With all this talk about the end times and the Left Behind series, what does the Bible actually say about Armageddon?

I wrote the following two-part article series in 1986.

I am convinced that we are living in the most exciting period of human history the world has ever seen: the final years before the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, all the signs are coming to pass. There are the "wars and rumours of wars" of which the Bible speaks (Matthew 24:6). In fact, the 20 century saw WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, The Gulf War, etc. Our century is witnessing a cataclysmic showdown between the forces of evil and the armies of righteousness.

At this very moment, the earth teeters on the edge of the nuclear holocaust foretold in the book of Revelation -- WWIII! The whole global weather system has already begun to run amok. Gigantic tidal waves are devastating millions of square miles of coastline the world over. But wait -- this was prophesied in holy writ: "Nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea" (Luke 21:25. Furthermore, famine has struck in India, Ethiopia, and many other nations, and disease and pestilence are sweeping the land. There also seems to be a rash of earthquakes and tornados worldwide. Soon we will see 100 pound hailstones, solar eclipses, and stars falling to earth. The moon will even turn to blood -- type O+, no doubt (Matthew 24:29)! The Jews will be converted, the Antichrist will come, and Jesus will set up his earthly kingdom in Jerusalem, but not before our unsaved neighbours stare desperately as we float away into the stratosphere, leaving them behind on a planet that will become the pitiable object of the unleashed wrath of God.

Perhaps the picture is a familiar one. (Perhaps you too were at one time led to believe it.) But there is one problem with the whole scenario: it is nowhere to be found in the Bible! It is a fantasy composed of science-fiction-style theology, wishful thinking, and various verses wrenched out of context. It is promoted by the pop theologians of our day, sold in nearly every Christian bookshop, and unquestioningly accepted by millions of religious people.

What is the truth? How are we to understand one of the most controversial chapters in the New Testament, Matthew 24? Is it discussing the end of the world, or the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies, or both? In this Armageddon! mini-series we will discuss five important facts overlooked by popular preachers who propose to take all of Matthew 24 literally and apply it to the "end times":

I. Jesus' coming (Matthew 24:3) cannot be his second coming, nor is "the end of the age" (v.3) the end of the world.
II. The wars, earthquakes, famines, etc (vv.6-13) are not referring to our generation.
III. The "end" (v.14) is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the signs preceding it (vv.15-28) best understood as relating to this event.
IV. The language of vv.29-31 is figurative, and cannot be interpreted in its literal sense.
V. Jesus said that all these signs would take place within the lifetime of the present generation (v.34). It is my conviction that although there are some difficulties in the chapter, none is irresoluble. The passage deals primarily with events on earth long fulfilled, not with 20th century politics or 21st century religious history -- the enormous pool of events, enigmas, possibilities and trends so broadly construed as comprising "the last days."

I. Jesus' coming and the end of the age or "the end times."
Note: To get the most out of this article series, it is important to follow along in the text of Matthew 24.

Much confusion arises because every time we see the word "coming" we automatically assume it refers to Jesus' 2nd Coming. But this ignores the immediate concern of the disciples. They are asking about the destruction of all the fine buildings by which they are so impressed.

Read carefully Jesus' words and then their response: "Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 'Do you see all these things?' he asked. 'I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.' As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. 'Tell us,' they said, 'when this will happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?'' (Matthew 24:1-3; cp. Mark 13:1-3, Luke 21:5-7) 

The disciples have no more than a fuzzy notion of Jesus' 2nd Coming; they are still struggling with the implications of his first coming! Rather, they are asking him about the apparent act of judgement that would level Jerusalem, thus bringing to an end the "age" of which they were part, the Mosaic age, with its temple cult and animal sacrifices. This is even clearer when we examine the parallel passage in Mark: "Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 'Tell us, when will all these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?'" (Mark 13:3) But not only does the usual interpretation ignore the concern of the disciples; it also fails to understand the passage in the light of its Old Testament background.

God "comes" in judgement many, many times in the Bible. He comes against Samaria and Jerusalem (Micah 1:3), Egypt (Isaiah 19:1), Jerusalem (Luke 19:44), Rome (the book of Revelation), etc. In other words, coming in the Bible rarely refers to the final coming of Christ in judgement on mankind. Instead, it refers to specific historical judgements on various nations. The disciples assume that Christ will be the agent of judgement against Jerusalem. And so he was! 40 years after the prophecy, God acted in judgement against Jerusalem through the legions of the Roman Empire. Christ "came back"!

