by Mark Roberts
Armageddon is a term that has slipped easily into today’s vocabulary. One hears of “nuclear Armageddon” and the “final battle” in both political and religious speeches. What does it all mean? Are premillennialists, like Hal Lindsey, correct when they tell us the last battle will involve Israel and Russia? What does the Bible say about Armageddon?
While one might imagine numerous references to Armageddon would occur in scripture, it is only mentioned once. Revelation 16:16 says “They gathered them together to the place which in Hebrew is called Har-Magedon.” Here, John is told, the false prophet and beast bring together all the armies of the kings of the earth to fight against God. Har-Magedon is actually a Hebrew term that means mountain of Megiddo. Megiddo is a valley that makes a natural pass in the mountains for all traffic between Egypt and points north and east. Every empire of Bible times tried to control this valley, due to its strategic importance. Interestingly, while there is a valley of Megiddo there is no mountain of Megiddo. The place Revelation points to as the site of this great battle does not exist! What do we make of that?
Armageddon’s symbolic name just points to the nature of the book of Revelation. It is not a book to be taken literally. It is apocalyptic, a kind of literature that portrays the battle between good and evil in fascinating signs and symbols (Revelation 1:3). “Armageddon” type battles are not unusual in apocalyptic literature. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls offers this picture of a battle between God and Satan: “The rule of War on the unleashing of the attack of the sons of light against the company of the sons of darkness, the army of Satan… This shall be a time of salvation for the people of God, an age of dominion for all members of His company, and of everlasting destruction for all the company of Satan… .” (The War Scroll, 1:1-9). The uninspired work 1 Enoch contains a similar scene (1:9). Revelation’s battle is no different than these. It is a “big picture” look at God overcoming all those who oppose Him and His people (Revelation 19:1). To make it all literal is to make a fatal mistake that deprives the student of any chance of properly understanding what he is seeing. Let’s look closer.
The reference to Armageddon in Revelation 16:16 is no more a reference to a real, literal battlefield than the reference to the beast (Revelation 16:13) is to a real monster. What do we make of the frogs, the drying up of the Euphrates (Revelation 16:12), and the context of the entire book? By what rule of interpretation can we say “figurative, figurative, figurative” to these and then suddenly decide “the geographic place (which does not exist) must be literal? To say such is poor exegesis is an understatement.
Revelation 19:19-21 is no different. Yes, there is a battle portrayed there, but is it literal? Jesus is portrayed as the conqueror, but are we to believe He literally has a sword in His mouth (Revelation 19:15, 21)? Again, it is a picture in symbols. The battle that is discussed is a spiritual conflict between right and wrong. To put tanks and helicopters into Revelation 19 is a travesty. Christians in John’s day needed to know that they were not dying in vain, that God had not abdicated His throne, and that the devil would not triumph. They are reassured when they see these pictures of Jesus conquering by the power of the Gospel. Of what value would knowing about ICBMs and a future physical battle be to these persecuted saints? John’s apocalypse shows that even when it looks like Christians are losing, they are winning the spiritual battle.
Regrettably, extensive efforts are made to find Armageddon not only in Revelation but in Ezekiel 38-39. Gog and Magog are identified as Russia, and the battle in Ezekiel is said to be the one in Revelation 19. Really? The armies of Ezekiel 38 ride horses and carry swords (Ezekiel 38:4). If the battle is literal why isn’t the weaponry? How can we say “this is a literal battle, but the weapons will be tanks and machine guns?” Notice that in Ezekiel 39:9-10 the prophet specifically says that when the battle ends Israel will burn their enemies’ weapons as firewood. This cannot be modern weaponry, one cannot burn an AK-47! To further confound the premillennial uses of these chapters, Gog and Magog are dead and buried in Ezekiel’s battle (Ezekiel 39:11-12). Premillennialists are happy to parallel this to Revelation 19’s battle and make it all one and the same conflict, the battle of Armageddon. But has anyone noticed that in Revelation 20:8 Gog and Magog appear (note: for the first time in Revelation)? How can Gog and Magog materialize in Revelation 20 if they were already killed in the battle of Armageddon described in Ezekiel 38-39 and Revelation 19?
Someone is mixed up, and it is those who are trying to force Ezekiel’s message into John’s book. Ezekiel’s visions and prophecies were for the people of his day, the captives in Babylon. He gives them a reassuring message of God’s power and ability to re-establish them in their homeland and to protect them from attack when they get there. To pick up those symbols and jam them into Revelation, a book written to give confidence and hope to Christians in the first century makes a giant mess. Revelation 19’s battle is not Ezekiel’s battle, and Ezekiel is not talking about Revelation’s battle of Armageddon. These are two separate events, two separate visions, given to two entirely different peoples in entirely different circumstances. Premillennial ideas just prove to be a “Bible blender” that confuses and contradicts scripture.
The most important lesson to be learned from studying Armageddon is that God will indeed triumph. Rather than fearfully wringing our hands at “wars and rumors of wars” let us be about the business of teaching the Gospel to the lost and standing for purity and holiness. This aligns us with the One who is always victorious in every battle.