More and more today people are showing an obsession about things of the end times, especially Armageddon, the so-called end of times battle between God and the forces of evil. Not only has the Left Behind series sold 70 million copies, but now we also have the television mini-series on Revelation. These fictional accounts purport to be accurate depictions of the end, based on Scripture, particularly Revelation and Daniel. They include bloody battles, judgment on those who are not Christian (or even conservative Christians) and a host of characters who are demonic and totally evil. Some have claimed that these depictions have brought new people to the Christian faith, and have revived the art of Christian fiction. I would argue that they do more to subvert true faith. They do so in three ways.
First of all they subvert true hope. Let’s look at the picture they present: The large majority of the earth’s population will be wiped out in violent battle (all the atheists, all the agnostics, all the non-Christians, and all those who claim to be Christians, but aren’t – apathetic church-goers and “liberal” Christians). Of course, these will be then subjected to an eternity of hell. What will be left will be a small minority of committed Christians who will gain their eternal reward. But where is the hope? It’s like what Mark Twain said: “Christianity talks about how terrible hell will be and how easy it is to go there, and how beautiful heaven will be and how hard it is to get there…and they call that ‘good news’!” We need to stop and think. If God made this world and the people in it, but he will have to end up destroying the vast majority and saving only a few, doesn’t that make God’s creation a colossal failure? If a team loses far more than it wins, don’t we think of them as a losing team?
But there are Scriptures which give a truly hopeful picture, and we need to emphasize them instead:
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them…
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.” – Isaiah 11:6, 9 (NIV)
Or how about the hope the Apostle Paul showed that God’s grace would eventually win people over?: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32, NRSV); or 1 Timothy 2:4 which says that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (NRSV). What a great fall it is from such passages to consigning the vast majority of humanity to an earthly and then an eternal hell.
Some would object that Armageddon and a violent end to human history is biblical. It is certainly true that there is much in Revelation that can be interpreted this way. However, the book of revelation was written to bring hope to those who were being martyred in the early church. Most of its images relate to the vindication of these early martyrs and God destroying the persecutor, the Roman Empire. The famous number 666 was the number of Nero’s name (the letters of his name converted to numerical values and added together). The Emperor Domitian was thought to be Nero brought back to life, and was considered to be the anti-Christ. Revelation predicted the downfall of this anti-Christian empire, and the prediction was correct. The Roman Empire has long since fallen, and Christianity has prevailed. That was the essence of what Revelation was about. Yes, it also includes a general vision of the perfect world at the end of time (Rev. 21), and that is one of the beautiful visions of Scripture. It also include battles, but in highly metaphorical language that really speak of a spiritual battle between good and evil. There is no need to think in terms of them meaning an actual military encounter at the end of time.
These apocalyptic fictional accounts also subvert our efforts to deal with evil. They make us think that the characters we have to really look out for are the ones who are pure evil – who have that gleam in their eye, and who are only out to destroy. Many people seem to want this simplified view. Perhaps it gives them confidence that they can always spot evil easily when it comes: “I mean we can always spot evil in the action movies, why can’t we in real life?” But evil often comes in the racist who really does love her family, and really does see other races as a threat to their happiness. Evil often comes in the terrorist who believes so completely that his way is right and good for his oppressed people that he will carry a bomb into a crowd of people. Evil even sometimes comes when a Christian who believes in defending his country ends up killing the children of a foreign culture, and intensifying the hatred between peoples. Looking for pure evil distracts us and keeps us from seeing it in these hybrid forms.
And finally this fictional obsession subverts our efforts to bring a better world. If we believe that God will just come along and fix everything we have messed up, what motivation do we have to work for a better world? God will come in like Vin Diesel, blow a few things up, and it will all be like it should. That really takes us off the hook. Except that Christ called us to be peacemakers (Mt. 5:9), and to do greater things even than he had done (Jn. 14:12); and the first disciples were even said to have “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Jesus, during his earthly ministry said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). Any movement established by violence can be destroyed by violence. That is why Jesus chose to use the weapons of his words and his loving sacrifice instead of violence. These are the forces which established the church and made it strong. Why should God return to the ways of the world, the way of violent force, at the end of time?
One of the real dangers of buying into this concept of a violent end is that it gives some people justification for making it happen. If a violent judgment is what God wants, why not as his followers help bring it about? People have taken this approach throughout history. Oliver Cromwell thought that by taking over the leadership of England and forcing everyone to have the right faith he would establish “godly rule” and God’s kingdom would come. In the midst of the present obsession with Armageddon, what is to keep a modern-day Cromwell from thinking this should be tried again?
Bringing about a better world cannot be done through the kind of violence which creates more violence. And yes, it cannot be done through human power alone. It should include helping people to retain a hope that God will act. God has not surrendered this world to evil, and he will act. We just have to remember that his action starts with the actions of those who have faith in him and the love he has taught us to have for each other.