Tag Archives: Revelation 6

The “Souls Under the Altar” (Rev. 6:9-11) and the State of the Dead (Seals 5)

Some readers take this passage literally and assume it proves that the “souls under the altar” are conscious after death. But such a view is contrary to many other texts, such as Genesis 2:7, Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 12:7. Not only that, it is contrary to the whole biblical perspective on human nature. Human beings in the biblical concept are not dual beings, with a mortal, physical body and an immortal, immaterial soul. They are unified wholes. In the Hebrew understanding, there is no consciousness apart from a body and no afterlife without a bodily resurrection. In Hebrew thinking, the body is like the hardware of a computer and the “spirit” that returns to God (Eccl. 12:7) is like the software that God installed in the body at creation (Gen. 2:7). As with computers, the software is critical but does not “run” apart from the hardware. So the Hebrews saw human beings are unified wholes.

If Revelation 6:9-11 is taken literally, it contradicts the view of human nature taken up in the rest of the Bible. But this text is clearly symbolic, echoing the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:10-11) and the Altar of Burnt Offering in the Hebrew sanctuary, which is the only object in the sanctuary where anything happens at the base (Lev. 5:9).

The souls under the altar have been martyred (“slain,” KJV, NIV) for their faithfulness to God’s Word. In Hebrew thinking, the blood represents the life of the one whose blood is shed (Lev 17:11-14). Referring to the martyrs, Revelation 16:6 tells us that their blood was “poured out” (an allusion to what happened at the base of the altar in the sanctuary) by “the inhabitants of the earth” (a phrase consistently applied to the wicked in Revelation). What is the relationship of martyrdom to the sanctuary service? Jesus predicted in John 16:2 that those persecute His followers would think that they are offering “sacrificial service” (Greek: latreian) to God.

So the souls under the altar are not in a disembodied state in heaven. The Altar of Burnt Offering represents the cross of Christ and the persecution of His believers on earth. The martyrs only come to life again at the beginning of the millennium (Rev. 20:4). As was the case with the blood of Abel, the martyrs are depicted as on earth, not in heaven. The crying out of the blood is a metaphorical way of saying that the things done to them are held in remembrance by God until their resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus (1 Thess. 4:16).

The Seals and the People of God (Seals 4)

The judgments of the seven trumpets clearly fall on the wicked (Rev. 9:4, 20-21), those who have no interest in the gospel and live their lives in rebellion against God and hostility toward those who serve Him. The negative judgments of the seven seals, on the other hand, fall on those who have heard the gospel, may even profess is, but are ultimately found to be in opposition to true faith, and the teachings of the Bible. Their faith in the end is portrayed as sinking into a diseased and dying state. But God has not, at the point of the four horsemen, given up on them. There is still hope.

In the book of Revelation, Satan’s kingdom is described as having three parts (16:13, 19). In light of that, it makes sense that the judgments of the trumpets fall on thirds of the earth (Rev. 8:7-12). The trumpets affect portions of Satan’s kingdom throughout history since the time of Christ. In contrast with the trumpets, the seven seals concern “fourths” of the earth (Rev. 6:8). If three parts belong to the kingdom of Satan, the fourth part would be the people of God. Thus we see the white horse of the gospel in contrast with the red, black and pale horses of increasing opposition to God.

Just as the curses of the covenant in the Old Testament fell on the people of God (Lev. 26:21-26; Deut. 29:15-68), so do the curses of the New Testament covenant. The difference is that Israel in the New Testament is not determined in ethnic or geographical terms, it is determined in relation to Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus chose twelve disciples to follow Him, all who are in genuine relationship with Jesus belong to His New Israel (Matt. 19:28-30). The positive and negative judgments of the four horsemen, recall a passage in the message to Laodicea; those who follow Jesus in name only He rebukes and chastens (Rev. 3:20) for their sake.

What the Four Horses Represent (Seals 3)

The theme of Revelation 4-5 is the heavenly throne and the threat to that throne. The theme of Revelation 6 is the curses of the covenant. The word “curse” here does not mean profanity, it is a legal term that expresses the consequences of disobedience, of breaking the laws or norms of society or the kingdom of God. These curses were express in Old Testament texts like Leviticus 26:21-26, Deuteronomy 32:23-25, and 41-43, and Ezekiel 14:12-21. In the Old Testament these curses were described in terms of sword, famine, pestilence (contagious disease) and wild animals. The consequences of disobedience to the covenant were sometimes expressed as seven-fold curses (Lev. 26:21, 24). These curses of the covenant were sometimes executed in the Old Testament by four horses of different colors (Zech. 1:8-17; 6:1-8). So the four horses of the Apocalypse have a rich background in the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament the covenant was between God and Israel as a nation. The blessings and curses of the covenant occurred in a literal and national fashion, in other words, prosperity or adversity was visited on the nation of Israel as a whole. If the nation as a whole was faithful to God, the nation as a whole prospered in some very material ways (Deut. 28:1-14). If the nation as a whole was not faithful to God, the nation as a whole suffered war, famine, pestilence and poverty (Deut. 28:15-68). The covenant was between God and the nation of Israel. The curses of the covenant were the consequences of disobedience, and involved very material things.

