"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?" Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been." (Rev 6:9-11)
The passage above, is often erroneously quoted as "proof" of the doctrine of the "Immortality Of The Soul". However, when it is used that way, it contradicts the great weight of other Scripture, which plainly says that :-
Since the rest of Scripture tells us plainly that the dead are "asleep" and that "the dead know not anything", these verses cannot be saying the opposite!
A BOOK OF SYMBOLS
We must be cautious about applying literal meanings to the symbols used in the Apocalypse. Especially, it is very dangerous to use such a vision as a foundation for theology about "inherent immortality of souls".
The Apocalypse is largely a book of prophecy about events future to John's day. It is a record of John's vision of the long period of history between the first century and the final establishment of the Kingdom Of God on earth.
John uses symbols which properly understood, and with the hindsight of nearly 2000 years since John's day, enable us to identify broad time periods in history. We are able to recognise events leading up to the final day of Judgement and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. We are able to perceive the part played by empires, and the Apostate Church, as they impact on God's people.
"SOUL", "PSUCHE", & "NEPHESH"
The word "Soul" in this passage, is from the Greek word "Psuche".
This is a fairly complex word with a variety of meanings. According to the lexicons, it means "animal life" or "breath" or "the inner self". Bromley's Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament says that it is "natural and physical life". Sometimes it means simply "the person". It does not mean " immortal soul".
The Hebrew equivalent in the Old Testament, is "nephesh".
When God says "the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11) the Hebrew word translated "life" is "nephesh". Other similar uses of "nephesh" in this way, are found in Gen 9:4 & Lev 17:14.
John's vision of "souls under the altar" is using an Old Testament symbol to prophesy of a time which was to come, when many would be martyred; sacrificing their lives for the word of God.
The use of the word "altar" in Rev 6:9, reminds us of the Brazen Altar in Lev 4:7, where the blood of the sacrifices was poured out at the base of the altar. Figuratively speaking, the "nephesh" of the sacrifices can be said to be in the blood that is under the altar.
It is worth noting that John nowhere says that this altar is in Heaven. The "sacrificial altar" on which the vision said these martyrs would shed their blood is actually on earth ..... not in Heaven.
THE LOUD VOICE
As to the dead crying out to God ..... that also is another picture from the Old Testament. Compare this vision with similar figurative language which God used about the blood of Abel which "cried from the ground". (Gen 4:10)
John's vision is not given to say that martyred saints can speak from beyond death. They could not literally be doing this because other scriptures tell us plainly that they are dead. They are asleep, and they "know not anything". (Eccl 9:5) But for the purpose of the vision they are made to speak with a "loud voice".
This is no different to "the voice of Abel's blood". Abel's blood did not have a literal voice. But God could see it, and "hear" its silent effective witness to murder.
Just so with these martyred saints. Their blood also cries out in witness against those who had murdered them. Although the voice is not literal, it is "loud". It will be heard. For God it speaks eloquently, against their murderers.
THE WHITE ROBES
These white robes are also mentioned elsewhere in Revelation.
Rev 7:13-17 tells us that they are to be worn by the resurrected saints who have gone through a period of great tribulation, sealing their obedience in blood, but rising again to worship before the throne of God, in The Kingdom Age.
Rev 19:6-8 tells us that "fine linen, bright and pure" is the righteous deeds of the saints who are the Bride of Christ.
The time for the saints to receive these white robes is clearly beyond the resurrection, when Jesus will be seated on His throne.
However in John's vision, the robes are awarded in prospect , to reassure living readers that the lives of the martyrs have not been sacrificed in vain.
The vision is also an encouragement for living readers who may themselves be confronted with the prospect of their own martyrdom. They too are reassured of their own place in the resurrection of the righteous.
THE JUDGEMENT OF THE PERSECUTORS
The martyrs are depicted as crying for vengeance. Of course this cannot be taken literally as something uttered by followers of Jesus!
This only serves to reinforce that this is a vision with a symbolic meaning. In the face of martyrdom, true saints do not call for vengeance. Instead they bless their enemies, asking God to forgive. (See Stephen's words in Acts 7:60.)
Vengeance must be left to God. (Rom 12:19)
The time for this is described in Revelation Chapters 18 & 19 & 20. There the future destruction of all who persecute the saints, is described in fearsome detail.
THE TRIBULATION OF THE SAINTS
In the meantime, John's vision says to his readers, persecution will not cease immediately. There is more to come.
Until Jesus returns, the "tribulation of the saints" can be expected to continue from time to time. Many more will be called to lay down their lives during the times of persecution which lie ahead.
John's vision still speaks in our day. Any in our own time, and in any future time prior to the return of Jesus, are given the same assurance that faithfulness unto death will not be in vain.
will receive the "white robes" which will be given to those who have come
out of the "Great Tribulation". (Rev 7:13-17)