The Horsemen of Revelation: The Red Horse of War

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Approximately 180 million men, women and children were slaughtered in 20th-century wars. The new millennium has continued the trend, with the addition of mass-murder terrorism. What do history and the Bible tell us about the second horseman of Revelation? We continue with our second article in a series about the horsemen of Revelation.

Red horse of war described in Revelation 6.
Source: Illustration: Sherwin Schwartzrock & Jonathan Koelsch

In the mid-1980s, at the height of the Cold War and nuclear arms race, President Ronald Reagan once openly pondered the potential for an age-ending world war in our time.

"... I turn back to [the] ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon," he mused, "and I find myself wondering if—if we're the generation that's going to see that come about ... There have been times in the past when we thought the world was coming to an end, but never anything like this."

Those who lived through World War I felt the same way. They called it "the Great War" and "the war to end all wars." If only that were true, and warfare had ended almost a century ago! More than 150 million people wouldn't have had their lives snuffed out prematurely by bullets and bombs, stones and spears in the decades since. But it was not to be.

A coming war to end all wars

The war to end all wars is coming, but it will follow a time of global conflict and turmoil unlike anything ever seen (Matthew:24:21). That age-ending period will be so bloody, so dangerous and deadly, that Jesus Christ warned us that "if that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive , but for the sake of God's chosen it will be cut short" (Matthew:24:22, Revised English Bible, emphasis added throughout).

In the last issue we saw that the first of the four horsemen of Revelation 6 represents a massive Satan-inspired religious deception. The ride of the second of the four horsemen unleashes the malignant forces of evil and removes the last vestiges of peace from the earth. However, Jesus Christ cuts short this horseman's ride, preventing human extinction, with His appearance and the establishment of His world-ruling Kingdom.

Notice what the apostle John saw with the breaking of the second seal: "When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, 'Come and see.' Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword" (Revelation:6:3-4).

This vision corresponds with Christ's prophecy of the end time recorded in Matthew 24: "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (Matthew:24:6-7).

The record of history shows a pattern of the red horse of war often following the white horse of false religion. An example is the Thirty Years War in Europe during the mid-17th century. Following the Protestant Reformation, the resultant shift in power among European states led to 30 years of carnage from 1618 to 1648.

Religion, the newly emerged Protestant versus Roman Catholic theology, was the ideology that fueled the winds of war. It led to strange alliances: Catholic France aligned with Protestant Holland to offset the powerful Catholic Hapsburg dynasty. This resulted in prolonging the conflict. By the time "peace" (a euphemism for balance of power) was restored in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, 8 million people had lost their lives—a staggering toll, especially at that time.

What can we expect to see as this red horse of war rides across the landscape in the last days, unleashing the fury of nations on the world?

A look at the history of war will give us a clue. Let's first look at what the Bible reveals about the roots of war.

The beginning of war

Those who understand man's nature know he is on a course toward destruction —and has been since the beginning.

In Genesis 4 we read of the first human "war," the conflict between Cain and Abel, the sons of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. When God refused to accept the offering of Cain, reading his sinful heart, Cain's self-interest was threatened. He did not control his anger and aggression and subsequently "rose up against Abel his brother and killed him" (Genesis:4:8).

Expelled from the family environs, Cain went to the land of Nod on the east of Eden (Genesis:4:16). Some biblical scholars say he built on the ancient site of Jericho.

Regardless of the accuracy of those speculations, excavations at the earliest levels of this site, one of the oldest inhabited settlements on earth, reveal a fortress city with walls 12 feet high and 6 1⁄2 feet thick.

The remains of a large tower, 30 feet across at the base and 30 feet high, tell a story of people living in a fortress city, protecting what they had—probably food—from those who would take it by force. Clearly Jericho was a site of conflict long before Joshua and the Israelites encircled its walls.

In Genesis 10, God provides a narrative of the sons of Noah and the cities that grew from their dynasties. One descendant, Nimrod, and the city he built, Babel, are inserted into the story.

Nimrod was "a mighty hunter before the LORD" (Genesis:10:9). The "before" here denotes "in the face of" or "against,"indicating an adversarial relationship with God's purpose and plan. This is made clearer in the story of the Tower of Babel in chapter 11. The cities associated with Nimrod war back and forth for centuries. Babylon becomes a city, then an empire.

