Souls Under the Altar

The Souls Under the Altar

The Book of Revelation offers insights into the human dimension of the cosmic conflict and an enriched understanding of the everlasting gospel.

Larry L. Lichtenwalter

The cry of the souls under the altar in Revelation 6:91 is momentous: “‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (vs. 10, NASB)1. The reality that gives rise to this question echoes the theodicy plea of the Old Testament: the “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.”2 Against the background of human history marked by death, war, and injustice, which the riders of the first seals illustrate (vss. 1–8), “there emerges at the opening of the fifth seal a well defined existential situation.”3

As Revelation’s only prayer of supplication, the vision provides the book’s first direct view of the people of God beyond the first-century reality of the seven churches. It is a pathetic image prone to be forgotten. Here God’s people are portrayed as martyrs. Their witness to God’s truth and maintenance of the testimony of Jesus has led to their violent death (vs. 9). By their very death they imitate and are identified with their Lord, the Lamb who Himself is slaughtered (5:6).

Those on God’s side of Revelation’s cosmic conflict are the slaughtered and those being slaughtered; their numbers continue to grow (Rev. 5:10, 11). They are vexed by the discrepancy between expectations and reality. They have died for God, who is sovereign, holy, and true (vs. 10). There is angst that salvation will be further postponed. Their prayer for judgment and vindication reverberates through the ensuing narrative. Their impassioned cry becomes the “genetic nucleus” of the whole narrative of the sealed scroll (4:1–8:1) and “the crux of interpretation of the whole book.”4

As this question of theodicy rises in the context of anthropology—it is human beings who ask such urgent questions of theodicy—this impassioned cry of the souls under the altar opens up for the attentive reader a window into Revelation’s anthropology. As a whole, the book’s vision of the fifth seal not only gives voice to the problems of justice and the character of God confronting heaven; it also yields tacit insights into human nature and being. It opens to view the human dimensions of the cosmic conflict; and in doing so, it depicts human beings and human nature from several unique vantage points.

Though Revelation uses a variety of images in representing human nature and experience, most are indirect, tacit. The book’s form and content, imagery and symbolism, subtle allusions and rhetoric, narrative, and caricature, challenge understanding of its real meanings regarding the human phenomenon. The line between the symbolic and rhetorical usage of anthropomorphic language and the tacit realities that exist behind them is complex. Exploring those possibilities often seems counter to engaging the book’s larger prophetic and worldview narrative and intent. Yet our anthropology reflects our worldview.

The question here is whether or not Revelation provides a unified anthropology in keeping with the larger biblical witness? If so, what does it look like? As Scripture’s last book, what final images of the nature of humankind does Revelation unfold? How does it nuance and integrate, if at all, the inner immaterial and spiritual qualities of the human person (character, will, choice, conscience, mind, moral capacity, spirituality) in relation to the tangible corporeal aspects of humanity (body/soul)? What of personal identity, social behaviors, ethnicity and language, nations, and culture? More specifically, what is the book’s understanding of soul and related anthropological terms, particularly in such passages as Revelation 6:9 to 11?

The vision of the fifth seal (Rev. 6:9–11) is both the source of a thematic pattern throughout the Book of Revelation and provides the initial conceptual bracketing imagery. Several new items, with little or no immediate precedent in the book’s unfolding narrative, are introduced in this fifth seal vision and subsequently become extremely important concepts throughout the rest of the book. Several of these newly introduced items yield tacit anthropological implications. These tacit insights into human nature and experience include: (1) the corporeal [body/soul]; (2) the spiritual/moral; (3) the existential/personal identity; and (4) the social/cultural aspects of human beings in relation to God, to one another, and to oneself.

A Unique Text

The vision of the fifth seal is a unique text with extensive verbal and conceptual correlations with the rest of the Apocalypse. These correlations suggest that the vision plays a key role within a unified literary whole. As such, the vision becomes the source of a thematic pattern throughout the unfolding cosmic narrative, and it prepares the reader for the remainder of the book. New items with little or no immediate precedent are introduced that become extremely important concepts throughout the rest of Revelation: “altar,” “soul,” “cry out,” “judge,” “avenge,” “our blood,” “robe,” and “fellow servants” to name a few. While there are important links and echoes of Revelation’s earlier passages, concepts, or themes, the text of this vision “is equally the starting point for a large number of threads of meaning throughout the book, or the sounding board from which many later passages will pick up an echo.”5

Four subsequent passages in Revelation, which depict the oppressed people of God, are particularly significant, as each text echoes several semantic components that first occur in Revelation 6:9 to 11. In the last of these depicting the oppressed people of God (20:4), John again reports that he “saw” the “souls” of the slain as opposed to what he only “hears” in the other three connections. Thus, verses 9 to 11 and Revelation 20:4 form a literary envelope of prospect and fulfillment. There is sacrifice and reward, faithful witness and vindication in judgment, slaughter, and resurrection.

Furthermore, with the opening of the sixth seal, a second well-defined existential situation—and pregnant question—is voiced: “‘Who is able to stand?’” (Rev. 6:17). The fifth and sixth seals, then, are linked linguistically and conceptually between two contrasting situations and questions: “‘How long . . .’” and “‘Who is able to stand?’” The sixth seal projects universal ramifications preceding the judgment for which the saints have prayed in the fifth seal. The sixth seal is in direct response to the question posed by the martyrs. It shows what the judgment will look like when it comes. It unfolds the existential realities of “face” (conscience), where there is an effort to hide oneself in order to avoid God’s judgment. This second situation and question further heighten the unique role, which the vision of the fifth seal plays throughout Revelation.

Tacit Anthropological Imagery

The anthropological implications of the fifth seal’s unique features and content are both broad and significant. First, explicit moral imagery with little or no immediate precedent is introduced for the first time. These become extremely important concepts throughout the rest of Revelation’s cosmic conflict narrative: “cry out,” “judge,” “avenge,” and “our blood.” This moral imagery rises in the context of human beings struggling with questions of theodicy. Obviously, there is more in view in the fifth seal than the unjust physical elimination of those who would remain faithful to God—or theodicy.

