The biblical book of Revelation is itself a puzzle to most. One of its great misunderstood mysteries is the haunting depiction of four horses and their terrible riders galloping across time. Are these ominous horsemen no more than a stunning caricature for a modern-day video game? Or does this ancient imagery provide an essential perspective for those of us living in the 21st century? The answer may surprise you.
In this special presentation, we’ll examine an ancient puzzle that provides remarkable insights into present and future world conditions.
In the biblical book of Revelation, Jesus Christ opens a scroll sealed in seven places. As each seal is broken, specific conditions and events are revealed. These are prophecies that affect the entire world. The first four opened seals release four different-colored horses and their threatening riders, freeing them to gallop across human history. But what do they symbolize? Without a way to solve this mystery, we can only speculate. But fortunately, the key that unlocks their meaning is available.
In Revelation chapter 6, we find the beginning of this remarkable vision: “And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” Here we find specific images, symbols intended to help readers understand coming events.
The first rider carries a bow and wears a crown (the original Greek means “a laurel wreath,” the ancient symbol of a conquering victor). This horseman has often been confused with the returning Christ described in chapter 19 of Revelation, because He also rides a white horse. Many believe that the first horseman of the apocalypse pictures the gradual triumph of organized Christian religion beginning 2,000 years ago. But Revelation 19 reveals a different individual than chapter 6.
The returning Christ is dressed in a robe stained with blood, wearing many diadems, not a single laurel wreath. He is accompanied by many angelic beings on white horses, and His weapon is not a bow but the sword of His mouth. The obvious differences between the two images suggest that the first of the four horsemen represents a counterfeit or false messiah. And this is exactly what we find in the explanation that Jesus Himself gave to some of His disciples on the Mount of Olives more than 60 years before this vision. He told them there about the future progression of world conditions. What He said is the interpretive key that unlocks the symbolism of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and gives their meaning for today.
Looking down on the Temple Mount, the disciples asked: “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” In reply, Jesus first warned that events seeming to indicate that the end is imminent do not necessarily mean that it is. He said, “Take heed that no one deceives you.” Then He added the first global condition to be aware of: “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:5). In Mark’s parallel Gospel account the same deceivers claimed, “I am He” (Mark 13:6); another way of saying it might be “I’m the chosen one.”
Jesus’ warning here about not being fooled parallels the first broken seal in Revelation. He clearly identifies Revelation’s white horseman. Men who claim to be “the anointed one” are false messiahs, men who counterfeit the future role of the true returning Christ.
Just how do they do that? A counterfeit is not easy to spot. It’s so close that it could be the real thing except to the trained eye. So Jesus warned against being deceived by human beings who claim to be the Messiah—that’s to say, specially chosen and anointed by God to lead. Such people present themselves as the only ones who can solve all problems.
More often than not a false messiah will combine religion and politics in an effort to be accepted as the anointed one. Take the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine. He’s the man credited with Christianizing the Roman Empire; yet his claims to be equal with the apostles, even God’s agent, were not borne out by his behavior. Long after declaring the empire Christian, He was involved in the murder of his wife and son, and his sister’s stepson.
Other more recent examples of the false messiah include Napoleon, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao Zedong. All of them took advantage of the language of religion and its imagery, stirring up religious fervor, and they got their followers to virtually worship them because they seemed to have all the answers. Of course, all these false messiahs failed, precisely because they were false. They also brought great destruction on the world, including their own people. Millions died because of their violent rule, their purges and their wars.
Almost every one of these false messiahs led their deluded followers into war. And that’s what comes next in the sequence of the four riders. According to Jesus’ warning, in the wake of false messiahs would come the scourge of war, represented by the rider of the red horse: “When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, ‘Come and see.’ Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword” (Revelation 6:3–4).
Jesus gave the key to understanding this horseman when He said to His disciples: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matthew 24:6–7a).
