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Armageddon (what and when?)

One week ago, on Saturday, September 21, 2013, yet another article appeared in our local newspaper addressing the question of whether or not the conflict in Syria is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and thus indicative of the end of the age and the Battle of Armageddon. I won’t bother you with the answers supplied. I only want to draw attention once again to what I believe is widespread misunderstanding of what Armageddon is all about.

The place to begin is for you to read Revelation 19:17-21 and 20:7-10. As one examines the similarity between between these texts it would appear that John is providing us with parallel accounts of the same conflict (Armageddon) rather than presenting two entirely different battles separated by 1,000 years of human history (as the premillennialist contends). This deserves some attention.

Amillennialists, such as myself, believe there are three texts in Revelation that describe what has come to be famously known as Armageddon, the final battle when Jesus Christ returns to this earth accompanied by the armies of heaven to defeat and destroy his enemies. They are Revelation 16:12-16; 19:17-21; and 20:7-10. Although each has a different focus, they are complementary portrayals of the second coming of Christ. They differ primarily because chapter 19 is concerned with the war as it relates to the participation and fate of the beast, his followers, and the false prophet, whereas chapter 20 is concerned primarily with the role of Satan. Also, it stands to reason that having given a detailed and vivid description of the war in chapters 16 and 19, John would find it unnecessary to repeat such detail in chapter 20.

In Revelation 16 the enemies are “the kings of the whole world” (16:14). In Revelation 19 they are “kings” and “captains” and “mighty men,” indeed they are “all men, both free and slave, both small and great” (19:18). In Revelation 20 they are “the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog” (20:8). They are all specifically gathered together for “the war” (cf. Rev. 19:19; 20:8). The use of the definite article (“the”) points to a well-known war, the eschatological war often prophesied in the OT between God and his enemies (cf. Joel 2:11; Zeph. 1:14; Zech. 14:2-14).

The place of this eschatological war is called Har-Magedon (16:16). This poses a problem for those who believe a literal battle at the literal site is in view, insofar as there is no such place as the Mountain of Megiddo (which would be the most literal rendering of the word). Megiddo was itself an ancient city and Canaanite stronghold located on a plain in the southwest region of the Valley of Jezreel or Esdraelon. Although situated on a tell (an artificial mound about 70 ft. high; others say it was anywhere from 130 to 200 feet), it can hardly be regarded as a mountain! The valley of Megiddo was the strategic site of several (more than 200, according to some estimates) significant battles in history (see Judges 4:6-16; 5:19; Judges 7; 1 Samuel 29:1; 31:1-7; 2 Kings 23:29-30; 2 Chron. 35:22-24). It makes sense that the vicinity would become a lasting symbol for the cosmic eschatological battle between good and evil. As Robert Mounce accurately notes,

“geography is not the major concern. Wherever it takes place, Armageddon is symbolic of the final overthrow of all the forces of evil by the might and power of God. The great conflict between God and Satan, Christ and Antichrist, good and evil, that lies behind the perplexing course of history will in the end issue in a final struggle in which God will emerge victorious and take with him all who have placed their faith in him. This is Har-Megedon” (Commentary on Revelation, 302).

To put it simply, Armageddon is prophetic symbolism for the whole world in its collective defeat and judgment by Christ at his second coming. The imagery of war, of kings and nations doing battle on an all-too-familiar battlefield (Megiddo), is used as a metaphor of the consummate, cosmic, and decisive defeat by Christ of all his enemies (Satan, beast, false prophet, and all who bear the mark of the beast) on that final day. “This suggests that ‘Armageddon’ is not a specific place that can be located on a map or reached with the help of GPS equipment. Like ‘Babylon’ and ‘Euphrates’ in the book of Revelation, ‘Armageddon’ is a typological symbol of the final battle between God and his enemies” (Eckhard Schnable, 40 Questions about the End Times, 233).

It’s important to note that in 19:17-18 the angel announces the coming destruction of the beast, false prophet, and their followers through the same imagery found in Ezekiel 39:4, 17-20 where the defeat of Gog and Magog is described. The picture of vultures or other birds of prey feasting on the flesh of unburied corpses killed in battle (see also Rev. 19:21b) was a familiar one to people in the OT (cf. Deut. 28:26; 1 Sam. 17:44-46; 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:24; 2 Kings 9:10; Jer. 7:33; 15:3; 16:4; 19:7; 34:20; Ezek. 29:5). Yet we read that it is Gog and Magog who are defeated in the battle of Revelation 20:7-10 (see v. 8). The point is simply that the “war” of Revelation 19 and the “war” of Revelation 20, together with the “war” of Revelation 16, are one and the same, the defeat of the nations of the earth, Gog and Magog, who had aligned with the Beast against our Christ.

The “kings of the earth” are gathered together for “the war” (19:19; already noted in 16:14, 16; cf. 20:8). The same Greek phrase “the war” (ton polemon) is used in all three texts (Rev. 16:14; 19:19; 20:8). In fact, in 16:14 and 20:8 the same extended phrase “to gather them unto the war” (sunagagein autous eis ton polemon) is used. This confirms yet again that John had one and the same “war” in view. Premillennialists have to disagree, for they see the “war” of chapters 16 and 19 as a reference to “Armageddon” at the time of the second coming of Christ but view the “war” in chapter 20 as a different one that occurs subsequent to the millennium. I remain convinced that “the war” John notes in 16:14, 19:19, and 20:8 is one and the same war, thus supporting the idea that John is providing us, by means of literary recapitulation, differing perspectives on the same events. Thus Gog and Magog in Revelation 20:8 are identical with the kings and nations and all who are here portrayed as resisting the Lordship of Christ. Gog and Magog are all the unbelieving inhabitants of the earth who in their rebellion against God and the Lamb follow the Beast and receive his mark.

So what, then, is Armageddon? I can do no better than to summarize this momentous conflict with the words of Eckhard Schnabel:

“The battle of Armageddon brings the final defeat of the evil forces that rebel against God and resist Jesus Christ. It is not an actual military battle in Israel [emphasis mine]. A literal fulfillment would have been theoretically possible in the first century when armies fought on horses with swords and spears and arrows. However, even then it would have been impossible to picture all the people of the earth assembled at Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley in order to wage war against God’s people, not to mention that Old Testament prophecies expected the final battle to take place in Jerusalem and on Mount Zion. The final battle of history is the destruction of the political, cultural, and religious systems of the world (the Beast and the false prophet) that opposed God and the defeat of the ungodly who refuse to follow Jesus (the Lamb). This last battle takes place when Jesus returns for the final judgment. Jesus wins the final victory of human history – not with military might, but with the word of God” (Schnabel, 40 Questions, 237).

[Adapted from my book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Christian Focus, 2013).

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