Armageddon?

The second Sunday after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I preached a sermon entitled “The Road To Armageddon.” During those days of grief and rage when I should have preached the gospel of peace and forgiveness, I instead resorted to the hackneyed trope of dispensationalism that claims a mega-war in the Middle East must occur before Jesus can return.

I’ve repented and made amends for that pastoral failure, but the fact remains that my mistake was made possible by the terrible eschatology I had inherited. The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series are only the best known of countless books that have popularized the worst possible reading of Revelation.

The phenomenon of modern dispensationalism with its endorsement of supposed divine and unavoidable hyper-violence is such an ugly and perverse eschatology that it’s unfit to be called Christian. A Christian eschatology of peace and hope has been supplanted by a dreadful eschatology of violence and doom. An eschatology that insists there must be more wars, more famines, more earthquakes, and more epidemics before Jesus can return is not a Christian eschatology. The Apostle Paul calls the glorious appearing of Christ the “blessed hope,” but there’s nothing blessed about another war or global catastrophe.

Yet hoping for “wars and rumors of wars” is the predicament the adherents of dispensational eschatology find themselves in. According to their system (based in an utterly mistaken reading of the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation), Jesus cannot return until a series of global catastrophes culminating in World War III occurs first. This leads to the deplorable phenomenon of Christians secretly (or not so secretly) hoping for another war and finding a reason to rejoice over the latest catastrophe.

An earthquake kills 100,000 people in China and somewhere in America a Christian smiles and says, “Praise the Lord. It’s a sign of the end times. Jesus is coming soon!” An eschatology that rejoices over earthquakes and causes people to want another war in the Middle East is not a Christian eschatology! Christian hope is for the peace of New Jerusalem, not the horrors of Armageddon.

Contrary to the fictions of The Late Great Planet Earth, Left Behind, Four Blood Moons, and their lesser known siblings, the road to Armageddon does not lead to New Jerusalem. When giving directions to New Jerusalem we don’t say, “Go down the road to Armageddon where 200 million people will be killed in a mega-war in the Middle East, then keep on going until you finally get to New Jerusalem.” No! We don’t arrive at the peace of New Jerusalem by going to Armageddon first; we find New Jerusalem by following the Lamb.

Armageddon is the antithesis of New Jerusalem. The two are always distinct possibilities, but divergent fates. New Jerusalem is the ever present hope and possibility that the nations can forsake the Beast with its endless Armageddons and follow the Lamb into the heavenly city whose gates are never shut. Armageddon and the burning lake are symbols John of Patmos employs to warn us against following the Beast of empire. So let’s take a closer look at Armageddon.

“And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers
and their armies to a place called Armageddon.”
–Revelation 16:16

Few words have captured our collective religious imagination more than Armageddon. For the amount of traffic this word gets you might think it occurs frequently in Scripture, but in fact it occurs only once. In Revelation 16:16 John envisions demonic spirits gathering the armies of the world to a place called Armageddon — a Hebrew word meaning “valley of Megiddo.”

Today Tel-Megiddo, a World Heritage Site, is one of the most visited archeological sites in Israel. Rising two hundred feet above the Jezreel Valley this artificial mound is the result of the city being destroyed and rebuilt twenty-six times. The fertile Jezreel Valley made Megiddo a desirable location for an ancient city, but unfortunately the Jezreel Valley was also located in a geography of war. Situated between the great Assyrian and Babylonian empires to the north and the great Egyptian empire to the south, Megiddo often found itself in the middle of a raging battlefield. Megiddo’s woeful history of being destroyed twenty-six times makes it an apt symbol for endless war.

For John’s original readers, a reference to Armageddon would evoke the image of a battlefield. If I make a reference to Omaha Beach, you probably don’t imagine a seaside picnic, but a bloody battlefield. This is Armageddon — it’s an icon of war.

Prior to evoking Armageddon, John the Revelator paints a picture of three evil spirits like frogs coming out of the mouths of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. In Revelation the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet are a kind of unholy Trinity symbolizing Satan, Rome, and imperial propaganda. The frogs that crawl out of the mouths of the unholy Trinity are the demons of accusation, empire, and propaganda. These demonic frogs exert a powerful influence over world political leaders. Under the spell of the frogs croaking out accusation, empire, and propaganda, politicians are seduced into leading the world to Armageddon…or Waterloo, Gettysburg, Flanders’ Field, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima…and so it goes.

As long as we practice accusation, empire, and propaganda, Armageddon looms. Our looming Armageddons are always a possibility, but never an inevitability. The demonic seduction of accusation, empire, and propaganda always leads humanity to another bloody battlefield.

Armageddon isn’t the end of war, Armageddon is endless war. We cannot war our way to peace. There is no way to peace; peace is the way…and Jesus is the Prince of Peace. If we try to end war by war, we always get another war. World War I was billed as “the war to end all wars.” So 17 million people were sacrificed on the altar of war in order to end war. And what did we get? 60 million people killed in World War II! What caused WWII? WWI. And what caused WWI? World leaders seduced by accusation, empire, and propaganda.

This is the relevance of the book of Revelation. John’s apocalyptic vision doesn’t predict an inevitable war where 200 million people will be killed in the Middle East, rather John presents us with our choices. Either we follow the Lamb into the shalom of New Jerusalem or we follow the Beast into the horrors of Armageddon. We either listen to the Lamb or we listen to the frogs. The frogs know the way to another Armageddon. The Lamb leads the way to the heavenly city of peace.

This is how we understand the wrath of God and the will of God in the book of Revelation. If we follow the Beast we will end up in Armageddon — this is the wrath of God, or as it’s called in Revelation 6:16, “the wrath of the Lamb.” It’s the wrath of God as divine consent to our own deadly trajectory. But if we follow the Lamb we will end up in New Jerusalem — this is the will of God. God’s will is never Armageddon; God’s will is always New Jerusalem.

But according to the hokum of Left Behind and that ilk of egregious misinterpretation, Armageddon is a final and inevitable war in the Middle East that must occur before Jesus can return. This kind of reckless eschatology forces its adherents to be warmongers, not peacemakers. If you believe there must be a mega-war in the Middle East before Jesus can return, you’re going to be a lousy peacemaker! A fatalistic eschatology requiring end-time hyper-violence that slaughters hundreds of millions is more befitting of ISIS than the followers of the Prince of Peace!

So allow me to say it as emphatically as I know how: There doesn’t have to be another war for Jesus to return! God has not written an unalterable script that requires war. If we reject the way of the Lamb, we get Armageddon. This is the wrath of God; wrath as consequence, not retribution. If we embrace the way of the Lamb, we get New Jerusalem. This is always the will of God. But there is no divine determinism that requires yet another Armageddon.

If you have thought the blessed hope cannot be realized without the bloodiest war in history occurring first, you can now let go of that hideous distortion of the gospel. Please do!

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About the author

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Brian and his wife, Peri, founded the church in 1981. Brian is also the author of several books, including, A Farewell To Mars, Beauty Will Save the World, Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, Water to Wine and his latest, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. He also blogs at brianzahnd.com