Armageddon—In and Out of Context

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 27

by Reta Halteman Finger

Tel Megiddo. Aerial View
Tel Megiddo, aerial view. The beginning of the settlement dates to the fourth millennium BCE.
In 2005, the site was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. 
Photo by AVRAMGR from WikiMedia Commons

Armageddon!

Does that word make shivers go up and down your spine? It’s supposed to!

Thanks to 200 years of dispensational theology, the name “Armageddon” has become a symbol for the final conflagration at the end of the world. Besides the biblical reference in Revelation 16:16, www.dictionary.com defines Armageddon as “the last and completely destructive battle” (e.g., in statements such as “The arms race can lead to Armageddon”), or it can refer to “any great and crucial conflict.”

Probably most readers have heard that word before we had any idea of its origin in Revelation 16:16. Occurring only here in the entire Bible, the NRSV spells it “Harmagedon.” In Hebrew, “har” is a mountain or hill, and Megiddo is the name of a large plain located in northern Israel. It was the site of several famous battles, such as one fought in 1468 BCE by the Egyptian pharaoh Tuthmosis III, or the site where Pharaoh Neco killed Josiah, king of Judah, in 609 BCE (see 2 Kings 23:28-29.) Megiddo is not a mountain, but even in John’s day it included an archeological “tel” (a mound composed of ruined cities built on top of each other over many centuries) that might be called a hill.

John’s reference to Mount Megiddo fits well into its literary and historical context. His vision in the chapters following its introduction in Revelation 16 describes the destruction of Rome (Revelation 17 and 18). The sixth angel’s bowl which dries up the Euphrates River in what is present-day Iraq (Rev. 16:12-16) prepares us for that event, since the Parthians, “kings of the east” (16:12) beyond the Euphrates, were Rome’s greatest military threat. The plain of Megiddo lay at the eastern edge of Rome’s empire, so any potential battle would take place there.

Different methods yield different results

Throughout this series of lessons, I make an effort to interpret Revelation in light of its overall identity as an apocalypse, its use of first-century imagery and symbols, and its internal, cohesive structure. I do not believe it predicts specific political events that will take place in our future. John’s message was written to provide hope and warning for his seven churches situated in Asia Minor in the Roman Empire. It is true that John’s interludes provide glimpses of heavenly reality, but these are timeless vignettes that exist outside earthly measures of reckoning.

But this method of interpretation starkly contrasts with current popular schemes that string together texts from Revelation, the Gospels, and Old Testament prophetic statements meant for their immediate context, viewing and applying them instead as predictions for our near future. For example, in 2016 a friend of mine took a “prophecy tour” to Israel, after which she concluded that Jesus will return to earth within the next ten years.

Biblical prophecy is a complex topic beyond the parameters of our study. I will, however, make two points to express my concern and a warning for those tempted by such pseudo-scientific theories.

The Millennium and the Rapture

First, this approach demands the use of verbal inerrancy as its method of biblical interpretation. Those who assume the biblical writers were inspired by God to predict literal events that would happen thousands of years into the future can roam all over the Bible looking for random verses or passages to apply to our current political situation. In the long history of making such predictions, all of them have proved wrong.

However, in the 1830s, John Nelson Darby, a British Calvinist who served as an Anglican priest in Ireland and was later associated with the Plymouth Brethren, developed his theory of seven historical dispensations in which God has chosen to act in varied ways. Today, he said, we live in the “Age of the Church,” but Jesus’s  coming will usher in his 1000-year reign on earth. To avoid making predictions that turn out wrong, Darby introduced the concept of “Rapture” (misinterpreted from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), to assure  believers that end-time events will not take place until after Christian believers have been “raptured” to heaven. In this way, they can never be wrong about their predictions. (See my earlier discussion of the Thessalonians passage— and the metaphor implied— in “Broken Seals,” lesson 12 of this Revelation series.)  The rapture  theory has proved irresistible to many Christians today. It can be found in various popular writings like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which many readers have seen as a more exciting update on Revelation.

A helpful and accessible book demolishing this theory is Barbara R. Rossing’s, The Rapture Exposed, which I highly recommend.

Political fallout from Christian Zionism

The second problem with this theory of prophecy is political and falls within the umbrella of “Christian Zionism.” (This is not 19th century Zionism, which called for a homeland in Palestine for persecuted Jews.) Christian Zionism takes various forms, but it usually uses the predictive system described above to privilege the current nation of Israel as the place and the people through whom God will work to bring about the “end-times.” Fundamentalist preachers like John Hagee, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and others insist on the necessity of every Christian to support Israel. Millions of them do.

Christian Zionism influenced the United Nations vote to create the state of Israel in 1947, which displaced thousands of Arab Palestinians from their homes—many to live in refugee camps since then. So powerful is Christian Zionism’s influence on political leaders that, 70 years later, no peace plan has been successfully enacted in Israel-Palestine. President Trump’s December 2017 decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has delighted many evangelicals, who see him as an instrument of God to bring the end of this dispensation ever closer. Thus, war and conflict are ironically preferred over Jesus’s principles of peacemaking.

For a cogent argument against this view, I recommend Stephen Sizer’s article, “Christian Zionism: The New Heresy that Undermines Middle East Peace.”   A sermon supporting  Sizer’s perspective by the late theologian John Stott, titled “The Place of Israel,” was included in Sizer’s book, Zion’s Christian Soldiers: The Bible, Israel and the Church (InterVarsity Press, 2008). (For a succinct summary of Stott’s views in that sermon, see this comment from a reader who defends Stott’s perspective in the Church of England Newspaper.)

As I write these lessons, I cannot help but draw some parallels between our current political situation and Revelation’s descriptions of chaos in Rome’s empire. Yet we must always keep in mind a simple interpretive principle of Bible study:  first figure out what a text originally MEANT before deciding what it MEANS today!

Questions for reflection or discussion

  1. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Armageddon”?
  2. What past exposure to or experience with dispensational theology or Christian Zionism have you had?
  3. In what ways might Revelation rightfully speak to our current politics or global issues?

Sources used:

“Armageddon”: The Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Inter-Varsity Press, 1998. P. 111. 

Rossing, Barbara R. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Basic Books, 2004. (This book also features a group discussion guide.)

Sizer, Stephen. “Guest Writer: Christian Zionism: The New Heresy that Undermines Middle East Peace.” Middle East Monitor. com, January 29, 2014

 

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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