T he world today seems a far more tumultuous, dangerous place than it did even just a short time ago. In a report – Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives – published in September 2022, researchers described an “uncertainty complex” of overlapping difficulties, including:
- disasters such as extreme weather events, the Covid-19 pandemic, economic crises;
- the “sweeping” changes that are made in an effort to overcome these difficulties;
- “widespread polarisation” that causes divisions and hostilities, both within societies and between countries. 1
The result is widespread anxiety – at times, even panic. “We live in a world of worry,” states the report.
An age of anxiety
This sense of anxiety is present even though by many measures life is easier and more fulfilling than ever before, especially for those who live in the relatively prosperous West. This is not to deny the reality of suffering in all parts of the world – this suffering, as we shall examine below, is very real. Yet it must also be acknowledged that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, wars are fewer, medicine and healthcare has advanced dramatically, and life expectancy is longer than ever before (a global average of 73 years – compared, to choose one example, to 32 years for the UK cities of Liverpool and Manchester in the 1850s).2
Yet the sense of uncertainty is magnified, partly because of the interconnectedness of our world. The effect of a disaster moves swiftly around the globe, affecting many more societies, families and individuals than in earlier centuries. One example is the conflict in Eastern Europe, which has led to shortages of food and fertilisers across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and may yet result in an energy crisis in Western Europe.
Even where the effect of a disaster does not touch us, we are more aware of events around the world than ever before through online news and social media – channels of communication that thrive on chaos and bad news. “If your social media feeds and home screens serve up a steady stream of calamities,” writes Max Fisher for The New York Times, “they can feed an overwhelming — if sometimes misplaced — sense of threat, as if the world itself were caving in.”3 Alongside news media, authors and film-makers create compelling fiction about a world hurtling towards disaster – towards an apocalypse – adding to the sense of fear and anxiety.
In films, novels and news coverage, however, the overall theme or underlying assumption is so often that the world is devoid of hope, meaning or purpose. As Christians we know that this is not the case. Perhaps journalists and writers are unaware that they are referencing the Biblical book of Revelation, alongside other apocalyptic sections of Scripture. Yet while these describe frightful difficulties and terrible suffering, they also reassure us that our Heavenly Father is not caught off guard, nor is He distant, nor is He helpless. Furthermore, He reveals in His Word what must take place in the age between Christ’s resurrection and His return so that we will not be led astray by either false hope or faithless hopelessness. The sixth chapter of Revelation is one place where we can see described the troubles of previous centuries, of today, and – unless the Lord first returns – of ages to come.
The white horse of conquest (Revelation 6:1-2)
Conquest is a recurring feature of human history, creating huge empires that rise and fall, often giving way to yet another empire. This pattern can be clearly seen in the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Daniel 2). The statue dreamt of by the King represented his own empire in the head of gold (Daniel 2:38) and all the empires that would follow in its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, and its feet of iron and clay.
The Babylonian Empire was replaced by that of the Medes and the Persians, which again in turn was replaced by the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great. There followed the Roman Empire, which dominated the Mediterranean world from approximately 27 BC to 480 AD. The age of Islamic conquest began in the time of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, who conquered and unified the tribes of the Arabian peninsula. This conquest continued after Muhammad’s death – at its greatest extent the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) covered more than four million square miles, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen.
The rise of European colonialism led to several empires, most notably the British Empire that at its height was more than three times as large (13.7 million square miles) as the Umayyad Caliphate and covered a quarter of the globe. It can be argued that the Soviet Union constituted a Marxist-Leninist empire that dominated Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, while the United States effectively leads a Western empire that, since the end of the Cold War, has been largely unchallenged in its governance of the world as a whole. It remains to be seen whether China or any other power can challenge the position of the US.
The Christian knows, however, that all these empires – whatever form they take, however powerful they seem – are temporary. Eventually the political empires created by human conquest will be brought to an end by the appearing of the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, pictured in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream as a rock not cut by human hands (Daniel 2:44-5). The end of history is not communism as Karl Marx predicted, nor a liberal democratic world order as political theorist Francis Fukuyama supposed, but the reign of Christ over all (Isaiah 9:6-7; Psalm 2:6-9).
The red horse of strife and war (Revelation 6:3-4)
Violent conflict has characterised humankind ever since Cain murdered his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8). At the time of writing, the Global Conflict Tracker managed by the Council on Foreign Relations lists 26 wars, armed conflicts or areas of instability across the world.4 By some definitions the total could be more than twice as high as this.
Many countries are heavily armed, including nine states in possession of nuclear weapons. The United States – still the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war – has an estimated 750 military bases in at least 80 countries, and approximately 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries. 5 It has the largest military force and accounts for more than a third (38%) of the world’s military spending.6 In his farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower (in office 1953-61) warned against the power and influence of “the military-industrial complex”.7 The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of China taking military action in order to unify with Taiwan, armed tensions between North and South Korea, and the persistence of armed terrorism, often Islamist, around the world all demonstrate that we live in a world of war.
The Christian believer has the God-given assurance that one day wars will cease (Psalm 46:9). The nations “will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). The reign of the Prince of Peace will be a reign of peace.
