What comes to mind when you think of “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”? A far-fetched fantasy? Biblical imagery that no one could possibly understand? Something that shouldn’t concern us for a long time to come?
The truth is, the galloping hoof beats of the four horses are getting ever louder and closer, because their riders are fast approaching the culmination of their ride!
The four horsemen are depicted in the book of Revelation chapter 6 as the first four of seven “seals.” These seals are benchmarks of end-time events leading up to and including the return of Jesus Christ. John witnessed these vivid events in a vision sent by God the Father to Jesus Christ, who gave it to an angel to reveal to John (Revelation 1:1). Then John, as he was instructed, recorded what he saw (verse 19) in brilliant prophetic imagery.
Together, these legendary horsemen are prophesied “to kill with sword [warfare], with hunger [famine], with death [pestilence and disease], and by the beasts of the earth” to the extent that one fourth of mankind will be slain! (Revelation 6:8, New King James Version throughout). That’s a minimum of 1.6 billion people who will not escape the stampede!
We can understand this vision because the Bible interprets itself. The seven seals are interpreted in the most important prophecy Jesus Christ delivered while He was on Earth—the Olivet prophecy, found in Matthew 24 (with parallel accounts in Mark 13 and Luke 21). The meaning of the first four of these seals—the four horsemen—is revealed in Matthew 24:3-8.
The first horseman rides the white horse and represents religious deception. This horseman is not, as many believe, Jesus Christ, but in fact Satan the devil,disguising himself as Christ (Matthew 24:5; read also 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). That’s why multiple millions of people are deceived by false Christianity! The second horseman, riding the red horse, pictures worldwide warfare (Matthew 24:6 and verse 7, first part). The horseman riding the black horse signifies famine.
Widespread disease epidemics and pandemics are symbolized by the fourth horseman, which rides the pale, or pallid green, horse. (The Greek word translated as “pale” in Revelation 6:8 is chloros, and it is usually translated as “green.”) In this article we assess the dire, unprecedented and imminent threat that the fourth horseman poses!
Less than 30 years ago, hiv (human immunodeficiency virus) was generally unheard of and aids (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was not in our vocabulary. Today, according to numerous sources, about one out of every 100 people on the planet is infected with hiv/aids. It has already claimed 25 million lives, and each year is adding about 3 million to that total. The disease has plagued Africa most of all, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where life expectancy has plunged from 62 to 47 years. Now it is rapidly spreading in the rest of the world.
Dr. Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, stressed that in India, aids is developing into a “catastrophic epidemic” and that “the Indian epidemic is rapidly becoming the largest epidemic in the world” (Agence France Presse, May 11, 2004). aids is also raging in China and Russia. Since the average time from hiv infection to actual symptoms of aids is 10 years, the pandemic currently spreading may be from infection rates of 10 years ago. In the near future, this killer disease is set to explode onto the scene in other nations too.
aids is a result, primarily, of fornication and adultery (whether homosexual or heterosexual); sin always has consequences sooner or later (see Galatians 6:7). Being promiscuous is playing with fire! The hiv virus is extremely durable and, like other viruses, mutates to fight and defeat the drugs that are launched against it. Dr. Martin S. Hirsch, director of clinical aids research at Massachusetts General Hospital, stressed that “the unruly aids virus has succeeded at evolving and mutating every time scientists and drug makers have attempted to outwit it” (Contra Costa Times, California, Aug. 9, 2002).
Barring widespread repentance, the fourth horseman will continue to wreak havoc through hiv/aids, which will most likely intensify. Yet this is just one of the horseman’s weapons. He is soon to unleash a deadly arsenal of devastating diseases that are already germinating, for example, in the animal kingdom.
“By the Beasts of the Earth”
Notice that the “beasts of the earth” will have a part to play (Revelation 6:8). This refers to animals literally attacking humans for food. On the heels of warfare and famine, food will be scarce for animals too. Moreover, animals such as rats and skunks that become weak and diseased could spread rabies, for example, to household pets, further endangering humans.
In the original Greek, the phrase “by the beasts of the earth” can also refer to animal-borne disease that passes on to humans. Thus, the pale horse spreads its deadly curse through yet another phenomenon.
