Updated: Jan 19
The apocalypse is an event described in every religion. Ragnarok for the Norse, Kali Yuga for the Hindus, Frashokereti for the Jews, The Seven Suns for the Buddhists, the Blue Star Kachina for the matriarchal Hopi tribe, and so on. They have different names and different versions, but they all point toward the end of times, humanity, and the world.
The Christians’ story is one such myth. You might have heard of Armageddon from popular media sources, such as the Good Omens show or the movie Armageddon itself. Personally, I feel like the show explained the myth better.
Armageddon is first mentioned in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, the Book of Revelation 6:1–8, as part of a prophecy by John of Patmos. The Christian apocalyptic vision is that the Four Horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment. The chapter tells of a book or scroll in God's right hand that is sealed with seven seals. The Lamb of God opens the first four of the seven seals, which summons four beings that ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses.
The prophecy describes a period of time when a quarter of the population of the earth would be killed by a combination of wars, famine, and disease.
It describes the causes as:
A conquering people whose weapon was the bow: "I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest."
People engaged in constant war: "Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given the power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword."
High food prices leading to famine: "Before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"
Disease: "I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him." These four are then summed up as follows, "they were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by the sword (war), famine, and plague and by the wild beasts of the earth".
Though theologians and popular culture differ on the name of the first Horseman, the four riders are often seen as symbolizing:
Conquest or Pestilence (on a White Horse)
War (on a Red Horse)
Famine (on a Black Horse)
Death (on a Pale Horse)
Ø Conquest/Pestilence on a White Horse
"Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, Come. I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer." — Revelation 6:1-2 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Based on the above passage, a common translation into English, the rider of the White Horse (sometimes referred to as the White Rider) carries a bow and wears a victor's crown. In Revelation 6, the rider has just one crown given, not taken, indicating a third person giving authority to the rider to accomplish his work.
As an Infectious Disease (Pestilence or Plague)
Under another interpretation, the first Horseman is called Pestilence and is associated with infectious disease and plague. It appears at least as early as 1906 when it is mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopaedia. The interpretation is common in popular culture references to the Four Horsemen.
The origin of this interpretation is unclear. Some translations of the Bible mention "plague" (e.g. the NIV) or "pestilence" (e.g. the RSV) in connection with the riders in the passage following the introduction of the fourth rider; "they were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth." (Revelation 6:7-8 NASB). However, it is a matter of debate as to whether this passage refers to the first rider, or to the four riders as a whole.
Symbolic of the Lamb
Irenaeus, an influential Christian theologian of the 2nd century, was among the first to interpret this Horseman as Christ himself, his white horse representing the successful spread of the gospel. Various scholars have since supported this notion, citing the later appearance, in Revelation 19, of Christ mounted on a white horse, appearing as the Word of God. Furthermore, earlier in the New Testament, the Book of Mark indicates that the advance of the gospel may indeed precede and foretell the apocalypse. The colour white also tends to represent righteousness in the Bible, and Christ is in other instances portrayed as a conqueror.
Ø War on a Red Horse
"The second Horseman, War on the Red Horse as depicted in a thirteenth-century Apocalypse manuscript. When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, Come. And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him." — Revelation 6:3-4 NASB
The rider of the second horse is often taken to represent War. The second Horseman may represent civil war as opposed to the war of conquest that the first Horseman is sometimes said to bring. Other commentators have suggested that it might also represent the persecution of Christians.
He is often pictured holding a sword upwards as though ready for battle or mass slaughter. His horse's colour is red and in some translations, the colour is specifically a "fiery" red πυρρός, from πῦρ, fire). The colour red, as well as the rider's possession of a great sword, suggests spilled blood. The sword held upward by the second Horseman may represent war or a declaration of war, as seen in heraldry. In military symbolism, swords held upward, especially crossed swords held upward, signify war and entering battle.
Ø Famine on a Black Horse
"When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, Come. I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the centre of the four living creatures saying, A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not damage the oil and the wine.” — Revelation 6:5-6 NASB
The third Horseman rides a black horse and is popularly understood to be Famine as the Horseman carries a pair of balances or weighing scales, indicating the way that bread would have been weighed during a famine. Other authors interpret the third Horseman as the "Lord as a Law-Giver" holding the Scales of Justice. In the passage, it is read that the indicated price of grain is about ten times normal (thus the famine interpretation popularity), with an entire day's wages (a denarius) buying enough wheat for only one person, or enough of the less nutritious barley for three, so that workers would struggle to feed their families.
Sparing the Oil and Wine
Of the Four Horsemen, the black horse and its rider are the only ones whose appearance is accompanied by a vocal pronunciation. John hears a voice, unidentified but coming from among the four living creatures, that speaks of the prices of wheat and barley, also saying "and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine". The black horse rider is instructed not to harm the oil and the wine which signifies that this scarcity should not fall upon the superfluities, such as oil and wine, which men can live without, but upon the necessities of life—bread. This suggests that the black horse's famine is to drive up the price of grain but leave oil and wine supplies unaffected (though out of reach of the ordinary worker). One explanation for this is that grain crops would have been more naturally susceptible to famine years or locust plagues than olive trees and grapevines, which root more deeply. The statement might also suggest a continuing abundance of luxuries for the wealthy while staples, such as bread, are scarce, though not totally depleted. Such selective scarcity may result from injustice and the deliberate production of luxury crops for the wealthy over grain, as would have happened during the time Revelation was written. Alternatively, the preservation of oil and wine could symbolize the preservation of the Christian faithful, who used oil and wine in their sacraments.
Ø Death on a Pale Horse
"When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come." I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death, and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth." — Revelation 6:7-8 NASB
The fourth and final Horseman is named Death. Known as "Θάνατος/Thanatos", of all the riders, he is the only one to whom the text itself explicitly gives a name. The Greek word for plague is θανάτῳ, which is a variation of Θάνατος, indicating a connection between the Fourth Horseman and plague.
This fourth, pale horse, was the personification of Death with Hades following him jaws open receiving the victims slain by Death. The verse begins with "they were given power over a fourth of the earth" which is generally taken as referring to Death and Hades, although some commentators see it as applying to all four horsemen. Its commission was to kill all upon the earth as one of the four judgements of God—with a sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. As for the wild beasts of the earth, according to Edward Bishop Elliott, it is a well-known law of nature that they quickly occupy the scenes of waste and depopulation—where the reign of man fails and the reign of beasts begins.
Unlike the other three, he is not described as carrying a weapon or other object, instead, he is followed by Hades (the resting place of the dead). However, illustrations commonly depict him carrying a scythe (like the Death), sword, or other implements.
The colour of Death's horse is written as khlōros (χλωρός) in the original Koine Greek, which can mean either green/greenish-yellow or pale/pallid. The colour is often translated as "pale," though "ashen,", "pale green," and "yellowish green" are other possible interpretations (the Greek word is the root of "chlorophyll" and "chlorine.") Based on uses of the word in ancient Greek medical literature, several scholars suggest that the colour reflects the sickly pallor of a corpse. In some modern artistic depictions, the horse is distinctly green.
if you want to read about the scientific apocalypse, check out Carolyn's article in issue 33.