Imagine this: Iran explodes several missiles carrying sarin, the poison nerve gas, in as many Israeli cities, killing hundreds of thousands of Jews. Israel retaliates by annihilating Tehran and a few other Iranian cities, bombing them with nuclear weapons. The stunned Arab world mobilizes the armies of a dozen nations to respond to the provocation. The United States and the European Union begin saber-rattling as well. And front-page headlines around the world proclaim that Armageddon has begun.
But when front-page headlines proclaim the battle of Armageddon, can we be certain it’s the real thing, as proclaimed in the Bible?
no such place
The terrifying image of a war of apocalyptic proportions is taken from Revelation: “They gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16). The popular imagination interprets this verse as referring to an actual place in Israel where earth’s final war will occur. Actually, however, Armageddon is only a symbolic name. You won’t find it on any map or in any world atlas.
The book of Revelation is crammed with symbols, most of which refer to or are derived from the Old Testament. Armageddon is just such a symbol. The term means “mountain of Megiddo.” There is no Mount Megiddo anywhere in the world. However, there is a plateau in northern Israel that goes by the name of Megiddo. Mount Carmel rises above this plateau. And Mount Carmel is the place where Elijah faced off against the 400 prophets of Baal. This is probably the imagery the revelator had in mind when he called earth’s last battle “Armageddon.”
When Revelation borrows from the Old Testament, it incorporates the spiritual lessons associated with the Old Testament stories and symbols it uses. So with Armageddon. The name, pointing as it does to Mount Carmel, recalls the events of that fateful turning point in Israel’s history.
Ahab, king of Israel, and Jezebel, the queen, had led the Israelites into the worship of Baal, one of the Canaanite gods. So Elijah proposed a contest to reveal who was the true God. “How long will you waver between two opinions?” he asked the people. “If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). The contest was to be decided by fire—the true God revealing His divinity by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice offered by His worshipers.
So the prophets of Baal built their altar and called on their god all morning—dancing, singing, shouting, and slashing themselves with knives to reveal their ardor. They bled all over the altar, but their god did not respond. Elijah mocked them. “Shout louder,” he suggested “Maybe your god is sleeping, or traveling, or deep in thought.”
The priests of Baal continued their frenzied supplication throughout the day until the time of the evening sacrifice, when they finally collapsed.
Elijah calmly prepared a simple stone altar and placed wood and a sacrifice on it. He had the altar and sacrifice drenched with water. Then he knelt down and prayed a brief prayer. God heard his prayer and sent fire that consumed the wood, the sacrifice, the water, and even the stone altar.
So a great victory was won that day: the hearts of the nation were turned back to the worship of the Creator.
like the contest on Carmel
Just as there was a conflict between true and false worship in Elijah’s day, so there will be in the last days. Revelation 13 introduces us to two beasts, which represent human institutional powers on earth. The second beast, representing a political power, will attempt to force everyone in the world to worship the first beast—obviously, a religious power. The beasts will threaten with death any who dare to refuse.
While it was God who brought fire down from heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel, in the last days, it will be the evil beast of Revelation 13 that causes “fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of the people” (Revelation 13:13). This is an attempt to displace God.
Revelation indicates that the issues in earth’s final war will be global, not local. And the issues—and combatants—will be spiritual, not political.
The battle of Armageddon will pit the nations of the world against the armies of heaven. The “demonic spirits . . . perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty” (Revelation 16:14).
Revelation 19 describes the same battle, picturing Christ as the Supreme Commander of heaven’s forces, riding a white horse. The revelator says Christ “is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war” (Revelation 19:11). And “the armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses” (verse 14).
Then, verse 19 says, “I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army.”
What weapons do you suppose the beast and the rulers of the earth will employ in their warfare against Christ and the armies of heaven? Will their telescopes detect Christ’s second coming and warn the nations to plan a military strategy? Will these nations turn their weapons of mass destruction against Jesus at His return? The Bible doesn’t answer these questions, but it’s interesting to speculate.
In any case, we know the battle will have spiritual significance. As in Elijah’s day, worship will again be the central issue. In anticipation of the final judgment, God’s people will have warned the world to worship only the Creator: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come” (Revelation 14:7) is the message they’ve proclaimed everywhere. By contrast, the antichrist powers will require everyone to worship the beast and his image and to receive the infamous mark of the beast (see Revelation 13:13–17).
Armageddon will be the culmination of this battle between true and false worship at the time of Christ’s return.
an attempt to deceive
Revelation 13:14 says that the second beast will use false miracles to deceive the inhabitants of the world. It’s very likely that one of these deceptions will be a false battle of Armageddon—after all, the spirits of demons will gather the entire world to this battle (see Revelation 16:12–14), and demons aren’t famous for their truthfulness.
The Bible’s account of Armageddon has two important details that can prevent us from being deceived. According to popular Christian culture, Armageddon finds the nations of the world taking sides against each other, arrayed in battle on a Palestinian plain.
In Revelation, on the other hand, the nations of the world assemble to make war against Christ, not against each other. Moreover, virtually all nations participate. So no matter how terrifying a world war in the Middle East may be, if the nations of the earth are fighting each other, that war is not the biblical Armageddon.
Second, Armageddon, the sixth in a series of seven plagues, will be immediately followed by the seventh plague, when all creation will come apart at the seams—literally. Revelation 16:20 says that “every island fled away and the mountains could not be found.” So if there’s any semblance of normal life after a battle the world calls Armageddon, you can be sure it wasn’t the real thing.
Christ didn’t show John the battle of Armageddon to terrify us. He showed it because He wants us to understand how the conflict of the ages between Christ and Satan will be concluded.
And He showed it so that we would be spiritually prepared for that great struggle. Elijah’s message to Israel is relevant to us today: We must choose whom we will serve. If the Lord is God, serve Him; if Baal (the beast and its image), serve him. Armageddon will be a “spiritual” battle, but that doesn’t mean it’s less real. Lives will be saved or lost for all eternity based on the outcome.
Everyone in the world will have to choose between worshiping the beast and worshiping God. Because God is love, He does not force anyone to be saved; He gives us a choice. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). By contrast, the beast kills those who do not worship its way (see Revelation 13:15). Forced worship is false worship. The death decree that the beast uses at that time culminates Satan’s ancient warfare against Christ and His people.
In Elijah’s day, true worship triumphed over idolatry at Mount Carmel. Similarly, the battle of Armageddon marks the triumph of true worship at the end of time. Before the battle, the idolatrous worship of the beast will be nearly universal. Great miracles will have convinced the entire world that God sanctions the worship of the beast. But a faithful few will cling to the true worship of the Creator. And just when it seems that the forces of evil and darkness will finally destroy the people of God in a “final solution,” He will come to deliver His people. So far from being a frightening event to God’s children, the battle of Armageddon means their deliverance.
The battle of Armageddon may indeed be imminent, but not in the way most Christians expect. It will not be fought on the desert plains of the Middle East. First and foremost, it will be fought in the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. At its climax, Christ will come to rescue His faithful people and destroy His enemies, ridding the universe forever of the plague of sin and all the suffering it has wrought (see Revelation 19:20).
Those on the Winner’s side of this battle will triumphantly sing the song of Moses and the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:3, 4).
Alan J. Reinach is the executive director of the Church State Council, the religious liberty educational and advocacy arm of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a member of the New York and California bars.