These moral concepts highlight the reality that the geography of the final crisis reaches beyond any external cosmic and global dimension (with its burdened question of theodicy) and into the individual human heart itself. It is human beings who voice the injustice. It is human beings who raise questions. Their outburst nuances realities of human nature in terms of inner personal moral capacity, perception, longings, accountability, and articulation. They hint at why John would use the word souls rather than bodies when referring to the hurting people of God (Rev. 6:9; 20:4).

The word translated as “souls” provides the broadest anthropological reference in an otherwise apocalyptic visionary context. Its usage suggests that the cosmic conflict is concerned with the whole person, not just the physical body or the inner life. The implications for anthropology touch the human phenomenon in its entirety—the inner, physical, personal, social, spiritual, moral, psychological, emotional, cultural, and life-framing worldview. Thus, the human being and self would be both implied and nuanced in Revelation’s unfolding cosmic narrative and theodicy.

Second, there are two well-defined situations and questions in Revelation’s seven seals: “‘How long, O Lord?’” (6:10), and “‘Who is able to stand?’” (vs. 17). These two existential situations together with their attending existential questions, unfold both human desire for justice/concealment and human blamelessness/guilt in the face of theodicy and judgment. As the fifth and sixth seals are linked linguistically and conceptually between these two visions, human conscience is expressed in images of innocence, integrity, and hope (vs. 9) as well as guilt, shame, and fear (vs. 17).

The two visions reveal that human beings are moral beings with moral awareness and capacities: conscience. Human beings intuit their existence in a moral universe where God who is holy: (1) holds them accountable; (2) promises to hold their persecutors accountable; and (3) allows Himself to be held accountable by their very question. These two questions—one from the martyred dead and one from the living lost—remind every reader of both the enduring moral nature of the cosmic conflict and their own moral nature. They are like Abel’s blood, still speaking from the ground.

Seeing the “Souls”

The tacit depiction of human beings sandwiched between John’s two references that he “saw the souls” is multifaceted. It touches both inner immaterial and corporeal realities of human nature and experience. Implications for understanding the book’s anthropology are considerable.

Since the word soul occurs for the first time here in Revelation’s running narrative (6:9), what does it mean? Is it something spiritual, figurative, or immaterial? Are these souls alive, which would indicate that the soul is immortal? What does the phrase regarding the souls under the altar mean? Is the altar described here the brazen altar of sacrifice or the golden altar of incense? Is this altar in heaven or on earth? What does this scene portray if taken literally? A simple reading of the text states that these souls are slain, which means they are dead, not alive.

The word translated as “soul” occurs seven times in Revelation. John is not speaking of disembodied souls that have left their bodies at death and “gone to heaven.” Twice the word refers to life itself: in Revelation 8:9, “a third of the living creatures in the sea died”; in 12:11, overcomers in Christ’s blood “‘did not love their life even when faced with death’” (NASB). Here the soul or life is juxtaposed with death, implying opposites, in which death fundamentally terminates the soul. The soul as life can be either human or non-human. But it can refer as well to a “being” as a creature or person. “Every living creature in the sea died” (Rev. 16:3); “slaves, that is, human souls” (18:13, ESV). The former, as with Revelation 12:11, suggests that a “living soul” can die.

Revelation 18:13 places souls alongside its only use of the word translated as “bodies” in the entire book. Many translations gloss over this evocative connection altogether when either interpreting bodies as “slaves” or implying that bodies are separate and distinct from the human soul. The NKJV reads: “bodies and souls of men.” The NLT reads: “bodies—that is, human slaves.” Interestingly, Revelation uses the word translated as “corpse” three times when referring to dead bodies (11:8, 9), suggesting that in 18:13 a living body is in view and that the concepts of “bodies” and “human souls” are synonymous. In other words, as the text refers to the exploitation of “bodies,” John envisions the entire person (human soul). Revelation 18:13 would better be translated “bodies—that is, human souls” (i.e., “human beings”).

Though the notion of “slaves” is evident from the context (or perhaps, “prostitutes”), the anthropological implications of the phrase’s construction moves the attentive reader beyond the moral dysfunction of exploitation itself to nuancing the reality of human beings in their essence—as embodied beings. Furthermore, the fallen culture depicted by materialistic and consumer-oriented Babylon views human beings as a mere commodity on a par with jewelry, clothing, furniture, perfume, food, cattle, and chariots (Rev. 18:11–13).

In Babylon’s worldview, human beings are mere objects. They are bodies to be exploited, marketed, and discarded—regardless of the fact that they are persons. This phrase is not only insightful in terms of its critique of the exploitation of human beings, but also rich with corresponding anthropological implications. It focuses on the reality of the organic unity of body and human soul as well. When you sell the body, you sell the human soul—the person. This human soul/person includes who she or he is in her or his desires, emotions, feelings, thinking, inner self. Thus, when one speaks of the human soul, body is assumed and vice versa.

Finally, soul refers to the seat of one’s desires: “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you’” (Rev. 18:14, ESV). Here the inner self is clearly in focus, albeit with a body assumed to experience whatever is desired.

That Revelation would (1) twice portray sea creatures as having (8:9) or being(16:3) souls; (2) equate the human soul with the body (18:13); and (3) place the soul in juxtaposition with death as opposites (12:11; 16:3) reveals how it echoes anthropological realities found in the Genesis narrative. Genesis 2:7 records that “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 being [i.e., a living soul].”

One does not have a soul; one is a soul—a living being, a living person. The breath of life unites with the inanimate body, transforming it into a living being. Revelation echoes this chronicle of Adam’s creation in its narrative of the two witnesses who are killed and whose dead bodies lay lifeless in the street for three and a half days: “After the three-and-a-half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them” (Rev. 11:11). Though some scholars suggest that Revelation 11 echoes Ezekiel 37:10 with its vision of the dry bones standing up with life when God breathes His Spirit upon them, it is the Genesis narrative that is foundational for both books’ prophetic imagery of spiritual revival and empowerment for mission. That both human and nonhuman life in Revelation is a soul likewise echoes Genesis anthropology, in which the breath of life is given to both humankind and other animate creatures.

