The relocation of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has given airtime to a right-wing, fundamentalist-Zionist (I refuse to use the word “evangelical” in this context) eschatological narrative that regards this provocative endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a big step towards a cataclysmic Armageddon in the Middle East and the second coming of Jesus. People in Australia are asking, “Is Trump a reincarnated King Cyrus, destined to herald the end of days?”
The answer, of course, is no. The chaos of the modern Middle East is as horrendous as history gets, but the fundamentalist theology that is being projected upon it is sheer fantasy, a flagrant and reprehensible abuse of scripture. In my view.
Take the great battle that John expected to happen at Armageddon, for example. Not all the details can be explained, but the general significance of the “event” within the narrative of divine judgment that we find in Revelation 6-19 is clear enough.
A word of explanation first: in The Coming of the Son of Man (see below) I argued that the trumpet visions draw on Old Testament texts that speak of judgment against Israel, while the bowl visions invoke texts that speak of judgment against the enemies of YHWH and his people. In Paul’s terms, first wrath against the Jew, then wrath against the Greek (Rom. 2:6-10).
So here, as I see it, is the elaborate narrative of judgment of which the gathering of the kings of the whole empire for battle at Armageddon is part.
- Only the Lamb who was slain is found worthy to open the scroll of divine judgment and its seven seals (5:1-14). This equates to Paul’s announcement to the men of Athens that the one who was killed and raised from the dead has been appointed as judge of the oikoumenē (Acts 17:30-31).
- The opening of the seven seals is preliminary to the coming judgment: four horsemen representing war and death are let loose in the world; the martyrs are told to be patient; the nations tremble at the prospect of the coming disorder; seven angels are given trumpets, and fire is cast upon the earth (6:1-17; 8:1-5). The stage is now set for judgment.
- The seven trumpets signal the enactment of judgment against Israel (8:6-9:21), closing with a shift in focus at the sounding of the final trumpet: the hostile nations now come into view, with the prospect that they will be incorporated into the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (11:15-19).
- So now the camera of John’s apocalyptic imagination, with its lurid filters, pans away from Jerusalem to Rome. Chapter 12 explains the mythological origins of Satan’s opposition to the witness of the churches to the one who was born to “rule all the nations with a rod of iron”. The two beasts, one from the sea, the other from the land, that appear in chapter 13 represent Rome and, probably, Roman provincial power in Asia Minor in its enthusiasm for the imperial cult.
- The “good news” of the coming judgment on idolatrous Rome is proclaimed by three angels, and the harvest of the earth begins, with the “great wine press of the wrath of God” set up outside the city that is called “Babylon the great” (14:6-20).
- The seven bowls or plagues poured out on those “who bore the mark of the beast and worshipped its image” will bring this period of wrath to an end (15:1). The sequence ends with a vision of the judgment of the “great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality” and the fall of Babylon the great (17-18). The world, of course, does not end at this point. Rather, corrupt pagan Rome becomes “a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast” (18:2; cf. Jer. 50:39).
It is the description of the pouring out of the sixth bowl that contains the reference to Armageddon:
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world (oikoumenē), to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. (16:12–16)
The first five bowls are acts of judgment directed explicitly against Rome as the throne of the beast and the people who worshipped its image. The sixth bowl is different. The Euphrates is dried up facilitating an expansion of the turmoil. In response to the plagues inflicted on it, the blasphemous imperial trinity of Satan, the beast and the false prophet summons the nations of the whole oikoumenē to gather for battle at this place called Armageddon.
This presumably corresponds to the confrontation that occurs after the fall of “Babylon the great”: “I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army” (19:19). The triumph of the Word of God is extended to encompass not only Rome but also the nations of the empire, which had been prepared to defend the interests of the beast.
The precise location of Armageddon in this narrative is unimportant. hâr magedon (“mountain of Megiddo”) may be a reference to the hill country near Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley, a site associated with several ancient battles. There are also distinct echoes of Ezekiel’s prophecy of the defeat of “Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal”, his burial along with his hordes in the Valley of Hamon-Gog, and the invitation to the birds and animals to feast on the bodies of Israel’s enemies on the “mountains of Israel” (Ezek. 38-39; cf. Rev. 19:17-18). But it is the narrative, not geography, that provides the necessary interpretive context: the beast of blasphemous imperial aggression will finally be defeated and the angelic power behind it imprisoned (Rev. 19:20; 20:1-3) once the pagan nations of the oikoumenē have also been subjugated by “the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (19:21). The vision is that the whole empire, perhaps including lands beyond the Euphrates, will be ruled by Christ and the martyrs from heaven (cf. Rev. 20:4).
Armageddon, therefore, has nothing to do with the restoration of Israel, past or present. It is a symbol for the final defeat of pagan Roman imperialism by the Word of God and the faithful witness of the saints, and there is no good reason to redeploy the ancient prophecy in the service of a modern political programme.
I think that the return of Israel to the land in the twentieth century is simply beyond the horizon of New Testament eschatology. John makes no attempt to fill in the details of the thousand year period between the victory of Christ over classical paganism and the final judgment, and I think this limited eschatological schema holds for the New Testament as a whole. The assumption is that Jewish expectations regarding the restoration of God’s people and the emergence of a new hegemony in the ancient world were fulfilled in the rule of Christ over the nations of the oikoumenē from his throne in the Jerusalem that is above. Still, in the post-Christendom era the game has changed dramatically, so anything can happen.