Who are the souls under the altar in the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11)?

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

 

 

 

6:9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal,
I saw underneath the altar
the souls of those who had been slain
because of the word of God, and
because of the testimony which they had maintained;

10 and they 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?”

11 And there was given to each of them a white robe;
and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer,
until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren
who were to be killed even as they had been,
would be completed also.


Summary

A General Principle

The souls under the altar cry out for revenge (Rev 6:10). But they are told to wait a little longer and are given white robes (Rev 6:11). Is this a specific event at a specific point in time or a general principle?

God’s people would not seek revenge, as they are symbolized to do in the fifth seal. Rather, like Jesus and Stephan, they would say:

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

This, therefore, is not a literal cry for revenge. Rather, similar to Abel’s blood that cried out to God from the ground (Gen 4:10), their cry for revenge symbolizes the general principle that God is aware of the injustice to His people and His desire to set things right. It is not something that happens at a specific point in time.

Since their cry is not a specific event, by implication, receiving white robes is also not a specific event. Rather, it is also a general principle, namely that, during the church age:

They will … kill you, and
you will be hated by all nations because of My name. …
But the one who endures to the end,
he will be saved
” (Matt 24:9-11).

Are the souls under the altar alive?

The reference in this seal to souls under the altar is often used to support the popular belief that believers go to heaven in a bodiless state when they die. However, for the following reasons, this must NOT be interpreted literally:

1) In the Old Testament sacrificial rituals, the blood of the sacrificial animals was “poured out” at the base of the altar (e.g., Exo 29:12; Lev 9:9; Rev 16:6). The fifth seal converts this ritual into a metaphor: God’s people are symbolically sacrificed ON the altar. They are not under a literal altar.

2) The same “souls” who are under the altar in the fifth seal “CAME TO LIFE” when Christ returns (Rev 20:4). In other words, they are not alive today.

3) They are told to “REST” for a while longer (Rev 6:11). “Rest” implies that they are currently inactive. “Rest” is also a synonym for death. For example, an angel said to Daniel: “You will enter into REST and RISE AGAIN … at the end of the age” (Dan 12:13). And those who have died in the Lord “rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them” (Rev 14:13).

4) According to Revelation 6:11, the souls under the altar receive white robes (i.e., confirmation of salvation) NOT while alive or at death but “a little while” before Christ returns. Literally interpreted, since they have not yet received their white robes at death, they cannot go to heaven at death.

The idea that humans consist of two parts – a physical body and an immaterial soul – comes from Greek philosophy. In the Bible, the soul refers to the entire human being (cf. Gen 2:7; 1 Cor 14:45). (See the articles on Death and Eternal Torment.)

In the view of this website, the dead sleep. My mother died recently. From my perspective, she sleeps. But from her perspective, according to her experience, she is already awake and with her loved ones. From the experience of a person who dies, she or he is IMMEDIATELY AWAKE AFTER DEATH. Therefore, Paul could say, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21)!

For a much more in depth discussion, see – Are the souls alive?

Completed in Character

The souls under the altar are told:

Rest for a little while longer,
until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren
who were to be killed even as they had been,
would be completed also” (Rev 6:11).

This does not mean that a specific number of God’s people must be “killed” before Christ may return. Rather, it means that God’s people will be “completed” QUALITATIVELY IN CHARACTER. This is justified as follows:

a) This translation adds the words “number of” but there is no such phrase in the original Greek.

b) Would a God of love arbitrarily decree that a fixed number of people must suffer and die before He would intervene?

c) Both the souls under the altar and the innumerable multitude are clothed in white robes (Rev 6:11; 7:9). They are, therefore, the same people. But the innumerable multitude “NO ONE COULD COUNT” (Rev 7:9). The number, therefore, is not important.

d) Elsewhere, Revelation informs us that God’s end-time people will be spiritually mature. This supports the proposal that “completed” should be understood qualitatively, namely that God’s people must be completed in character. For example, in an end-time context:

His bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7-8).

The 144000 are sealed on their foreheads, namely, in their thinking, with the name (the character) of God (Rev 7:3-4; 14:1).

It is said of the 144000 that “no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:4-5).

Jesus will “reap” when “the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is RIPE” (Rev 14:15).

