1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. 3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. 5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 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!” 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
Is the story of the world an inevitably downward spiral? Must things get worse and worse?
I have mentioned before “declension narratives.” Declension narratives are stories that assume that an entity or a people or a nation began in a wonderful and beautiful place and then set about on a seemingly inevitable journey of decline and decay. Historians debate whether or not this notion is helpful or if it is even really true. But I would like to argue that the declension narrative is an important idea for helping us understanding the trajectory of the world and I would also like to argue that human beings seem to have an intuitive understanding that this is so.
Time and time again our poets and writers and artists assert that we are in a declension narrative. This idea has been around for a long long time. Consider these words from Eustache Deschamps, a poet from the Middle Ages, who wrote:
Now the world is cowardly, decayed, and weak, old, covetous, confused of speech
I see only female and male fools.
The end approaches, in sooth…all goes badly.
It is likewise pervasive in our own day. Clint Eastwood, speaking through the character William Munny in the film “Unforgiven,” reflected this understanding when he responded to the Schofield Kid’s observation about killing a man (“Well I guess he had it coming.”) with the chilling line, “We all have it coming, kid.”
Bob Dylan reflected this understanding in 1963 when he sang in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Dylan again reflected this understanding in 1965 when he sang in “Desolation Row”:
Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
“Which side are you on?”
And, for that matter, Dylan reflected this declension idea again in his almost-seventeen-minute 2020 song about the assassination of JFK, “Murder Most Foul,” when he sang:
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day
And he is not alone in this. But is this kind of pessimism warranted? Is it legitimate to see human history as a declension narrative? I would like to argue that the answer is “Yes!”…but with one critically important qualification. But, first, the evidence for the declension narrative.
The story of the world looks like a declension narrative.
There can frankly be no denying that there is a strong note of declension in the scriptures regarding the human story from the time of the first sin of our first parents in Eden, that is, from the time of the Fall. And the Bible’s depiction of the consummation of the ages in the future is no less dire. Jesus, in what is called “The Little Apocalypse” or “The Olivet Discourse,” said in Matthew 24:
7 Nations will rise against one another, and kingdoms against each other. There will be famines and earthquakes here and there. 8 All this is just the start of the birthpangs.
The implications are clear enough: bad times are coming and they will go from bad to worse. This is not pleasant to hear, and I am convinced that this is why many Christians are afraid of the book of Revelation. But let us be clear on this: a part of the story, and an important part of the story, is a tale of declension, of decline, of ever-increasing birthpangs of woe.
We can see this in Revelation 6. Our eyes move now from the happenings within the glorious throne room of heaven to a series of scenes of judgment and wrath and woe that come upon the earth. We begin now the breaking of seals.. The first four seals each reveal a horse and its rider. Here we find the famed “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” What they portend is jarring, to say the least!
The First Horsemen: War
The Lamb of God, who alone can open the seals, opens the first seal.
1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
Many New Testament interpreters believe that the first four seals are, in a sense, a picture of the decline of the world since the beginning. Meaning, in the four horsemen we find the fruits of mankind’s sin that have long plagued the human race. And while these fruits will intensify as we approach the return of Christ, they have always been with us from the beginning.
Consider the first seal. This is a white horse and, astride it, a rider with a bow, a weapon of war. His purpose is clearly stated: “he came out conquering, and to conquer.” This is a picture of war, of mankind’s desire to conquer. War has been with us since the Fall of man into sin. In the novel Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy has the deranged Judge say:
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way… War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
Of course, war is not God…but that does not mean that men have not historically treated it like God: worshiping it and returning to it to make sacrifices time and time again.
