Is death God’s enemy or servant?

Four Horseman.jpg

Albrecht Dürer, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (ca. 1497-98)

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”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. (Revelation 6:7-8)

Joseph L. Mangina offers brilliant commentary on the last horseman of the Apocalypse:

Finally, the fourth rider represents pestilence, a common meaning of the Greek word thanatos (“death”). Viewed from this perspective, the actions of the last three horsemen are the fruit of the first. It is the lust for empire that brings all these terrors in its wake. This reading tends to stress the role of human agency: war is a human activity, engaging the energies and imaginations of whole populations in a combined effort to defeat the enemy.

Yet there is more going on here than simply a Johannine critique of Roman imperialism. We can also read the sequence backward, from the perspective of the fourth rider: “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him.” This fourth, climactic horsemen seems to sum up the other three: he is permitted “to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence.” But this means that the real power at work in all three terrors is death itself, the power who has been signaled as early as 1:18 as God’s final enemy. This reading emphasizes not human agency but suprahuman powers that inflict ultimate harm on creation. If God is the maker, then death is the great unmaker. Here death assumes the role of a character, an “I”—cosmic evil personified. There are different ways to picture this. Thus Dürer depicts the fourth rider as a skeletal old man, while William Blake, in his 1800 painting Death on a Pale Horse, shows him as a surprisingly robust and attractive figure. Death seems strangely alive—but then Blake is a romantic, and romanticism is always tempted in the direction of valorizing death. If Blake’s image captures death’s power, Dürer’s image is more faithful to the biblical horror in the face of death. 

So is death God’s enemy or servant? He is both . . . Ultimately death is the enemy: at the end of Revelation he will be cast into the lake of fire (20:14). Penultimately, however, this very enemy is God’s servant, the executor of judgment, a key instrument in God’s providential rule over history. That is why both he and the other riders are said to be “given authority.” In a fallen world, death has the function of setting a limit on the human project. Perhaps this explains the odd inclusion of “wild beasts of the earth” among the four horseman’s instruments of terror (6:8). These beasts are a reminder that there are powers in this world other than humans. They prefigure the demonic beasts who will haunt the later chapters of Revelation. 

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William Blake, “Death on a Pale Horse” (1800)

 

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