Israel and Armageddon: Facts vs. Fictionby Steve Wohlberg
Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages is Book 11 of the New York Times best-selling Left Behind series. Unleashed on April 8, 2003 in the wake of a 5 million dollar ad campaign, this blockbuster is still being read across the U.S. by Christians and "secular searchers" alike looking for answers in the midst of an America now at "War Against Terror." Leftbehind.com, in it's description of Armageddon's basic story line, portrays a final remnant of scattered believers as being "drawn inexorably toward the Middle East, as are all the armies of the world, when history hones in on the battle of the ages."
Although couched in well-written fiction, Armageddon echoes the non-fiction theology of a small group of evangelical Bible teachers which is now eagerly being read by millions. The scene: History's last battlefield in the Middle East. Final contestants: The Powers of Earth vs. the Jews. Nature of conflict: Military. Epicenter: A small valley northwest of Jerusalem where "all the armies of the world" will converge for "the battle of the ages."
Supposedly - at least according to books like Armageddon and countless other books, radio and TV programs - the Bible's final prophecies will swirl around modern Israel and the blood-stained city of Jerusalem. During history's last moments - again, supposedly - the Almighty will finally pulverize Israel's invading enemies and defend His chosen people, the Jews. This end-of-the-age scenario is now being taught in Christian circles all over planet Earth.
The belief that God will ultimately defend Middle East Jews at Armageddon is so strongly embedded within the 21st century evangelical psyche that it has spilled over into politics and even influences U.S. foreign policy toward the Jewish State (1). The United States not only supports Israel as a democracy - which it should - but countless U.S. citizens, including prophecy-minded, politically active Christians in Washington D.C., believe strongly that if we support Israel, God will support us. From California to New York, on radio and TV, the line is often heard, "He who blesses Israel will be blessed, and He who curses Israel will be cursed," although this oft-repeated phrase is really a misinterpretation of Genesis 12:3 which contains one sentence spoken to Abraham alone, not to the Israeli nation.
Personally, I am Jewish and love Jewish people. I also believe in Jesus Christ as my Messiah and Savior. As any Christian should, I long to see God's blessing come upon both Jews and Arabs alike. The purpose of this article is not to condemn U.S. support for Israel or to try and solve a seemingly unsolvable Middle East mess, rather, its assignment is to take a second look at what the New Testament - especially the book of Revelation - really says about Israel, Jerusalem and Armageddon. Is Left Behind's blockbuster 11th book, Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages, correct in its core assumption that God will defend modern Jerusalem during Earth's last war? Is the current "God-Is-Behind-Israel" theology of so many evangelical Christians really right? Or could there be "something wrong with this picture"? Let's find out.
First of all - and this truth has seismic implications - the New Testament actually describes two Israels, not just one. Paul wrote, "They are not all Israel, which are of Israel" (Romans 9:6). What does this shocking text mean? Look closely. Those "of Israel" refer to people belonging to the literal Jewish nation. But just because people are "of Israel," or Jewish, doesn't necessarily mean they are truly "Israel" indeed!
To clarify, Paul said there is an "Israel according to the flesh" (1 Corinthians 10:18) and an "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:14-16) centered in Jesus Christ. For simplicity's sake, I'll call the first group, Israel one, and the second group, Israel Two. Israel one is composed of "Israelites … according to the flesh" (Romans 9:3,4) which refers to literal Jews who can trace their blood line back to Abraham, but who do not as of yet believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah
Quite pointedly, Paul wrote, "They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God" (Romans 9:8). Thus Israel one, although it has a wonderful religious heritage, is made up largely of people who spiritually "are not the children of God." In the New Testament sense, "the children of God," applies only to those who have received Jesus Christ as Lord (see John 1:12). "The Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16), or Israel Two, refers to a composite group made up of both Jews and non-Jews who believe in the Crucified One, have died to self and been born-again (see verses 14,15). This group is called "the Israel of God" because it is God-centered, being made up of people who have a genuine experience with the Lord. Sadly, the majority of Middle East Israelis today don't fit this description (although Jesus is working among them and many are coming to a full faith in Him).
