually we understand it, exists somewhere, somehow, as a representation of God’s sure knowledge of those who are His.

That may be one good takeaway from this investigation:  If we have genuinely trusted in Jesus, we never have to wonder whether He knows that and will honor it.  As He said to the people of Sardis, “I will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

And I do have to say that I personally come down on the side of your statement, “Salvation is provided for all.”  If pressed to choose one understanding or the other of the Book of Life, I’d say that all names were written in first, and they would only be blotted out in cases where a person understood but definitively rejected God’s offer of salvation through Jesus.

This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God's offer of salvation through Jesus, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?
This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God’s offer of salvation, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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