God’s end-time people will not be without sin, but they will be completely loyal to God as David apparently was despite his many flaws (1 Kings 11:4-6).

The fifth seal is discussed in more detail when we discuss the sealing of the 144000 (Rev 7:1-3) because, as it will be argued, that sealing begins in the fifth seal.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


Context of the Fifth Seal

The Lamb is Jesus Christ (Rev 5:6). In Rev 5:7, He received the book that is sealed with seven seals. A previous article identified this book as the book of life, identifying the people God has chosen for eternal life. Jesus breaks the first six seals in Revelation 6:

Previous articles identified the four horsemen in the first four seals as the experience of people during the Christian age. The white horse is the gospel going out. This is followed by persecution, famine, and death.

The sixth seal shifts the focus to the end of time. The sealing of the 144000 in Rev 7:1-8 jumps back in time to before the sixth seal. The sixth seal continues with the innumerable multitude standing before the throne of God, dressed in the white robes which they received in the fifth seal (Rev 7:9-17).

The seventh seal is extremely brief; only “silence in heaven” (Rev 8:1). The article on the seventh seal interprets this as the sorrow in God’s heart at the destruction of the lost at the return of Christ.

The fifth seal is different.

We might expect the fifth seal to continue along the lines of the previous four. But instead, there are significant differences:

Horses, riders, and the four living creatures are central to the first four seals but completely absent from the fifth.

The voices heard in the first four seals are heavenly ones; the voices of the four living creatures and a voice from the “midst of the throne” (Rev 6:6). The voices in the fifth and sixth seals are that of suffering humanity:

        • The cries of the persecuted saints (Rev 6:10) and
        • The anguish of the wicked as they contemplate the approaching wrath of the Lamb (Rev 6:16-17).
          (There are no voices at all in the seventh seal (Rev 8:1).)

What is added in the fifth seal, compared to the first four, is a strong sense of judgment: The souls under the altar cry for judgment and vengeance.

These differences signal a shift of emphasis.

4-2-1 Structure of the Seals

The seals, similar to the seven trumpets, may be divided into a 4-2-interlude-1 sequence:

Him Who sat on the White HorseFirst Four – The first four are much shorter than the others and portray the general realities of the whole Christian age.

Fifth & Sixth – Since the fifth and sixth seals are much longer than the first four, they are probably more important. They also shift the focus towards the end-time. The fifth seal promises the judgment of the people who oppress God’s people. The sixth seal shows how people, in the end-time, will be divided into two groups:

        • While the persecutors of God’s people will hide “from the presence of Him who sits on the throne” (Rev 6:16),
        • God’s people will stand before His throne with palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).

Interlude – In both the seals and the trumpets, there is an interlude (interruption) in or after the sixth element in the series (Rev 7:1-8; 10:1-11:14). These interludes are very important because they reveal much about the nature of the seals and trumpets respectively, but in symbols that are easier to understand.

Seventh – The seventh seal is extremely brief. There is only “silence in heaven” (Rev 8:1). Furthermore, while the first six seals focus on earth, the seventh is located in heaven.

Revelation 6:9

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal,
I saw underneath the altar
the souls of those who had been slain
because of the word of God, and
because of the testimony which they had maintained;

The Altar

This is not a literal altar.

There were two altars in the ancient Jewish temple:

      • The altar of incense was inside the temple.
      • The very large altar of burnt offerings was outside the temple in the center of the courtyard. Smoke from this altar would rise over the city.

Souls Under the Altar

A casual reading of this text could leave the impression of disembodied souls literally crying out to God. This text is often used to support the popular belief that believers go to heaven in a bodiless state when they die. However, this is symbolic language:

An Ancient Temple Ritual

According to Revelation 16:6, the people of the world “poured out the blood of saints and prophets.” This refers to the ancient temple ritual in which the blood of the animal sacrifices was drained into a basin and poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering (Exo 29:12; Lev 9:9, see also Exo 39:39; 40:29; Lev 4:7, 18, 25, 10, 34, etc.).

Ancients noticed that when the blood is poured out, the animal dies. Therefore, they regarded the life of the being to be in the blood (Lev 17:11). In that thinking, the life of the animals was been “poured out” at the base of the altar.

The fifth seal uses this as a symbol of God’s slain people. They are represented as “underneath the altar.” In other words, God’s people are symbolized as having been sacrificed ON the altar and their lives are poured out “underneath the altar;” at the base of the altar.

