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Revelation 6:9-11 (NASB):

9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been killed 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 live on the earth?”

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

Are the souls in this passage already resurrected or still awaiting the resurrection? If they are still awaiting the resurrection, how come they are awake, able to speak, being spoken to and given white robes to dress?

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    Well, it's a vision given to John by the angel of Jesus from Jesus from God. Rev 1:1 ---Notice v2 who testified to the word of God AND to the testimony of Jesus Christ. Interesting that the logos and Jesus are separated.
    – steveowen
    Mar 7 at 4:30
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    @Dottard - how do you get to decide which parts of Revelation are cartoons and which parts aren't? Mar 7 at 4:38
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    @Dottard - crossing the red sea also violates our current (and limited) understanding of physics. Should we conclude that the crossing of the red sea is symbolic too? Mar 7 at 4:52
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    That incident was not part of a vision about the future and is clearly literal, no question. The entire book, by it own admission is symbolic - the moment you make something in Revelation literal you then need to ask where does the symbolic stop and the literal begin or is that something that only I should decide or perhaps you or someone else?
    – Dottard
    Mar 7 at 5:10
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    Very well observed Spirit Realm Investigator. Good question.
    – Bagpipes
    Mar 7 at 11:40
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I’ll offer a less-popular take (but what fun would it be to repeat things that have already been said on related questions?). I suggest that the spirit is not dormant between death and the resurrection, but does indeed remain conscious.

Asleep

The Bible frequently refers to the dead as “asleep”. This is clearly metaphorical—even without the advent of modern medicine people realized that there was a difference between being asleep and being dead. This is demonstrated by Luke 8: 52-53:

52 And all wept, and bewailed her: but he said, Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.

53 And they laughed him to scorn, knowing that she was dead.

But “asleep” is a useful metaphor for death and the resurrection—sleep isn’t permanent—you will wake up.

To take it one step further, though, and argue that therefore the dead have no consciousness is I believe unwarranted. Not only do those who are sleeping have continued cognitive activity (i.e. dreams), but there are numerous instances in the Bible where people experience visions—and they are conscious of the experience.

Paul provides a useful example:

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. (2 Cor 12:2)

Paul is uncertain whether his body was left behind or not…but either way, Paul had no issue with the idea that someone could be conscious without a body.

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Spirit

The word commonly translated as “Spirit” in the New Testament is “pneuma” (and variations thereof) which literally means “breath” (see here).

This brings substantial light to the statement in Genesis 2:7:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

God supplied something—something which is rendered over and over again in the Bible as “Spirit”—and that gave man life. Many have concluded that humans have a spirit and a body—that the spirit dwells in the body while the person is alive, and departs the body at death.

This would make for a very straightforward interpretation of these passages:

…Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (Acts 7:59)

And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23:46)

They knew their body was dying but their concern was for their spirit - because they believed their spirit was going somewhere.

That “give up the ghost” is a euphemism (in English, not Greek) for death implies that this is a commonplace interpretation: something of a spiritual nature is leaving the body.

See also discussion of these ideas in Dave’s post here, and as Nihil Sine Deo has observed:

The body is a housing for the spirit. Jesus preexisted His birth in the human body, known as the incarnation.

“Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” ‭‭Jude‬ ‭1:5‬ ‭

“Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”” ‭‭John‬ ‭8:58‬ ‭

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The apostles believed a spirit could do things after death

The fact that the disciples in Luke 24 had to be told that Jesus was not a ghost/spirit presupposes the existence of the spirit—and that the spirit does not become dormant at death:

But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. (Luke 24:37)

Jesus then confirms that spirits are a real thing:

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. (Luke 24:39)

And the word used in verse 39 for spirit is none other than “pneuma”.

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The dead are conscious somewhere

Passages like the below have had people doing theological somersaults for centuries, but that’s a matter for SE-Christianity. The Bible does speak of conscious activity by the dead. It may not be clear where they are, but it is clear that they are portrayed as conscious agents:

Multiple passages speak of the message of Jesus being taught to the dead.