Again he stressed that conflict and war do not necessarily signal the end of this era. War has plagued humanity since the beginning of civilization. Jesus said that it would continue to be so until the end, because it’s a natural consequence of false claims, wrong ideas, misguided policies and ruinous ideologies. War is also the end result of blind obedience to leaders filled with egocentric ambitions.
Napoleon Bonaparte was primarily a warrior. An obvious example and incarnation of the first rider on the white horse, he was famously shown wearing a victor’s laurel wreath in both life and death. But his leadership also brought the red horse at full gallop onto the world scene. In Napoleon’s time, France was at war with four other colonial powers: the Spanish, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British. Napoleon’s aggression sent French forces around the globe. Like so many before, Napoleon positioned himself as a savior, but he proved false and he promoted the red horseman’s devastating ride. It’s estimated that between 3.5 and 6 million people died in his wars.
Joseph Stalin’s 20th-century record was certainly worse. Violence and war, domestic and international, characterized his regime. Cynical manipulation of religious sentiment underscored the duplicity of what in pure numbers was arguably one of the most murderous regimes in human history.
We could talk in detail about the warfare and violence of other false messiahs of the 20th and 21st centuries, including Mussolini and Mao, Cambodia’s Pol Pot and the Kim dynasty of North Korea. The story would be the same: totalitarian cruelty, wrongful imprisonment, and the brutal death of millions. The red horseman often rides in the wake of the false messiah. False christs bring on total war.
When Jesus told His disciples about the conditions that would long precede His return, He was also showing them that human beings have certain tendencies. Like sheep, they follow false messiahs down the path of deception, and they are inclined to accept the inevitability of war. Human nature is also implicated in the red horseman’s ride.
Military historian Victor Davis Hanson notes, “Conflict will remain the familiar father of us all—-as long as human nature stays constant and unchanging over time and across space and cultures.” His conclusion is that “war is an entirely human enterprise” (The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern, 2010).
The red horse also represents the human tendency to rely on force rather than seeking peace. Former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the harsh realities of war when he said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
War is certainly an ongoing part of our present human condition. But the red horseman of war can lead directly to a third devastating world condition: “When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine’” (Revelation 6:5–6).
As we’ve seen already, Jesus had explained to His disciples that deception and war would become two long-lasting global conditions. Now He added this warning: “And there will be famines . . . in various places.”
It’s well established that as war takes its toll, food supplies dwindle. War causes disruption of food production and distribution chains. People are often unable to buy what little remains. Theft and desperation spread quickly.
In first-century Roman times, a denarius was about a day’s wages. Wheat for human consumption was generally more valuable than barley, which was mostly used for animal feed. The words about not harming the oil and wine may be ironic. If suppliers were profiting from producing the more lucrative items and cutting back on staple foods, they could make famine worse. Crippling food shortages certainly occurred a few centuries later as the Roman superpower slowly collapsed under its own weight and the attacks of invading tribes.
In the 19th century, the black horse also appeared in sequence after the white and red horses, when the Chinese false messiah Hong Xiuquan promoted himself as savior. He fought his own countrymen for 14 years, during which time at least 20 million are thought to have died, many from famine.
Joseph Stalin went to war with his own citizens in the late 1920s when he launched an attack on Soviet farmers. He was determined to wipe them out as a class. This led to a catastrophic famine and the death of millions of people.
In a similar move, Mao Zedong declared a war of sorts on his people, a violent attempt to advance China industrially on the backs of the populace. Between 1958 and 1961, Mao ordered the nation’s agricultural sector to produce as much food as possible. It was to be sent to the Soviet Union in exchange for industrial help. False claims were made about the country’s improving productive capacity, and critically needed foods were exported.
By 1961, farm laborers themselves were being forced into industrial production. But bad weather, poor harvests and the diminished agricultural workforce brought about the death of 30–40 million from starvation and overwork. Mao refused to accept that his policies had caused the worst famine ever in China, if not in world history. Instead he blamed those party officials who criticized his ideas.
