Armageddon

Greek Har Ma-ge-don means ‘Mountain of Megiddo’ or ‘mountain of assembly of troops.’  An ancient town named Megiddo (57 km north of Jerusalem) was one of the more important cities of the Promised Land from the time of Joshua’s conquest. Megiddo is strategically located to overlook and dominate a vast fertile plain, which was the site of many historical battles.  The walls of the fortified city were once 25 feet thick.

 

The word Armageddon is used only once in the entire Bible (Revelation 16:16) to describe the place where the kings of the whole world are gathered together by satanic spirits for battle on the great day of God Almighty.  (Revelation 16:14)  Armageddon, like the rest of the Book of Revelation, has been subject to varying interpretations. Whether expecting all of the armies of the world will literally gather at the Mountain of Megiddo (although there is no mountain at Megiddo), or interpreting the location as symbolic, most theologians agree that the battle of Armageddon involves the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and will be the war to end all wars, leading to final judgement, separating the righteous from the unrighteous, and the creation of a new heaven and earth.  

 

The Early Church left almost no commentaries on Armageddon. We can infer from a fragment of the writings of Hippolytus (170-236) that he expected Armageddon to be a literal, future event, although located in the valley of Josophat.  Many members of the Early Church believed that 1000 year resurrection would be a future, literal event and that the Second Coming of Christ would occur at the end of the millennium, immediately after the battle of Armageddon.  

 

Augustine wrote in the City of God (Book XX, chapter VII) that he had originally believed the first resurrection was synonymous with a future, bodily 1,000 year resurrection. Augustine had also once believed in freewill and personal responsibility for salvation, which the Early Church understood to be the purpose of the first resurrection.  Augustine, in his war to impose mass conversion on Pagans, abandoned his old belief in freewill and a literal resurrection.  Without freewill, a resurrection served no purpose. Augustine found various ways to explain the Book of Revelation as allegory and symbolism. Armageddon was reduced from the culmination of the struggle between good and evil to a footnote.  Augustine’s new theology which denied belief in a literal, future 1,000 year resurrection is called a-millennialism. 

 

The Catholic Church continued to interpret the 1,000 year resurrection as non-literal symbolism. The Teaching of the Catholic Church (Canon George Smith, 1952, p 1140) notes that ‘man’s hope of a millennium’ is a form of ‘religious dreaming’ that has ‘always been the faith of certain pious people.’ The official Catholic position is that ‘It is not easy to contradict people and prove them to be wrong if they profess a hope in some mighty triumph of Christ here on earth before the final consummation of all things. Such an occurrence is not excluded, is not impossible, it is not at all certain that there may not be a prolonged period of triumphant Christianity before the end.’  In 1334 pages expounding the Teaching of the Catholic Church, Armageddon does not rate a mention.

 

The Protestant Reformation was based on the writings and theology of Augustine, rather than the Early Church. Because Luther and Calvin embraced predestination and rejected freewill, their theology, like Augustine’s, had no need of a resurrection where freewill could be exercised. Luther and Calvin were harsher than Augustine in their views of the Book of Revelation. In his preface to the translation of the Book of Revelation Luther wrote, ‘About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.... Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.’  

 

Calvin wrote 22 volumes of commentaries on the Bible but did not write a word about John’s Book of Revelation.  In 1258 pages expounding his neo-Augustinian theology, Calvin does not mention Armageddon once. Calvin’s new theology which allegorized the 1,000 year resurrection and predicted that Jesus would only return at the end is called post-millennialism. 

 

Modern Charismatics have written entire libraries about Armageddon, the Great Tribulation, the Rapture and the Apocalypse. Where Reformation theology was optimistic and triumphant because it believed that the Church would redeem the world before the return of Jesus (post-millennialism), Charismatics believe the world is being conquered by Satan who appears to triumph until the very final moment when Jesus returns to inaugurate the resurrection (pre-millennialism) by slaughtering his enemies and flooding the valley of Megiddo with blood as deep as a horse’s bridle. (Revelation 14:20) This new literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation was made possible by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. For the first time in almost 2,000 years a thriving Jewish population in the Biblical Promised Land made a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation credible.  The volatile situation in the Middle East has made the war-to-end-all-wars appear imminent and inevitable.

 

Pre-millennial eschatology makes for breathless, page-turning story-telling because the battle of Armageddon could break out tomorrow, or even today, engulfing the world in horrors that have never been seen, and will be seen again. The enemies are right here among us. The United Nations?  The Soviet Union? The Muslim Brotherhood? Materialistic atheism?  The Ecumenical One World Church? Or an unholy cabal of the united hosts of Satan? 

