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Revelation 6:9 NIV

9 When he opened the fifth seal, 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.

Does this text indicate that the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God are under the altar?

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Rev 6:9, 10 is a very controversial section of the book of Revelation. While I cannot claim to fully understand it (and most commentators are also very cautious), there are a few things that are not debated.

Which Altar in Which Sanctuary?

The earthly sanctuary actually had two altars:

  • The bronze altar of burnt offering in the outer courtyard of the tabernacle/temple, Ex 27:1-8, 38:1-7, at the base of which drink offerings were poured out to be "under the altar", Lev 4:7, 18, 25, 30, 34, Deut 12:27, etc. This is the only altar that has anything at its base or under it.
  • The golden altar of incense in the Holy Place, Ex 30:1-10, 37:25-20

The Bible contains no description of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 9:11-14); however, whatever it "looks" like, it is certain that it does not contain an altar of burnt offering - Christ is the Passover lamb who was offered "once for all" (1 Peter 3:18, Rom 6:10, Heb 7:27, 9:28, etc).

Further, for a similar reason, the heavenly sanctuary does not contain a golden altar of incense to represent the "prayers of the saints" (Rev 5:8, 8:4) because God receives our prayers directly.

Therefore, the language of Rev 6:9, 10 is highly symbolic or figurative and cannot be literal. Ellicott offers these helpful comments:

(9) I saw under the altar . . .—Read, when He opened, and, instead of “were slain,” &c., had been slain because of the Word of God, and (because of) the testimony which they held. The seal indicates that the mission of the Christian Church can only be carried out in suffering. An altar is seen, and at its foot tokens of the martyrs who had laid down their lives upon it. The word “souls” is to be taken as the equivalent of “lives”; the vision tells that their lives had been sacrificed. The blood of the victims was in the temple service poured out at the foot of the altar. St. Paul makes use of the same imagery—“I am now ready to be poured out” (“offered” in English version). In union with Christ Christians are called upon to suffer with Him, even to carry on to its great end the work of Christ in the world, and so fill up that which is lacking of the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24). The word “souls” has been made a resting-place for an argument respecting the intermediate state. There is no ground for this: it is quite beside the object of the seal, which simply exhibits the sufferings of Christ’s people as the necessary accompaniment of the progress of the gospel.

Thus, there is nothing to be deduced about "where" souls of the martyrs go at death from Rev 6:9, 10. The picture is symbolic of the personal sacrifices made by God's faithful who are metaphorically depicted as being under the altar of sacrifice.

Benson is also helpful:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under, or at the foot of, the altar — Which was presented to my view; not the golden altar of incense, mentioned Revelation 9:13, but the altar of burnt-offering, spoken of also Revelation 8:5; Revelation 14:18; Revelation 16:7; the souls of them that were slain — Namely, newly slain as sacrifices, and offered to God; for the word of God — For believing and professing faith in it; and for the testimony — To the truth of the gospel; which they held — That is, courageously retained in the midst of all opposition. A proper description this of true Christians, who persevered in the faith and practice of the gospel, notwithstanding all the difficulties and sufferings of persecution. And they cried with a loud voice — As making an appeal to the injured justice of God.

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Does Revelation 6:9 establish the destination of the martyred souls?

Answer: The martyred souls "under the altar" symbolize all saints whose destination is Heaven.

Revelation 6:9: “[I] saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 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 dwell on the earth?'

11And 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, would be completed also.”

We, the faithful, are those suffering souls! The passage is describing the faithful of God who have (and are) cried out to Him (whether martyred or not). God’s saints have been persecuted (some beheaded or worse) throughout history.

Which one of us has not watched the evening news and put our head in our hands asking: “How long Lord, before you avenge the injustices on the earth -- how long before it all ends?”

Next, we are told how these souls were given a white robe (metaphorically, we must persist in Christ's commandments) as we persevere before the full compliment of our fellow servants is complete. It is at that point, when there are none left to save where God will bring the world to an end. This is precisely the same as in the days of Noah, where God patiently waited (a century) for the pre-Flood population to come to repentance (none did).

Recall what is related much later in the Book of Revelation (chapter 20) to understand why:

Revelation 20:4: “Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God…"

Here, again, is a portrait of the saints. Note that "we are given authority to judge the world." How so? Through our godly behavior — just as righteous Noah judged the pre-Flood age during his time:

1 Corinthians 6:2a: "Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?"

As we obey the Gospel, we are setting the standard by which all others are to live.

Suppose we paraphrase the follow-up passage in Revelation 20 to assist us further. This describes the contrast between the godly and the godless (dead outside of Christ):

Revelation 20:6 paraphrased: “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection [baptism into Christ]; over these [Christians], the second death [spiritual death] has no power, but they [Christians] will be priests of God and of Christ [all Christians are priests and royalty: 1 Peter 2:9] and will reign with Him for a thousand years [until Christ’s return].”

The “thousand years” in this passage is metaphorical: it is an indeterminate amount of time, symbolizing that which remains until Christ brings the world to an end.

Also, note that as the faithful, we are “priests of God and of Christ,” and we are “reigning with Him” now – just as this passage from Revelation tells us. Hear Peter’s First Letter to the saints:

1 Peter 2:9: “But you [Christians] are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION...”

In Christ, we are the faithful seated on the thrones. And, as with Revelation 20:4, we are also those who are "[persecuted] in the name of Jesus."

The “souls under the altar” (Rev. 6:9) represent the totality of saints — including us — that have suffered for the Word of God. Our destiny is eternal life.

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