The black horse of famine (Revelation 6:5-6)
The world is currently experiencing a global food crisis that may become one of the worst disasters ever to face humanity. According to the 2022 Global Hunger Index, published in October, at least 828 million people are undernourished.8 Of these 345 million are “facing acute food insecurity” and 50 million are “teetering on the edge of famine”.9 David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, predicted in September 2022 “chaos all over the world … famine, starvation and destabilization of nations”.10
The main causes of the global food crisis are, firstly, extreme weather events and environmental disasters, such as droughts, floods and cyclones. Parts of the Horn of Africa have suffered drought for several years. Plagues of locusts that destroy crops were at their worst for many decades in 2019-20 in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The Covid-19 pandemic prevented many from farming owing to lockdowns and quarantines, as well as sickness and death. The pandemic also made it more difficult to import food. The continuing economic fallout from Covid has contributed to inflated food prices.
The situation in Eastern Europe has also had a catastrophic effect on food distribution. Together Russia and Ukraine export on average 53 million tonnes of wheat annually, estimated at between 23% and 33% of the global total.11 The two countries are also leading exporters of other grains, seeds and vegetable oils, as well as much-needed fertilisers. The economic shocks caused by sanctions and global uncertainty also contribute to rising food prices, even in those countries not directly reliant on imports from Russia and Ukraine.
As Christians we should be concerned about this situation, in the sense that we should prayerfully make plans to provide for ourselves and our families, and, if we can, other vulnerable people, especially those who share our faith (Galatians 6:10). Yet we must also rest in the promise of God to provide for His people and supply all of their needs (Philippians 4:19). In the new Heavens and the new Earth, there will be no shortage of food, for the Lord Jesus Christ promises that those who shelter in His presence will never again hunger or thirst (Revelation 7:15-16).
The pale horse of death (Revelation 6:7-9)
All of the tragedies brought about by the horses of conquest, war and famine bring death in their wake, but there are far more causes of – humanly speaking – premature death, including natural disasters and disease.
Researchers estimate that an average of 45,000 people die in natural disasters each year.12 In June 2022 a terrible earthquake in Afghanistan caused the deaths of around 1,200 people. The devastating floods in Pakistan (July-September 2022) have, at the time of writing, killed at least 1,717 people.
The global death toll from Covid-19 is reckoned to be more than six million.13 In 2019 around nine million people died from ischaemic heart disease while millions more died from other cardiovascular diseases. Nearly two million deaths were caused by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.14
Action can be taken against disaster and disease, but ultimately death cannot be abolished by humanity, for “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV). Death, says the Apostle Paul, is “the wages of sin” – “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). One day death will be abolished for all of God’s people (Revelation 21:4).
Persecution (Revelation 6:9-11)
After the four horsemen, when the Lamb opens the fifth seal, the Apostle John is shown the souls of Christian martyrs who are told that more of their brethren must lay down their lives for the Name of Jesus Christ. Persecution of Christians has been a feature of the Church’s experience since the very beginning. It continues to be a feature of our world today, even though in the West at present it is minimal compared to other times and places.
Unlike the other factors mentioned above – conquest, war, famine and death – in which believers share in the common suffering of the world, the kind of persecution spoken of by Scripture is that which Christians suffer at the hands of the world. There are five main sources of anti-Christian persecution: (1) the governing authorities at national and local level; (2) religious leadership; (3) local communities; (4) friends; (5) family.
Ultimately this is the work of Satan, the implacable enemy of Christ and His Church since he was cursed by God for his act of deceiving Eve (Genesis 3:14-15). Satan likes to cause harm of any kind, but with Christians his main aim is to destroy their faith; persecution is, along with temptation to sin, one of his main methods. Yet the cursing of Satan also includes the promise that eventually the seed of the woman – the Lord Jesus Christ – will crush the serpent’s head. At the end of the age Satan will be “thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur” (Revelation 20:10, ESV) while the Lord makes all things new for those who have, by His grace, endured to the end.
1 Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World, UNDP Human Development Report 2021/22
(New York, 2022), p.iv.
2 “Life expectancy at birth”, The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN; Peter Razzell and Christine Spence, “Social capital and the history of mortality in Britain”, International Journal of Epidemiology, 34, 2 (2005), p.477.
3 Max Fisher, “In Many Ways, the World Is Getting Better. It Also Feels Broken …”, New York Times (June 2022), Section A, p.1.
4 “Global Conflict Tracker”, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker
5 “Infographic: US military presence around the world”, Aljazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/10/infographic-us-military-presence-around-the-world-interactive
6Trends in World Military Expenditure, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Stockholm, 2022), p.2.
7 Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address”, 17 January 1961, https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/president-dwight-d-eisenhowers-farewell-address
8 Klaus von Grebmer et al, 2022 Global Hunger Index: Food Systems Transformation and Local Governance (Bonn / Dublin, 2022), p.5.
9 “2022: A year of unprecedented hunger”, World Food Programme, https://www.wfp.org/global-hunger-crisis
10 "'Knocking on famine’s door’: UN food chief wants action now”, AP News, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-united-nations-general-assembly-health-covid-4cd84128be38ed5706a8478c8d5fa3f4
11 “Bread may be the first thing to go missing from our tables as Putin wages war on Ukraine”, Fortune, https://fortune.com/2022/02/24/wheat-supply-putin-russia-ukraine-invasion/
12 “Natural Disasters”, Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/natural-disasters#:~:text=a%20new%20tab.-,Summary,deaths%20over%20the%20past%20decade
13 “Daily and total confirmed COVID-19 deaths, World”, Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/total-daily-covid-deaths
14 “The top ten causes of death”, World Health Organisation, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death