Are the souls under the altar (Revelation 6:9-11) alive?

This is an article in the series on the vision of the book with the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1).

Purpose

In Revelation 5, “Him who sat on the throne,” namely, “God” (Rev 7:10) gave Jesus a book that is “sealed up with seven seals” (Rev 5:1, 7). In Revelation 6, Jesus begins to break the seals one by one. When He broke the fifth seal, John saw:

Underneath the altar
the SOULS of those who had been slain
because of the word of God
” (Rev 6:9)

These “souls” cry out to God to avenge their “blood on those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 6:10) but they are given white robes and told to “rest for a little while longer” (Rev 6:11).

The question is whether these are disembodied but conscious souls literally crying out to God. To answer this question, one could discuss the state of the dead from the entire Bible. But the purpose of this article is to analyze what the Book of Revelation itself says about these “souls.”

Summary

The interpretation of the souls under the altar as disembodied but conscious persons depends on a literal reading of the text. To refute this, this article argues as follows:

A Symbolic Book

Firstly, it shows that the entire book of Revelation is a book of symbols:

1) The book begins by saying that the visions in the book were given in form of signs (Gr. sémainó, meaning “to give a sign”) (Rev 1:1).

2) There are many things in the book that simply cannot be literal. For example; a harlot woman riding a seven-headed dragon (Rev 17:3).

3) But even when things seem to be literal, further investigation reveals that they are not. For example, the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 seems literal but it is really a symbolic description of God’s eternal people.

There are some things in the book that one obviously must take literally, such as the names “God” and “Jesus Christ” but, given the pervasive symbolism in Revelation, the safe route is to assume that EVERYTHING is symbolic except when something is shown to be literal. This means that, until the opposite has been proven, we must assume that the souls under the altar are not literal souls but symbols of realities in the cosmic struggle between the forces of life and death.

The fifth seal is symbolic.

For the purpose stated above, the remainder of this article discusses the fifth seal to determine whether the souls are literal or symbolic. This section analyzes the fifth seal phrase by phrase and shows that everything else in those three verses (Rev 6:9-11) is symbolic, namely:

The Lamb broke the fifth seal.

The Lamb who broke the fifth seal (Rev 6:9) was not a literal lamb but symbolizes Jesus Christ (Rev 5:6).

Neither are the book and its seven seals literal. The book symbolizes a crisis in heaven (Rev 5:3). Through His death, Jesus earned the right to solve that crisis (Rev 5:9). He does that by breaking the seals. For a discussion, see – The sealed book in Revelation 5.

John saw.

John wrote that he “saw” the “souls” under the altar. But John did not see anything; at least not with his physical eyes. Neither did the Spirit give John a visual image of these souls. This article argues that, in vision, through the Spirit, John simply knew about these souls and that they “had been slain because of the word of God.

Under the Altar

John saw the souls “underneath the altar” (Rev 6:9) but John did not see a literal altar. In the Old Testament, the “life” (literally the “soul” – nephesh) of the flesh is said to be in the blood (Lev 17:11). In the sacrificial rituals, the priest poured out the blood of the animal sacrifices at the base of the altar (e.g., Exo 29:12) where it would soak into the ground “underneath the altar.” The fifth seal uses this ritual as a symbol to say that God’s people are symbolically sacrificed on a symbolic altar; just like their Master was. Since the altar is not literal, the souls under the altar are also not literal.

Slain

The “souls” are said to be “those who had been SLAIN because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9). But “slain” is also a symbol. They symbolize ALL of God’s people; also those who have not literally been “slain.” In Revelation’s symbolism, all of God’s people are “slain.”

Cry for Revenge

The souls cry out to God for revenge (Rev 6:10) but God’s people would not seek revenge. Rather, like Jesus and Stephan, they would ask the Father to forgive their murderers (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60)!

