The Souls Under The Altar


The following passage in the book of Revelation is often cited in support of the belief that people are created with an immortal soul that survives in a conscious state after death:

Rev 6:9 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
Rev 6:10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
Rev 6:11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.

Here you seemingly have John the revelator observing the conscious living immortal souls of martyred Christians in direct conversation with the Lord. Oddly enough, though, these "souls" are seen under an altar. Where this altar is, is not openly stated, but the assumption by those who believe in an immortal soul is that this altar must be in the heavenly temple of God. For example:

"(1.) Where he saw themó under the altar; at the foot of the altar of incense, in the most holy place; he saw them in heaven, at the foot of Christ." Matthew Henry's Commentary on Revelation 6:9.

Why the martyrs are described as being "under the altar", Matthew Henry does not really explain adequately. Obviously, if this assumption is true, the altar of incense in heaven must be extremely large in order for thousands of martyrs to be there.  That would be a literal interpretation, and makes about as much sense as all the dead saints literally going to Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22), but Revelation is a book full of symbols.

The First Martyr: Abel

As a point of reference, it will be helpful to look first at the biblical account of the first martyr, Abel:

Gen 4:8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
Gen 4:9 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
Gen 4:10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
Gen 4:11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

Abel's blood, not Abel himself, cried out to the Lord. Clearly this did not happen in a literal sense. Abel's shed blood cried out from the ground to the Lord symbolically, for justice to be done, for his blood to be avenged, just like in Rev 6:10.

Nephesh

The book of Leviticus give us some interesting information about blood:

Lev 17:11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.

It is the Hebrew word nephesh that gives us the key:

Lev 17:11 For the life [H5315 nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: [H5315 nephesh] for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul [H5315 nephesh].

The word nephesh occurs three times in that verse, and it is translated life, souls, and soul. So it would be just as proper to translate the verse as follows:

Lev 17:11 For the soul of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.

Nephesh, according to Strong's dictionary, also has the meaning of breath, so this is also valid:

Lev 17:11 For the breath of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.

Now as most people will probably recognize, that is a medically correct statement. The blood carries the oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. The body's breath is literally carried in the blood! So this verse draws a parallel between breath, soul, and blood. They are, in effect, synonymous in this case. Note this Messianic prophecy in Isaiah:

Isa 53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul [H5315 nephesh] unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Since the life is in the blood (Lev 17:11), it was Jesus' blood that was poured out unto death at the cross.

Psuche

The word translated "souls" in Revelation 6:9 in the Greek is psuche, G5590 in Strong's dictionary, which also has the meaning of life or breath. Since we have concluded that the blood carries the life and breath in Leviticus 17:11, and life, breath, soul, and blood are synonymous in this case, the following is also a proper translation:

Rev 6:9 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the blood of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
Rev 6:10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

Now verses 9 and 10 are coherent. It is the shed blood of the martyrs that is seen "under the altar", not immortal bodiless souls. Just as Abel's blood cries out symbolically for justice to the Lord, so does the blood of the martyrs "under the altar". So, just what does "under the altar" mean, and where is this altar. For the answers we need to look at the altars of the Hebrew sanctuary or temple.

The Sanctuary

(9) 2nd Apartment
The Holy of Holies

(8) The Ark of the Testimony of God containing the 10 commandments

(7) The Table of Showbread

(6) The Golden Altar
of Incense

(5) 1st Apartment
The Holy place

(4) The Golden Candlestick

(3) The Laver

(2) The Brazen Altar of Burnt Offerings

(1) The Sacrifice of the Lamb

The graphics of the sanctuary are adapted, with very minor revision, from an illustration by Tom Dunbebin.

In the above illustration, two altars are depicted. The altar of burnt offerings in the outer court (2), and the altar of incense (6) in the first apartment of the sanctuary, or holy place.

