Read Revelation 6:9–11
1. BRIEF INTERPRETATION OF THE VISION OF SOULS UNDER THE ALTAR (REV. 6:9–11)
What John sees is not heaven itself but a symbolic vision of heaven. Nevertheless, the vision would be meaningless if it did not in any way reflect reality. Accordingly, just as we have a ped ect right to draw certain conclusions from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) with respect to the life hereafter, so this same principle applies here.
Now in this vision John beholds the altar, which here appears as the altar of burnt-offering at the base of which the blood of slaughtered animals had to be poured out (Leviticus 4:7). Underneath this altar John sees—the blood of the slaughtered saints. He saw the souls, for “the soul is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). They had offered their lives as a sacrifice, having clung tenaciously to the testimony which they had received concerning the Christ and salvation in him. Now, these souls were crying for vengeance upon those who had slaughtered them.
To each of these slaughtered ones a white, flowing robe is given, symbolizing righteousness, holiness, and festivity. To them is given the assurance that their prayers will be answered, but that the time for the judgment day has not yet arrived. Hence, these souls of the martyrs must enjoy their heavenly repose “for a little time” until every elect has been brought into the fold, and the number of the martyrs is full. God knows the exact number. It has been fixed from eternity in his decree. Until that number has been fully brought in, the day of the final judgment cannot come.
Now in connection with this vision, is not the conclusion warranted that these souls under the altar have been resting for some time, are resting now, and must rest a little longer? Are they not then living in three tenses even in glory? Compare Outline XXV. Says Dr. H. Bavinck, “…they have a past which they remember, a present in which they live, and a future which they are approaching” (op. cit., pp. 709, 710).
2. DO MEMORY (THE PAST), FAITH (THE PRESENT) AND HOPE (THE FUTURE) GO WITH US TO GLORY?
First, as to the memory exercised with respect to the past. According to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the former remembers that he has five brothers on earth (Luke 16:28). In the day of judgment certain wicked individuals remember that they used to prophesy, cast out demons, and perform many mighty works (Matthew 7:22). Have the righteous no memory at all? Even Matthew 25:37–40 does not really teach this, but implies rather the opposite. Moreover, how will the redeemed ever be able to sing the new song, in which they praise God for his wonderful redemptive acts (Revelation 14:3; 15:3,4; cf. 5:9) if they have no memory of these acts? And does not even the singing of this song imply a certain movement, from the line that has been sung, to the line which is being sung, and thus on toward the line that is about to be sung? Does it not imply past, present, and future, therefore, even in heaven? True, indeed, by far most of the redeemed have no physical voices until the day of the resurrection. But is singing, therefore, impossible? Are not the glorious refrains ringing in their hearts? It is not true that even here on earth “in my heart there rings a melody…there rings a melody of love”? Call these songs symbols, if you wish, they surely are symbols of something that is very, very real.
If it has now been established that memory purified of every sinful stain, but memory nevertheless, goes with us to heaven, a memory, naturally, with reference to the past, what about faith regarding the present?
It has been argued that now we have faith, but then we shall have sight. Cf. II Corinthians 5:7. Think of the familiar lines:
“Faith will vanish into sight;
Hope be emptied in delight.
Love in heaven will shine more bright,
Therefore give us love.”
Now in a certain sense it is indeed true that faith will vanish. Belief in the promise, considered as still unfulfilled, will be replaced by delight in the fulfillment of that promise. But certainly faith in the sense of active trust in God will be present in the hearts of God’s children even in heaven. How could it be otherwise? In fact, in the better land faith is shining forth more gloriously than ever, for never will the anguished cry be heard, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!”
