Who are the Souls under the Altar?

Does the vision of the souls under the altar prove that our souls go to heaven (or elsewhere) when we die? Let’s take a look at Revelation 6:9 and then consider its context.

“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…”

Four seals have already been opened (verses 1-8). They revealed four horses (white, red, black, and pale). These seals and horses are prophetic symbols. There are no actual seals or horses involved. It’s reasonable to assume that the fifth seal is also symbolic.

This entire seven-seals scene is a continuation of a vision that started back in Rev. 4:1. The seals themselves are in heaven, where the prophet sees them “in the right hand of him that sat on the throne” (Rev. 5:1). The things that happen as the seals are opened, however, take place on the earth (Rev. 6:1-8).

John saw an altar. He doesn’t tell us where it is located. A consistent interpretation of the seals suggests that it is on the earth, where the action under the previous seals has taken place. Many scholars think that this is a symbolic representation of the Old Testament altar of burnt offering, which first stood in the courtyard of the wilderness tabernacle and later occupied a prominent position in the temple complex.

The blood of sacrificial animals was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offerings. John’s vision of souls under the altar may represent the lives of the martyrs who were sacrificed for the sake of “the word of God.”

What are these “souls?” Disembodied spirits? Apparently not. They are people with real bodies who wore clothes (see vs. 11). Is such an interpretation consistent with New Testament usage? Certainly. In the NT, “soul” often means “person.”

“Two hundred threescore and sixteen souls” were shipwrecked with Paul (Acts 27:37).

“Threescore and fifteen souls” went to Egypt with Jacob (Acts 7:14).

“The first Adam was made a living soul” (1 Cor. 15:45).

“Eight souls” were saved in Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20).

Conclusion: Revelation 6:9 does not prove – nor does it provide evidence – that our souls go to heaven when we die.

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