II. Wars, famines, earthquakes
Sensationalists often draw attention to events in the political and natural worlds, claiming that these events herald the return of Christ. The problem with these events is that they are so common that men of every era have been convinced that theirs was the last generation! But what generation has not had its wars, earthquakes, and famines? The period to which Jesus refers is that between the end of his earthly ministry and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. During this period in Judea there were all the signs which Jesus predicted: rumours of wars and that wars that followed (especially from 66 to 73 AD, the years of the First Jewish War); earthquakes and famines; many false prophets; and a cooling off (v.12) of the love of many Christians.

The Jewish historian Josephus records all these signs in his Jewish War, a first-hand account of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem. (Josephus, former governor of Galilee, distanced himself from the rebellion and came over to the Romans. He was present when Jerusalem was destroyed, and was even on speaking terms with the Roman general who launched the campaign. This man, Vespasian, became the next emperor, Josephus having predicated that this would be the case.)

III. And then the end will come
Next Jesus makes a striking statement, one that is often quoted to prove Christ will return as soon as we have evangelised the planet. Yet as much as such a position may commend itself to the reader, it is not what the passage teaches. "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (24:14). In fact the gospel was somehow preached to "all nations" in the first century -- see Colossians 1:23! This does not necessarily mean every living human being heard it; rather, it means that the Gentile mission was well underway. [For more on this, search Col 1:23 at this website.]

The features of vv.15-28 pertain to first century Judea, and would be unintelligible otherwise:
a. The abomination of desolation (v.15), referring to the temple and its sacrifices (see Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11), which came to an end in 70 AD.
b. The flight from Judea (v.20). History records that the Christians fled to Pella, across the Jordan in the mountains, to escape the Romans.
c. Sabbath laws (v.20). d. Jerusalem being surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20). These things happened, and then the "end" came. But not the end of human history. No, just the end of the Jewish nation, which had been given an additional 40 years to repent since crucifying the Christ.

IV. The sun will be darkened
It is my position that all of the language in the following section (24:29-31) is figurative. Let us now discuss the astronomical disturbances and the coming of Jesus on the clouds. The Old Testament is so rich in this sort of "apocalyptic" language (language describing the action of God in history in catastrophic, cataclysmic, and/or cosmic terms) that I can offer only a few examples in this article.

Please look up the following: Isaiah 13:10, a judgement against Babylon. Isaiah 30:26, a blessing on Zion. Ezekiel 32:7, a judgment against Egypt. Acts 2:19-20, all fulfilled at Pentecost (see 2:16).

In apocalyptic language, all God is saying is that your world will end -- precisely what you would think if you saw the sky turning black at mid-day, the earth rocking to and fro, and the stars falling one by one to the earth below! But it does not mean that the world is "ending" for everyone else. Can one seriously maintain that when Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians in 539 BC (Isaiah 13:10ff.) the world was also coming to an end for those living in Central Europe, or in China? That is why the universal, cosmic language of Matthew 24:29 is able to apply only to first century Jerusalem. It is a specific historical judgement.

As for the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds, we should not be surprised that this does not refer to Jesus' 2nd Coming! God is described in the Old Testament as the one who rides in glory on the clouds, often in judgement: Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 68:4,33; Psalm 104:3; Isaiah 19:1; etc. If you have never noticed this, take out your Old Testament and look up the references! Many unwittingly twist Matthew 24 because they are unaware of the O.T. background.

V. This generation will certainly not pass away
Should there be any lingering doubt about the interpretation being advanced, let v.34 put it to death. Here Jesus says that all these things will happen in the lifetime of the generation of his hearers. (This is the usual Greek word for generation, as in Luke 11:50-51 -- no playing with the text to make it say "race," which would be merely to state the obvious.) True, after v.35 there is a shift into the general language of judgement that certainly applies to the end of the world, not just to the Jewish nation. Yet up until this point Jesus has been speaking exclusively of the punishment against Jerusalem.

Well, there we have it. Matthew 24 is misunderstood through lack of familiarity with the contemporary historical situation, but even more because people fail to appreciate the language of this "mini-apocalypse." The words of Eusebius, speaking of Papias, the Hal Lindsay of the early 2nd century, make for an appropriate closing to our Armageddon! series:

I imagine that he got these ideas through a misinterpretation of the apostolic accounts, for he did not understand what they said mystically and in figurative language.

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