On the surface the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8) portray all kinds of literal war, famine and pestilence (as these images do in Matthew 24 and parallels). But a careful examination of the images, and their contexts within the book and in the rest of Scripture, leads me to believe that the four horsemen actually portray the progress of the Gospel and the spiritual consequences of its rejection. This interpretation depends on the identity of the white horse and its rider (6:1-2).
While some suggest that the rider on the white horse represents a counterfeit of Christ and the gospel, white in Revelation always represents the things of heaven, Christ or His people. There are no exceptions to this, unless the first seal IS the exception. Furthermore, the crown (Greek: stephanos) worn by the rider is the victory crown (like an Olympic gold medal, not a royal one). With only one exception (Rev. 9:7), this kind of crown is always associated with Christ and/or His people in the New Testament. Not only so, in the first five chapters of Revelation the word for conquering (Greek: nikôn, nikêsêi) always refers to Christ and His people (see, for example, Rev. 3:21 and 5:6). In Matthew 24, which has many parallels with Revelation 6, war, famine and pestilence occur in the context of the gospel going out to the world (Matt. 24:14). If the white horse does not represent the gospel, that theme is missing in Revelation 6, which is otherwise parallel to the Olivet Discourse of Jesus. So the imagery in the white horse and its parallels with the Olivet Discourse point to the white horse as representing the progress of the gospel.
There is more. The rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 is clearly Christ, and that rider is parallel to this one. The clearest allusion to the Old Testament outside of the covenant curse sequences is Psalm 45. This is primarily a love song, the references to battle are incidental to its main theme. To cap it all off, the first horse produces no afflictions on the human race, as do the other three. There is simply a reference to conquering, a term that is elsewhere in Revelation used in a spiritual sense. So the preponderance of the evidence points to a figurative meaning in relation to the gospel.
Is it possible, however, that the white horse and its rider are introduced here as counterfeits of the gospel? Could all of the positive imagery be explained in that way? It is possible, counterfeit is certainly a major theme in the book of Revelation. But when the counterfeits occur elsewhere in the book they are always clearly exposed as such to the reader. For example, the Christ parallels in Revelation 13 are in a context of blasphemous opposition to God (Rev. 13:1, 6) and war against the saints (Rev. 13:7). Exposing counterfeits is one of the main reasons the book was written, but it will only succeed in that mission by clearly showing whose side each character is on! Unlike Revelation 13, in Rev. 6:1-2 there is no hint of evil, rather the positive imagery is abundant. While the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 wears the royal crown (Greek: diadêma) rather than the victory crown, the difference is explainable in terms of different stages of the conflict. Revelation 6 represents the church militant while Revelation 19 represents the church triumphant. The focus of the four horsemen seems to be the ongoing victory of Christ and the subsequent progress of both the gospel and resistance to the gospel. This fits perfectly with the context in chapter five.