Writing to non-Jews, or Gentiles, Paul wrote, "And if you belong to Christ, then are you Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:28,29). Don't miss this, for it's of mega-importance. This passage teaches that a Gentile, if he "belongs to Christ," is mystically injected into "Abraham's seed," which according to Isaiah 41:8, is "Israel." In Galatians 6, Paul summarized his doctrine by saying that anyone, circumcised or uncircumcised, who becomes a "new creature" through faith in Jesus, is now part of "the Israel of God" (verses 14-16). They belong to Israel Two.
Here's the explosive question: Which group - Israel one or Israel Two - is Heaven's focus in the book of Revelation? Is it "Israel after the flesh," that is, modern Israel, with its present capital of Jerusalem? Millions of Bible prophecy-believing, conservative, politically active Christians think so. Left Behind's 11th book, Armageddon, says so. But what does Revelation really teach? The answer will not be discovered casually, but through a deep study of God's Word.
When we open Revelation's mysterious pages, we discover predictions about mount Zion (14:1), the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8), Jerusalem (21:10), the temple (11:19), Sodom and Egypt (11:8), Babylon (17:5), the Euphrates river (16:12), and Armageddon (16:16). Thus Revelation uses the terminology and geography of the Middle East in its prophecies.
But wait a minute. Once again, here's the mega-question: Does God want these prophecies to be applied to those literal places in the Middle East and to "Israel after the flesh" centered in modern Jerusalem (Israel one)? Or might He rather intend for a spiritual application of these prophecies to "the Israel of God" centered in Jesus Christ (Israel Two), that is, to a spiritual Israel made up only of born-again Jews and Gentiles scattered around the world? Most theologians apply Revelation to Israel one and to literal Middle East locations, but is this right?
Let's start at the beginning of Revelation. The Bible's last book is ultimately, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 1:1). Jesus Christ is the Source, the Center, the Interpreter. In chapter 1, John was "in the Spirit"- don't forget this - when he saw Jesus walking "in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks" (verses 10-13). The idea of "seven golden candlesticks" takes our minds back to the seven-branched candlestick inside the Jewish temple before it was destroyed in 70 A.D. by Roman armies. Yet in Revelation, "the seven golden candlesticks" are clearly symbolic.
What do they represent? Explaining "the mystery," the Interpreter declared, "the seven candlesticks which you saw are the seven churches" (Revelation 1:20). Thus, in Revelation's very first chapter - I'm going to call this "Exhibit A" for it reveals a truth I wish to develop - Jesus Christ took something extremely Jewish and used it symbolically to represent His Church. As we shall see, this is the key interpretive principle to understanding the entire book.
Enter Exhibit B. In Revelation 2, in a dictated letter to "the church in Thyatira" (verse 18), Jesus reproved His people for allowing "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants…" (verse 20). Jezebel was a wicked woman in Old Testament days who entered Israel and caused problems. Was Jesus saying "Jezebel" had been reincarnated, or resurrected, and was literally teaching deception within Thyatira? Obviously not. A little reflection reveals that He used the word, "Jezebel," as a symbol of an evil movement that was affecting His Church. As with the seven golden candlesticks, God's Messiah took something from Jewish history and applied it to His Church, "the Israel of God."
Enter Exhibit C. In Revelation 3, the Heavenly Interpreter dictated another letter to "the church in Philadelphia" (verse 7) in which He said a Christian could become "a pillar in the temple of My God," and have a place "in the city of My God, which is New Jerusalem" (verse 12). Don't miss the significance of this. Not only did Jesus again use Jewish imagery - the temple - and apply it symbolically to His Church, but He also identified another city, "the New Jerusalem," as God's real city. And this city will not be a remodeled earthly Jerusalem with its bullet holes covered and the blood of suicide bombers scrubbed away. This one "comes down out of heaven" (ibid.).