Revelation, then, does not support the Platonic view of the immortality of the soul. It does not describe the soul as a separable and intangible entity of a person. Rather, the word soul means the person or the whole being itself. As referred to above in the context of human beings, i.e., the souls under the altar, the word soul provides the broadest anthropological referent in an otherwise apocalyptic visionary context.

This anthropological referent suggests that the cosmic conflict is concerned with the whole person, not just the physical body or the inner life. The implications for anthropology touch the human phenomenon in its entirety—the inner, physical, personal, social, spiritual, moral, psychological, emotional, cultural, and life-framing worldview. This nuances to the fullest the imagery of human angst with regard to theodicy and the scope of divine redemption envisioned in Revelation’s re-creation.

Resurrected “Souls”

The foregoing anthropological implications of soul lead inevitably to the closing reference to the resurrection of the dead: “I saw the souls . . .” (Rev. 20:4). This second seeing of the souls provides a balancing perspective on the condition of God’s slaughtered people. Their lament, “‘How long?’” is finally answered. Earlier, they appeared as sacrificial blood poured out under the altar (6:9). Now they appear as risen, ruling overcomers (20:4): “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 for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (20:4, NIV).

The significant additional imagery here is the phrase “they came to life.” This pregnant verb is followed with: (1) a parenthetical statement—“the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (Rev. 20:5, NIV), which is preceded with “they did not come to life”; and (2) an interpretive statement that clarifies the meaning—“This is the first resurrection” (vs. 5, NIV). Came to life” and “resurrection” are thus equated.

But what does John mean by resurrection? Is this resurrection spiritual, symbolic, or bodily? Does the vision really expect the martyrs to return to their fleshly bodies and resume a physical existence? Many find problems with equating this resurrection of the souls with the resurrection of physical bodies in history. These difficulties arise from a supposed inability to distinguish the visionary, referential, and symbolic levels of meaning from one another. Though some find evidence against such a literal interpretation, Revelation itself helps explain that the intended meaning here is the resurrection of physical bodies in history.

First, there is the use of the verb translated as “came” to life. It occurs five times in the New Testament. Four occur in the Book of Revelation and one in the Book of Romans—each in contexts of resurrection from the dead. In the message to the church at Smyrna, Jesus is described as “‘“the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life”’” (Rev. 2:8). Nearly every reader understands the reading of “‘“came to life”’” here as referring to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Earlier, John sees the Christ in His glorified resurrected body (1:13–17). He hears Christ’s claim: “‘I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death’” (vs. 18). This unequivocal reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection, as well as the power that He holds over death and the grave provides the conceptual background of Christ’s later self-description to the church at Smyrna: “‘who was dead, and came to life’” (2:8). Later, Revelation sets the death/resurrection of Christ in poignant visionary and apocalyptic language: “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (5:6). Clearly the texts indicate that being dead and being alive are two opposite conditions. Dead means not living.

Coming back to life occurs next in the context of the beast whose deadly wound was healed: It was healed then “came back to life” (Rev. 13:14, NLT). Clearly resurrection in this context is visionary and symbolic, not physical. Nevertheless, the parody of the risen Christ assumes Christ’s own resurrection as the referent. In Romans, Paul uses the term when he argues: “To this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (14:9). Paul repeatedly uses the historical reality of the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus as the context for theological and ethical formation. One can reasonably conclude that John’s two uses of this term with regard to resurrection in Revelation 20 likewise point to the resurrection of the physical body in history.

Second, there are the interpretive implications stemming from the two brackets. They encapsulate both death and resurrection in keeping with the experience of the Lamb standing as if slain (Rev. 5:6). There is sacrifice and reward, faithful witness and vindication in judgment, death, and resurrection. Some interpreters have puzzled how John can see “souls” rather than bodies, but in a vision, that is no problem. His vision is obviously broader than mere bodies or the body/soul state of the dead. John has the entire human being and the fullness of human being in view. Resurrection gives significance to the body and affirms a person’s essential wholeness of being and existence. Resurrection is a positive assertion: “the whole man, who has really died, is recalled to life by a new act of creation by God.”6 “It is the inner man’s very nature which demands the body.”7

This begs the question, though: How can the dead cry out to God if they are dead? From the biblical perspective, the answer is rather plain as expressed in the enduring witness of Abel: “‘The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10); “by faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Heb. 11:4); “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24, NIV).

Worldview Polarization, Culture, and Society

The fifth seal contrasts two distinct groups of human beings: those who are “slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Rev. 6:9), and “‘those who dwell on the earth’” (vs. 10). While the vision of the fifth seal opens to view a dynamic picture of the people of God, it does so in relation to the rest of humanity. This contrast is further articulated in the seal’s linguistic and conceptual link with the lost in the sixth seal in verse 17.

The phrase “those who dwell on the earth” (vs. 10) occurs often in the Book of Revelation. The fifth seal does not introduce this phrase for the first time here, but it does pointedly characterize it for the first time in relation to God’s slaughtered people. “Those who dwell on the earth” are the ones who murder the martyrs (vs. 10). Likewise, they are the ones who reject the two witnesses’ call to repentance (vs. 10).

This phrase does not refer merely to the entire mass of humanity or simply those who live on Planet Earth. It is a technical term that always refers to unbelievers who are the enemies of God. It designates the worldview of the dominant portion of humanity. It is a qualitative description that points to human beings who “are at home in the present world order, men of earthbound vision, trusting in earthly security, unable to look beyond things that are seen and temporal.”8 Their functioning worldview (and culture) is in contrast with and in opposition to those who are on God’s side in the cosmic conflict.

