The Four Horses of the Apocalypse . . . and a Fifth
I recently came across this cartoon that portrays the famed horsemen of Revelation aside a fifth horse and rider named “Misinformation,” which illustrates the pandemic. I found the illustration quite compelling, as our world is indeed experiencing apocalyptic events like conflicts, natural disasters, and pandemics these days. Some people feel that evil forces are behind the scenes, trying to control us. Others believe today’s events are fast fulfilling Biblical prophecies. What would John, the writer of Revelation, think about all this?
I do not wish to idealize or limit the four horsemen in a way that the writer of Revelation did not intend to portray them. I understand Revelation to be deeply theological—as it provides a way to view reality in our own times—rather than merely reflecting Christian history. Its visions are not all futuristic predictions, nor have they all been fulfilled through past historical realities. They remain meaningful today for explaining the pains of human life, many of which remain eschatological, by teaching us about end-time events and final redemption.
I admit that the cartoon prompted me to seek deeper understanding about the four horses and horsemen. New Testament theologian Sigve Tonstad’s book Revelation is an amazing source of insightful commentary on them. Tonstad argues that the riders should be understood as a group. I think this makes sense, especially in light of the military actions, raging pandemic, and misinformation gripping our world today. How can we view these four horses as working together rather than as a sequence of events from ages past? Is the white horse good, while the others portray something bad? Or might all the horses symbolize Christ’s victory, sacrifice, and judgment and their eternal consequences for society? Perhaps the horses represent evils that enter the world but are not caused by the will of God (Revelation, 2019 pp. 122–126).
With this in mind, what can we make of the cartoon’s fifth horse named Misinformation that rides alongside the others? Misinformation and the subversion of truth are certainly plaguing our world today. Are the ills of misinformation absent from the four original horses, driving a need for some updating? Perhaps misinformation is already riding as one of these horses, smoothing the way for evil to do its work. Perhaps these horses portray the same reality and create collaborative effects in the world through conflict, disease, and death, while all centering around misinformation and manipulation. Might the white horse represent deception, as a parallel example in Matthew 24 might suggest? Jesus seems to explain that deception, war, famine and pestilences come together (Mathew 24:4-7). However you interpret the white horse, know that misinformation and deceit are a major theme in the Book of Revelation.
As I considered the theology portrayed by the horses, I pondered whether the horsemen represent a rejection of allegiance to God’s kingdom. The white horse may depict the good and the others evil, or the horses all may belong to the opposing side, expressing all that is wrong in human history. If the horsemen reflect resistance to the Lamb’s message as He reveals the contents of history, then they wildly gallop forth as carriers of doom. It is pretty clear that the last three horsemen reveal to us what happens when people do not choose to follow the way of the Lamb. Jesus remains victorious as He exposes the deception, violence, and evil in society. Rejecting the gospel that Christ brings leads to an absence of life; war and militarism, economic injustice, pestilence, and death are always present when people do not choose the way of the kingdom.
In Afghanistan, we are seeing once again how war and military enforcement do not fare well. The reality of war-making has been exposed as mere violence and military power as resulting in failure. Militarism, unjustified war, warmongering, violence, and persecution are all byproducts of the red horse. Economic injustice, greed, misuse and want, slavery, usury, economic instability, and destruction are results of the black horse. Contagious disease, pestilence, biological disaster, industrial despair, and ecological devastation arise from the pale horse. Each of these horses is a consequence of rejecting the kingdom of God.
Where is God in all this? Jesus is presented as the Lamb at the center of it all, revealing these truths and enhancing our understanding. God is not unleashing these evils on our world. Though not the author of death and suffering, God allows these consequences of rejecting the Lamb’s ways while standing in stark contrast to the self-centered ways in which the world continues to operate (Revelation 6:4, 8). The unhealthy expressions of this world are not the way of Jesus, who conquers with redemptive and healing love. The kingdom of God refuses all other approaches to leadership and political aspirations to power. Jesus’ ways oppose the ways of this world, and only He is deemed worthy. He has given His life in self-giving love. He loved His enemies and continues to love each of us. God is the author of love and remains consistent with His redemptive love right up to the final days of history.
Might the horsemen represent our world’s resistance to God’s redemption that seeks to invert the beautiful creation God guides us toward? Where do I find myself in all this? I understand that bad things will continue to happen in this broken world and that I am included in its suffering, but I can choose how to respond to the ways of God’s kingdom and His redemptive love. I know the reality of this world is only temporary, because Jesus’ victory is secure.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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