Eventually it becomes the symbol of the system that opposes God, His people and His plan throughout the Bible story. It is that city, described in Revelation:17:5 as a "MYSTERY ... THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH," which in the time of the end provides the cultural and religious inspiration to a political-religious empire called "the beast."

The roots of this end-time system reach back to the pattern started by Nimrod at Babel, thus bridging the intervening centuries. This system will form the backdrop for the final conflict of the age brought on by the red horse of war.

No war has brought peace. Wars waged in the name of religion have not achieved religious harmony. No war waged for national interest has brought lasting security for any city, state or empire. The peace sought by man is all too often a peace that only suits nationalistic interests and lays the groundwork for subsequent conflict.

The terrifying nuclear genie

As a result of the breakup of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, its nuclear stockpiles and those of the United States have been dramatically reduced. However, the nuclear genie has not been put back into its bottle. Through various means some of that nuclear technology and know-how has migrated to other nations or been independently developed.

Today longtime enemies India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, and although currently talking again, twice in recent years they have rattled their sabers to threaten a holocaust on the South Asian subcontinent.

Last year North Korea, in violation of signed agreements, announced it had developed several nuclear warheads and stated its intention to produce more in short order. U.S. intelligence sources acknowledged the North Koreans' claim was credible. The renegade country also has an aggressive missile program, steadily increasing their range to the point that last February CIA director George Tenet admitted Korean ICBMs were now capable of hitting the western United States.

U.S. analysts also fear that cash-starved North Korea, which markets its Scud-class missiles throughout the Arab sphere, may up the ante by adding nuclear warheads to the weaponry it offers for sale around the world—possibly making them available to terrorist groups for the right price.

Libya, whose leader Muammar Gadhafi in December renounced efforts to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction, was quickly found to have a nuclear program "much further advanced" than Western intelligence agencies had believed—one that had existed secretly for more than a decade.

Iran, identified by President George W. Bush as part of the "axis of evil" (along with Iraq and North Korea), has come under suspicion of using its Russian-built nuclear reactor—supposedly built for peaceful power-generation purposes—as a cover for a secret nuclear weapons program.

Those suspicions were heightened last year when International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors found traces of enriched uranium—a crucial component in developing nuclear weapons—on Iranian nuclear equipment. Tehran responded that the equipment was already contaminated when the Iranians purchased it from a third country and, after first refusing, finally agreed in December to open its nuclear facilities to more stringent IAEA inspections.

Just about the time Gadhafi renounced his pursuit of nuclear weapons, Pakistan's government denied that it had helped spread its nuclear technology to countries such as Libya, Iran and North Korea—but later confessed that Pakistani scientists had done so on their own.

Taken together, these many troubling developments point to unstable dictatorships and paranoid regimes scrambling to develop or acquire nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction so they can become the biggest bully on the block.

Present world scene ready for war

Of course, such weapons would be the ultimate tool in a terrorist arsenal should some groups get the funds or other resources needed to acquire them.

The great fear is that nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction, would fall into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and be used against Western nations. The end of the Cold War did not bring us any closer to the end of possible nuclear war. The grim reality is that it simply shifted the power into the hands of more players—some of whom view themselves as having nothing to lose by unleashing such weapons against the West.

Those who study war understand the persistent danger. In a comprehensive look at the subject, author Gwynne Dyer made this chilling, sober and almost hopeless observation: "To begin quite close to the end: we may inhabit the Indian summer of human history, with nothing to look forward to but the 'nuclear winter' that closes the account. The war for which the great powers hold themselves in readiness every day may come, as hundreds of others have in the past.

"The megatons will fall, the dust will rise, the sun's light will fail, and the race may perish. Nothing is inevitable until it has actually happened, but the final war is undeniably a possibility, and there is one statistical certainty. Any event that has a definite probability, however small, that does not decrease with time will eventually occur—next year, next decade, next century, but it will come. Including nuclear war" ( War , 1985, p. xi).

