The very concept of “apocalypse” among Internet users is more associated with “post-apocalyptic” computer games than, in fact, with the original source – the last book of the Bible, which is called the Apocalypse.
This is frustrating, because the lack of biblical literacy not only prevents correct quotation recognition, but deprives people of the support and comfort that our ancestors drew from Scripture.
“Apocalypse” is a book that really sounds especially fresh and relevant today; another thing is that it is perceived exactly the opposite – as a book of horror, while in fact it is a book of hope.
The Greek word “apocalypse”, which in modern language has come to mean something like “global catastrophe”, is actually translated as “revelation”, that which God reveals – in the first words of the book itself: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which gave Him God, to show His servants what must soon be” (Rev. 1:1).
In the sixth chapter of this book, four horsemen are actually mentioned.
In the history of the church there are various interpretations of what they can mean, but historically the idea that they symbolize various disasters has been fixed: plague, war, famine and death.
The book of Revelation is really about terrible things – famine, sea and war, tyranny and persecution, natural and social disasters – and therefore people have often been tempted to understand it as a “book of horror”, promising torment and death.
But the first readers of “Revelation” had all its horrors right before their eyes. The ancient world was shaken by wars, rebellions, epidemics and crop failures, which led to famine. The empire established the cult of Caesar, who (as later dictators of the twentieth century) was given divine honors, and Christians who refused to worship anyone but God were persecuted. Human life has been hard, dangerous, short and full of pain.
There was no need to communicate this to readers as some kind of news or forecast for the future. Revelation was always about something else – about the meaning of everything that happens, about the fact that God’s plan is unfolding in history, and it will end very well:
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death; there will be no more mourning, no outcry, no sickness, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
“Revelation” confirms the notion insistently proclaimed throughout the Bible—God was and is the Lord of world history; everything is ultimately under His control. As the Old Testament prophet said, “The Lord of hosts speaks with an oath: as I thought, so shall it be; as I have decreed, so shall it be” (Is. 14:24).
Although evil forces opposing God are active in the world – both people and fallen angels – and sometimes their triumph seems final and hopeless, they are doomed to lose, and each of their next steps brings their final downfall closer.
This can be compared to how an experienced grandmaster foresees all the moves of his opponent, and turns them to the implementation of his own idea of how the game should develop. It is impossible to win against God – and the author of “Revelation” encourages the members of the church, then small and persecuted, to maintain “patience and faith” in the face of persecution from the pagan world. The “Book of Revelation” is often perceived as a “book of predictions”, and extremely gloomy ones, relating to the latest events in world history. It does speak of the end of world history, but not only of that.
Otherwise, it would have been irrelevant for Christians of both the first and subsequent centuries, and would have become important only before the very end of the world. But this book is addressed to Christians of any age; it is not about “what should we be afraid of in the future,” but about “how we can navigate the present.”
Throughout the ages, people have believed that the prophecies of the Book of Revelation were being fulfilled before their very eyes—and they had good reason for this.
Troubles and wars, pestilence and famine, tyranny and persecution have almost always accompanied human history. Sometimes there was a phenomenon that could be called “eschatological panic” – people abandoned their usual activities and fled to forests and deserts, expecting that the end of the world would come just about. But the Book of Revelation does not call for anything of the sort.
It is about how to live in a world that is slipping from under your feet, where evil looks so powerful – and seductive, where life is unpredictable, and suffering can break into it at any moment.
It says that history as we know it will end with Christ returning in glory, and those who have remained faithful to Him will have eternal and blessed life in His kingdom.
The main message of the Book of Revelation is not “how bad everything will be”, but “no matter how bad everything is, in the end everything will be fine.” We do not control the events of world history, which sometimes take the most frightening turn. But “Revelation” assures us that they are controlled by God, who will bring history to the conclusion that He intended.
Those who trust in Him, who carefully seek His will, and carefully keep His commandments, should live in hope, not in fear.