Remember, in Revelation's first chapter, John was "in the Spirit" (1:10) when he received his vision. In fact, throughout Revelation he was "in the Spirit" seeing different things (4:2; 17:3; 21:10). When one is "in the Spirit," he sees through Holy Spirit eyes instead of with flesh-vision eyes. Remember also, Paul described two Israels, one "after the flesh," and the other "in Christ." Again, the question is, Which Israel is the focus of "the Revelation of Jesus Christ"? When God's final prophetic masterpiece of the Apocalypse talks about "Israel" (7:4), "mount Zion" (14:1), "Jerusalem," (21:10), "the temple" (11:19), "Sodom and Egypt" (11:8), "Babylon" (17:5), "Euphrates" (16:12), and "Armageddon" (16:16), do these refer to literal, earthly, war-torn, fleshly places not too far from Iraq, south of Baghdad, west of Jordan, east of Tel-Aviv and north of Yasser Arafat's headquarters?
Enter Exhibit D. The fact is, every specific reference to "Jerusalem" in God's last book concerns a "New Jerusalem" (3:12; 21:2,10) which sits on a heavenly "great and high mountain [Mount Zion]" (21:10; 14:1), that houses "the temple of God … in heaven" (11:19; 15:5; 16:1,17) and is the final home a victorious "Israel" (7:4) which "follows the Lamb wherever He goes" (14:4,1). The enemy of God's "New Jerusalem" is a "great city" called "Mystery Babylon" (14:8; 17:5; 18:2) which "sits on [the] many waters" (17:1) of the "great river Euphrates" (16:12) until God's wrath finally demolishes it at "Armageddon" (16:16,19). What's happening here? A little reflection - combined with Holy Spirit enlightenment - shows that Revelation is ingeniously using the terminology and landscape of the Middle East in a unique, heavenly and spiritual sense.
Let's look closer at "the great river Euphrates." The Bible says, "And the sixth angel poured out his vial on the great river Euphrates; and its water was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared" (Revelation 16:12). Those who interpret Revelation's Middle East terminology literally - such as in Left Behind's 11th book, Armageddon - usually apply this passage to Asian kings marching across a dry riverbed to shoot bullets at Jews at Armageddon. One well-known American radio preacher suggests a Turkish dam might be the means of drying up the river (2). Is this really what Revelation 16:12 is about?
In order to understand this mysterious prophecy, we must first study some Bible history about ancient Israel and literal Babylon. In 605 B.C., "Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon" came "to Jerusalem, and besieged it" (Daniel 1:1). Jerusalem was conquered and Judah was taken captive for 70 years (Daniel 9:2). After 70 years, an amazing set of circumstances occurred. The Euphrates was dried up, Babylon was conquered from the east and God's people were delivered. This history forms the background for a true understanding of Revelation 16:12.
Ancient Babylon sat on the Euphrates (Jeremiah 51:63, 64). A wall surrounded the city. The Euphrates ran through Babylon, entering and exiting through two spiked gates whose bars reached down into the riverbed. When these twin gates were shut and all other entrances were closed, Babylon was virtually impregnable.
In 538 B.C., on the night of ancient Babylon's fall, her king and subjects were drunk with wine (see Daniel 5). So were the guards, and they forgot to fully close the double doors. Over 100 years earlier, God had predicted concerning Babylon and the Euphrates, "I will dry up your rivers" (Isaiah 44:27). The Lord also spoke about "Cyrus," the man who conquered Babylon, saying, "I will…open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut" (Isaiah 45:1). Moreover God called Cyrus "my shepherd" and "his anointed" (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1). Thus Cyrus was a type of Jesus Christ. And he came "from the east" (Isaiah 46:11)!
Housed in the British Museum in London lies the famous Cyrus Cylinder which describes how Cyrus, a general of Darius, conquered Babylon. Cyrus and his army dug trenches upstream alongside the river Euphrates which diverted the flowing water. The river gradually went down as it ran through Babylon. No one noticed. That night, at the height of Belshazzar's drunken party (see Daniel 5), the water became low enough for Cyrus and his men to stealthily slip under the double doors, which had been left open. Quickly they overran the doomed city, killing the king (Daniel 5:30), and conquering Babylon. Then Cyrus issued his famous decree to let Israel go (Ezra 1). The Jews were free. Ingeniously, "the Revelation of Jesus Christ" makes use of the dusty history of this ancient event and then applies it with stunning, apocalyptic force to another "Babylon," another "Israel," another "Euphrates," and another deliverance from "the east."