This call for revenge must be understood as similar to Abel’s blood that cried out from the ground to God (Gen 4:10-11). It is the injustice they had suffered that cries out to God; not living beings. The cry symbolizes God’s awareness of the suffering of His people and His promise to set things right.

White Robes

Contrary to the idea that these are disembodied spirits, these souls are given white robes (Rev 6:11), implying that they have bodies. They could also cry out, implying that they have mouths.

But all of these are symbols. The white robes symbolize “the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:7-8) and serve as God’s guarantee that they will be resurrected to eternal life. As Jesus said, “be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10; cf. Rev 3:5).

Number Completed

This is not discussed below but another article shows that “the number of their fellow servants … would be completed” (Rev 6:11) is also not literal but really is the same as the sealing of the 144,000 (Rev 7:3), meaning that the end-time remnant will be completed QUALITATIVELY in character; not numerically to a specific number.

Conclusion

So, everything else in the fifth seal is symbolic. Therefore, the souls “underneath the altar” cannot and should not be taken any more literally than the description of Jesus as a bleeding lamb (Rev 5:6).

Direct Evidence

Thirdly and lastly, this article provides specific evidence that a soul in this verse is not an immaterial but conscious portion of the human being that survives death:

(a) It is not easy to pin down the meaning of the word psuché. The NASB translates it 43 times as life (or lives) and 47 times as soul (or souls).

(b) Of the seven times that the Greek word psuché, which is translated in 6:9 as “souls,” is found in the book of Revelation, it twice refers to the souls of animals (Rev 8:9; 16:3). Firstly, we do not normally think that animals have an immaterial portion that survives death. Secondly, in both these verses, the souls of these animals die.

(c) The souls under the altar (6:9) are also mentioned in Revelation 12:11, which says that the psuché (life; literally, souls) of God’s people cease to exist when they die.

(d) They are again mentioned in Revelation 20:4 which states explicitly that they are not alive between death and resurrection.

(e) The fifth seal describes the souls under the altar as resting (Rev 6:11) and the Bible uses “rest” for death to describe it as a state of inactivity. For example, an angel said to Daniel: “You will enter into REST and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age” (Dan 12:13; cf. Rev 14:13; Isa 57:1-2). In other words, Daniel will NOT receive his “allotted portion” when he dies but he will “rest” until he does. “Rest,” therefore, is similar to the word “sleep.” Both describe death as a state of inactivity.

(f) In the fifth seal, the souls receive their guarantee for eternal life (their white robes) only “a little while” before Christ returns (Rev 6:11). Therefore, they cannot go to heaven when they die.

In 6:9 and 20:4, the “souls” of God’s people are said to survive the natural (first) death in some sense. We may understand this as that their deeds have been recorded in the books of heaven (Rev 14:13; 20:12) and God will resurrect them

The State of Death

With regard to the state of the dead, we live in a finite universe but God exists beyond time. Therefore I propose as follows:

At death, each of us is ‘wormholed’ through to the dawn of eternity. The spirit continues to live and is then reunited with a new body at the resurrection, but this occurs instantly at death.

For those living in time, a thousand years may pass. But for the person who dies, it’s a mere moment; “the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor 15:52).

Consequently, all people who have passed on arrive simultaneously AT THE SAME ‘MOMENT’ in eternity.

To me, this reconciles the two views of the state of the dead. Then Paul’s statements, that “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” and that he desires “to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:21, 23) are fully compatible with the concept that death is a state of inactivity.

– End of Summary –


A Symbolic Book

The interpretation of the souls underneath the altar as conscious, disembodied persons depends on a literal reading of the text. To refute this, one can show that the book of Revelation is a book of symbols. This evidence may be categorized as follows:

First Verse

Firstly, the opening verse of the book (Rev 1:1) states explicitly that this book is given in signs and symbols:

A revelation of Jesus Christ,
that God gave to him …
he did signify [it]” (YLT).

The word translated as “signify” in YLT means “to give a sign.”

