On Thursday October 6, President Biden made an unusually scary statement, in response to Putin’s threat of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine: “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” He then added: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
Armageddon has long been on my mind. As many of you know, my next book, coming out on March 12, is called Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End. The book is obviously not about our current political-military crisis but about where the notion of Armageddon came from, how the view that it is very near has almost never done much good, but often created serious mayhem and harm, and why the conservative Christian understanding of it based on the book of Revelation is a complete misinterpretation.
Biden wasn’t talking about that. But he was talking about how current events could indeed lead to cataclysmic disaster for the human race. I have long pondered how the idea that Armageddon is not simply a religious idea but has always had profound political implications. The day after Biden’s comments, I wrote this little piece about it, drawing from some materials in my book.
President Biden stated Thursday that a war to end all wars has become a frighteningly realistic probability. Nuclear “Armageddon,” as he described this scenario, has suddenly become front-page news.
Armageddon has always been a religious term with political implications. The word originates in the book of Revelation, which describes a vision of the massive suffering that will come at the end of time, leading up to the Final Battle at Armageddon, a word which literally means “the mountains of Megiddo,” a city in central Israel. Prior to this complete annihilation of the armies of earth, God will inflict the planet with a series of disasters: drought, famine, epidemic, and war. Then, in this battle of good against evil, will come the final destruction of civilization as we know it.
John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, repeatedly states that his predictions would happen “soon.” John explicitly addresses his book to Christians in seven of the churches of Asia Minor, telling them what they could expect in their own day. At that time, the great enemy of God was the empire of Rome as embodied in its emperor Nero, the first persecutor of Christians and the “beast” whose number was 666. In the Final Battle at Armageddon, John was speaking of a war with Rome, whose troops God would annihilate with an army of angels led by Christ himself.
For some later Christians, the political implications were clear: the state was the enemy and the people of God needed to stand up to it. Others drew the opposite conclusion: there was no reason to oppose the state because God himself was soon to dispose of it.
When John’s predictions didn’t happen, some interpreters began to argue they would be fulfilled in their own future. For most of Christian history, this was never a prominent view among theologians, preachers, and laypeople. Most interpreters agreed with St. Augustine, that John was providing a metaphorical description of how Christ had already overcome his enemies and now was ruling the world through the church. Against Augustine, though, here were always alternative views, including the persistent claim that John envisioned the future end to planet earth. Every generation has produced apocalyptic doomsayers proclaiming that the anticipated end has finally come. The signs are being fulfilled. Armageddon is near. These expectations often led to disastrous political results, from the slaughter of civilians refusing to accept the end-time guidance of fervent town leaders in the European Middle Ages, to the disaster at Waco, with the FBI raid that killed David Koresh and his fellow Branch Davidians who were convinced that their demise had been predicted by John of Patmos.
That approach of Armageddon took on new meaning after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, end-time scenarios sketched by Christian “prophecy writers” have invariably focused on our new-found capacity to blow ourselves off the planet. This apocalyptic fervor hit a fevered pitch during the height of the Cold War. The single best-selling work of non-fiction in the 1970s, outside the Bible itself, was Hal Lindsey’s page-turner The Late Great Planet Earth, which laid out in great imaginative detail how the End would all begin with conflict in the Middle East leading to a full nuclear exchange between the global superpowers, sometime in or around 1988.
This clearly was not simply a religious belief. It was firmly rooted in political realities with frightening real-world implications. Lindsey’s book deeply impressed President Ronald Reagan, along with his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and other members of his cabinet, who were evidently convinced the bombs were indeed going to fly. For people in power to think that mutual self-destruction has been foreordained in holy writ is not, obviously, a comforting thought.
Now, four decades later, this is not a consideration for Putin, Biden, or, hopefully, anyone else in power. It does, however, continue to be a widely held views among Bible-believing Christians. This is one misinterpretation of Scripture that has serious political implications. For one thing, it is well-documented that those who believe in a relatively imminent Armageddon are disproportionately socially and politically complacent. The plan of God cannot be thwarted. The End is coming and we cannot prevent or alter it. Why then bother trying? Why deal with climate change? Why salvage rather than savage the environment? Why try to end global hunger?
These are, of course, problems for the long haul, and we can only hope that resignation and complacency do not prevail. Even more pressing, for the short haul we can only hope that there will be a long haul, that world rulers uninterested in biblical predictions of Armageddon do not inadvertently bring it upon us.