Those who are “slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Rev. 6: 9) present a contrasting worldview in relation to God. For the first time, Revelation introduces the term “fellow servants” (vs. 11). This designation occurs later only in the context of the prophetic, apocalyptic worldview of “‘the testimony of Jesus’” (19:10; 20:4). These links bring the reader to 12:17, where “keep[ing] the commandments of God” and “having the testimony of Jesus Christ” are integral worldview realities for those who would be faithful to God. Thus, in contrast to the worldview of “those who dwell on the earth,” Revelation asserts the worldview of God’s covenant people who are more graphically depicted in the book’s chiastic center in the imagery of the woman and her seed (vss. 1–17). The people of God are a tiny and powerless minority within a hostile world’s culture. They are persecuted and marginalized elements in human society. They are an alternative community and worldview pitted in conflict with the powers that be and the dominating worldview and cultural apparatus, which such powers assert and compel.

Both people-groups referred to in the fifth seal represent the polarization of worldviews that takes place among earth’s more diverse inhabitants. This enlarged purview of humanity is better observed in the first angel’s message, which engages the people of the entire world with the urgent end-time truths of the eternal gospel: “Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6). While the passage affirms the universal scope of God’s redemptive call in contrast to that of the beast’s destructive influence over the same worldwide audience (13:7; 17:15), it also unfolds tacit anthropological material. It assumes and envisions: (1) distinctive nations, (2) distinguishable people groups within the nations, and (3) unique tribes and languages within given people groups and nations.

Revelation consistently summarizes humanity in this fourfold pattern—nation, tribe, tongue, and people. These categories describe the distribution, characteristics, and relationships of human beings in the world. Worldwide human life is organized into societies—the stuff of anthropology. Further tacit anthropological material is portrayed in Revelation’s lists of the social status and roles within human social order: “rich and poor,” “slave and free,” “small and great,” royalty, nobility, commanders, the strong. The global, the regional, the local, the varied roles and standings within society, as well as the individual person are all alike in view. All spheres and all peoples are to hear the eternal gospel. All are to be called to experience its hope, warning, and transforming power.

This rich imagery of nations, people groups, languages, tribes/clans, social status, and roles implies the existence of integrating cultures, which mirrors, expresses, and fosters the unique characteristics of a given society. It assumes, too, worldview(s), which a given culture similarly mirrors, expresses, and fosters within that particular society. The delineation of roles and societal standing—“small and great,” “poor and rich,” “free and slave,” royalty, commanders, nobility, et cetera—further suggest the presence of disparate worldviews on both the structural level and perception/experience of individuals within society.

The implications for anthropology are numerous, especially in light of the church’s identity, message, mission, and missional contextualization—critical cultural contextualization. Conflicts between human cultures on religious/moral matters in relation to these anthropological implications are assumed. Revelation’s vision of the fifth seal explicitly nuances the conflict arising within these anthropological realities. Nevertheless, human equality is assumed in Revelation, and it is an essential part of human creation. There is no fundamental difference in the essential nature of races or genders. Every nation, all tribes, peoples, and tongues, the small and the great, rich and poor, free and slave, are equally within the field of vision of the Apocalypse for both redemption and moral accountability. Slavery and trafficking in human lives is a reason for divine judgment (18:13).

From an anthropological vantage point, Revelation reveals human nature as fundamentally relational. The fifth seal hints at this anthropological phenomenon when it uses the terminology “their fellow servants and their brethren” (6:11). So, too, in the bloody worldview conflict that leaves one group dead and another alive (vs. 10). Human relationships are grounded in and are the expression of the being of the human person. Human beings can be God-related (3:20; 6:9, 17), other-person-related (11:10), and self-related (8:6; 12:11).

Revelation’s themes of covenant, faithfulness, and truthfulness likewise express humankind’s essential relational nature. This anthropological reality is subtly nuanced in God’s apparent postponement of salvation until the fellow servants and brothers of the souls under the altar would experience a similar fate (Rev. 6:11). “For salvation to be effective, everyone must be present, a concept based on the biblical principle of totality. God does not save one without the other.”9

Linguistics, worldview, religious/moral phenomena, and metaphysical questions of the human being (body, soul, and the meaning of life) are noticeable facets of the Book of Revelation’s depiction of the human phenomena. The book envisions human beings in the entirety of their capacities, distinctives, and experience. The fifth-seal vision indirectly nuances these societal perspectives as important aspects of the book’s comprehensive vision of human beings in the cosmic conflict.

The Creation Referent

In addition to the foregoing, a wide range of insights into human nature can be found in the visionary material sandwiched within Revelation’s “saw . . . souls” bracket (6:9; 20:4). This includes anthropological implications of the book’s prevailing Creation motif. The correspondence of anthropological perspectives between the beginning of human existence and the end times are observable. Literarily, the book’s Creation motif provides a dominant anthropological referent before (4:11; 5:13), between (8:9; 10:6; 11:11, 18), and after (21:1–22:5) the “I saw . . . the souls” bracket of 6:9 and 20:4. In particular, John’s bracketing use of the word translated as “soul” in itself generates Genesis’ Creation implications in terms of the breadth of human being and nature envisioned (Gen. 2:7). This is significant in a document in which themes of Creation, de-creation, and redemptive re-creation prevail.

Biblical Creation inevitably bears on the nature of human reality. Human living is not meaningless. Human beings are here by design, by plan. They have a certain future because God is the One who created them (Rev. 4:11; 21:1–7). Nor is human life as God envisioned it “open” as per existentialist, humanist, naturalistic, or pantheistic views of human nature. There is an ordered quality of life consistent with human being, a moral right and wrong (21:8; 27; 22:11, 15; 9:21). Immoral behavior is against the kind of behavior God envisioned for human beings (18:4, 5; 9:21; 22:14, 15). Human equality is assumed and an essential part of human creation (4:11). There is no fundamental difference in the essential nature of races or genders. All nations—all tribes and peoples and tongues, the small and the great, rich and poor, free and slave—are equally within the field of vision of the Apocalypse for both redemption and moral accountability (7:9; 13:16; 14:6; 20:12). Slavery and trafficking in human lives are morally wrong and a reason for divine judgment (18:13).