1 Peter 3: 18-20:

18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

1 Peter 4:6:

For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

Some understand Isaiah 9:2 to be teaching the same principle.

Note that these passages are not only indicating that the dead are conscious in that they are being taught, but they also speak of conscious activity by Jesus between His death and resurrection. They are spirits, and they are not dormant.

These passages are also interesting because they speak of both the righteous and the wicked.

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The Thief in paradise

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)

This passage has also been rendered as “in the world of spirits”.

--

And in Revelation 6:9-11, the passage cited in the OP, the dead here are speaking, being spoken to, and are being given robes. This suggests that not only are they conscious, but their disembodied spirits have substance.

--

I’ll cite just one more passage—this one from Clement of Rome, a man who was taught by the apostles:

  1. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory.

  2. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith,

  3. having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance. (1 Clement 5:4-6)

Here we have an apostolic father who is suggesting that although Peter & Paul have not yet been resurrected (see 1 Clement 24:1 & 26:1), they are already in a better holier place and have already received some form of glory. Clearly Clement believes there is something between death and the resurrection.

--

Conclusion

So I went ahead and challenged a popular view; I’d better wrap this up as some are itching to down-vote this post to Hades (pun totally intended), but my conclusion is this:

  1. Humans have (at minimum) a spirit and a body
  2. The spirit departs the body at death
  3. After death the body decays but the spirit is not dormant
  4. Spirit and body come together at the resurrection
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  • +1 this post has put together a few things for me. "Here we have an apostolic father who is suggesting that although Peter & Paul have not yet been resurrected, they are already in a better holier place and have already received some form of glory. Clearly Clement believes there is something between death and the resurrection." Does Clement say P & P haven't been resurrected yet? Mar 8 at 5:48
  • Interesting, but the soul and spirit are distinct.After death the spirit returns to the Lord..Ecclesiastes 12:7...Your body will become part of the dust of the earth again. But your spirit will return to God who gave it. Note: the soul needs the breath of the spirit to come alive again. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/13524/…
    – Bagpipes
    Mar 8 at 19:39
  • @Bagpipes a fair observation - I'm not opposed to seeing a distinction between soul and spirit, although it strikes me that sometimes these words are used interchangeably. To your point, that doesn't mean they are always used interchangeably. I've also heard "soul" used to describe the entity of body + spirit together. Mar 8 at 21:46
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    That's a fair comment, but in the context of the question asked, we are talking about soul and not spirit. It does not say that the spirits were each given a white robe. It says that the souls were each given a white robe. There is a difference. Thanks for your comment anyway and I hope you give more input on this site.
    – Bagpipes
    Mar 8 at 22:02
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    @AnthonyBurg that does appear to be Clement's meaning. In 1 Clement 24:1 & 1 Clement 26:1 he discusses the hope of the resurrection as something that is still in the future--even for some who have already served him in the past. Mar 8 at 22:04
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For the Bible verse in question to make sense, there has to be a part missing (not told) between the dead souls' anguish and the giving of the white robe. Like you pointed out, a white robe, or any kind of clothing for that matter, needs a body to hang on. Since these 144000 dead martyrs (martyrs become martyrs by being killed for their faith) are to come alive again and rule the earth during the millennium, at some point they will have to be given a new body. The giving of a new body is the missing part here. Because there has to be a body to hang the robe on. Alternatively, "a white robe" could simply stand for a new body.

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (Rev 20:4, NIV)

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No, the souls are not awake.

Revelation 6:11

And a white robe was given to each of them; and they were told that they were to rest for a little while longer.

Note: They were told to rest for a little while longer.

If they are told to rest for a little while longer, this strongly implies that they are not awake.

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 live on the earth?”

