I started thinking about Armageddon this summer, when a film called Armageddon was popular at the cinema. The film had something to do with a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth from outer space, and it grossed one hundred million dollars in the first two weeks. To me, it didn't sound interesting enough to actually see, but it did get me thinking: what does the Bible really teach about Armageddon?

The fact that the term Armageddon is familiar enough to use for a movie title is significant. It is not often that biblical vocabulary becomes a part of popular culture, but these days Armageddon seems to be generally understood as the battle to end all battles. What is surprising about this is that the word occurs only once in the Bible.

Armageddon appears, of course, in the book of Revelation. Chapter 16 describes how seven angels pour out seven bowls of God's wrath upon the earth. The sixth bowl dries up the great river Euphrates, which enables demons to gather kings from the east for the battle on the great day of God Almighty (Revelation 16:14).

Here is what happens next:
Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, "It is done!" Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since man has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed.... Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found (Revelation 16:16-20).

These verses seem to raise more questions than they answer. When will all this happen? And where, exactly? Who will the combatants be? The desire to answer such questions has allowed Armageddon to take on a myth of its own in the American church.

A century ago, Armageddon captured little attention. The 19th century Bible reference books I consulted do not mention it at all. The 20th century, however, has had a fascination with the end times. In 1970, for example, Hal Lindsey published his sensational best-seller, The Late Great Planet Earth. Speculation about Armageddon runs rampant every time there is conflict in the Middle East. This tendency has been especially true of that variety of evangelical theology known as dispensationalism. (It should be noted that some dispensational theologians are careful to avoid the excesses of popular writers like Lindsey.)

The popular view of Armageddon goes something like this: The Jews will be regathered in the Holy Land. There will be disasters both natural and political. Civilization will go into rapid decline. The church will be raptured. The Antichrist will rise to power. The remnant will suffer tribulation. Then there will be a battle to end all battles.

The most recent issue of Christianity Today described that battle like this:

Some time after Antichrist betrays Israel, a northern confederation of nations under Russian control will join with a southern confederacy to launch a devastating double attack against Israel. This move will prompt the intervention of Antichrist's armies from the west and a 200-million-man army under the "kings of the east." As armies from east and west converge on Israel, the Russian confederates will try to destroy Israel; but God will intervene to destroy them. With the northern confederacy annihilated, the forces of Antichrist and the "kings of the east" will do battle at Armageddon, a valley north-west of Jerusalem. While the battle rages, Jesus will return, wipe out the surviving armies, subdue Antichrist, and set up his millennial kingdom.... For a thousand years, King Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem....

There are many reasons why I think that story goes well beyond the plain teaching of Scripture. In particular, I do not believe Scripture teaches a rapture which is separate from the once and final coming of Jesus Christ. But the main thing I want to point out is the danger of adding details to the prophecies of Scripture. The Book of Revelation itself warns against this temptation: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book" (Revelation 22:18). The Devil, one might say, is in the details.

The Bible actually says very little about Armageddon. The name probably comes from the Hebrew Har Megiddo, meaning the Mount of Megiddo. Megiddo lies to the north of Jerusalem, overlooking the Valley of Jezreel. It is a great place for a battle, linking Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. The Pharaohs often fought battles at Megiddo. It is where Deborah and Barak defeated Sisera (Judges 5). As recently as 1918, British forces under the direction of General Allenby defeated the Turks on the plains of Megiddo.

Revelation prophesies an earthquake at Har Megiddo as well as a battle. This is interesting because recent archaeological work shows that Megiddo lies along a fault line, and that in the past it was often destroyed by earthquakes.

It is important not to read more into Armageddon than is actually there. But it is equally important to believe what the Bible does teach. One day Armageddon will suffer another earthquake. And one day Armageddon will be the battlefield for the war to end all wars. This will take place, as the Scripture says, on the great day of God Almighty (Revelation 16:14).

The date of that great battle is known only to God, but its certain outcome is revealed already in Holy Scripture. The evil kings of earth, under the influence of demonic spirits, will be defeated once and for all by the armies of God. Then Jesus Christ will reign supreme for all eternity, which is the most important thing of all.