What Are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Conquest, War, Famine, and Death

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, depicted from right to left, are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. Painting by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848–1926).

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are among the most dramatic images in the Bible. Described by the apostle John in Revelation 6:1-8, the four horsemen are graphic symbols for the destruction that will come to the earth during the end times.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are dramatic and symbolic warnings of the death and destruction to occur at the end of days.
  • The four riders represent conquest, the violence of warfare, famine, and widespread death.
  • The four horsemen ride on a white, red, black, and pale horse.

As Revelation 6 opens, John sees Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, begin to open the first of seven seals on a scroll. The scroll represents God's future judgment of people and nations.

Leading up to this point, everything that John saw in Revelation 4 and 5 was taking place in heaven—the worship of God and the Lamb around the throne. But in Revelation 6, John, who is still in heaven, begins to see what will happen on earth at the end of times when God judges the inhabitants of the world.

Conquest

The first horseman, a man on a white horse, is detailed in Revelation 6:2:

I looked up and saw a white horse standing there. Its rider carried a bow, and a crown was placed on his head. He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory. (NLT)

John seems to be more focused on the riders than the horses. This first horseman is holding a bow and given a crown and is obsessed with conquest. 

In Scripture, the bow has been a long-standing weapon of military triumph and the crown is the conqueror's headdress. Some scholars have argued that this first horseman is Jesus Christ, but that interpretation is inconsistent with the immediate context and the symbolism of the other three riders. Thus, most scholars recognize the first rider to represent military conquest.

He may also stand for the Antichrist, a charismatic leader who will soon emerge as a false imitation of Jesus Christ.

Violence of Warfare

The second horseman is described in Revelation 6:4:

Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword. (NIV)

The second rider appears on a fiery red horse, with power to take away peace from the earth and make humans slay one another. He carries a mighty sword, which is not a large two-edged sword, but a dagger, like the kind used in hand-to-hand combat. This horseman symbolizes the devastating violence of warfare.

The Four Horsemen
Revelation of St. John: The Four Horsemen, 1511. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Famine

The third horseman, in Revelation 6:5-6, rides on a black horse:

And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had 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 denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!" (ESV)

This rider holds a pair of scales in his hand. A voice predicts unbearable inflation of costs and scarcity of food, causing widespread famine, hunger, and shortage of necessities brought on by war.

The scales allude to the careful measuring of food. In times of scarcity, every grain of wheat gets counted. Even today, warfare commonly brings on food supply shortages and starvation. Thus, this third horseman of the apocalypse personifies famine.

Widespread Death

The fourth horseman, in Revelation 6:8, rides a pale horse and is named Death:

I looked up and saw a horse whose color was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was the Grave. These two were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals. (NLT)

Hades (or the Grave) follows close behind Death. This rider symbolizes the massive and widespread loss of life. Death is the obvious effect of the previous three: conquest, violent warfare, and famine.

Symbolic Colors

White, red, black, and pale green horses—what do these stand for?

The symbolic colors of the horses reflect visions by the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 1:8 and Zechariah 6:2).

  • Conquest: The white color signals the peaceful promises that many military conquests produce. 
  • Violence of Warfare: Red is a suitable color for depicting fresh blood spilled in battle.
  • Famine: Black is typically the color of gloom, mourning, and tragedy, befitting the mood and the outcome of famine.
  • Widespread Death: Pale greenish-gray resembles the skin of corpses, an appropriate picture of death.
The fourth Horseman, Death on the Pale Horse.
The fourth Horseman, Death on the Pale Horse. Engraving by Gustave Doré (1865). Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Biblical and Spiritual Lessons

God is ultimately in charge of the global affairs of nations and people. Despite the dire consequences of the events symbolized by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one truth stands clear: their power to destroy is limited.

Scripture says God will limit the area of destruction:

They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:8, NIV)

Throughout history, God, in his sovereignty, has allowed conquest, warfare, plague, sickness, famine, and death to wreak havoc on humanity, but he has always limited the power of these calamities.

As with many other Bible prophecies, Christians disagree over what will happen in the end times. Different theories exist for the tribulation, rapture, and second coming. Regardless of which version comes to pass, Jesus himself said two things are certain. First, Jesus will appear:

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31, NIV)

Second, Jesus emphasized that no one, including modern interpreters of Bible prophecy, can foretell precisely when these events will happen:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matthew 24:36, NIV)

What is the overarching biblical lesson of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Those who trust in Jesus Christ as Savior have nothing to fear. Others should not put off seeking salvation because the Lord calls us to be ready and waiting for his return:

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:44, NIV)

Sources

  • "Who are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?" https://www.gotquestions.org/four-horsemen-apocalypse.html
  • Who Are The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse? A Bible Study. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/05/17/who-are-the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-a-bible-study/
  • Unlocking the Scriptures for You (p. 92).
  • Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 107).