Compare Genesis 4:10 (the murder of Abel) with Revelation 6:10

10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

Conclusion

Regarding the souls in heaven, it is their blood that does the speaking in the same way as the blood of Abel speaks in Genesis 4:10

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  • Good points. But if they have not been resurrected yet, why were they given white robes (V11)? Mar 7 at 11:41
  • Not 100 % sure, but i would think that it is because they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7:13-14 13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
    – Bagpipes
    Mar 7 at 11:50
  • Resting is not synonymous with sleeping though, I know that they can overlap in everyday life (some people may use their rest time for napping, etc.), but if you take some time to chill out on a sofa, listening to relaxing music, that's resting too, even though you are not sleeping. Mar 7 at 22:33
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator, On a grave stone it is common to see R.I.P. which means Rest In Peace. Are the ones in the grave having a nap ? On that note, I rest my case.
    – Bagpipes
    Mar 8 at 19:51
  • The phrase "rest in peace" began to be used since the 5th century according to wikipedia, so that's at least a few centuries after the date Revelation was written. Furthermore, the Greek word used in Revelation 6:11 is anapausontai, which means resting/getting refreshed after work. There is nothing about being unconscious in its meaning. Mar 8 at 20:14
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Souls Under the Altar ‒ Revelation 6

In the Book of Revelation, an obviously symbolic work, the apostle John sees the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God. I will repeat the passages related by the question:

Revelation 6:9-11: “[I] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.”

The individuals in these passages appear to John as waiting under the altar in heaven, and they’re told to be patient, to “wait a little longer” until the full complement of martyrs is complete. The verses suggest a sense of the passage of finite time, not that of eternity (timelessness). At first glance, it would appear that martyred Christians await rewards yet to be bestowed ‒- not the least of which is their glorified bodies.

But, let’s dig deeper here. What does it mean to suggest "souls under the altar?" Since heaven is above, this seems to indicate that these souls exist on earth: under the Throne of God. Further, do we not routinely ask the same questions as those quoted above as we witness the injustices, cruelty, and oppression exhibited all around us? As a faithful child of God, how many times have we seen some truly despicable acts and (metaphorically) held our head in our hands asking ourselves, “How long, Lord, will You delay judging and avenging innocent blood? How long before you return to punish those who inflict vicious persecution all across the globe?”

All children of God are “given white robes” – that is, they are cleansed from their old, sinful selves at baptism. The parable of the Wedding Feast helps us visualize what this means:

Matthew 22:11-13: “But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes [symbolized by the "white robes"], and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place [Hell] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"

We must not be found without our "wedding clothes," "white robes" we receive through faith. Naturally, after baptism, we must "walk in the Light" (1 Jn. 1) as we encounter many trials in Christ awaiting the final day in which all the saints: past, present, and future, have been gathered together for holiness and glory. Analogous circumstances existed during Noah’s day as he preached over several generations (100 years) to those who would reject his message. Only 8 people (Noah and his extended family) survived the ensuing Flood that washed away the godlessness and sin from the surface of the earth.

It should also be remembered that John witnessed the events portrayed in Revelation 6 as a man living on earth. Consistent with the general symbolism throughout the Book of Revelation, what John saw in heaven was communicated to him in the figurative language of his earth-bound life. Indeed, John was one of the persecuted souls -- or souls under the altar! The truth conveyed by the vision of these souls demonstrates heaven’s identification with, and concern for all persecuted brethren throughout history –- including us –- as we mourn for relief from the injustices of the world. Here Paul in Romans 7:

Romans 7:24: Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death [immoral world of spiritual wickedness]?

Would Those in Heaven Seek Vengeance?

Comparable symbolism is found early in the Book of Genesis. After having murdered his younger brother Abel, God tells Cain that:

Genesis 4:10: “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.”

These appear to both be examples of injustices that “cry out” for vengeance. But, such reprisals are God’s alone:

Romans 12:19: “For it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

We might further wish to contemplate this question: just who, once immersed in the eternal perfection, holiness, and majesty of heaven, would actually be seeking retribution for injustices they were forced to endure while on earth? Would not such carnal recollections, if indeed we entertain any, be the farthest thing from our glorified minds?

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