The mad cow disease scare started in Britain in the late 1980s. The disease is more accurately known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (bse) because it destroys brain tissue (encephalopathy means disease of the brain) and causes the brain to look like a sponge. Scientists generally agree that the disease is caused by infectious forms of prions (a type of protein).
These deformed prions are extant in other animal populations as well. Consequently, various forms of spongiform encephalopathies could soon become endemic. In deer and elk, the disease is known as chronic wasting disease. In sheep, it’s called scrapie. Other animals, such as monkeys and cats, can also be affected by prion diseases. In humans, defective prions are thought to cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (cjd)—a devastating illness resulting in progressive dementia, loss of coordination and sometimes blindness or loss of speech.
One way to contract a “variant” form of cjd is to eat beef infected with bse. Although cjd is relatively rare to this point, the incubation period (time it takes to become ill after eating the infected beef) is thought to be about 12 years, although some doctors have maintained it could take up to 50 years. It has only been about 16 years since the first major outbreak of bse in Britain. In any case, cjd may be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease or various other types of brain diseases. Scientists also admit that there is the possibility of shorter incubation periods with different strains of spongiform encephalopathies that may yet emerge.
Since infectious prions can accumulate in the brain and spinal cord, many countries require these and other select parts to be removed from slaughtered animals. But a troubling report out of Switzerland recently published in the journal Science disclosed that the diseased prions can travel to other organs as well. “This [means] that cows and sheep infected with prions could harbor [mad cow] disease in any inflamed organ” (New York Times, January 21; emphasis mine throughout).
So while the number of confirmedcjd cases is still relatively small, there are several reasons to be concerned—not the least of which is this prophecy directed to the disobedient descendants of Israel (primarily Britain and the U.S.): “Cursed shall be … the increase of your cattle …” (Deuteronomy 28:18). This prophecy, along with that of the fourth horseman inflicting animal diseases onto humans, indicates that mad cow disease and cjd—which is always fatal—will yet cause many more deaths.
Recently, another animal-borne disease in the news has caused quite a stir. Let’s understand why.
The virus identified as h5n1 first emerged in 1997 in Hong Kong. Since then it has spread primarily through poultry in Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries. It is popularly known as the avian virus or bird flu.
Last year, the Medical Research Council in London revealed that the deadly Spanish flu of 1918 started in birds. What has caught the attention of infectious-disease experts around the world is that the bird flu virus is evolving in much the same way as did the Spanish flu virus, which, according to some, infected half of the world’s population at the time! Estimates vary, but that flu felled between 20 and 50 million people—roughly two to five times as many as perished in World War i.
Historically, global flu pandemics rage every 25 years or so. There were three such influenza outbreaks in the 20th century—the last of which occurred in 1968. The fact that we are noticeably overdue for another one, plus the striking similarities of the bird flu to the Spanish flu, has many infectious-disease specialists alarmed. Densely populated countries where millions live close to farm animals, combined with the extensive travel propensities of our modern age, have many talking about a pandemic threat that could be deadlier than the Spanish flu.
Despite valiant efforts to cull diseased and nearby poultry (some 100 million birds were destroyed), the bird flu has now spread to wild birds and ducks and has also infected pigs, cats and other mammals. Since ducks and some migratory birds can carry the virus without being affected and don’t show any symptoms, “hope of stamping out this largest avian flu outbreak in history has dimmed” (ScientificAmerican.com, January 10).
So far, those who have died from the bird flu have been infected through poultry or other animals. According to most experts, however, it is highly probable that the bird flu virus will mix with a human flu virus by exchanging genetic material and mutate into a new strain that is transmissible between humans. This exchange could happen inside an infectious animal that is susceptible to both the human flu and bird flu, like the pig. Or it could occur in a child with human flu whose healthy-looking pet duck gives him the bird flu virus. Either way, as Dr. Klaus Stohr, global influenza program coordinator for the World Health Organization (who), states, “We have never been as close to pandemic as we are now; that’s the generic assessment of all the experts and also the assessment of the who” (Herald Sun, Melbourne, Sept. 24, 2004).