The black horse and its rider represent terrible famines that have destroyed millions of lives in one more chapter in the history of human tragedy. And let’s emphasize that many of these deaths were caused by the policies and decisions of delusional leaders.
But it’s not just a lack of food that leads to famine. The precursor is sometimes a lack of water. Tragically, a child dies from hunger-related causes every six seconds. Freshwater is currently under threat for almost 80 percent of the world’s population. Without adequate water supplies, food cannot be produced. Population growth and increasing prosperity are exerting demands on resources that cannot be withstood. Without coordinated strategies, the potential for disastrous consequences looms.
The earth has a fixed amount of water, of which 97 percent is saltwater and only about 3 percent is fresh. Of the freshwater, only one third of it is accessible; the rest is trapped in ice and glaciers. In terms of freshwater, agriculture alone takes up 70 percent. Added to this is the reality that the three largest countries by population—China, India and the United States—are engaged in unsustainable water use in grain-growing areas. Complicating matters is the fact that both meat consumption and population are increasing. Industrialized meat production is far more water-intensive than grain production. This means that without radical changes in eating patterns, the already high amount of water needed for agriculture will only increase.
The white, red and black horsemen of widespread deception, war and famine provide the tragic lead-in to the next devastating condition. The fourth broken seal reveals a fourth horseman. Beyond the catastrophes brought about by the first three riders, comes the next: “When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him.”
We saw earlier that in Matthew’s Gospel, some of Christ’s disciples came to Him on the Mount of Olives looking for information about the end of this age and the beginning of the kingdom of God. We read that Jesus gave several warnings about ongoing conditions that would typify the world’s decline. He warned not to be deceived into thinking it’s the end when false messiahs, war and famine disrupt the world. Now he gave a fourth condition, which like the others signals only the beginning of the process that leads to the end: He said, “And there will be . . . pestilences . . . in various places” (Matthew 24:7).
This parallels the fourth horseman’s ride. His horse is grey-green like the color of so many who are sick and dying. The rider’s name is Death—the death that comes from pestilences, epidemics and plagues.
Opportunistic infections and sickness often come in the wake of war and famine. Malnutrition means that the immune system is suppressed in a way that is very like the collapse of the body under a full-blown attack of AIDS or ebola. Illnesses that are rare find a foothold that healthy people would usually resist. Under famine conditions mortality rates may be much higher than in normal times. And during and after wars, epidemics can spread quickly. During the Thirty Years War in the 1600s, typhus killed millions before it was halted. It returned with a vengeance in World War I, when millions more died in Russia, Poland and Romania. At the end of the same war in 1918–19, the Spanish flu may have killed as many as 100 million across the globe as soldiers returned home.
In John’s apocalyptic vision, the pale horse’s rider is accompanied by Hades—the grave, the last resting place of the terminally ill. Then comes this summary statement about what the four horsemen will have caused in total in terms of human life: “And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8). In combination the riders of the four horses bring death to 25 percent of the world’s population. It’s a sickening statistic, even more so when you realize that much of it comes at man’s own hand.
The Four Horsemen began to ride some 2,000 years ago, and they continue to this day. Yet despite all the terrible death and destruction they bring, there is good news at the end of their terrible journey.
The same Jesus who provided the key to understanding the meaning of the mysterious four riders will also come to put an end to their destructive power. As the book of Revelation also shows, the returning true Messiah will halt the white horseman’s final ride. He will replace the ultimate false messiah, end deception, and establish a society based on truth. As for the warring red horseman, Christ will eradicate conflict and violence as the Prince of Peace. One of Christ’s other names is Yahweh-Jireh, “the faithful God who provides.” Consistent with this title, He will return to end famine by providing rainfall in the right seasons, plentiful water supplies, and an abundance of food. At that time epidemic disease and sickness in general will give way to another aspect of the work of Christ, because He is also named Yahweh-Rapha, “the faithful God who heals.”
Finally the Four Horsemen will be no more, and the effects of their destructive ride across the earth will be a remnant of a past to be quickly forgotten.