What are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

The so-called “four horsemen” are a figure in the Bible, representing four sets of terrible events at the start of the apocalypse, also termed the tribulation or the end times. The word “apocalypse” is Greek for “revelation”, which is also the name of the last book of the New Testament: The Revelation to John, or “Revelation” for short.

[Revelation 1]
{1:1} The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, in order to make known to his servants the things that must soon occur, and which he signified by sending his Angel to his servant John;
{1:2} he has offered testimony to the Word of God, and whatever he saw is the testimony of Jesus Christ.

[Revelation 6]
{6:1} And I saw that the Lamb had opened one of the seven seals. And I heard one of the four living creatures saying, in a voice like thunder: “Draw near and see.”
{6:2} And I saw, and behold, a white horse. And he who was sitting upon it was holding a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering, so that he might prevail.
{6:3} And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying: “Draw near and see.”
{6:4} And another horse went forth, which was red. And it was granted to him who was sitting upon it that he would take peace from the earth, and that they would kill one another. And a great sword was given to him.
{6:5} And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying: “Draw near and see.” And behold, a black horse. And he who was sitting upon it was holding a balance in his hand.
{6:6} And I heard something like a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A double measure of wheat for a denarius, and three double measures of barley for a denarius, but do no harm to wine and oil.”
{6:7} And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying: “Draw near and see.”
{6:8} And behold, a pale horse. And he who was sitting upon it, his name was Death, and Hell was following him. And authority was given to him over the four parts of the earth, to destroy by the sword, by famine, and by death, and by the creatures of the earth.

The Seven Seals are figurative, representing seven sets of events in the apocalypse. The first four Seals are also termed horsemen, because these four events are interrelated and occur about the same time. The fifth Seal does not occur until after the first four events end, and after a space of time between the first four events and that fifth event.

Which four sets of events does the four horsemen symbolize? There is some controversy over the answer. Different sources give different explanations. One common interpretation is that the white horse is the successful preaching of the Gospel (as a type of victory or conquest), while the next three horses are great sufferings during the tribulation. However, my analysis of the text and my study of eschatology leads me to a different conclusion, for several reasons:

The first four Seals are also called horses (or horsemen) because they are similar. But if we say that the white horse is the successful preaching of the Gospel, then the four events are not related. Does the successful preaching of the Gospel cause war, famine, and death? Of course not.

Another problem with that interpretation is that the Seven Seals are presented as seven terrible events of the end times. But preaching the Gospel successfully is not terrible. So we have seven events implied to be similar by their representation using the same symbols: Seals. Yet the first event is unlike the other six. Therefore, it is not fitting to represent it by the same symbol.

In addition, the events of the Seals await the end times. But the preaching of the Gospel, even if we add “successfully”, does not wait. It began with Christ’s successful teaching ministry, and it continued with great success in the early Church. So the world does not need to wait for the first Seal to be unsealed for this to happen.

Consider also, that the fourth horseman represents death, and this death results from the previous horsemen/seals. The sword (2nd horseman) and the famine (3rd horseman) each cause death, but the preaching of the Gospel does not. So again, the interpretation that the first horseman represents the preaching of the Gospel, as a type of conquest, does not fit the text.

What would happen if the Gospel were preached with great success, prevailing and conquering the world? Well, then there would be no tribulation, or at least the tribulation would be greatly reduced in severity. So I must reject the usual interpretation of the first horseman.

My interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the four horsemen is that they represent four interrelated sufferings. The first seal/horseman is the first great suffering of the apocalypse. Each seal is a terrible event that causes great suffering, as a punishment for the innumerable grave unrepentant sins of the world.

1. World War 3
2. severe civil unrest and violence
3. famine, even in wealthy nations
4. death and the fear of death

The bow and crown of the first horseman represent a major war. The horse is white, because the war is ordained by God to punish the Christian nations for their rejection of faith and morals. In the Old Testament, a passage parallels the text from the book of Revelation:

{6:1} And I turned, and I lifted up my eyes and I saw. And behold, four four-horse chariots went out from the middle of two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of brass.
{6:2} In the first chariot were red horses, and in the second chariot were black horses,
{6:3} and in the third chariot were white horses, and in the fourth chariot were speckled horses, and they were strong.
{6:4} And I responded and said to the angel who was speaking with me, “What are these, my lord?”
{6:5} And the angel answered and said to me, “These are the four winds of heaven, which go forth to stand in the presence of the Sovereign of all the earth.”
{6:6} The one with the black horses was departing into the land of the North, and the white went forth after them, and the speckled went forth towards the land of the South.
{6:7} Yet those who were the most strong, went out, and sought to go and to roam quickly through all the earth. And he said, “Go, walk throughout the earth.” And they walked throughout the earth.
{6:8} And he called me and spoke with me, saying, “Behold, those who go forth to the land of the North, have quieted my spirit in the land of the North.”
{6:9} And the word of the Lord came to me, saying:

World War 3 is a war of the Arab/Muslim nations of the Middle East and northern Africa against Europe and its Allies. This war can be discerned from the signs of the times. Islamic terrorism, the spread of ISIS and Islamic extremism, and the attempts by Iran to obtain nuclear weapons are all preparations for World War 3.

The white horses go forth to the land of the North, as do the black horses. The white horses represent the Arab/Muslim nations attacking to the north, into Europe. The black horses represent famine, as is clear from the third horse, which is black, and whose rider weighs out (rations) different types of food. So the famine will be most severe in Europe, and less severe in other parts of the world.

The red and speckled (or pale) horses are the most strong (Zech 6:7), for they affect the whole world. The second horse is red, and his rider takes peace away from the world. So the red horse (second event) is severe unrest and violence — but not the violence of war. This is the violence of crimes, rioting, violent protests and the like. The peoples of the world will be gripped by fear when the tribulation begins (with the first horseman, war). And so they respond with desperation and violence and lawlessness. World War 3 is limited to Europe and the Middle East. But the civil unrest is worldwide.

The pale horse represents death, for the first three events cause a vast number of deaths: hundreds of millions will die. But this horse also represents the fear of death, and the harmful effects that this fear has on society worldwide.

The destruction that occurs “by the creatures of the earth” includes disease epidemics because diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses (which are in some sense “creatures”).

These four events are interrelated. The War includes the use of nuclear bombs (perhaps only two; it is not an all-out nuclear war). The War is initiated by Islamic extremists, who also undertake terrorist acts in various places. So the war results in fear. This fear then leads to outbreaks of civil unrest and violence everywhere. For the Islamic extremists think to conquer the whole world, forcing everyone to convert to Islam or be killed, and they will have the ability to strike anywhere with nuclear bombs. The disruption to society caused by the war and unrest lead to a famine, for the food production and distribution system today requires stable economies and the ability to ship foods efficiently around the world. Also, fear will cause people to rush to the stores, buying up as much food as they can obtain, leaving grocery shelves empty.

Then these first three events obviously cause many deaths from war, violent crimes, and famine. The famine may kill some persons by a sheer lack of food. But it more often will simply weaken people, by insufficient food and nutrition, making them more susceptible to disease and death.

Much more on this topic in my books of eschatology here.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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