The Souls Under The Altar

Revelation 6:9-11 & Hebrews 11:4

Many Christians will be familiar with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which book contains a graphic account of the persecution of faithful men and women of God down through the centuries. Today Christians are still suffering and dying for their faith, mainly among Muslim and Communist nations and on the Indian sub continent.

One of the purposes of John’s Revelation was to remind the suffering church that God has not forgotten his people. In his own time God will act to avenge the faithful, to judge the wicked, and to establish a kingdom of everlasting righteousness upon the earth. To this end John was given a vision whereby after he sees Christ open the fifth of seven seals, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (v. 9).

This verse is all too often cited by those who believe in the immortality of the soul to prove that the real person lives on in a conscious state after the death of the body. Indeed does not John actually see the immortal souls of martyred Christians in conscious communion, even conversation with the Lord? Admittedly, it is odd that these “souls” are seen dwelling under an altar, but if it be assumed that this altar is in God’s heavenly temple, then do we not have before proof that departed saints are conscious in heaven?

The short answer is, no!

Revelation is a book of symbols. This does not, however, mean that the book can be made to teach what ever we please. Fully half of the visions are interpreted for us, by the angel that accompanies John, for example. Where no interpretation is given, in most instances, the figures used in Revelation are used elsewhere in the Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament, and thus the true meaning of these visions is readily available to us.

Note the following:

1. In the case of the martyrs under the altar we must turn to the Bible’s account of the first martyr: Abel. When Cain murdered his brother it was Abel’s blood, not Abel himself, that is said to cry out to the Lord for justice (Gen. 4:8-11). Abel’s blood, however, is not literally a part of Abel separable from Abel himself. This is but a very graphic figure of speech. Abel’s blood stands for Abel himself. Just as Abel did not literally cry out from the ground, so too the “souls” of the martyrs (not a part of the martyrs, separable from the martyrs, but the martyrs themselves) do not literally cry out for justice.

2. The book of Leviticus draws a strong connection between the life of the soul [the person] and the blood (Lev. 17:11). Medically speaking, blood carries oxygen throughout the body. Life is thus literally carried in the blood! The Bible often uses the terms soul and blood in parallel, even interchangeably. Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah that he “poured out his soul unto death” (Isa. 53:12). It was Jesus’ lifeblood that was poured out unto death at the cross.

3. Indeed, though the priests of old put some of the blood of the sacrifice upon the horns of the altar of incense, they poured most of the blood onto the ground at the foot of the altar of burnt offering (Lev. 4:7). The “souls” of the martyrs are “under the altar”, their blood, as it were, poured out in sacrifice to God. Though the language is figurative the truths expressed are very real: The oppressors of God’s people will not go unpunished; his servants will be rewarded. They may have to wait. They may have to suffer, even unto death, as many have before them, but they are not forgotten. Their blood speaks, as does the blood of Abel before them.

Meanwhile, Hebrews 11 is God’s own version of Foxes Book of Martyrs. It furnishes us with numerous examples of how the heroes of old bore witness (the meaning of the word martyr) to the true God by way of faith. By faith Enoch walked with God until he was translated (v. 5). Noah showed his faith in building an ark (v. 7). Abraham left Ur (v. 8) to dwell in the land of Canaan (v. 9). He believed that Sarah would bear him a son (v. 11). Later he was willing to sacrifice that son (v. 17). So too, much later, Moses showed his faith by forsaking the wealth of Egypt to be with God’s people (vv.24-28). The lives of each of these worthies is an example to us, but none more so than Abel. By faith he still speaks (though not literally) despite his being dead (v. 4). His example commends to us the way of faith.

(First published in “From Death To Life”, Issue 31, September 2006, pp. 4-5).

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2 Responses to The Souls Under The Altar

  1. Pingback: Afterlife » Blog Archive » Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words

  2. Stan Burton says:

    Your analysis leaves out a part of those verses that is very important and in conflict with your view. You mention it briefly but don’t explain it. If it was just the memory of the blood of the martyrs that is crying out, who got the white robes. And notice it was a white robe for each of them. That seems to personalize it even more so. And they were spoken to, which implies they heard. Who would speak to someone or something that cannot hear?

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