The Brazen Altar of Burnt Offering

Now again, we have determined that Revelation 6:9 refers to the blood of Christian martyrs as being "under the altar". This expression "under the altar" is explained by how sacrificial blood was used in the sanctuary: Here is one example:

Lev 4:7 And the priest shall put some of the blood upon the horns of the altar of sweet incense before the LORD, which is in the tabernacle of the congregation; and shall pour all the blood of the bullock at the bottom of the altar of the burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

(See also: Exo 29:12, Lev 4:18, 25, 30, 34, 5:9, 8:15, 9:9)

Note that only a small amount of the blood of the sacrifice was applied to the horns (at the top) of the altar of incense, but, most of it was poured out on the ground at the bottom of the altar of burnt offerings. Now as Christians are aware, the animal sacrifices of the Hebrew sanctuary were symbolic for the sacrifice and death of the lamb of God, those sacrifices represented the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The animal blood poured out at the bottom of the altar of burnt offering was symbolic of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, spilled on the ground under the cross! Therefore, the altar of burnt offering is symbolic of Christ's sacrifice, which occurred on this earth. (The Laver, which was between the altar of burnt offering and the entrance to the sanctuary, symbolically represents baptism, which is also on this earth.)

Now note what Paul says about the saints of God:

1 Cor 12:27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

And note what Jesus said to Paul, then Saul, on the road to Damascus:

Acts 22:7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
Acts 22:8 And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.

Saul was killing and persecuting Christians, yet Jesus accuses Saul of persecuting Him! Then there is this, also from Jesus:

Mat 25:40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

So martyring Christians is spiritually like crucifying Christ anew, and His blood was repeatedly poured out symbolically "under the alter" of burnt sacrifice, which represented the cross, which was on this earth.

The Golden Altar of Incense

The altar of incense however, is in the heavenly sanctuary before the throne of God:

Rev 8:1 And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
Rev 8:2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
Rev 8:3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
Rev 8:4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand.
Rev 8:5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.

However, because the golden altar of incense never had sacrificial blood poured out under it, it is not the altar spoken of in Rev. 6:9.

Two Groups of Martyrs

Now note that there will clearly be two groups of martyrs.

Rev 6:10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
Rev 6:11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.

This first group in Rev 6:9-11 are told they are to rest for a while until they are joined by a second group of martyrs, which are also mentioned in Revelation 14:

Rev 14:13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.

These Christian dead "rest" from their labors, asleep in their graves. They are not alive as an immortal soul in heaven, A similar verse about Abel being quite dead is found in Heb 11:4-

Heb 11:4 By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

The Persecutor Drunken with the Blood of the Saints

The context of Revelation 14 (Mystery Babylon and the mark of the beast), and the following verses in Revelation 17, 19 and 20 describe the persecutor of the saints:

Rev 17:6 And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.

Rev 19:2 For true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand.

Rev 20:4 And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

Interestingly enough, Revelation 17 tells us there are two phases of the "beast" which the woman rides:

Rev 17:8 The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.

The Beast that Was  Is Not  And Yet Is
 Papal sovereignty and persecution
1260 years (538-1798 A.D.)

The 1st group of Martyrs

 Papal sovereignty lost
(1798-1929 A.D.)

Pre-Advent Judgment
begins -1844

 Papal sovereignty restored
(1929 - ?)

The 2nd group of Martyrs

See: Revelation 17 Expounded and The Scriptures on Judgment.

The first group of Christian martyrs, the group that must rest a while, are from the first persecution phase of the beast, the "beast that was". The second group of martyrs are to be martyred during the second phase of the beast, the beast that "yet is".

The White Robes of Judgment

Rev 6:11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.

The "white robes" are the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Isa 61:10) otherwise spoken of as the "wedding garment" (Matt 22:11,12), and the "father's robe" (Luke 15:22). So Rev 6:11 indicates that the righteous dead are judged prior to the beginning of the second phase of persecution of the saints by the woman riding the beast, the apostate church. This is the beginning of what is called the pre-advent judgment which starts with the house of God (1 Pet 4:17).

Conclusion

So by all of the above, we can conclude that in Revelation 6:9 it is the blood of dead Christian martyrs that cries out symbolically, from where it was shed: on the ground "under the (brazen) altar (of burnt offering)", which represents the cross, which is to say on the Earth, not in heaven.


For more information:

What Really Happens When You Die?
"God is not the God of the dead, but of the living," ... Proof of the state of the dead?
The Witch of Endor, a Familiar Spirit, and the State of the Dead.
The Hebrew Sanctuary - The Illustrated Plan of Salvation
The Scriptures on Judgment.
Revelation 17 Expounded
What Does the Word Vatican Mean?
The Deadly Wound of Revelation 13:3
Antichrist, 666, and the Harlot Church Dressed in Purple and Scarlet



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