Revelation’s Creation motif reveals what God thinks about human beings. They are worth creating. They are worth changing in the present and giving a new heaven and a new earth (21:1, 5). They are worth dwelling among (vs. 3). They are worth comforting (4:11; 22:4). A personal God dwelling among human beings shows their true value. Creation and redemptive re-creation is about a Person acting for humankind. The human as a reflective moral being has the capacity to respond personally to God with either worship and obedience or irreverence and disobedience. Human beings can cry out to God for justice (6:9). God created human beings as moral beings, thus making them morally accountable to Him. He gave them responsibility as stewards to care for creation, thus holding accountable those who would destroy His creation. All, which God created, is God’s private property—the life of another is sacred—thus their blood will be avenged. The two brackets of the “I saw . . . souls” tacitly highlight these kinds of human realities as both texts (6:9; 20:4) place the people of God in direct relation to God, who alone is holy and Creator.

Broader Creation-related anthropological nuances include the reality that human beings have self-conscious rationality. They are able to know themselves and examine and evaluate their own thoughts and assess their own condition. They have the capacity to experience shame or fear or remember or sense the need to repent. Likewise, human beings are able to perceive distance between themselves and other moral beings (or powers) and to plan the nature of their relationships with them. Such self-conscious rationality makes interpersonal relationship possible. Genuine relationships require that the persons view themselves as distinct in the relationship.

Human beings possess self-determination, or freedom. They can choose. They can do what they want. They have the ability to create thoughts and actions that have no determining cause outside of the self. Such capacity to choose is at the core of the human person and is foundational for humans as moral beings. Without freedom, human beings could not make choices or be responsible for them (Deut. 30:9).

Revelation’s ethos of the Tree of Life and entrance into the Holy City underscore this reality. Revelation is a book about choice. It is about how human beings understand the results of their choices. It points to who we are as a result of what we have chosen. It reminds us how our choices impact both history and eternity. This is anthropology!

Revelation thus presents human beings as a unity in thought, will, emotion, character, conscience, and activity (2:23; 22:11). It affirms the essential moral nature of humankind. These qualities of relational being, identity, personhood, self-determination, and essential moral nature stand as evidence against the existential dismissal of any essential human nature and which favors total freedom of all individuals to mold themselves and mirror Genesis’s “image of God.”

Robes Given, Washed

The anthropological nuances of the fifth seal’s “white robes” must not be missed: “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” (Rev. 6:11, NASB). The word translated as “robes” occurs three more times in the seal interlude of chapter 7 (vss. 9, 13, 14), and one last time in chapter 22:14—four times altogether.

For people in Bible times, there was a much closer association between clothing and the self than there is today. Outer clothing was symbolic of the inner life or the spiritual state of a person. There was a distinct relational dynamic, in that clothing had to do with relationships between human beings (and God) as much if not more than it did to one’s self. The biblical text reflects these nuances in a wide range of symbolic use of clothing, even using the imagery of clothing in the context of “de-selfing” and “re-selfing” human persons (Col. 3:9, 10).

In keeping with these wider contexts (biblical usage in particular), Revelation’s narrative employs the words translated as “garments” and “robes” as metaphors for an individual’s inner life of moral/spiritual identity and character. There are both “white garments” (3:5) and “white robes” (6:11). White garments/robes symbolize a range of positive meanings that include both ritual and moral holiness and purity. They can symbolize righteous character.

When a few spiritually alive people in Sardis are pointed out as not having “soiled their garments” (Rev. 3:4, ESV), Jesus promises they will walk with Him in white for they are worthy. His promise is that every overcomer will be thus “clothed in white garments” (vs. 5). The language refers to those who have not soiled the purity of their Christian lives (character and self) by falling into sin. This aligns with later references to cleansing robes from soiling in 7:14 and 22:14, both of which suggest inner moral and spiritual contamination.

These individuals in Sardis had not fallen into sinful practices and so had remained pure in contrast to most of their fellow churchmen. Their reward continues to picture ethical standards as a garment. Since they have refused to defile their garments under great cultural pressure to do so, Christ will replace their humanly preserved, clean garments with those that are white by divine standards and origin. Here practical purity is imparted to the redeemed in their association with Christ.

Revelation’s garments of white are neither earned nor self-made. Rather, they are graciously given, offered, or enabled by God to receptive people. This is true for both “garments” and “robes.” Thus, implications for salvation prevail with respect to divine origin, assurance, and hope for God’s people.

In the fifth seal, a “white robe” is given to wear (Rev. 6:11). This suggests the promise made to the faithful in Sardis (3:4, 5). Surprisingly, though, in 7:14 the owners/wearers themselves make their robes white. Implications for salvation in these parallel visions (6:9–11; 7:10–15) are obvious and dominate both with respect to theodicy issues of innocence, divine justice, and assurance for God’s suffering people.

Yet, in both visions—the “given to wear” and “themselves make them white”—anthropological nuances surface alongside those already evident in the outer clothing/inner-life symbolism. The imagery of washing garments likely alludes to the consecration of Israel in preparation for the divine visitation they were soon to experience (Ex. 19:10, 14). The idea of sin as soiled clothes is a prevailing biblical concept. Even more fundamental is the reality of sin as an inwardly defiling reality. Thus, the clothing imagery in Revelation 6:11 raises anthropological realities of inner moral defilement and fallen human nature, especially when set in close proximity to the Lamb’s redeeming blood (7:14).

Four times Revelation refers to the Lamb’s blood. Each occurrence nuances a particular aspect of human need in relation to the redeeming power of Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Each informs our understanding of Revelation’s anthropology. In 1:5, sin enslaves, but the Lamb’s blood releases us from sin’s bondage.

In Revelation 5:9, sin is an incalculable debt that places human beings so morally and spiritually in arrears that there is no hope of being more than they are. However, the Lamb’s blood purchases us and makes us what we can never be or do on our own: subjects of God’s kingdom who reign and priests who bring hope of God’s grace to a hurting world (vs. 10).

