Dead People Crying Out? How to Understand Revelation 6

I’m famous (not at all) for pointing out that the Bible teaches that people don’t have immortal souls. That, when we die, our souls don’t just live on and go to heaven. It helps if we first understand the simple formulas for life and death that the Bible provides:

life = body + spirit

death = body – spirit

The formula for life first appears in Genesis 2:7, which says that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” The breath of life is spirit. A living being is a soul. You can see this in the original language and the ways those words are used elsewhere. Body + Spirit = Soul (a living being).

The formula for death is easy to see in Ecclesiastes 12:7, which says that “the dust returns to the earth where it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Body – Spirit = Nothing. The death process is the reverse of the life process.

According to the Bible, “spirit” does not equal “soul”; Genesis 2:7 makes a clear distinction between them. The soul does not return to God upon death; the spirit does (because it’s God’s breath, the life force). The soul (living being) ceases to exist until the resurrection—when the spirit (life force) reenters a body.

I posted something about this on my Facebook page recently. Someone asked a really good question in response: “What do we do with the imagery in Revelation 6 that depicts a bowl of souls, which are crying out for God’s justice?”

The referenced passage is Revelation 6:9-10. “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 testimony they had held. They cried out with a loud voice … .”

Here’s my answer.

3 Possible Interpretations

When the meaning of a passage isn’t immediately and obviously understood, we must first identify the possible interpretations. I can think of three for this passage:

  1. This is literal language referring to disembodied souls of dead martyrs.
  2. This is literal language referring to martyrs who died and were resurrected.
  3. This is symbolic language.

Next, we must consider each possibile interpretation.

Possibility #1

Possibility #1 is that this is literal language referring to disembodied souls of dead martyrs.

This isn’t consistent with what the Bible teaches about life (a soul is a living person that is a combination of body and spirit) or death (death is like sleep, the dead know nothing, and the dead are silent).

This possibility doesn’t make sense considering that the souls were given robes (verse 11). What would a disembodied soul do with a robe?

Similarly, it doesn’t make sense that disembodied souls would be in a certain location. There’s no matter to occupy space. Even if they were embodied, being under an altar—literally rather than symbolically—is mighty strange. But, then, the rest of the passage is mighty strange if it’s literal.

That leads to the last point for Possibility #1. The rest of the passage is replete with elements that make more sense as symbols than they do as literal things (e.g., animals of symbolic colors, a pair of scales, and a rider named Death who is followed by Hades). Why would this one part be literal when it’s surrounded by symbols?

Possibility #2

Possibility #2 is that this is literal language referring to martyrs who died and were resurrected.

The Bible certainly teaches that the dead will be resurrected, so we’re okay there; it’s more a question of timing. After martyrs died in Bible times, they “did not receive the promise. For God provided something better for us, so that with us they would be made perfect” (see Hebrews 11:35,37,39-40). It’s fair to say that this references the resurrection of the dead in Christ at the second coming. It certainly indicates that, at the time of the writing of Hebrews, they had not been resurrected. Were they resurrected between the writing of Hebrews and the writing of Revelation? It’s highly unlikely, and there’s nothing to indicate that.

That being said, it’s possible that this is a representative selection of martyrs who were resurrected and ascended to heaven. But, I’m not aware of any mention in the Bible of a special ascension other than Moses, Elijah, and Enoch. Plus, this would leave us with that mighty strange notion of people literally being under an altar.

Possibility #3

Possibility #3 is that this is symbolic language.

As I’ve mentioned, a literal interpretation doesn’t make sense in a few ways. The entire passage makes more sense if it’s taken as symbolism.

What’s happening in the Revelation 6 passage is strongly reminiscent of what the Bible says about Abel, the first martyr (who happened to be murdered in relation to a sacrifice on an altar). After his murder, God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel “still speaks through his faith, though he is dead.” Hebrews 12:24 references “the sprinkled blood that speaks better than that of Abel.”

These references to Abel indicate that, metaphorically, he communicates. The symbolism is a good match for Revelation 6:9-10. The same thing is being communicated: martyrs must be avenged. The next seal (the sixth, beginning in verse 12) introduces that vengeance (God’s justice).

The passage also connects to something Jesus says in Luke 18:6—“‘Shall not God avenge His own elect and be patient with them, who cry day and night to Him?’”


Possibility #3—that this is symbolic language—makes the most sense of the three possibilities, and it’s the only one that’s consistent with the rest of scripture. As always, the Bible provides a coherent message.

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