David Berlinski, in his amazing book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, scoffed at the atheist Stephen Pinker’s absurd claim that the world was getting better, that “we have been getting kinder and gentler,” and that humanity as a whole is advancing and progressing. To this idea, Berlinski responds with a list that he calls, “A Shockingly Happy Picture by Excess Deaths.” The list begins in 1914. Listen:
First World War (1914–18): 15 million
Russian Civil War (1917–22): 9 million
Soviet Union, Stalin’s regime (1924–53): 20 million
Second World War (1937–45): 55 million
Chinese Civil War (1945–49): 2.5 million
People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong’s regime (1949–75): 40 million
Tibet (1950 et seq.): 600,000
Congo Free State (1886–1908): 8 million
Mexico (1910–20) 1 million
Turkish massacres of Armenians (1915–23): 1.5 million
China (1917–28): 800,000
China, Nationalist era (1928–37): 3.1 million
Korean War (1950–53): 2.8 million
North Korea (1948 et seq.): 2 million
Rwanda and Burundi (1959–95): 1.35 million
Second Indochina War (1960–75): 3.5 million
Ethiopia (1962–92): 400,000
Nigeria (1966–70): 1 million
Bangladesh (1971): 1.25 million
Cambodia, Khmer Rouge (1975–78): 1.65 million
Mozambique (1975–92): 1 million
Afghanistan (1979–2001): 1.8 million
Iran–Iraq War (1980–88): 1 million
Sudan (1983 et seq.): 1.9 million
Kinshasa, Congo (1998 et seq.): 3.8 million
Philippines Insurgency (1899–1902): 220,000
Brazil (1900 et seq. 500,000 Amazonia (1900–1912): 250,000
Portuguese colonies (1900–1925): 325,000
French colonies (1900–1940): 200,000
Japanese War (1904–5): 130,000
German East Africa (1905–7): 175,000
Libya (1911–31): 125,000
Balkan Wars (1912–13): 140,000
Greco–Turkish War (1919–22): 250,000
Spanish Civil War (1936–39): 365,000
Franco Regime (1939–75): 100,000
Abyssinian Conquest (1935–41): 400,000
Finnish War (1939–40): 150,000
Greek Civil War (1943–49): 158,000
Yugoslavia, Tito’s regime (1944–80): 200,000
First Indochina War (1945–54): 400,000
Colombia (1946–58): 200,000
India (1947): 500,000
Romania (1948–89): 150,000
Burma/Myanmar (1948 et seq.): 130,000
Algeria (1954–62): 537,000
Sudan (1955–72): 500,000
Guatemala (1960–96): 200,000
Indonesia (1965–66): 400,000
Uganda, Idi Amin’s regime (1972–79): 300,000
Vietnam, postwar Communist regime (1975 et seq.): 430,000
Angola (1975–2002): 550,000
East Timor, conquest by Indonesia (1975–99): 200,000
Lebanon (1975–90): 150,000
Cambodian Civil War (1978–91): 225,000
Iraq, Saddam Hussein (1979–2003): 300,000
Uganda (1979–86): 300,000
Kurdistan (1980s, 1990s): 300,000
Liberia (1989–97): 150,000
Iraq (1990–): 350,000
Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–95): 175,000
Somalia (1991 et seq.): 400,000
Berlinski concludes his response to Pinker with these rather uncharitable words: “In considering Pinker’s assessment of the times in which we live, the only conclusion one can profitably draw is that such an excess of stupidity is not often to be found in nature.” That is harsh, and I would want to apply the charge of “stupidity” to Pinker’s naïve assertion and not to Pinker himself.
This much is clear: the story of human history after the Fall is the story of the gallop of the white horse of war across the world!
The Second Horsemen: Violence
War inevitably gives rise to violence.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
This is a red horse. The color is not hard to interpret. Red is the color of blood which is shed in violence. Leon Morris rightly points out something that we must not miss.
While this rider was given a large sword he is not said to kill anyone. Men kill one another. He takes peace away and men proceed to do all the damage. The word rendered slay is not the usual one; it has a meaning like ‘slaughter’ ( NEB ) or ‘butcher’ (Berkeley).
It is an important point. The horseman does not actively inflict violence. Rather, he creates the occasion for it by removing peace. Humanity’s inclination is to hurt one another in the absence of peace. This is why Jesus said, in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The way of the Kingdom of God is peace. The way of the declining world is violence in the absence of peace.
The Third Horsemen: Economic Hardship
There is yet another effect of war: economic hardship.
5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 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!”