In Greek Philosophy

In Greek philosophy, human beings consist of two parts; a physical body and an immaterial soul. In this view, when a person dies, it is the body that dies and disintegrates into nothing but the soul lives on in a disembodied state.

In contrast, in the biblical context, the human being is a unity. The soul is the living combination of God’s breath (or life principle) and the material body (Gen 2:7). In other words, human beings do not have souls, they are souls. In light of the biblical context, this passage does not depict disembodied souls. It depicts whole persons, who died for their faith, as sacrificed on the altar. (For a discussion, see What Does the Bible Say About the “Immortal Soul”?)

Come alive when Christ returns.

Revelation 20:4 confirms this understanding. It is part of the description of Christ’s return (Rev 19:11). It describes the same group of people as in the fifth seal and says that they will come alive when Christ returns:

I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded
because of the testimony of Jesus and the word of God. …
they came to life
” (Rev 20:4).

If they come to life when Jesus returns, they are not alive today.

Revelation 20:4 refers specifically to “those who had been beheaded” but they represent all martyrs throughout history. Actually, 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. In Revelation’s symbolism, all of God’s people are murdered because all of God’s people suffer some form of persecution.

Resurrected immediately after Death

I would like to explain the condition of the dead as follows: At death, the souls of God’s people go to God. But, with God, time does not exist. Therefore. while from our perspective living on earth, there is a time delay between death and resurrection, from the experience of His dead people, they are resurrected immediately after death. For them, there is no time delay: They are immediately with both their parents and their children.

What did John see?

John is described as seeing “souls” (Greek: psuchas) under the altar. What did he see? What does a soul look like? He did not see things through his physical eyes. In vision, images and thoughts came directly to his mind. Perhaps he simply knew things in vision, rather than receiving visual images. Artists have great difficulty drawing the images of Revelation because these images were not designed to be seen.

Slain” implies Sacrificed.

In the Greek Old Testament (LXX), the Greek word translated as “slain” is the primary word used in connection with sanctuary sacrifices (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. The Book of Revelation also uses this word for Christ’s death (Rev 5:6; cf. 13:8).

They include all of God’s people.

The souls under the altar were:

slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev 6:9)

This indicates that the souls under the altar died because they were faithful to the gospel. However, since Revelation 20:4 shows that they represent all of God’s people, it may be more appropriate to say that they were “faithful until death,” despite the persecution they suffered, and, therefore, received “the crown of life” (Rev 2:10)

Revelation 6:10

and they 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?”

Cried Out

In the first four seals, the voices came from heaven. Now, the loud voice comes from the souls under the altar.

The souls under the altar cry out for revenge. This does not confirm some kind of spirit-existence in heaven. God said that the blood of Abel is crying out to Him from the ground (Gen 4:10). It was not Abel that cried out because Abel himself was not conscious; Abel’s blood cried out. In the same way, the souls under the altar cry out for revenge (Rev 6:10) in a figurative manner. It should not be understood as the desire of God’s people for revenge but as God’s awareness of the suffering of His people on earth and His desire to set things right.

How long, O Lord

This cry has a long history in the Old Testament. It was used repeatedly around the time of the first destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC). For example:

How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
How long will your jealousy burn like fire? …
make known among the nations that you avenge the out poured blood of your servants
.” (Psalm 79:5-6, 10 – NIV; cf. Psalm 94:3; cf. Hab 1:2; Dan 8:13; 12:6; Zech 1:12 – NIV)

According to Revelation 6, this same cry will continue in John’s future. “How long” is a cry of protest over persecution. People suffer but God does not seem to be doing anything about the wrongs of the past.

O Lord

It is not clear whether “Lord” here is addressed to God or to Christ. Revelation makes a clear distinction between God and Jesus but refers to both as “Lord:”

Him who sits on the throne … Him who lives forever and ever … our Lord and our God … You created all things” (Rev 4:10-11; cf. 1:8; 11:15, 17; 15:3-4; 16:7; 19:6; 21:22).

Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified” (Rev 11:8; cf. 17:14; 19:16; 22:20-21).

But John also addressed one of the elders as “lord” (Rev 7:14). In the Greek, it is the same word (kurios). Whether the first letter is capitalized depends on the context. When the title “God” is used in combination with “Lord,” it refers to the Father.

