One of the passages to which some disciples typically appeal in their effort to demonstrate the validity of the traditional view of the nature of man and the so-called "intermediate state" of the dead, is Revelation 6:9-11. In this chapter John is given a vision of six seals (the seventh is revealed in Revelation 8). In the first four we encounter what many have characterized The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are obviously symbols, not literal horses or horsemen, and represent vital eternal truths conveyed to John and his fellow faithful disciples during a time of great struggle and persecution. Following the vision of the four horses and their riders comes the vision of martyred "souls" crying out from underneath an altar. It is this particular vision upon which I would like for us to reflect.
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,
should be completed also."
It is important to understand the nature of Jewish apocalyptic literature if we ever hope to properly interpret the passage before us. These symbols and figures were never intended to be taken literally. This is figurative language, and any attempt to impose literalness upon these images will inevitably lead to a theology which is both false and bizarre.
Professor D. R. Dungan observed, "Much of the Scriptures was written in language that was highly figurative; its poetry and prophecy, and very much of its prose, contain the loftiest of Oriental hyperbole. It becomes us, then, to acquaint ourselves with the rules governing this kind of speech. We know that if we shall interpret literal language as if it were figurative, or figurative as if it were literal, we will certainly miss the meaning" (Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, p. 195). Adam Clarke characterizes this whole passage as a "symbolical vision" (Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 994).
One of the keys to interpreting the significance of such literature (especially in the book of Revelation) is to keep in mind that these symbols, many of them, find their roots in, and thus derive their meaning and application from, the Old Testament writings. Dr. Milton S. Terry points out, "Constant reference should be had, in the interpretation of this book, to the analogous prophecies of the Old Testament" (Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, p. 468). Therefore, when seeking to interpret Revelation 6:9-11 one should consider two things: (1) this is figurative language, and (2) the correct interpretation of this vision is most likely to be found within the pages of the OT writings.
As we examine the vision of the fifth seal we are presented with an image of "souls" crying out from "underneath the altar." These "souls" are obviously representative of those persons who have forfeited their LIVES due to their faithfulness in proclaiming the Word of God. In other words, they are martyrs. Now, we must be careful here in our interpretation ... these are, after all, merely symbols; this is figurative language, just as the horses and riders in the previous verses are not to be taken literally either. This passage does not depict literal "immortal souls" who have been consigned to a place underneath some giant altar in the "spirit world" for hundreds and thousands of years, and who cry out to God for avenging. After all, some reward this would be for faithfulness unto the point of death!!! Rather, it is a symbol or figure or representation of the fact that the shed blood of faithful servants is always before our God as a witness to their ultimate sacrifice, "crying out to Him" for avenging. And that shed blood will be avenged.
Remember what God said to Cain after he had killed his brother Abel? "The voice of your brother's blood is crying to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10). Was that blood, which had soaked into the dust of the ground, literally crying out to God? Of course not! And nobody in their right mind would suggest it was! This is clearly figurative language. It simply informs us, as it informed Cain, that God is cognizant of those faithful ones who have forfeited their lives in His service. Their shed blood "speaks to Him" as a continuing testimony of their faithfulness unto death, and that testimony does not go unnoticed by our Father! "O earth, do not cover my blood, and let there be no resting place for my cry" (Job 16:18). Nor will that plea emanating from the poured out blood of martyrs go unanswered! "For behold, the Lord is coming out of His dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer" (Isaiah 26:21).
Unto what does the figure in Revelation 6:9 allude? I believe we can find its OT antecedent in a couple of passages from the Pentateuch dealing with sacrifices offered unto the Lord God upon the altar, and what was then done with the blood which was shed.
When a victim was sacrificed unto the Lord, the blood of that sacrificial victim (and martyrs are most definitely "sacrificial victims") was to be poured out at the BASE of the altar. That blood then flowed beneath the altar of sacrifice. Paul used similar language as he contemplated his own death, depicting his martyrdom as an "offering" which was "already being poured out" (2 Timothy 4:6). See also: Philippians 2:17. The Disciples' Study Bible comments that "the deaths of Christian martyrs are precious enough to be likened to holy sacrifices." The martyrs depicted in Revelation 6:9-11 had offered their very LIVES upon the altar of sacrifice, their life blood flowing beneath this sacred altar as a testimony to their ultimate sacrifice.
What is the significance of the pouring out of the blood? The LIFE (soul) of the body was said to be in the blood!! Thus, the pouring out of blood signified the pouring out of life. Leviticus 17:11 informs us that "the LIFE (this is the same word we translate "soul") of the flesh is in the blood." Indeed, in Genesis 9:4 we are told that the LIFE (soul) of the flesh IS "its blood." Thus, the blood symbolizes the LIFE of the body, and it should be pointed out again that this word which we translate "life" is the very same word that is elsewhere translated "soul." When an animal was offered on the altar, and its blood was shed as a sacrifice before God, its life/soul was poured out in the shedding of its blood, and this life-blood flowed beneath the altar of sacrifice. Does this signify that bulls and goats sacrificed upon an altar had "immortal souls" which somehow got trapped under this altar of sacrifice? Of course not. It merely signified that their blood was the life/soul of the body, and that life/soul was sacrificed (poured out) unto the Lord in a special offering at the base of the altar.