Things Clearly Symbolic

Secondly, many examples can be provided of things that simply cannot be literal. Examples from the vision of the seven seals include:

      • A bleeding lamb that breaks the seals (e.g., Rev 6:9; cf. Rev 5:6);
      • The four horsemen in the first four seals; and
      • The people hiding in the mountains after stars have fallen on the earth (Rev 6:13, 15).

Examples from other visions in Revelation include:

      • Monsters with multiple heads (Rev 13:1);
      • Talking frogs (Rev 16:13-14);
      • A harlot woman riding a dragon (Rev 17:3);
      • Locusts with scorpion tails, horses heads, yet faces like humans (Rev 9:7); and
      • A woman standing on the moon, giving birth to a male child, while a great red dragon stood ready to devour her child the second it was born (Rev 12:1-3).

Things Seemingly Literal

Thirdly, there are things in Revelation that may seem literal but further investigation reveals these things as symbolic. For example:

The New Jerusalem in chapter 21 is 12000 furlongs (1,500 miles) in length, in width, and in height (Rev 21:16). A city of this size would reach past the atmosphere into outer space and unbalance the rotation of the earth and the orbit of the moon. For a discussion of the meaning of the dimensions of the city, see – What do the numbers in the Book of Revelation mean?

One of the angels said to John that he will show him the bride of Christ but then John saw “the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven” (Rev 21:9-10). This is one of the hear/see combinations in Revelation in which John hears about something but then sees something very different, but what he hears and sees are two perspectives of THE SAME THING. The New Jerusalem, therefore, is the bride of Christ.

All things are symbols.

Many of the differences in the interpretations of the book of Revelation are due to differences in what people regard as symbolic and as literal. Given the pervasive symbolism in Revelation, the appropriate hermeneutic is to assume that EVERYTHING is symbolic except when something is shown to be literal. This means that, until the opposite has been proven, we must assume that the souls under the altar are not literal souls but symbols of realities in the cosmic struggle between the forces of life and death.

The Fifth Seal

For this reason, the remainder of this article focuses on the fifth seal to determine whether the souls are literal or symbolic. It discusses several aspects of that seal, shows that these things are symbols, and explains what these symbols mean. The concepts discussed below include:

      • The Lamb,
      • The seal He broke,
      • What John saw,
      • The altar,
      • Underneath the altar,
      • Slain,
      • White robes, and
      • The cry for revenge.

1) The Lamb broke the Fifth Seal.

This seal begins by saying that “the Lamb broke the fifth seal” (Rev 6:9). It is neither a literal lamb nor a literal seal:

God had in His right hand a book that was sealed with seven seals (Rev 5:1). Nobody was able to open it (Rev 5:3). But then Jesus overcame by becoming a slain lamb and, thereby, became regarded as worthy to break the seals (Rev 5:5-6, 9). The Lamb, therefore, symbolizes Jesus Christ.

Another article has interpreted the seals as follows:

This book is “the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev 13:8); also called “the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27), identifying the people God has chosen for eternal life (Rev 3:5).

The seals are Satan’s informed objections to the people identified in the book of life (cf. Rev 12:10).

By breaking the seals, Jesus refutes Satan.

The reader may have a different interpretation of (1) the book, (2) the seals, and (3) of what breaking the seals mean but it is at least clear that these are not literal things.

2) I Saw

John continues by saying that he saw the souls under the altar. What did he see? What does a soul look like?

More specifically, He wrote that he saw that these souls “had been slain because of the word of God.” How did he know that they were killed and why they were killed? The text does not say that anybody told him that. Do murdered souls differ in appearance from other souls?

I propose that we interpret this as follows:

John did not see anything; at least not with his physical eyes. That these people were “slain because of the word of God” are thoughts that the Holy Spirit gave directly to John’s mind (cf. Rev 1:10).

The same possibly applies to the “souls.” In other words, the Spirit did not give John a visual image of these souls. In vision, he simply knew about these souls.

