There are relatively few biblical passages that give us a look into Heaven. There are even fewer that include human beings. Revelation 6:9-11 is a short passage that does just that. What insights does it give?
The first thing to note is that this is part of the unsealing of a scroll within the throne room of God. The contents of the scroll are unspecified, but a good guess is that this scroll actually unveils God’s good plan for His people. Unfortunately, a fair degree of judgment has to fall on mankind before we get to the good stuff. Seven seals are ultimately broken. Most bring tragedy to the inhabitants of the Earth. The strange exception is the fifth seal. The fifth seal produces a vision for the author of Revelation, John.
John sees the souls of those who have been killed for being Christians. We are all aware that we will die somehow. When you are violently put to an untimely death because of your faith those left behind have to wonder “is this worth it”, at least a little. The vision given is a message for the living. The martyrs are not gone, they are living. They are close to God, and God is caring for them.
John says that he sees their souls. The soul is the immaterial part of our being. “Immaterial” just means that it is not properly a part of our current universe. Are souls “material” in Heaven? In the last verse they are given “white robes”. This is not apparel. Pulling on Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 5, I would conclude that the white robes are actually a Heavenly body. Or in other words, a physical body in Heaven to pair with the soul.
Their location is also interesting. They are “under the altar”. This sounds small, as if they were mice; but the dimensions of the throne room of God are likely very large. If this throne room is what is seen descending to the New Earth in Revelation 21, then the space under the altar could be the size of Kansas.
The martyrs seem a bit disgruntled but perhaps they are just being curious. “How long until you judge the inhabitants of Earth and avenge our blood?” This is not a complaint about being stuck under the altar, but rather a call for justice. God’s justice will come but not without time for repentance, time for all nations to hear the Gospel, and time for the total number of martyrs to be completed.
The final item seems like a weird criteria. Martyrdom seems like a bad thing. Even the martyrs don’t seem particularly fond of it. But God has set apart special honor for those who are willing to die for Jesus. He knows who they will be throughout time. None who are chosen would want to miss the opportunity of this honor. It is well worth it. Martyrs for Christ are being made to this day. Who knows when this will be complete, but each person brings us closer to Judgment Day. To be a “martyr” means that somebody kills you. You don’t kill yourself. The Muslim idea of martyrdom is more suicide and blasphemy than honorable. A real martyr gives a witness. That is what the word “martyr” means. It is a witness that shows I believe and trust God even unto death. Jesus gave such a witness about His love for us.
The vision is brief but instructive. In the period between death and Judgment Day, people who belong to God are consciously alive and in Heaven. Heaven is not their ultimate destination. Judgment Day will usher in the New Earth. Both Heaven and the New Earth are the gift of Jesus and something to look to with anticipation.