The context, therefore, must indicate whether “Lord” here refers to God or to Christ. In Revelation 19:1, God is praised for avenging the blood of His people. For that reason, our verse (Rev 6:10) probably refers to God.

The Holy and True One

When humans are called “holy,” it means devout or pleasing to God (1 Tim 2:8; Tit 1:8). The souls cry out to Him who is “holy and true” (Rev 6:10). Does this refer to God or to Jesus?

Holy and true” recalls Jesus’ self-introduction to the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7), which may indicate that this cry is directed to the Lamb. Furthermore, the word in Revelation 6:10 is hagios, which means ‘set apart’ by God, and is a more appropriate choice for Christ than for God.

On the other hand, Revelation says of “Lord God, the AlmightyYou alone are holy” (Rev 15:3-4; cf. Rev 16:5) and the title “Almighty” refers exclusively to the Father (e.g., Rev 21:22). As the One who exists without a cause, the Almighty is truly different from all else.

The word for true means the perfect realization of an idea. For example, while Moses gave the Israelites bread, Jesus is the true bread (John 6:31-32). While Israel was the vine of God’s planting (Psa 80:8; Isa 5:1-7), Christ is the true vine (John 15:1). While the Bible refers to Jesus as theos a number of times, the Father is “the only true God” (John 17:3).

Do You not judge and avenge our blood

Revelation 19:1-2 uses the same words “judge and avenge” when “a great multitude in heaven” says:

He has judged the great harlot … He has
avenged the blood of his bond-servants on her.

This great multitude, therefore, praises God for complying with the request of the souls under the altar. Revelation 19 is a continuation of the seventh plague, where:

Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath” (Rev 16:19).

Babylon is the one who killed all of God’s people:

In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (Rev 18:24).

Her judgment, therefore, is the answer to the cries of the souls under the altar.

Many are troubled by the implication that here the people of God in some sense are calling on God for vengeance, seemingly contrary to the example of Stephen (Acts 7:60) and Jesus Christ Himself, who, while dying, cried out “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)! But it is not the slain ones themselves who are calling 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, symbolizing God’s burning desire to set things right.

There is no vengeance with God. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44, ESV). This reflects God’s character. In the end, God will set things right, but not because He hates or because He is angry. God does not have “an impatient thirst for blood revenge” (Expositor’s Greek New Testament). God will deal with oppressors in the most constructive way possible.

Those who live on the Earth

Consistently in the book of Revelation, “those who live on the earth” represents those who oppose God and His people (Rev 1:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:2). In contrast, the faithful saints of God are depicted as “those who live in heaven” (Rev 13:6; cf. 14:3; 15:2). 

As an example of this, Revelation 12 describes a war in heaven (Rev 12:7) but then implies that the war in heaven was won on earth:

They overcame him
because of the blood of the Lamb and
because of the word of their testimony,
and they did not love their life
even when faced with death
” (Rev 12:11)

Therefore, is that war literally or symbolically in heaven? It is a war of accusations (Rev 12:10) that is won by demonstrations, firstly of the character (worthiness – Rev 5:9) of the Son of God, but secondly also of the faith of God’s people (Rev 12:11). I would propose that we understand this as a literal war of words in heaven that is won through demonstrations on earth. For a further discussion, see:

As another example, Revelation 19 describes the return of Christ:

The armies which are in heaven,
clothed in fine linen, white and clean,
were following Him on white horses
” (Rev 19:14).

Fine linen is the clothing of God’s people on earth (see below) and of angels (Mark 16:5), and the “white horses” remind of the white horse of the first seal, which is the gospel. Elsewhere in the Bible, “the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels” (Matt 16:26). Are the “armies which are in heaven” angels or people on earth?

Examples like these show how difficult it is to distinguish between heaven and earth in the book of Revelation.

Revelation 6:11

And there was given to each of them a white robe;
and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer,
until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren
who were to be killed even as they had been,
would be completed also.

And there was given
to each of them a White Robe

The robe (Gr. stolê) is a long, flowing robe (Luke 15:22; 20:46) that is also worn by angels (Mark 16:5) and by Jesus:

I saw one like a son of man,
clothed in a robe reaching to the feet
” (Rev 1:13).