In Revelation 7:14, sin defiles, infecting one’s very being, and rendering one impure and unfit for the presence of a holy God. We are sinners at the very core of who we are, but the Lamb’s blood enables an internal work of grace, cleansing conscience from dead works so that we can serve the living God (vss. 14, 15).

In Revelation 12:10 and 11, sin engenders shame, condemnation, and legal guilt. Through the Lamb’s blood, however, there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1, 31–34), but rather peace with God as the voice of conscience. Any external accuser (Rev. 12:10) is silenced (12:10). Humanity is enslaved, defiled, indebted, and blameworthy.

Each of these images underscores humankind’s essential moral/spiritual bankruptcy, helplessness, and hopelessness. Extending these anthropological realities, Revelation’s cosmic conflict narrative describes humanity in greater depravity and as the object of more divine judgment than do most other books of Scripture. The zenith of human blasphemy and wickedness is portrayed in the beast and the false prophet, who are the supreme demonstration of Satan’s handiwork in the human race.

Accordingly, a major theme of Revelation is the subject of sin and evil. It is teeming with sin and all its ramifications for the universe and for our world. It is ironic that under the fifth seal, it is the people of God who cry out in weary response to evil (6:9, 10), while, under the fifth trumpet, it is fallen human beings who are so burdened with the weight of sin and evil that they would rather die than go on living (vss. 5, 6). Sin twists human nature into something inhuman.

Against this bleak backdrop of the moral/spiritual nature of human beings in relation to God—whom the fifth seal asserts is “Sovereign Lord, holy and true” (Rev. 6:10, NIV)—the imagery of “white garments” (whether given or themselves made so) takes on incredible meaning. The white garments and the whitening of garments reach to the very core of the human self. When a person receives a white robe, he or she is receiving/becoming a new self.

Though fallen human nature is portrayed in several of its horrible effects, nevertheless the blood of the Lamb resolves all of these! Through the atoning work of the Lamb, human beings can become a new creation. The paradox is jarring; the blood of the Lamb whitens. It speaks to human need and God’s answer to that need. The imagery assumes substitutionary atonement and divine mediation.

The imagery of human beings washing their robes in the Lamb’s blood is symbolic of their inner alignment with the work of Christ in their behalf. Although the Lamb’s blood cleanses their robes (their very self), human beings are to be actively involved by consciously washing themselves in the Lamb’s blood. The realities of washing one’s robe and making it white in the blood of the Lamb provide incredible anthropological insight into human nature and being. It speaks to need and how human beings find inner change. It speaks of moral and spiritual realities beyond us, and something objective outside of us that we must avail ourselves of in order to experience them.

Under the Altar

The fifth seal’s mention of the altar—and souls under it—raises difficult questions. Is this altar in heaven or is it on earth? Which altar is being referred to: the altar of sacrifice (burnt offering) or the altar of incense? How can souls be said to be under the altar? Does this suggest an “intermediate state”—that the dead are in heaven prior to the end? Is there fluidity of apocalyptic thinking that makes it possible for the overlapping of images and the reality that more than one dimension may be at work, where one need not press the either/or question of the position of the altar and its relation to the throne or even what altar it might be? After all, John’s worldview and spiritual geography do seem to imagine a clear link between the realms of heaven and earth.

The word translated as “altar” is mentioned seven times in Revelation. In 8:3, 5, it is a “golden altar” that stands before the throne of God in heaven and appears to be the altar of incense representing the prayers of the saints. So also in 9:13. In 14:18 and 16:7, it is located in connection with narrated scenes in heaven in the context of divine presence as well.

The altar of sacrifice, however, is likely in Revelation 11:1, where it is to be measured along with the temple of God and those who worship there. Here the temple of God, the altar, and worshipers appear in close relationship with one another, but they are in evident contrast to the outer court, which was not to be measured (11:2).

Elsewhere, the New Testament makes a distinction between the temple and the altar with the latter obviously the altar of sacrifice (Matt. 23:35). Since the altar in Revelation 11:1 is mentioned independently from the temple of God, and that the altar of incense would be assumed as part of the temple proper (at the veil separating the holy from the most holy), the mention of measuring an altar in addition to that of the temple would mean the altar in view here is likely not the altar of incense but rather the altar of sacrifice.

Because in the fifth seal the souls are seen under the altar—as though they had been sacrificed upon the altar and their blood poured out at its base—it is suggested that the altar in view here (Rev. 6:9) is more likely the altar of sacrifice, where sacrificial blood was poured. In the Old Testament ritual, the blood of sacrificial victims was poured out at the base of the altar (Lev. 4:7).

If the altar of sacrifice is in view, it could be further understood that it would not be located in heaven, but rather on earth. Christian martyrs are viewed as sacrifices offered to God. In fact, they were slain on earth and their blood wet the ground. The view projects heavenward rather than in heaven itself. This would be consistent with the rather earthly and temporal realities of the seals, which contrast sharply with heavenly and eternal realities pictured in the throne-room visions (Rev. 4:1–5:14). It would also weaken notions of an intermediate state in which souls would be in heaven.

The preposition underneath, however, is emphatic, as in Revelation 5:3, 13, where the phrase “under the earth” is distinguished from “on the earth” or “in heaven.” Would John have used such forceful language if, following Leviticus 4:7, he were simply referring to the existence of souls “‘at the base’” of the altar? Could he not have described their position as being “in front of” the altar, as earlier he has seen what appeared “in front of,” or “before” God’s throne (Rev. 4:5, 6)?

“The seer’s choice of diction at this point reinforces the suggestion that the souls of the martyred, crying for vengeance ‘underneath the altar,’ were not initially in heaven at all, but far ‘below’ it, on earth: on the same territory which has just been affected by the disasters of the first four seals.”10 In other words, God’s people “sacrificed their lives on earth, and at a moment in history,”11 as on an altar of sacrifice. Yet their burdened plea, in effect, is still voiced at the heavenly altar, the altar of incense (imagery consistent with Revelation 8:3, 5). Both the fluidity of apocalyptic thinking—which makes it possible for overlapping of images and the reality that more than one dimension may be at work—and the clear link between the realms of heaven and earth would allow such.