3) Underneath the Altar

John continues:

I saw underneath the altar
the souls of those who had been slain
because of the word of God
” (Rev 6:9).

Here, Revelation uses an Old Testament ritual as a symbol:

In the Old Testament, the altar of burnt offering was the place of sacrifice. The priest slaughtered the animal, sprinkled some of the blood at the sides of the altar, and “poured out” the rest at the base of the altar (Exo 29:12; 39:39; 40:29; Lev 3:2, 4:7, 18, 25, 10, 34, 8:15; 9:9; etc.). The blood would, of course, soak into the ground beneath the altar.

According to Leviticus 17:11, the “life” (literally the “soul” – nephesh) of the flesh is in the blood. Therefore, in Old Testament terminology, the SOULS of the animals were been “poured out” at the base of the altar.

The fifth seal converts this ritual into a symbol: When God’s people remain “faithful until death” (Rev 2:10) and do “not love their life even when faced with death” (Rev 12:11), in the symbolic language of the fifth seal, they are sacrificed ON the altar and their souls (lives) are poured out at the base of the altar. In that sense, they are symbolically “underneath the altar.

This interpretation is confirmed as follows:

1) Revelation 16:6 states that the people of the world “poured out the blood of saints and prophets.” “Poured out” is the same phrase used for the blood of the sacrifices that was “poured out” at the base of the altar (e.g., Lev 8:15).

2) The Greek word translated as “slain” in the phrase “had been SLAIN because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9) is the primary word used in connection with sanctuary sacrifices in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) (Exo 29:11, 16, 20; 34:25; Lev 1:5, 11; 3:2, 8, 11; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33, etc.). This confirms that Revelation presents these people as sacrificed on the altar.

3) The Book of Revelation also uses this same word (translated as “slain”) for Christ’s death (Rev 5:6; cf. 13:8). God’s people, therefore, symbolically, are sacrificed just like their Master was.

John, therefore, did not see a literal altar and he did not see literal souls under the altar.

4) Slain for the Word of God

The “souls” in the fifth seal are “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9). In other words, literally interpreted, these are not the souls of ALL of God’s people but only of those who have been murdered for their faith. However, that is also a symbol:

Revelation 20:4

Revelation 20:4 describes the “souls of those who had been beheaded … because of the word of God.” These, therefore, are the same as the people represented in the fifth seal. But 20:4 adds that they came alive “and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” Logically, they, and therefore the martyrs in the fifth seal, include ALL OF GOD’S PEOPLE of all ages; also those that have not been killed for their faith.

The Innumerable Multitude

The fifth seal refers to a point in history after many of God’s people have already been slain but before “the number of their fellow servants … who were to be killed … would be completed” (Rev 6:9-11). The people killed both before and after this point in history, consequently, are “underneath the altar.”

The people before God’s throne in Revelation 7:9-17 “come out of the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14). Given the context, the “great tribulation” is the killing of God’s people described in the fifth seal. The people in Revelation 7:9-17, therefore, are the same people as the “souls underneath the altar.” This is confirmed by the fact that they, similar to the souls under the altar, have white robes; (Rev 7:14; cf. Rev 6:11).

But the people in Revelation 7:9-17 are identified as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). Therefore they, and the souls underneath the altar, include ALL of God’s people. For a discussion, see – Who is the innumerable multitude in Revelation 7:9?

The souls under the altar, therefore, symbolize all of God’s people; also those who have not been literally “slain.” Symbolically, in Revelation, all of God’s people are “slain” because all of God’s people suffer some form of persecution.

5) The souls have bodies.

John sees the souls of the martyred saints, but since these “souls” “cried out with a loud voice” (Rev 6:10), they seem to have mouths. And they wore white robes (Rev 6:11). A white robe, or any kind of clothing for that matter, needs a body to hang on. They, therefore, had bodies. They are not disembodied spirits.