White robes” and related terms are mentioned elsewhere in Revelation:

A few people in Sardis … have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:4-5).

Buy from me … white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed” (Rev 3:18).

Behold, a great multitude which no one could count … clothed in white robes … they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:7-14).

The marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” (Rev 19:7-8)

Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk about naked and men will not see his shame” (Rev 16:15).

From these verses, we learn the following:

White robes are a sign of acceptance by God.

The white robes given to each of these martyrs are the assurance that they will be accepted in the judgment at the end of time. For example:

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

He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:4-5).

In Revelation 20:4-6, the souls under the altar, who have received these white robes, “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.”

Isaiah also wrote: “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD … For He has clothed me with garments of salvation” (Isa 61:10).

White is the same as clean.

White is the opposite of “soiled” (Rev 3:4). White and “clean” have the same meaning (Rev 7:14). In Revelation, the color white is always associated with God and His people. (See the discussion of the first seal.)

And they were told
that they should rest
for a little while longer

This phrase implies that they have been resting and currently still are resting. It is the injustice they had suffered that cries out to God; not living beings. “Rest” means that they are sleeping, for example:

    • Those who have died in the Lord “rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them” (Rev 14:13).
    • The righteous man perishes … They rest in their beds” (Isa 57:1-2).
    • 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).
    • Earlier in Daniel, we read: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake” (Dan 12:2).

The phrase “little while” occurs again in Revelation 20:3, saying that Satan, at the end of the millennium, will be loosed for a short time from his chains in the Abyss. Revelation always describes time as short (Rev 1:1, 3, and 12:12). The time on this earth is “little” in comparison with eternity.

Since they must rest for only “a little while” longer, it means that they receive their white robes only “a little while” before Christ’s return. Therefore, it makes no sense to suggest that the righteous dead at death goes directly to heaven or that the wicked dead go directly to hell.

Until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.

Servants and Brethren

The “servants” and “brothers” are mentioned together again in Revelation 19:10 and 22:9. They refer to the same people. They are “servants” of the “master” (“Lord”—Greek: despotês – Rev 6:10) but also brothers of Christ.

Completed

Since it may seem awkward to say that people must be completed, many translations add the phrase “number of” to the verse. However, there is no such word in the Greek text. The NASB puts “the number of” in italics to acknowledge that it has been added.

For the following reasons, the phrase “the number of” should NOT be added:

      • If John meant that a certain “number” must be “completed,” he would have stated that.
      • In Revelation 7:9-14, John indicates that no one will be able to number those who come through the great tribulation. So, the exact number does not seem to be important.
      • Would a God of love arbitrarily decree that a fixed number of His people must suffer before Christ may return?

According to the Greek, it is not the number to be killed that was to be made complete. Rather, the fellow servants and brothers must be “completed” in character.  There are many indications in Revelation that God’s end-time people will be made ‘complete’ in character before Christ returns:

      • His bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7-8).
      • The 144000 are sealed on their foreheads, namely, in their thinking, with the name (the character) of God (Rev 7:3-4; 14:1). It is said of them that “no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:4-5).
      • Those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:14).
      • Jesus will “reap” when “the hour to reap has come, because THE HARVEST OF THE EARTH IS RIPE” (Rev 14:15).

God’s people will not be perfect in an absolute sense, but they will be completely loyal to God as David apparently was in spite of his many flaws (1 Kings 11:4-6). This is discussed further in the article on the sealing (Rev 7:1-8). That article shows that to “be completed” is the same as that God’s 144,000 Israelites are sealed on their foreheads. Until they are all sealed, the winds (the seven last plagues) are delayed.

Final Conclusions

      • The souls under the altar are NOT believers that went to heaven in a bodiless state when they died. Rather, it is a symbol of God’s slain people as sacrificed ON the altar.
         
      • The cry of the souls under the altar for revenge is a symbol of God’s awareness of the suffering of His people and His desire to set things right.
         
      • The cry of the martyrs is answered by the seventh plague; the judgment of Babylon.
         
      • White robes are a sign of acceptance by God.
         
      • God’s people have to clean their own robes. People are judged by their “deeds” but salvation is a gift by God’s grace; never deserved.
         
      • The souls under the altar must wait until God’s end-time people have been made complete in character; not in number.

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