The rider on the black horse is carrying scales and a voice pronounces the price of wheat and barley. Scott Duvall gives some helpful background information on this.
A voice from among the four living creatures sets the maximum price for wheat and barley at a day’s wages (a denarius). A person would normally eat about two pounds (a quart) of wheat a day, but because of the expense people resorted to buying barley, the cheaper grain. Yet these prices are greatly inflated to about ten to fifteen times normal prices.
Prices are inflated because of the scarcity that war brings. The emerging picture, then, is one of a violent, desperate, hungry people.
The Fourth Horsemen: Death
But there is something even worse to come. The fourth horsemen.
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
The pale horse is the color of death, and it is ridden by Death, “and Hades [the abode of the dead] followed him.” Their destructive power was amazing, but clearly limited by God’s staying hand: “And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”
Yes, it is true, the story of humanity since the Fall of our first parents is a declension narrative, a story of decline and decay and degeneracy. It is a story that takes us down, down, down!
But in the midst of declension there is an ascension alternative.
I mentioned at the beginning that while the story of the world is a declension narrative it contains one very important qualification. That qualification is this: In the midst of declension there is an ascension alternative.
While the story goes down, down, down, on the whole, there is, in the mist of the dark story of human sinfulness, a light in the story. Sometimes it seems to just glimmer faintly. Sometimes it shines brighter here and there. But it is never extinguished. And the reality of this light, of this alternative to the declension narrative of the world, is explained in the first chapter of John’s first book, the gospel of John. Listen:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Ah! Church! Do you see this? Yes, yes indeed: the world is shrouded in darkness. It is a seemingly impenetrable darkness. There is a part of us that does look out at the sad story of fallen humanity and say with Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!” But that is not all we say. For in peering into the darkness our eyes discern, small at first, but then growing into a blazing fire and spreading outward and upward—overtaking, conquering, shattering the darkness—a most unbelievable scene: Light! Light shining in the darkness! A light that the darkness cannot overcome. So instead of “The horror! The horror!” we dare to look at Jesus and say, “The Light! The Light!”
And the Light that is Jesus pierces the darkness by being pierced Himself on the cross and conquers the darkness by going down, down, down into it Himself on the cross. He stepped into the pain of humanity—war, violence, poverty, hardship, and, ultimately, into death itself—and then broke the bonds of all of it by dying and rising again!
This is why hope is a recurring theme of Revelation. It is a book of hope for us! These scary images and scenes may shock us, but they do not rob us of hope. For the grace of God in Christ is stronger than any army, and the love of Jesus is more beautiful than the sin of the world is ugly, and the hope of the empty tomb is the medicine our souls most need!
Yes, the story of mankind goes down, down, down, but into it the unlikely character of the God-Man stepped and went further down than any of us could imagine by taking our sin upon Himself on Calvary. He went down, down, down, weighed down by our rebellion and shame. He took it on His shoulders and went deep into the dark. And it seemed for a while that the dark had won. But then, there was a rumble of stone and a the sound of a tomb opening and we saw it: that the story of the world may go down, down, down, but the story of Jesus goes up, up, up! In the midst of the declension narrative there is an ascension alternative! In the midst of this story of death, there is life! In the midst of the graveyard of the world, one of the graves is empty! In the midst of this story of villains, there is a Hero! And His name is Jesus! And He says to us sinners this: “Come to me! Come to me! Follow me! Believe in me! The darkness is no match for me! I have reversed the story. I have reversed the decline of the world. In me, you can go up, up, up!”
The bottom line is this: the four horsemen are no match for the one Lamb! They horsemen represent the culmination of mankind’s sinfulness, let loose upon the world as the end approaches. The Lamb represents the conquering love and grace of a merciful God.
May the followers of the Lamb never fear the horsemen.
The Lamb has overcome. Hallelujah!
 Quoted in Timothy George. Theology of the Reformers. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 1988), p.22.
 McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International) (p. 245,247). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Berlinski, David. The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (pp. 21-25). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
 Morris, Leon L.. Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) (p. 106). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 Duvall, J. Scott. Revelation (Teach the Text Commentary Series) (p. 109). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.