In effect, in John’s cosmology, the heavenly altar is not far away from the earthly and may perhaps merge in the imagery. “The symbolism here encourages the hearer to consider that what may appear to be a hapless death at the hands of the powers of this world is in reality a sacrifice on the high altar of that other world.”12

Surely this is a visionary scene, in which there is symbolic representation of almost unimaginable spiritual realities: so, too, for the interest in anthropology.

The deeper significance of souls under the altar is tacitly connected with the worship that had been taking place on a comprehensive scale around the throne of God (Rev. 4:1–5:14). In the unfolding narrative of the sealed scroll vision (4:1–11:19), the adoring, heartfelt honor paid to God in the heavenly realm contrasts dramatically with the situation on earth in which few hold fast to God’s words and bear faithful testimony of His holy character. The seals and the trumpets reveal a world where the worship of God appears almost absent.

Nevertheless, it is a world where worship does take place—both true and false. In effect, altar refers more to worship than it does to any sacrifice or offering per se, or even spatially in terms of its location either on earth or in heaven, as worship is assumed in altar-oriented sacrifice or ritual wherever it might be. An altar is the place where acts of worship are performed, where gifts may be placed and ritual observances carried out in honor of supernatural beings. It is a connecting point between the worshiper and the divine. It assumes divine presence and access and reflects human beings as religious beings who worship.

Thus, Revelation’s first direct view of the people of God beyond the first century reality of the seven churches is not so much that they are slaughtered like their Lord, but as such they faithfully worship God, and that they do so in keeping with what is taking place in the overarching reality backdrop of the heavenly realm—beyond the rebellion, moral dysfunction, turmoil, and false worship on earth.

The reality of Revelation’s vast worshipping community includes different kinds of worshippers who worship in different ways at different distances from the throne. Living creatures, elders, angels, all of creation—those in heaven and those on the earth, both creatures and earthlings—are not only viewed as one, but located spatially around the throne of God and focused on God as Creator and Redeemer. And so the worship of God’s faithful, while emanating from earth, is portrayed as if in heaven itself.

In keeping with this imagery, the worship of the souls under the altar is twofold: first, in the giving of their very lives; and second, in their quintessential theodicy plea: “How long?” In this context of worship, it is not coincidental that Revelation’s vision of the souls under the altar introduces for the first time the term “fellow servants” (Rev. 6:11), which, as already noted, occurs later only in the context of the apocalyptic nature of “the testimony of Jesus” (19:10; 22:9). Both subsequent references, however, occur in a narrative setting of worship, each chronicling John’s own experience of falling down to worship his angel messenger only to be interrupted and corrected: “‘Do not do that,’” commands the angel, “‘Worship God!’” (19:10; 22:9). (Even for John, there is need to be reminded of both whom we worship and how we should worship.) Likewise, the vision’s corresponding reference to those “who dwell on” the earth finesses the contrasting reality of those who worship falsely—to the beast, his image, or the dragon (13:8, 12).

There is enough here to observe broadly the anthropological implications: Humans are religious beings who worship. The sense of the transcendent is at the heart of true humanness (Eccl. 3:11). Worship is intrinsic to human nature. All the issues and nuances of Revelation’s worship motif (both true and false, whether confession, character, or conduct, whether as ritual, theology, or narrative) revolve around this basic human characteristic of humankind in relation to God.

In particular, the theodicy plea of the “saints under the altar” highlights cosmic and existential dimensions of worship. Questions of theodicy and angst are projected as integral to genuine worship experience. They are the stuff of worship. Revelation’s worship shows how praise upholds the permanent truths about God acting in history and human life. It reminds us how heartrending prayer expresses the full gamut of trust, questions, protest, hope, and hopelessness. It expresses, too, the hurt and pleading on the part of God’s people for help. It protests the way things are. At bottom, though, it speaks to the intrinsic religious nature of human being and experience.

“How Long . . . Until?”

Somewhat related to the human sense of the transcendent, together with its corresponding impulse to worship, is human historical consciousness and how human beings cannot define the meaning of existence, except in terms of the past, present, and future. The saint’s plea for justice reflects a person as a historical being. It asks that God intervene in the reality of history: “‘How long . . . until You judge?’” (Rev. 6:10). “The judgment has not yet come to pass, and God’s people await it as a temporal event.”13 Their wait only extends, however, as the vision does not signify the end of their suffering: rather, salvation is postponed indefinitely it seems until their fellow servants experience a similar fate (vs. 11).

Time is implied as something measured and that moves on objectively (Rev 6:11). Temporal nuances are present with words like longer or still and until as well (vs. 11). The time-based assumption of their theodicy plea provides a subtle marker regarding historical and or time-sensitive material throughout the Apocalypse.

Revelation is a book about time and history. It has past, present, and future aspects of history intertwined throughout its message. Its highly symbolic imagery takes us to the cosmic and global, from ages past to eternity future, from heaven to earth and under the earth, using apparently timeless images and sequences to make its varied points. Nevertheless, it is grounded in human (and cosmic) history and assumes history’s flow toward a divinely appointed purpose. It encompasses the whole scope of human time and history. Because Revelation locates the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy within the flow of human history, it is consistent with real human nature and existence.

An understanding of history and the historicalness of humanity includes some key words or basic concepts: “a linear concept, contrary to a cyclical one; purpose, decision, action, and events; perception and value judgment morally based in God; a threefold time relationship of past, present, and future; a beginning and an end; a three-dimensional relationship of God to man, man to man, and man to God.”14

Humanity’s historicalness is part of humanness. Being and time run parallel. To be is to be in time. When time ends, so does being. Moral and spiritual realities of human being have to do with both what a human does in time as well as who he or she chooses to be in time. In the setting of time, actions and relationships produce concrete events within concrete time and thus are historical. Each person lives in historical time and is influenced by past and present historical processes. For better or worse, his or her own actions and relationships have historical consequences for which he or she is morally accountable. These are the anthropological assumptions unfolding in the Book of Revelation as a whole and hinted at in the fifth seal’s vision narrative.

