Armageddon

Few words evoke such strong feelings of terror, dread, and pain as Armageddon. We envision asteroids colliding with Earth, sea levels rising to Lady Liberty’s chin, machines exterminating us, and aliens nuking our cities. In our vernacular it means Doomsday. Dystopia. End of the world. Fire and brimstone. Apocalypse Now. (Thanks, Hollywood.)

But for all that notoriety, the word Armageddon only appears one time in one primary source. It is in the last book of the New Testament, called the Revelation of Jesus Christ: “And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (16:16, NKJV). Every other instance of its use is derivative.

For many hundreds of years, readers of the Revelation have longed to know more about the prophecies within John’s letter. This single verse contains many unknowns: Who are “they,” and who (or what) are being gathered together? Are “kings” gathering their “forces”? Are “evil spirits” gathering the “kings”? (The Greek itself is unclear because the pronouns have no clear antecedent.) And where is this otherwise-unmentioned Armageddon?

Although the location of Armageddon was debated by some Early Church Fathers, most people agree today that Armageddon corresponds to the Old Testament city of Megiddo. John’s spelling of Armageddon in the letter agrees with the Greek spelling of the word Megiddo in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible from c. 300 BCE that is quoted by Jesus Himself in the Gospels and was used by John and other Jews and early Christians in the first century).

In the Old Testament, we read about Megiddo as a Canaanite city eventually conquered by Joshua (Joshua 12:7, 21), as one of Solomon’s great military cities (1 Kings 9:15), and as the place where kings Ahaziah and Josiah were killed in battle (2 Kings 9:27; 23:29). It is later mentioned in a prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction (Zechariah 12:11). All of these references and stories describe a well-fortified city that was often involved in wars.

Archaeology agrees that Megiddo was an important city in the ancient world. It was located at one of the few passes through the Carmel mountains, and it was part of Via Maris trade route connecting Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. It sat 60m above the surrounding valley, so inhabitants could easily see approaching armies or traders. For these reasons, everyone wanted Megiddo. The city’s name appears in the records of all of Israel’s neighbors’ war annals, and excavations have found many destruction layers that correspond to written descriptions of the city’s invasions. Megiddo was famously war torn.

Eventually the name of the place called Armageddon became conflated with the world-ending battle that will happen there (much as the word Waterloo now means a “decisive defeat” because of Napoleon’s famous loss near that Belgian city). Armageddon means “world annihilation” to most of us today, thanks to popular culture and centuries of widespread misuse by arm-chair apocalypse enthusiasts. But that definition isn’t accurate; it is simply the name of a place. We do well to remember that what we say about the Bible is not and never will be Scripture.

Armageddon will be the place where the final battle occurs, as it was the location of so many critical battles in the past. That is all the Bible tells us!

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