The blood of the martyrs of all ages has been (and is being) poured out on the altar of the ultimate personal sacrifice: the offering of one's life/soul in faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 2:10). Just as the soul of the sacrificial animal flowed under the altar through its shed blood, so also does the soul (LIFE) of a martyr flow under the great altar of personal sacrifice through his/her shed blood offered up in faithfulness to the Father, faithfulness exemplified in death. This sacrifice, declares God in this vision unto John, would not be forgotten, nor would it go unavenged. Just as the blood of righteous Abel "cried out" to God from the ground (figuratively speaking), so also does the blood of these sacrificial victims "cry out" (again, figuratively speaking) from beneath the great altar of sacrifice before our God in Heaven. It is a cry to Deity to fulfill the promise made to all faithful ones who pay the ultimate price: "He will avenge the blood of His servants; He will take vengeance on His enemies" (Deuteronomy 32:43).
"There are no literal 'souls' of martyrs in heaven squeezed at the base of an altar. The whole scene is simply a symbolic representation designed to reassure those facing martyrdom and death that ultimately they would be vindicated by God. .... Apocalyptic pictures are not meant to be photographs of actual realities" (Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 186).
It has become a very common tendency "to regard those who died for their witness as having a special place in heaven, with special rights of intercession. Under the influence of Neo-Platonism this led to the development of the idea of 'saints' who had the privilege of intercession for Christians upon earth. The NT, however, provides no ground for such beliefs, since it gives no place of special privilege even to those who have as 'martyrs' died for the faith" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 103).
To assume the traditional teaching on man's immortality from this passage in the book of Revelation (i.e., that our immortality is inherent, rather than derived) is merely to show total ignorance of this type of Jewish literature and of the many symbols, types and figures of the OT writings to which this literature frequently alludes. In short, these "souls" under the altar are no more literal than the locusts from the pit, the four horses and their riders, or Jesus being in actuality a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes and a slit throat! These are symbols which convey some truth, but which are not the reality themselves; the shadows do not constitute the substance. Failing to perceive this can lead to some rather bizarre, not to mention false, theology. "Souls" of slain disciples trapped under a giant altar, crying out for vengeance, if taken literally, is a bizarre, not to mention false, theology. It has no place in the proclamation of Gospel Truth.
From a Reader in Arkansas:
Brother Al, As ever, I appreciate your Reflections and share them with the family. Thanks so much for your willingness to share your insight with a gentle spirit. God will be pleased!
From a Reader in (Unknown):
Al, you're one of the best in Jesus' camp. Thanks for enlightening me with each & every Reflections! You're biblical, consistent, and always challenging.
From a Reader in Texas:
Thank you, Brother Al, for Stephen's story. I always thought it interesting that on the Day of Pentecost, when Peter preached, the people were "cut to the heart." But they repented and were baptized. When Stephen's words "cut to the heart," it cost him his life. Same words, different reactions. Very different soil.
From a Reader in (Unknown):
Brother Al, Thanks so much for your Reflections. I really enjoy reading them and learning about the Scriptures with an open mind.
From a Minister in Missouri:
The story of Stephen is a story of courage without compromise. God gave this testimony of him as an example for us. He didn't hold his tongue. He stood for what he believed and died for his cause. I admire this greatly. Just like you, Al. You are somewhat a pioneer in our generation. I hope to do the same. I pray that God is honored and glorified, just as Jesus was by Stephen. This is a time for us to reflect and ask ourselves -- are we Stephens? Or, are we the trouble-makers disguised as sheep, who stir up others; haters who assassinate the character of good men?
From a Reader at Auburn University, Alabama:
Al, Please add me to your Reflections mailing list. I've read many of the archived articles and appreciate you teaching the Truth about so many things rather than simply following a party line.
From a Minister/Author in New Zealand:
Please add us to your list for Reflections. I have appreciated what I have read on your website so far.
From a Reader in Pennsylvania:
Please enter my subscription to Reflections. I pray that you will continue your great website and continue to write the articles that I have found exceptionally helpful. Thank you!
From an Elder in Texas:
Al, your essay on One Flock, Many Folds was right down the line in my view. I think more and more people are seeing this truth in the Scriptures and are tending to return to our roots. It concerns me very much that our great movement, which began as a movement of unity, disintegrated into a divisive movement. We have been known in the world more as an arrogant, self-righteous, factious, Pharisaical group than a people of love and unity. So, it does my heart good to see such articles as yours going out to believers.
During many of my past years I was in a group of honest believers who separated from all others who "called on the name of the Lord." I considered my group the only saved people. While I was condemning the others I was the one most in the wrong. Not because I was in a named group, but because I was sectarian and factious. Being divisive, I was the real "heretic." To claim that all other believers are sinfully associated with a "denomination" (named group), but only I, and my named group, is not "denominational," is something I cannot now conscientiously do. I'm sure many will differ with my conclusions, but this is where I am today. My heart is with Jesus as He prayed that "all who believe in Me through their word may be one."
If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers.
The Archives for past issues of Reflections is: