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).