It’s not a matter of if it strikes, but of how soon and how bad it will be once it is easily transmissible between humans. Compared to sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which has been successfully contained for now, the bird flu is much more contagious, has a short incubation period and can be transmitted prior to the onset of symptoms. Moreover, sars killed only about 10 percent of its victims, whereas about 75 percent of those infected with the bird flu have died. And the disease does not respect the healthy. Most of the victims were children and young adults in previously good health.
The who forecasts a death toll from the bird flu of up to 7 million people in a best-case scenario and significantly more if the new flu bug is very potent. Tommy Thompson, outgoing U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, has said it could kill 30 to 70 million people. The low end of that estimate is equivalent to virtually the whole population of Canada! University of Minnesota infectious-disease epidemiologist Michael Osterholm prognosticates that “[e]ven with moderate transmission and fatality rates, this could do in less than a year what hiv took 30 years to do” (Forbes, January 31). That really puts the potential devastation of the bird flu in context!
What about a vaccine? some might ask. Like all vaccines, it must be custom-made to the virus. Since no one knows yet what the bird flu virus will look like once it adapts to human transmission, a vaccine cannot be manufactured in advance. Furthermore, the normal method of making human flu vaccines is to grow the virus inside embryonated chicken eggs, from which the vaccine is produced. Since the bird flu is lethal to chickens, it would kill the chick embryos before the virus could grow. For this reason, a genetically engineered vaccine would need to be prepared, which is even more time-consuming than the traditional method. Millions could be infected before a vaccine became available. According to Osterholm, “We have yawned at influenza year after year. We are going to have a rude awakening” (ibid.).
Return of the Plagues
Animal-borne diseases are just part of the story. The fourth horseman is not limited to that tactic. While bird flu captures the headlines, tuberculosis (tb), for example, has been relentless and continues to be a formidable killer. It has killed more people than any other disease in history. Still today, about 2 million succumb to it each year. Let’s put that in some perspective.
The Asian tsunami of December 2004 claimed almost 300,000 lives, including those missing and presumed dead. tb slaughters the equivalent of seven tsunamis annually. Put another way, every two months, on average more people die from tb than the death toll from the Asian tsunami. To make matters worse, multidrug-resistant tb (mdr-tb) is on the rise. The cure rate for mdr-tb is only about 50 percent, and it’s estimated that 50 million people are currently infected with mdr-tb! In parts of Russia, resistance to the most common drug treatment for tb is nearing 100 percent.
A book titled The Return of the White Plague: Global Poverty and the “New” Tuberculosis addresses the re-emergence of the tb pandemic. It supports a statement of the who estimating that “between 2002 and 2020, approximately 1,000 million [1 billion] people will be newly infected [with tuberculosis] ….” These new multiresistant strains of tb could also spread through the rich countries of the world.
In contrast to the “white plague” of tuberculosis stands the “Black Death” of the Middle Ages. New research shows that even this perhaps most dreaded of all diseases could make a terrifying comeback in the near future. According to Dr. Susan Scott, author of the book Return of the Black Death, this great killer was not a form of bubonic plague, but a life-threatening virus that was spread from person to person. After extensive historical research, she and her colleagues determined that the Black Death is lying dormant, most likely in the animal population of the Third World—and that it could reemerge at any time! Because it probably has an infectious period of three weeks when no symptoms occur, “[t]heir study reveals a new outbreak would spread quickly around the globe causing massive devastation” (Liverpool Daily Echo, May 24, 2004).
Such scenarios frighten medical authorities because they are not mere science fiction. With the tremendous intercontinental air and sea traffic of our age, plus the crumbling infrastructures of metropolitan inner cities and increasing numbers of fleeing international refugees, such diseases could be spread around the world very quickly. In today’s global society, an outbreak could be on the other side of the world within 24 hours.
Not only that, but we also have to contend with the very real prospect of disease that could be imposed upon us by terrorists!
Living bacterial and viral organisms, or the toxins they produce, can be used as biological weapons. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified seven biological agents that are the highest threat to the nation: anthrax, botulinus toxin, plague, ricin, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola). Let’s look briefly at just the first two.
