The Revelation has 22 chapters, and each verse is packed with allusions not only to the OT but also the apocryphal literature and perhaps even Greek materials. And there are plenty of excellent commentaries that cover this ground.
Therefore, to avoid over-taxing the patience of the readers, I’m going to hit the high points of the remaining chapters, until we get to the very end of it all. We’ll linger a bit over the last two chapters.
But I figure there are a number of particular images that merit pondering in greater depth. There are certain passages, such as the Thousand-Year Reign, that have captured the church’s imagination over the years.
I don’t claim any special insight, but hopefully, like you, I’m curious. What do these things mean?
The Revelation has a handful of references to “souls” in heaven —
(Rev. 6:9 ESV) 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.
(Rev. 8:9 ESV) A third of the living creatures [souls] in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
(Rev. 12:11 ESV) And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives [souls] even unto death.
(Rev. 16:3 ESV) 3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing [soul] died that was in the sea.
(Rev. 18:11-13 ESV) 11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.
(Rev. 18:14 ESV) 14 “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!”
(Rev. 20:4 ESV) 4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
The Greek word sometimes translated “soul” is psychē (or psuchē). In the Septuagint, psychē translates the Hebrew nephesh. The NT use of psychē is always colored by the OT usage of nephesh.
Now, we desperately want to read “soul” the way it’s used in popular English speech — to refer to the eternal part of the human that survives death. This is a very Platonic concept, and there are verses where it might fit, but lots of verses where it clearly doesn’t fit at all.
For example, in Rev 8:9 and 16:3, “souls” refers to sea creatures — not even people — and to their mortal existence. This would not surprise a scholar of Gen 1. After all, in the LXX we find —
(Gen. 1:20 ESV) And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures [souls], and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.”
(Gen. 1:21 ESV) So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature [soul] that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
(Gen. 1:24 ESV) And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures [souls] according to their kinds– livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so.
John is taking his vocabulary from Gen 1 — where “soul” refers to sea creatures and land animals — and has nothing to do with eternal existence.
In Rev 12:11, “soul” means mortal life — the life one gives up when he dies.
In Rev 18:13, “soul” refers to slaves, that is, human life in captivity.
In Rev 18:14, “soul” refers to the inward man prior to death.
Thus, only Rev 6:9 and 20:4 sound like the immortal part of a human. And both passages speak of martyrs for Jesus — Christians who gave their lives. And yet Rev 12:11 also refers to martyrs —
That John has the martyrs in mind is clear from the words they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 20; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 158.
And so, with respect to martyrs, their “souls” in 12:11 is simply their lives. And this makes better sense of Rev 6:9, which speaks of the martyrs’ “souls” being under the altar of heaven. In the Temple, the blood of the sacrifice was poured under the altar — and the Torah says — over and over — that the “life” is in the blood.
In fact, there’s wordplay in the Hebrew and Greek making this very point —
(Lev. 17:11 ESV) For the life [soul] of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life [soul].
Therefore, the better translation in Rev 6:9 and 20:4 is “life” rather than “soul,” because the point John is making is that the martyrs’ have given up their lives in the form of shed blood, the life is in the blood, and so their blood/lives are now underneath the altar as a sacrifice, but a sacrifice which cries out for God’s justice. It’s just that when the Bible speaks of there being “life” in the blood, the Greek word is psychē and the Hebrew is nephesh — because these words don’t refer to the eternal part of our being.
This translation better fits the Torah passages alluded to as well as NT theology that, contrary to Greek thought, does not image a “soul” being in heaven after we die. Rather, the biblical concept is that we’ll have resurrected bodies — just like the body of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrected body was very different from an ordinary human body, but it was a body. After all, it was Jesus’ body that left the tomb. His soul didn’t fly off to heaven while he body remained in the grave.
In further support of this view, consider —
(1 Cor. 15:42-46 ESV) 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.
This is not badly translated at all, but the translation hides the meaning of “soul.” Let’s try it with Greek subtitles —
(1 Cor. 15:42-46 ESV) 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural [psychikos = soul-ish] body; it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikos = spirit-ish] body. If there is a natural [psychikos = soul-ish] body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being [psychē = soul]”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit [pneuma = spirit]. 46 But it is not the spiritual [pneumatikos = spirit-ish] that is first but the natural [psychikos = soul-ish], and then the spiritual [pneumatikos = spirit-ish].
When Paul needs to reach for a word that means “natural” or “mortal,” he grabs psychē, that is, “soul.” Our bodies are, first, natural/soul-ish/psychikos. But for the saved, after we die, we experience the resurrection, and our bodies are no longer natural/soul-ish/psychikos but rather they become supernatural/spirit-ish/pneumatikos.
Paul could not be plainer that “soul” in the NT vocabulary refers to the mortal portion of our existence.
Therefore, the “souls” John see beneath the altar are the lives of the martyrs — their natural lives sacrificed for the sake of Jesus — crying out for vengeance so that the resurrection may take place.
Or to put it another way: yes, it’s their souls, but “souls” refers to their natural lives, not to their immortal lives. What is preserved is not their immortal essence but the sacrifices they made. They gave their very lives, represented as blood poured out under the altar, which cries out as does the blood of Abel —
(Gen. 4:10 ESV) And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”