The experience of human historical consciousness opens to view the reality of human beings as creatures of hope. Such is likewise expressed in the cry, “How long?” Human beings can both envision the future and desire something new, better. Hope is intrinsic to human nature.

Revelation is a book full of hopes and the God of hope who fulfills His covenant promises—to which the theodicy plea ultimately appeals (1:7; 21:1–22:5). Human beings measure hopefulness and hopelessness against the hope-crushing vicissitudes of their experience of life and the God whose vision of redemptive re-creation engenders hope no matter what.

Both the historicalness of a human being and his or her penchant to hope is undergirded by the historicalness of God expressed in the description of His character and existence: “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:4, NASB). By characterizing God as One “who is to come,” Revelation’s worldview unfolds sovereign providence overruling every phase of history, and every step of history moving toward the realization of God’s ultimate purpose or goal. This is something hinted at when the souls under the altar address God as “‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true’” (6:10, NIV).


The vision of the fifth seal (Rev. 6:9–11) contains some of Revelation’s most provocative and engaging images and provides a narrative motivation for God’s judgment. The query “How long?” is a crucial question for John’s whole story. It expresses a thematic pattern throughout the book of Revelation as well as provides the initial conceptual bracketing imagery in which John “sees the souls” of the martyred people of God (6:9; 20:4).

New items with little or no immediate precedent are introduced in the fifth seal vision. These new concepts become extremely important throughout the rest of the book. Several exhibit tacit anthropological implications, which are either nuanced in the vision itself or within the bracketed scope of the unfolding narrative.

That John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar has nothing to do with the state of the dead or their situation in the intermediate state or where people go at death. That he is not speaking about disembodied “souls” that have left their bodies after death and “gone to heaven” is made clear by his use of the word translated as “souls” throughout the book. Revelation 6:9 to 11 does not demand a dualist interpretation, but on the contrary is very much at home with an understanding of the human person as a whole being.

Revelation does not support the Platonic view of the immortality of the soul. It does not describe the soul as a separable and intangible entity of a person. Rather, the word soul means the person or the whole being itself. In the context of human beings, the depiction of the souls under the altar provides the broadest anthropological referent in an otherwise apocalyptic visionary context, suggesting that the cosmic conflict is concerned with the whole person, not just the physical body or the inner life.

The implications for anthropology touch the human phenomenon in its entirety—the inner, physical, personal, social, spiritual, moral, psychological, emotional, cultural, historical consciousness, and life-framing worldview. The human being and self would be both implied and nuanced in the unfolding cosmic narrative and theodicy. This nuances to the fullest the human angst toward theodicy and the scope of divine redemption envisioned in Revelation’s redemptive re-creation.

As the question of theodicy rises in the context of anthropology—it is human beings who ask questions of theodicy—the fifth seal’s impassioned cry of the “souls under the altar” opens a window into Revelation’s anthropology. It not only gives voice to the problem of justice and the character of God confronting heaven; it yields as well insights into human nature and being. It opens to view the human dimensions of the cosmic conflict and in doing so enables us to see human beings and human nature from several unique vantage points.

The book’s unfolding comprehensive anthropology points to human dignity, freedom, individuality, essential moral consciousness, religious nature, penchant for worship, wholeness of being, historical consciousness, and hope. Inner realities of human being and character are in view. Humanity’s fallen nature and its implications for human experience and existence likewise come into view. It is only human self-realization in the context of substitutionary atonement and the need of divine redemptive re-creation that humanity’s essential need is met, and he or she is restored to the fullness of human potential.

In the context of the fifth-seal narrative, the souls in view are already dead. They have lost their lives because of their witness to God’s Word. But those hearing (or reading) the vision are still very much alive. The rhetorical force of the vision is not an instruction to people who have died, but rather a communication to people who still live. Great significance is given to their own witness. It is not a casual matter of their personal preference to risk all by their witness or to retain their comfort and security. The living are to find their identity with the fellow-servants who likewise will give their all (Rev. 6:11)—and in doing so, worship at the heavenly altar. In the process the living themselves, in their own person and life, will experience the realities toward which the vision’s impassioned cry points.

Anthropology provides part of the real-to-life tapestry on which Revelation’s prophetic apocalyptic narrative of the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan unfolds. It is a reminder that the book’s symbolic and rhetorical use of anthropomorphic imagery reflects authentic human realities of being and action—both personal and social.

Most of these referents are tacit. Nevertheless, they reveal how Revelation speaks to all aspects of human life and need. They affirm that the geography of the final crisis reaches beyond any external and global dimension with its burdened question of theodicy and into the individual human heart and condition itself. These insights into the human dimension of the cosmic conflict enable an enriched understanding of the scope of the everlasting gospel (14:7) toward bringing hope of both a better human existence and better human being and action.


Larry L. Lichtenwalter, Ph.D., is Dean of Philosophy and Theology and the Director of the Adventist Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.



    1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. Accessed May 17, 2016.
3. Glancarlo Biguzzi, “John on Patmos and the ‘Persecution’ in the Apocalypse,” Estudios Bíblicos 56:2 (1998):212.
4. George Bradford Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1966), p. 82.
5. Stephen Pattemore, The People of God in the Apocalypse: Discourse, Structure, Exegesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 76. Italics supplied.
6. V. Norskov Olsen, Man, The Image of God: The Divine Design—The Human Distortion (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1988), p. 151.
7. Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (London: Epworth Press, 1964), pp. 32, 33.
8. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, op. cit., p. 88.
9. Jacques B. Doukhan, Secrets of Revelation: The Apocalypse Through Hebrew Eyes (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2002), p. 66.
10. Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 158.
11. Ibid., p. 159.
12. David L. Barr, Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Polebridge Press, 1998), p. 86.
13. Doukhan, Secrets of Revelation, op. cit.
14. Olsen, Man, The Image of God, op. cit., p. 123.