During World War ii, when there was widespread fear that the Axis powers might use germ warfare, Britain conducted limited biological weapons tests. In one test, Gruinard, a remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland, was sprayed with anthrax bacteria in 1942. The targets were sheep, and they began dying within days. Then another problem surfaced. Most biological agents rapidly deteriorate, but not so for dry agents such as anthrax. The anthrax bacteria were so durable that the tiny island was declared unsafe and quarantined. Not until 1986 did efforts to decontaminate it successfully begin. After removing topsoil, flooding the island with a formaldehyde solution and returning sheep to it that subsequently remained healthy, the island was finally declared safe in 1990.
While anthrax poisoning is not contagious, exposure to anthrax spores can kill within three days after the onset of fever, cough, respiratory distress and shock. It would take only about 200 pounds, released into the wind, for a terrorist to murder up to 3 million people in Washington, d.c., for example! The lives lost would be horrendous enough, but the enduring aftereffects would also devastate the region.
The tiny microscopic organism botulinum is in plentiful supply because it is found naturally in the soil and in low-acid foods that spoil. The poison it produces is lethal. In concentrated form, it’s called botulinus toxin and is the deadliest of all naturally occurring biotoxins. Specifically, it is a neurotoxin, which means it destroys nerve cells. After general symptoms such as weakness, dizziness, blurred vision and difficulty swallowing and speaking, there is paralysis, respiratory failure and death—usually within about a week of becoming infected. If an anti-toxin is administered soon enough, the progress of the disease can be stopped—but the physical damage caused by the destruction of nerve cells is irreversible.
Just how dangerous is botulinus toxin? It only takes two-hundredths of a milligram absorbed through the skin, lungs, eyes or mucous membranes to kill an adult! That means that just 1 gallon of pure botulinus toxin can kill over 180 million people. How hard is it to produce a gallon? After the Gulf War of 1991, United Nations inspectors found and destroyed 130,000 gallons of botulinus toxin in Iraq! And how easy is it to use? The toxin “can be delivered from rifle grenades, mortar rounds, artillery rounds, bombs, air-to-ground rockets (e.g., from helicopters), from Scud warheads, from land mines, from sprayers, sprinklers, and aerosol equipment, and from harmless-looking booby traps of various kinds” (Cyberlab Computer Forensics, Feb. 27, 1998). The launch of one Scud missile filled with botulinus toxin could affect an area of at least 1,400 square miles.
There’s also the very real possibility that our food supply could be poisoned with biological agents. Tommy Thompson said, “I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do. … We are importing a lot of food from the Middle East and it would be easy to tamper with that” (New York Times, Dec. 4, 2004). He admitted he worried about threats to the food supply every night!
Can we begin to see the very real danger that mankind faces from biological terrorism? Not only are biological weapons in some ways more dangerous than nuclear weapons, they are far less expensive to produce. Never before could such a few people, with limited means, pose such great devastation.
In this article we have highlighted just a few of the horrifying pandemics that could explode onto the world scene in very short order. In addition to the specter of biological terrorism and the reemergence of dreaded pandemics, researchers have identified more than 30 new untreatable diseases just since 1980. And who knows what other frightening ailments may yet emerge. Conditions are ripe. Major worldwide pandemics are on the verge of breaking through! Exactly how they will form and spread may not be known in great detail, but one thing is sure: The fourth horseman of the apocalypse is not a far-fetched fantasy but a sobering reality that will soon savage hundreds of millions of people.
“So I looked, and behold, a pale [sickly green] horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades [the grave] followed with him” (Revelation 6:8). Not too far away on the horizon, the image of the fourth horseman is clearly visible. The horse is galloping hard, and the rider looks like a living corpse lifted from the grave. He’s coming your way, and it won’t be long before he’s staring you in the face!
Do you truly understand the times you live in? Are you prepared for unparalleled devastation from disease such as the world has never seen? To those who faithfully obey God, He promises that “You shall not be afraid … of the pestilence …. A thousand may fall at your side, And ten thousand at your right hand; But it shall not come near you” (Psalms 91:5-7). Will you be able to claim that promise, really? Do you have that kind of faith? Don’t be too sure. Request our free booklet What is Faith? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.