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We all recognize the feeling of being stuck in a holding pattern and waiting for something important to happen that will make things change for us. This is exactly what the souls under the altar in the book of Revelation were going through. Understanding this—and how it relates to us—comes down to correspondences.
So what are correspondences? Well, eighteenth-century philosopher and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg learned that everything in life and in the Bible has a symbolic connection to a spiritual truth. And these correspondences in the book of Revelation can help us understand the Last Judgment, which according to Swedenborg, actually happened in the spiritual world. It’s worth noting that there are actually two levels of correspondence in this passage: a correspondence to the spiritual history of the world, and a correspondence to our own spiritual journeys.
Let’s take a look at this passage in detail.
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. (Revelation 6:9)
These souls are referred to as “slain” because hatred is spiritual murder, and they were hated by corrupted Christian spirits who resented them for living a spiritual path in accordance with the Word. For corrupt and hypocritical spirits, nothing threatened them more than people who lived in this way.
These spirits took such pleasure in their hatred for the Lord that they could hardly stop themselves from trying to destroy his faithful servants.
‘Those who had been slain’ mean those who were rejected by evil spirits and who were hidden away by the Lord, removed from the sight of others and kept safe up to the day of the Last Judgment. . . . They were rejected and hidden away due to the fact that they were hated by everyone else because of their belief in the Lord and because of divine truth. (Apocalypse Explained §392:3)
Here’s the first place that the personal spiritual correspondence comes in. This dynamic can also occur in our own minds: we may start out with the best of intentions about being good people, only to be attacked by negative thoughts that pull us back to a miserable state. Here we have the reassurance that the Lord is going to take care of it and help protect the best parts of ourselves, if we trust him.
So that’s who the souls are, but what does it mean to be under an altar? In this context, the altar refers to heaven, and those who are under it are good people who are not yet in heaven but are being protected by the Lord from evil spirits who set out to ensnare the good with their false teachings.
Since the souls were under the altar, it is apparent that they were being protected by the Lord. For the Lord protects all people who have lived some life of charity, to keep them from being harmed by the evil; and after the Last Judgment, when the evil have been removed, they are released from their asylums and elevated into heaven. (Apocalypse Revealed §325)
Since these good spirits are protected from direct interference, all that’s left for evil spirits is to stir up their negative emotions and false ideas. Again, this is something that also happens in our personal journeys. If there is goodness in us, we sometimes go through temptations or spiritual crises as we’re attacked by negative feelings. We talk about this in more detail in a previous episode called “What Temptation Is”—what’s really happening here is that nasty things are being brought into the open so they can be addressed and released.
When we come into spiritual trials, we come into the company of spirits devoted to falsity, who tie up our thoughts and hold them bound in prison, so to speak. They constantly pour in arguments against the truth we believe, and call out the evil actions of our life. But the Lord continually protects us by flowing in from an inner level, and in this way keeps us constantly resisting. This is what spiritual temptations are like. (Apocalypse Explained §138)
But it was difficult for the souls under the altar to see the state of things in the world of spirits being exposed, so they cried out to the Lord for help, distressed as to how long it was taking for him to judge the evil ones. Here we’re shifting to a correspondence with spiritual history: people on earth saw corruption in the church and evil being done by those who should have embodied holiness, and the people wondered why the Lord didn’t act to stop it right away.
We may experience this on a personal level, too. When we see unfairness in the world, we might wonder why it’s allowed to happen. Why do people get away with doing bad things? It may feel like God is just absent, or doesn’t care.
And what response did those agonized souls receive? White robes. These robes were more than just clothing, though; they represent a connection to angels who are devoted to divine truth. That connection protected them from their time of trial and doubt, allowing them to understand what was really happening behind the appearances. The same thing can happen with us on earth when we go through personal trials.
This also takes place with those who are raised by the Lord into heaven. They are then clothed with white robes, which is an indication that they are in divine truth, and thus in safety. (Apocalypse Explained §395)
So how long were they going to have to wait? In terms of spiritual history, the answer was that the process would take a little more time, because there needed to be enough good people to create a new heaven. But not only did good people need to be ready to form that heaven, but the evil spirits needed to be completely exposed and in turn expelled.
The same thing happens within us. Sometimes the things that we like the most about ourselves are actually coming from a selfish, egotistic root. When you listen to those evil voices in your own head, then it’s harder to hear and follow your own good impulses. It takes time for the goodness to accumulate inside us so that we can be ready to cast out our own negative voices and impulses.
So, to recap: This passage from the book of Revelation reveals as much about ourselves as it does about the spiritual history surrounding the Last Judgment. In both cases, it’s all about making sure that good people stay safe from evil—and sometimes that means just waiting that evil out while doing our best to do and stay good.
Related Swedenborg & Life Videos
“The Last Judgment”
“The Meaning of the Book of Revelation: 7 Churches”
“The Meaning of the Book of Revelation: The Throne Room”
“The Meaning of the Book of Revelation: The Four Horsemen”
“What Temptation Is”
“Who Was Swedenborg?”
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In a lighthearted and interactive webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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