One world government

This bleak prospect has led many to conclude that a supranational world government is the only hope for universal peace. The medieval writer Dante Alighieri, in his work De Monarchia , speaks of the inevitable contentions between two governments which require arbitration by a third power with the authority to settle the dispute.

"This third power is either the world-government, or it is not. So, we must arrive at a first and supreme judge for whom all contentions are judicable ... Therefore, world-government is necessary for the world" (quoted in The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World , Volume II, William Gorman, general editor, "War and Peace," 1952, p. 1018).

At the end of the age, war will bring the nations to the point where a system will be created with the capability, and perhaps even the stated purpose, of bringing peace to the earth. Revelation 13 describes this system rising up out of the sea and calls it "the beast."

By a series of apparent miracles, a world in crisis is persuaded to accept this system. Nations surrender their sovereignty and the world worships this "beast," asking, "Who is able to make war with [the beast]?" (Revelation:13:4).

To enforce this type of "peace," this system has authority "over every tribe, tongue and nation"—a worldwide power (Revelation:13:7). But in enforcing its rule it makes war on the true servants of God, who recognize the true nature of this power and system as satanic.

Revelation 17 describes this "beast" receiving power from 10 "kings"—leaders of nations or groups of nations allied together to support this system and its human leader. And apparently it will bring a temporary peace to the world (compare 1 Thessalonians:5:1-3). Yet the "peace" that is brought ultimately leads to war against God. This system and its leader will make war with the Lamb (Jesus Christ) but in the end will be overcome by Him.

Throughout the ages man has sought to organize a universal government. What began thousands of years ago at Babylon as an attempt to reach to the heavens and defy God will be resurrected in an age-ending attempt to unify the nations into a global political and economic system.

The intended goal of this system will be to bring order, peace and prosperity among the warring factions of humanity. But once "peace" is attained, the attractive mask will be removed to reveal a hideous beast of a system that will tear and destroy any opposition to its rule and authority. The desire of the ages—peace—will prove elusive one more time, when left in the hands of man.

The stage will be set for the climactic battle at the end.

Christ's intervention to save humanity

Peace, when left to human beings, has little chance of permanence. The rise of this end-time Babylonian system will be a major factor in a time of world calamity unlike any experienced in history. The prophet Daniel was told that this period will be "a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then" (Daniel:12:1, New International Version).

Christ spoke of this time as well: "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved ..." He offered the light at the end of the tunnel when He added, "but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew:24:21-22).

This final time of war will ultimately rest in the hands of God. Remember that Revelation 5 shows us that it is the Lamb, Jesus Christ, who unlocks the seals. Christ is in charge of history, and He will bring this trial to a conclusion that will at long last result in peace for all peoples. But genuine peace will not come without a terrible cost in human suffering.

The final war of this age will serve to humble mankind to the point that people finally will obey God and become willing to live the way that will produce peace.

Look at the description of this time of world conflict. It begins in Revelation 8 with the opening of the seventh seal, containing seven trumpet plagues of unimaginable destruction to come on the earth.

The next chapter describes what happens when the sixth trumpet sounds: "Then the sixth angel sounded: And I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, 'Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.' So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released to kill a third of mankind. Now the number of the army of the horsemen was two hundred million" (Revelation:9:13-16).

This 200-million-person army is fearsome to contemplate. Verse 18 tells us that a third of mankind—more than 2 billion lives at our planet's current population level—will be snuffed out in this age-ending wave of warfare.

One unmistakable message of the book of Revelation is God's control of seemingly uncontrollable events. The only hope of human survival is the reality of Christ's intervention to prevent the total destruction of the earth and its inhabitants.

As this crisis at the close of man's age reaches its crescendo, the heavens will open and Christ will appear on a white horse. Here, in God's message of hope, appears a fifth horseman whose ride will be decisive and final. Revelation:19:11 says He is "called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war."

Christ will wage this battle in righteousness because He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Revelation:1:18). No other person waging battle or war in history, no matter how "just" the cause may seem, can make this claim. God's judgment on the nations has been building over the millennia and will be executed at precisely the right time.

Christ's victory in this ultimate battle will result in the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Finally the world will see lasting peace.

But before this takes place two other horsemen must ride. In our next installment we'll look at the ride of the third horse, famine.

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