 

When Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth became a best-seller in 1970, he could write that ‘Many so-called Christian leaders today do not believe that Jesus Christ will literally and physically make a personal return to the earth.  Some teach that Christ returns spiritually when people accept him. Others teach that Jesus may return some day but that it is irrelevant to study or talk about it.’ (p 159) Christianity has shifted dramatically in the decades since those words were written. Large numbers of Charismatics and Evangelicals have embraced a pre-millennial theology that anticipates imminent Armageddon triggered by the Second Coming.  Hal Lindsay predicted, in elaborate detail (including a map of troop movements on p 144), how World War III would be provoked by the Communist Russian Bloc which would attack Israel with a deadly nuclear rain.  Where would the armies of Satan be destroyed at the triumphant return of Christ? On the vast, blood-drenched plains of Armageddon. (pp 151-155)

 

A more recent description of the end of the world is found in Tim Lahaye’s Revelation Unveiled.  Lahaye is better known as the co-author of the Left Behind series of books and movies which have promoted pre-millennial scenarios of imminent apocalypse to millions of Christians.  By the time Revelation Unveiled was written, the Soviet Union had imploded and was no longer the leading villain. However, a new evil empire was rising in the East and so China became the prophesied villain. ‘China is already moving in the political direction that will make it possible for her to do what (the Book of) Revelation indicates she will during the Tribulation: march over the Euphrates River to the Battle of Armageddon.’ (p 256)

 

 

These pre-millennial visions of Armageddon are dismissed as ‘puerile’ misinterpretations of scripture by Protestant Calvinists (post-millennialists) and as ‘religious dreaming’ by Catholics (a-millennialists).   The Early Church situated Armageddon and the war-to-end-all-wars at the end of the 1000 year resurrection.  It was the final war-to-end-all-wars.  When Christ returns, good and bad are judged and separated.  The creation of a New Heaven and Earth ensures eternal peace.  Augustine, Catholics and Calvinists regard as symbolic and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where or when it might symbolically occur.

 

Charismatic pre-millennialists think about Armageddon a great deal. They situate the war-to-end-all-wars in the near future at the beginning of Christ’s reign. They cannot explain why the 1000 years culminates in rebellion, why Christ’s ‘eternal kingdom’ permits the return of Satan, or why Armageddon must be fought all over again. So they say very little about the 1000 year resurrection and the great battle that concludes it.

 

 

People like Lindsay reduce the final war-to-end-all-wars at the end of the millennium to a minor incident. ‘Satan will have been bound for 1,000 years, but is released momentarily so that he could reveal the rebellion in the unbelieving hearts of those who reject Christ as Saviour.’ Lindsay devoted one sentence to the 1000 year resurrection on p 166.  The extraordinary significance of this event – unparalleled since Satan first appeared in the Garden of Eden – is simply not grasped.  Lahaye believes that Satan will be released from Hell merely to tempt children born during the 1000 year resurrection because ‘all humans have to be tempted of Satan and have to decide whether to respond to God or Satan.’ (p 347)  Again, the extraordinary significance of this event is not grasped

 

Catholics and Calvinists denounce pre-millennialism as wrong-headed, simple-minded and unscriptural. Pre-millennialists claim they are simply interpreting the Bible literally, in perfect harmony with the Early Church. It is hard to be categorical about what the Early Church believed, but one thing is certain: the Early Church had no knowledge of Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath, with its denial of freewill and policies of state imposed mass conversion. The Early Church did not interpret scripture through an Augustinian lens of original sin and predestination. The Early Church saw the millennium as a pre-ordained (not predestined) time and place for children, death-bed converts, Old Testament saints, Pagans, doubters and backsliders to exercise of freewill to accept or reject Christ as saviour.

 

Pre-millennialists disagree with all of this.  They are not certain how Jesus can return triumphantly to destroy his enemies and establish his perfect kingdom while Satan is schedule to return 1000 years later to lead multitudes intro rebellion. Pre-millennialists are uncertain what purpose the millennium serves or who will be resurrected or why. They are not certain why Armageddon must be fought all over again after Jesus has personally ruled the world in peace for 1000 years. But they are in perfect agreement with Augustine, Luther and Calvin that this life is the only opportunity to be saved, that there will be no ‘second chances’ after death, and that the millennium has nothing to do with salvation or sanctification.

 

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