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The Big Question

What is Armageddon?

By James Christie

Where were you in ’62? This is not a trick question. It is not a reference to the movie-poster tagline for that iconic coming-of-age film American Graffiti. For those of us who have achieved a certain chronological gravitas, 1962 will call to mind the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as 1963 will evoke where we were when we heard that U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

There was a lot of talk about Armageddon back then. As kids, we were taught how to use our school desks to hide from the atomic cataclysm to come. We listened to American songwriter Tom Lehrer sing, “We will all go together when we go.” It was a Dr. Strangelove madhouse in which the world would seemingly end with a bang, not a whimper, and our little sphere would be annihilated in a blossoming of mushroom clouds, like mould on a stale-dated orange.

Yet two generations later, here we are. No mushroom clouds; no Mayan 2012; no Armageddon.

That’s because Armageddon is a good-news story. Trust me on this. If we are going to make sense of Armageddon, it is essential to understand first what it is not.

Armageddon has nothing to do with the film of the same name in which Bruce Willis and his buddies stop an asteroid the size of Texas from hitting the Earth. It is not the mad cold warrior Slim Pickens riding Dr. Strangelove’s bomb to oblivion. It is not fundamentalist Christians uncritically supporting the return of all Jews to Israel so that God’s hand can be forced into triggering a last battle betwixt good and evil. It doesn’t refer to Israel and Iran; India and Pakistan; or North Korea and anyone within reach. It is not to be precipitated by humanity: not by means nuclear, biological or ecological.

Armageddon is theology couched in poetry. It is prophecy, the closest contemporary expression of which is dystopian science fiction. Armageddon is first, last and always God’s gig.

In the Bible, Armageddon “is the name of the last great battlefield (Revelation 16:16) and probably contains a reference to the Hill of Megiddo in northern Palestine overlooking the plains of Esdraelon, in which many of the decisive battles of Palestine were fought,” according to A Theological Wordbook of the Bible, edited by Alan Richardson. “In post-biblical Christian tradition, the word becomes the name for the final battle between good and evil at the end of the age.”

And there’s the rub: in the “post-biblical Christian tradition.” For the better part of 2,000 years, Armageddon has been wrenched out of the context of scripture and forced to serve the purposes of prelates, plotters, polemicists and propagandists.

Those who abuse the concept presume to know the mind of God, the strategies of God and would dearly love to co-opt the prerogatives of God. That’s blasphemy; maybe even heresy.

The abuse of the term masks the tragic reality that humanity has, in the space of little more than a century, developed several means to end life on this beautiful planet that isn’t ours in the first place, but God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

That this iteration of Creation, this fragile Earth, will someday end, we may take as a given. The witness thereof is both biblical and scientific. Entropy is built into the nature of the universe. But Christians are to understand that this is the nature of the Divine will and vision. Meanwhile, our job is not to hasten the end but to treasure the journey.

In the poetry of Armageddon, there is an end because there was a beginning. Armageddon is one bookend in the human library; Creation, the other. Armageddon certainly connotes a last battle, a contest in which God ultimately triumphs over all that would demean and destroy the life of the whole Creation.

But Armageddon is not about the end of worlds so much as it is about our own end, our individual Armageddon, our death.

The poetry of Armageddon is the poetry of the Resurrection. It is the sense of content that underlies the refrain, “The strife is o’er, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won; O let the song of praise be sung. Alleluia!”

Rev. James Christie is a professor of ecumenism and dialogue theology at the University of Winnipeg.
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