But what about hope with reference to the future? The fact that hope, too, goes with us to glory is still the best interpretation of I Corinthians 13:13. Hope, as well as faith and love, abides when “that which is perfect is come,” and when we shall see “face to face.” Even now the spirits of the redeemed in heaven, in the midst of their joys, are fully cognizant of the fact that this is no more than the intermediate state. They are, as it were, reaching forward to the time when they will receive their glorious bodies, when they will be joined by all those who will one day belong to their number, when all together they will inherit “the new heaven and earth,” and when their Lord will be publicly vindicated. It is very true what Dr. Johannes G. Vas says in his article “The Intermediate State” (Christianity Today, May 12, 1958, p. 12): “Scripture represents the intermediate state as provisional, constituting neither the ultimate bliss of the saved nor the ultimate doom of the lost. It forms, in effect, a transition…”
In heaven, then, the souls of the redeemed really live, thanking God for his blessings in the past, cleaving to him in the present, and anticipating a future still more glorious than the present in which they already rejoice. Life in three tenses, therefore, and this even in glory.
3. BUT DOES NOT THIS VIEW OF THE INTERMEDIATE STATE IMPLY THAT FOR HUMAN INDIVIDUALS THERE WILL IN SOME SENSE BE “TIME” EVEN IN HEAVEN?
The idea that time in every conceivable sense will be completely absent from the life hereafter has taken firm root in the minds of many people. It has been incorporated in the lines of familiar hymns; for example, “And he swore with his hand raised to heaven, that time was no longer to be.” If we may rely on the student-notes of the lectures of Dr. A. Kuyper Sr., then this great theologian and stateman spoke with deep conviction on this matter. He was sure that in the intermediate state there would be no “time.” He relied heavily on Revelation 10:6, to which he refers more than once: “And he sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer” (see Dietaten Dogmatiek, Locus De Consummatione Saeculi, pp. 102, 103). It is to be deplored that the great theologian to whom we owe very much failed to make a more detailed, exegetical study of the text on which he leaned so heavily. In the light of the context a different translation is surely to be prefelTed. The text of both the American Standard Version and of the Revised Standard Version has a far better rendering, namely, “there shall be delay no longer,” or “there should be no more delay.” The new Dutch translation is similar: “er zal geen uitstel meer zijn.” Personally, I am in agreement with Dr. H. Bavinck, who states (op. cit., p. 709) : “…those who have died remain finite and limited beings and cannot exist in any other way than in space and time. The measurement of space and the computation of time, to be sure, will be entirely different on the other side of the grave than they are here, where miles and hours are our standard of measurement. But even the souls that dwell there will not become eternal and omnipresent like God…They are not raised above every form of time, that is, above time in the sense of a succession of moments…”
I stress, however, that I also agree with Dr. Johannes G. Vas, who, in the article already mentioned, states, “J. Stafford Wright has suggested that in the intermediate state the human mind will be geared to a different kind of time-scale from that of the physical universe, though we cannot guess what it might be (Man in the Process of Time, Eerdmans, 1956, p. 179). Scripture indeed suggests this. The duration between their martyrdom and their resurrection is represented to the souls under the altar as ‘a little season’ (Revelation 6:11); yet, in terms of historic time it must be at least 19 centuries…it seems probable that time as we know it in the present life does not exist in the intermediate state. ‘When the soul or mind is separated from the body, clocks and calendars cease to have any relevance to the person.”
So, when the question is asked, “Is there time in heaven, in the sense of a procession from the past into the present, and so into the future, a succession of moments,” I say with Bavinck, “Yes, indeed.” When the further question is asked, “Will it be time as we know it here?” I say with Bavinck and with Vas, “No, indeed.”
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions Answered in the Outline
1. Explain the vision of the souls under the altar.
2. Would you say that these souls are living in three tenses?
3. Does memory go with us to heaven?
4, Do faith and hope go with us to heaven?
5. Are the redeemed going to be like God, raised above time? Will time be measured there as it is measured here?
B. Additional Questions
1. How can we justify this cry for vengeance of these souls under the altar? See my More Than Conquerors, p. 128.
2. “Where they count not time by years.” Do you agree?
3. Is hope possible if there be no time in any sense?
4. Distinguish between hope here and hope there.
5. Why is love called “the greatest of these”?