6) Cry for Revenge

The souls under the altar:

Cried out with a loud voice, saying:
‘How long, O Lord, holy and true,
will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood
on those who dwell on the earth?
’” (Rev 6:10)

This is not a literal call for revenge. For one reason, the souls are resting under the altar (Rev 6:11) and resting souls do not cry out for revenge. Another reason is that God’s people would not seek revenge. Rather, like Jesus and Stephan, Christians would cry:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know
what they are doing
” (Luke 23:34; cf. Acts 7:60)!

This call for revenge must be understood as similar to the call of Abel’s blood. In Genesis 4:10-11, after Cain killed his brother Abel, God said that the ground has opened its mouth to receive Abel’s blood from Cain’s hand and that Abel’s blood is crying out to Him (God) “from the ground.” It was not Abel that cried out because Abel himself was not conscious; Abel’s blood cried out. Hebrew 11:4 explains, “by faith Abel … still speaks, even though he is dead.” Notice the similarities to the fifth seal:

      • Both Abel and the souls under the altar had been killed for their righteous testimony (cf. Luke 11:50-51, Heb 11:4).
      • Since the souls are “underneath the altar” (Rev 6:9), both these souls and Abel’s blood are in the ground.
      • Both Abel’s blood and these souls cry out to God. In other words, symbolically, both have voices.

Abel’s blood did not literally cry out to God. It was a symbolic way of saying that God is aware of the injustice done to Abel and His desire to set things right.

In the same way, the cry for revenge of the souls under the altar does not confirm some kind of spirit-existence in heaven. It is not a literal cry for revenge. It is not the slain ones themselves who call for vengeance, any more than it was Abel himself who cried out to God from the ground (Gen 4:10). These are figures of speech. It is the injustice they had suffered that cries out to God; not living beings. It symbolizes God’s awareness of the suffering of His people and His promise to set things right.

7) White Robes

White and Clean

The souls underneath the altar are given white robes (Rev 6:11). These are not literal white robes. The Lamb’s bride was given:

To clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean;
for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints

(Rev 19:7-8).

This does not mention the word “white” but white and “clean” have the same meaning. For example:

They have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb
” (Rev 7:14).

Those who “have not soiled their garments …
will walk with Me in white,
for they are worthy
” (Rev 3:4).

Righteous Acts

The white robes, therefore, are the same as “fine linen, bright and clean.” And that has been explained as “the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:8). In support of this, note how the following relates white robes to what God’s people DO:

Those who “have not soiled their garments
will walk with Me in white
” (Rev 3:4).

The one who overcomes
will be clothed … in white garments
” (Rev 3:5).

The innumerable multitude (Rev 7:9)
have washed their robes and
made them white
in the blood of the Lamb

(Rev 7:13-14).

Blessed is the one who … keeps his clothes,
so that he will not walk about naked
” (Rev 16:15).

Sign of Acceptance

Since the white robes symbolize “the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:8), the white robes are not literal. They serve as a sign of acceptance by God. They symbolize the assurance that the people wearing these robes will be resurrected to eternal life. For example:  

The one who overcomes will be clothed … in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:5).

Revelation 20:4-6 describe the people “who had been beheaded … because of the word of God.” They, therefore, are the same as the people represented by the souls under the altar, who have received white robes. And they “came to life and reigned with Christ.”

In Matthew 22:11-14, Jesus told a parable of a wedding where there was a man “who was not dressed in wedding clothes.” The king gave instructions that the man be thrown “into the outer darkness.”

[The implication is that the white robes both are “the righteous acts of the saints” and a sign of acceptance by God. In other words, man is saved by his deeds, which is contrary to the standard Protestant teaching that nobody will be saved by the works of the law. For a further discussion, see – The doers of the Law will be justified but NOT by the Works of the Law.]

Conclusion

This section discusses the fifth seal in some detail. The purpose was to show that the entire seal is symbolic:

The Lamb is a symbol of Jesus Christ.