In the New Testament, on the other hand, faithfulness to Israel’s covenant is determined in relation to Christ. As such they are more individual than collective, more spiritual than material, and more worldwide in implications than on any particular earthly nation. Those who are faithful to Christ, who are in relationship with Christ, are blessed in a spiritual sense (John 12:32; Acts 13:32-33; 2 Cor. 1:20). Those who reject Him, and are out of relationship with Him, are under the curse. They suffer the spiritual consequences of that condition; strife, division, ignorance of God and His Word, and spiritual sickness and rebellion. This appears to be the central theme of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Summary of the Four Horsemen (Seals 2)

On the surface the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8) portray all kinds of literal war, famine and pestilence (as these images do in Matthew 24 and parallels). But a careful examination of the images, and their contexts within the book and in the rest of Scripture, leads me to believe that the four horsemen actually portray the progress of the Gospel and the spiritual consequences of its rejection. This interpretation depends on the identity of the white horse and its rider (6:1-2).

While some suggest that the rider on the white horse represents a counterfeit of Christ and the gospel, white in Revelation always represents the things of heaven, Christ or His people. There are no exceptions to this, unless the first seal IS the exception. Furthermore, the crown (Greek: stephanos) worn by the rider is the victory crown (like an Olympic gold medal, not a royal one). With only one exception (Rev. 9:7), this kind of crown is always associated with Christ and/or His people in the New Testament. Not only so, in the first five chapters of Revelation the word for conquering (Greek: nikôn, nikêsêi) always refers to Christ and His people (see, for example, Rev. 3:21 and 5:6). In Matthew 24, which has many parallels with Revelation 6, war, famine and pestilence occur in the context of the gospel going out to the world (Matt. 24:14). If the white horse does not represent the gospel, that theme is missing in Revelation 6, which is otherwise parallel to the Olivet Discourse of Jesus. So the imagery in the white horse and its parallels with the Olivet Discourse point to the white horse as representing the progress of the gospel.

There is more. The rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 is clearly Christ, and that rider is parallel to this one. The clearest allusion to the Old Testament outside of the covenant curse sequences is Psalm 45. This is primarily a love song, the references to battle are incidental to its main theme. To cap it all off, the first horse produces no afflictions on the human race, as do the other three. There is simply a reference to conquering, a term that is elsewhere in Revelation used in a spiritual sense. So the preponderance of the evidence points to a figurative meaning in relation to the gospel.

Is it possible, however, that the white horse and its rider are introduced here as counterfeits of the gospel? Could all of the positive imagery be explained in that way? It is possible, counterfeit is certainly a major theme in the book of Revelation. But when the counterfeits occur elsewhere in the book they are always clearly exposed as such to the reader. For example, the Christ parallels in Revelation 13 are in a context of blasphemous opposition to God (Rev. 13:1, 6) and war against the saints (Rev. 13:7). Exposing counterfeits is one of the main reasons the book was written, but it will only succeed in that mission by clearly showing whose side each character is on! Unlike Revelation 13, in Rev. 6:1-2 there is no hint of evil, rather the positive imagery is abundant. While the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 wears the royal crown (Greek: diadêma) rather than the victory crown, the difference is explainable in terms of different stages of the conflict. Revelation 6 represents the church militant while Revelation 19 represents the church triumphant. The focus of the four horsemen seems to be the ongoing victory of Christ and the subsequent progress of both the gospel and resistance to the gospel. This fits perfectly with the context in chapter five.

Summary of Revelation 6, The Seven Seals (Seals 1)

Chapter six describes the events that occur as the Lamb breaks the first six of the seven seals. This scene follows directly on the vision of the heavenly throne room in chapter five. A careful study of this chapter exposed a number of interesting
Themes, which I will explore at greater length in posts to follow:

1. The Four Horsemen (Rev. 6:1-8) Portray the Progress of the Gospel and the Consequences of Its Rejection. This interpretation depends on the identity of the white horse and its rider (6:1-2).
2. The Main OT Background of the Four Horses Involves the Curses of the Covenant. The OT covenant, with its blessings and curses, is adopted in chapter six as a metaphor of the gospel.
3. The Judgments Portrayed in Revelation 6 Affect the People of God. This builds on the covenant promises and threats made to Israel in Lev. 26 and Deut. 32.
4. The “Souls Under the Altar” Passage Does Not Address the State of the Dead. The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11) has often been misused to argue consciousness after death.
5. The Adventist Reading of the Sixth Seal Is Supported by the Text. Close reading of Rev. 6:12-14 indicates both a movement in time in the passage and the literal meaning of sun, moon and stars.

This chapter in the book of Revelation is one of the more difficult ones to understand. This leaves scholars with two main and seemingly contradictory readings of the four horsemen in particular. One sees them along the lines of Matthew 24 as a symbolic portrayal as the work of Christ and the gospel throughout the course of Christian history. The presentation of the gospel compels decision and thus divides the world into two classes of people. Those who reject the gospel enter a downward slide leading to ultimate destruction. The second reading sees all four horsemen as negative, including the rider on the white horse. In this reading, the seals describe not the work of Christ but the work of Satan, which God permits him to do, a work of lies, deception, force and torment. Both readings are appealing in many ways. I prefer the first reading because to me the evidence that the white horse is a positive entity seems compelling. More on this in the next blog.

Chapter six is clearly based on chapter five. The chapter opens with “and” (Greek: kai), indicating a connection to what precedes. At the close of chapter five, the Lamb is holding the scroll (5:7-8) and receiving the worship of the heavenly host (5:12-14). John continues looking (both chapters begin with John saying “and I saw”—5:1; 6:1) and sees the Lamb open seal after seal (6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12). The fact that Satan does not appear in the heavenly visions of Revelation four and five is further evidence to me that the satanic reading of Revelation six is not to be preferred.

The events that occur as each seal is opened are not the content of the scroll. All seven seals need to be broken before the scroll can be unrolled and its contents seen (see 6:14). The events unleashed by the breaking of the seals are events on earth that lead up to the opening of the scroll, which seems to be associated with the consummation of human history and possibly even the whole cosmic conflict.