The Four Horsemen aren’t what you think they are…

A popular topic in some Christian circles is the Apocalypse – or the end of days. People have made a whole lot of money on the topic. Never mind that the folks who make all sorts of predictions always get it wrong – somehow there are plenty of people who continue to listen to these hucksters selling their latest books, videos, courses, conferences, and assortment of other merchandise designed to end money being in your account.

In particular, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are popular. There are drawings of these guys that show them looking fierce and mighty and angry. And there is an assumption that they represent terrible things that will take place.

Scholars debate the meaning of the four horsemen. Many scholars look at the entirety of the book of Revelation as a judgement of the Roman Empire. The Empire was abusive and exploitive, bringing death and destruction to any who would oppose it. The four horsemen represent the consequences of empire – all empires.

A common way of thinking about the four horsemen is to consider what each horseman represents. I recommend reading Revelation 6 for the biblical description.

Here’s the summary:

  • The first horseman is described in Revelation 6:2 – “I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.” This horseman is often associated with the idea of conquest.
  • The second horseman is described in Revelation 6:4 – “And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.” This horseman is often associated with the violence of warfare.
  • The third horseman is described in Revelation 6:5-6 – “When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’” This horseman is often associated with famine.
  • The fourth horseman is described in Revelation 6:8 – “I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.” This horseman is often associated with widespread death.

If you are worried about these things happening in some kind of grand way, due to some future event, here’s what I have to offer you – pay attention. Not to the future, but right now. What if the four horsemen aren’t about some kind of horrific future event, but rather a way for the author of Revelation to describe what was going on?

Conquest has been going on for a long time. It still happens today. Borders are never stable. Look at a map from 100 years ago, and look at one today. There are many countries that didn’t exist 100 years ago that do today. Wars have been fought over land for most of human history. Conquest is a part of our experience as humans. And we find it rather normal. So normal that we track history based on war events more often than not. And that’s not counting the conquest that goes on in business, sports, education, religion, culture, entertainment, etc. This horse rides far and wide.

Likewise, violence of warfare has been a common aspect of humanity. We’ve had terrible wars. World wars. Threats of war. Humanity has fought over everything we could imagine. At any given time there are multiple wars going on somewhere in the world. The US has been in a war almost non-stop since WWII. This horse has ridden for most of human history pretty much uncontested and assumed to be a normal thing.

Famine doesn’t seem like it’s all that popular right now. That’s mostly because if we look at this from Western eyes, it doesn’t seem that bad. But famine has had plenty of work. There are still places that suffer from famine. Poor countries struggle to survive and when a disaster strikes, famine sets in. Sometimes these disasters are the result of the wealthier western countries too. And we get to think we are superheroes by swooping in with some aid for a couple of weeks – at least until the news cycle moves on to something more exciting that will keep viewers’ attention. But famines can come in a variety of ways. There are food famines of course. But there are truth famines, cultural famine, empathy famines, integrity famine, and more. Famine is a severe lack of food. Food feeds us and nourishes us. So do these other things, but in different ways. And we think these famines are normal.

And lastly, widespread death. Hmm, seems to me that we’ve gotten familiar with this again through COVID-19. Millions worldwide have died from this virus. Many die every day from a variety of things that are terrible and destructive – gun violence, racism, injustice, climate change, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence, war, hatred, murder, etc. Humanity is so used to widespread death that it thinks it’s normal.

The four horsemen aren’t some kind of future event that will be obvious. No, they already ride. We just pretend we don’t see them more often than not. We prefer not too. Because if we actually acknowledged them as riding along right now, we’d have to do some self-examination. We’d have to question our cultures and expectations. We’d have to question our history. We’d have to face the sinful and unjust systems we are a part of and possibly have promoted and defended. Instead, we tell ourselves that the four horsemen are about something terrible in the future, not things that have been going on for a long time and that go on right now.

Those horsemen will continue to ride. There won’t be some cataclysmic event that makes their presence obvious. There’s a good portion of humanity that wouldn’t believe it anyway. They already don’t want to believe the vast amounts of conquest, violence of war, famine, and widespread death that exist and go one right now. Humanity is the one animal that is really good at fooling itself into thinking that it can alter reality and that there are no consequences for such foolery.

Ride on horsemen. Ride on. It seems as though humanity isn’t interested in stopping you. In fact, the vast majority of humanity has cheered you on. They just prefer you visit those other people over there and leave us alone.

But as Scripture show, it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to expect the four horsemen to be the norm. We don’t have to pretend that they aren’t riding along right now. We can deal with reality, and go forward on a different path leaving the horsemen behind. But I wonder if we have the courage to leave the horsemen behind. It means that we do things differently. I means that we interact in a different way. It means that we see the image of God in others – especially our enemies. It means we become peace makers, not peace keepers. It means we move towards wholeness and interconnectedness, not toxic individualism. It means we live into the faith that we claim to have.

I’m tired of the horsemen having full reign and riding wherever they like. Aren’t you? I’m tired of expecting them to be normal. They aren’t. Time for the horses to go in the stable. Time for the horsemen to put their weapons away. Time for peace. Time for restoration. Time for wholeness.

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