The book symbolizes a crisis in heaven of things not understood (Rev 5:3). The seals are the things that caused the crisis. By breaking the seals, Jesus removes these barriers to understanding.

John wrote that he “saw” the “souls” but he did not see any souls. This was knowledge that the Holy Spirit imparted directly to his mind.

He saw them “underneath the altar” but John did not see a literal altar. It is a symbol to say that God’s people are symbolically sacrificed on a symbolic altar.

The souls “underneath the altar,” literally interpreted, are only those “who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9). But this is also a symbol. They represent ALL of God’s people.

Contrary to the idea that these are disembodied spirits, the souls who John saw had bodies, for they could both speak and wear clothes.

The souls under the altar cry out for revenge (Rev 6:10) but this is not a literal cry. It symbolizes God’s awareness of the suffering of His people and His promise to set things right.

The white robes which they receive (Rev 6:11) are also not literal. They represent “the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:7-8) and symbolize God’s assurance that they will be resurrected to eternal life.

This was not discussed above but another article shows that “the number of their fellow servants … would be completed” (Rev 6:11) is also not literal but is actually the same as the sealing of the 144,000 (Rev 7:3), meaning that the end-time remnant will be completed qualitatively in character; not numerically to a specific number.

So, the entire seal is symbolic. Therefore, the souls “underneath the altar” cannot and should not be taken any more literally than the description of Jesus as a bleeding lamb (Rev 5:6).

Not Literal Souls

The purpose of this section is to provide more specific evidence that the souls are not conscious human beings. It consists of three parts:

    • A discussion of the word that is translated as “soul” (psuché),
    • The description of these souls as resting, and that
    • They will receive their white robes only shortly before Christ returns:

1) The meaning of the word “Soul

The word “soul” in Revelation 6:9 is often interpreted as referring to an immaterial but conscious part of the human being that survives death. In this verse, “soul” is translated from the Greek word psuché, which is found in the following seven verses in the Book of Revelation (quoted from the NASB):

      • The souls (psuché) of those who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9)
      • A third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life (psuché), died” (Rev 8:9).
      • They (presumably, “our brethren”) did not love their life (psuché) even when faced with death” (Rev 12:11).
      • Every living thing (psuché) in the sea died” (Rev 16:3).
      • … horses and chariots and slaves and human lives (psuché)” (Rev 18:13).
      • The fruit you (psuché) long for” (Rev 18:14)
      • The souls (psuché) of those who had been beheaded … because of the word of God… came to life” (Rev 20:4).

The word psuché, in Revelation, therefore:

      • Twice refers to animals (8:9; 16:3);
      • Twice refers to human beings in general (18:13-14),
      • Three times refers to God’s people (6:9; 12:11; 20:4), and
      • Is translated only twice as “soul.”

It is not easy to pin down the meaning of the word psuché. “The word ‘soul’ [ψυχή] is one of the most difficult words in the Bible and in Christian literature.”1C. Yannaras, Elements of Faith (in Greek), p.55 4. Ibid. 5. Orthodox Psychotherapy (English translation from the Greek), pp.97-98 6. Triads, I.III.23 The NASB translates psuché 43 times as life (or lives) and 47 times as soul (or souls).

Below, the seven instances above are discussed and conclusions are drawn with respect to 6:9.

Animals as Souls

Twice, psuché refers to animals:

A third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life (psuché), died” (Rev 8:9).

Every living thing (psuché) in the sea died” (Rev 16:3).

In 8:9, psuché is something which sea animals HAVE. Therefore, the NASB translates it as “life.” Literally, this could also have been translated as that all sea animals THAT HAD SOULS, died. But that is not how souls are generally understood.

In contrast, in 16:3, psuché describes what the sea animals ARE. Therefore, the NASB translates it as “thing.” The NASB could just as well have translated this as that every living soul died.

Since we do not normally think that animals have an immaterial portion that survives death, psuché does not have that meaning in these two verses.

Furthermore, in both these verses, the soul (psuché) ceases to exist when the animal dies. In other words, the psuché (soul) dies. In these verses, therefore, psuché refers to the natural life that beings have on this earth today. Since Revelation refers to the second death (e.g., Rev 20:14), we may refer to this life as the first life. 

Persons as Souls

Two of the seven instances of psuché in Revelation are found in Revelation 18:13-14 and apply to human beings in general. Verse 13 reads:

… horses and chariots and slaves and human lives (psuché)” (Rev 18:13).

In an interlinear translation, it reads, “and souls of men.” This is part of a long list of the merchandise of “the merchants of the earth” (Rev 18:11-13). Since the phrase “souls of men” is listed with other literal things, it would not be justified to understand psuché in this phrase as an immortal, conscious part of humans. As indicated by the NASB translation (“human lives”), “souls of men” should be understood as “the lives of people,” namely the normal lives people have in this world today.

In an interlinear translation, verse 14 reads, “the desire of the soul are departed from you.” The NASB translates psuché in this verse with “you:”

The fruit you (psuché) long for” (Rev 18:14)

Again, this refers to normal human beings. It would not be justified to understand psuché in this phrase as an immortal, conscious part of humans.

God’s People as Souls

In the remaining three instances, psuché refers to God’s people. 12:11 reads:

They (presumably, “our brethren”) did not love their life (psuché) even when faced with death.”

This verse refers to the same people as in 6:9, namely God’s people who die for their faith. However, similar to the animals in 8:9, this verse implies that the psuché (life) of God’s people ceases to exist when they die. In other words, their “souls” die. Therefore, in this verse, psuché describes this natural life that we have on this earth.

20:4 reads:

The souls (psuché) of those who had been beheaded … because of the word of God… came to life.

This verse is very similar to 6:9:

    • In both, John writes “I saw the souls.
    • In both, these souls were killed “because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God.”
    • In both, these “souls” seems to have survived death in some sense.

The souls in 20:4, therefore, are the same people as the “souls underneath the altar” in the fifth seal (Rev 6:9). But, in 20:4, John continues and says, “and they came to life.” Since 20:4 is part of the description of Christ’s return (cf. Rev 19:11), they “came to life” when Christ returns. Therefore, they were not alive between death and resurrection.

Conclusions

(a) Psuché mostly refers to a part of the being, e.g., “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9; cf. Rev 8:9; 12:11; 20:4). But sometimes it describes the entire being, e.g., “every living thing (psuché) in the sea died” (Rev 16:3; cf. 18:14).

(b) For the following reasons, the souls in 6:9 should not be understood as an immaterial but conscious part of human beings that survives death:

(i) Psuché is also used in connection with animals (Rev 16:3; cf. 8:9).

(ii) In the case of both humans and animals, the psuché ceases to exist at the first death (Rev 12:11; Rev 8:9).

(iii) Since Revelation 20:4 describes the same people as in 6:9, and since it says that they “came to life” at the resurrection, the souls in 6:9 are not alive.

3) In 6:9 and 20:4, the “souls” of God’s people are said to survive the natural (first) death in some sense (6:9; 20:4). We may understand this as follows:

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on! …
for their deeds follow with them” (Rev 14:13).

In other words, their deeds have been recorded in the books of heaven (Rev 20:12) and God will resurrect them.

2) The souls rest.

The “souls” cry to God for revenge but “they were told that they should rest for a little while longer” (Rev 6:11). This implies that:

      1. At the point in time indicated by the fifth seal, they are resting.
      2. They must rest until the time when they will have their revenge.
      3. Since 6:9 describes God’s “slain” people, “rest” explains the state of the dead.
      4. Rest” describes death as a state of inactivity.

Until When?

In Revelation 19:1-3, “a great multitude in heaven” praises God because “He has avenged the blood of his bond-servants.” This is followed by Christ’s return (Rev 19:11). In other words, the “blood” of the souls under the altar will only be avenged when or immediately before Christ returns. By implication, the souls under the altar will rest until Christ returns.

Rest describes the State of Death.

The following supports the principle that rest” describes the state of the dead:

In Daniel 12, an angel said to Daniel:

You will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age” (Dan 12:13).

Revelation 14:13 reads:

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on! …
so that they may REST from their labors,
for their deeds follow with them.

As an example from the Old Testament, “the righteous man perishes … they rest in their beds” (Isa 57:1-2).

Rest and Sleep

Both the concepts of “rest” and “sleep,” therefore, describe death as a state of inactivity. Earlier in Daniel 12, we read that, at the end of time:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake” (Dan 12:2).

In other words, Daniel 12 uses both the concepts of sleep and rest to describe death as a state of inactivity. Another indication of this in Daniel 12 is that the angel said that Daniel will NOT receive his “allotted inheritance” at death but only “at the end of the age” (Dan 12:13), which is when Christ will return (Matt 13:40).

Therefore, the word “rest” strongly implies that the souls under the altar are not awake.

3) A Little While Longer

The “souls” cry to God for revenge but “they were told that they should rest for a little while longer” (Rev 6:11). At the same time, they are given white robes (i.e., confirmation of salvation) (Rev 6:11). In other words, they received their white robes NOT while alive nor at death but only “a little while” before Christ returns. Taken literally, since they have not yet received their white robes at death, the righteous cannot go to heaven at death and the wicked dead cannot go directly to hell.

The State of the Dead

With regard to the state of the dead, we must realize that we live in a finite universe but that God exists beyond time. At death, the spirit goes to God. But, with God, time does not exist. Therefore I propose as follows:

At death, each of us is ‘wormholed’ through to the dawn of eternity. The spirit continues to live and is then reunited with a new body at the resurrection, but this occurs instantly at death.

Therefore, from our perspective, living on earth, there is a time delay between death and resurrection. But for the person who dies, he or she is instantly resurrected after death. They are immediately with both their parents and their children because all people arrive simultaneously at the same ‘moment’ in eternity.

To me, this reconciles the two views of the state of the dead. Then Paul’s statements, that “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” and that he desires “to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:21, 23) are fully compatible with the concept that death is a state of inactivity.


Other Articles

  • 1
    C. Yannaras, Elements of Faith (in Greek), p.55 4. Ibid. 5. Orthodox Psychotherapy (English translation from the Greek), pp.97-98 6. Triads, I.III.23

2 Replies to “Are the souls under the altar (Revelation 6:9-11) alive?”

  1. I have always had some difficulty with symbolism when it is applied to suit one’s belief.

    Do not fear them that only kill the body, but rather fear Him that can destroy soul and body in hell – you yourself can only kill the body.
    Jesus says to the thief , today I’ll be with you in paradise ,so when Jesus died his spirit and thiefs spirit ascended to paradise and were togather – that does not conflict with other teachings.

    We will exist as spirits. We will forget everything else. We will possibly not know each other.

    People are worshipping DAY and NIGHT. How do you have day and night when in another text it says there is no night there? How do you have a millenium when time has ended and only eternity and infinity exists? Is this symbolism? Is it possible that the millenium could just be days or trillions of years?

    1. Hi Thulani

      Yes, differences of opinion about what is literal and what is symbolic often lie at the core of different interpretations. And you are correct that people tend to interpret things as symbolic or literal to suit their beliefs. However, a few points:

      1) The thief said to Jesus, “remember me WHEN You come in Your kingdom!” Given the word “when,” Jesus’ answer should be translated as: “Truly I say to you TODAY, you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

      2) If, in the eternal dispensation, we will forget everything that happened in this world and not even know each other, what was the point of Christ’s death? Then all the suffering on earth would be pointless. No, we will most certainly remember everything and know everybody.

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