In the Old Testament, the battle was clearly between the literal nation of Israel and literal Babylon (Daniel 1). In Revelation, we also find a struggle between "Israel" and "Babylon" (7:4; 14:1,8). As you well know, the majority of prophecy teachers apply this, at least the "Israel" part of it, to literal Jews on the west bank. But let's be consistent. What about "Babylon"? Does this apply to a rebuilt city south of Baghdad? Some say yes. The evidence suggests otherwise.
In Revelation 17, a shiny angel beckoned to John: "Come here; I will show you the judgment of the great whore that sits upon many waters" (verse 1). "So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy … having a golden cup in her hand" (verses 3, 4). "And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH" (Revelation 17:1, 3, 4, 5). John was "in the Spirit" (verse 3) when he received this prophecy. So we must be "in the Spirit" to interpret it correctly.
The woman's name is "Mystery Babylon." The word, "Mystery" is significant. In Revelation 1, the true Interpreter, Jesus Christ, used the same word as He applied the Jewish imagery of "seven golden candlesticks" to His Church. In Revelation 17, the same word is applied to the enemy of His Church, to "Mystery Babylon." And this greater "Babylon" has no application to the ancient city whose sun-cracked bricks are now whitening south of Baghdad.
In Old Testament days, literal Babylon sat on the literal river Euphrates. In "the Revelation of Jesus Christ," "Mystery Babylon" also "sits on many waters" (17:1), yet these waters don't refer to the literal murky Euphrates now trickling through modern Iraq. I'll prove it from one primary text. And this text is so explosively significant, it's like detonating a spiritual nuclear warhead against error. John's angel interpreter explained, "The waters which you saw, where the whore sits, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues" (Revelation 17:15, italics added).
According the angel interpreter, the "many waters" of Revelation's Euphrates represent "people" all over Planet Earth who now support "Mystery Babylon." They are "drunk with the wine of her fornication" (17:2). "Wine" is obviously symbolic, as is "her fornication." The "wine" stands for Babylon's false doctrines, while "her fornication" applies to her unlawful union with "the kings of the earth" (17:2).
"Mystery Babylon" is also "a woman" (17:3). A woman in prophecy represents a church. God likens His people to a "wife" that "has made herself ready" for "the marriage supper of the Lamb" (19:7,9). The Babylonian woman has also "fallen" (14:8). This must mean that "Mystery Babylon" in Revelation represents a globally supported church that has "fallen" away from her true lover, Jesus Christ, and from Bible truth. Yet God still has people inside of Babylon, whom He calls, "My people." Before the last act of history's drama, He calls them to "come out" (18:4). Why? Because the river Euphrates is destined to run dry.
"The sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up" (Revelation 16:12, italics added). Left Behind's Armageddon and countless other theologians apply this drying up of Euphrates to a literal drying so Asian armies can shoot bullets at the Jews at Armageddon. But what does the Bible say dries up the river? Turkey? No. The Word says, "the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates." This "vial" is one of the seven "vials of the wrath of God" (16:1). Thus, it is the wrath of God, not Turkey, that dries up the Euphrates! What does it mean? Brace yourself. If the "waters" represent "people," and if the vial of wrath falls on the water, then this means God's wrath will finally be poured upon people who steadfastly continue supporting Mystery Babylon.
When Heaven's judgments fall on the swirling waters of Babylon-supporting people, reality will be inescapable. They will realize they've been misled. Then they will "hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire." Revelation 17:16. Thus their misplaced support for a false system will vanish. This is how Babylon's water will dry up, preparing the way for "the kings of the east" (16:12).
In Old Testament days, Cyrus came from "the east" to conquer Babylon (Isaiah 44:26-28; 46:11). The word, "east," means "sun rising," and the name, "Cyrus," means, "sun." Cyrus came not to attack the Jews, but as their Deliverer, and again, Cyrus was a type of Jesus Christ, the "Sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2). In Revelation, God's angels come from the east (7:2), and Jesus Himself said, "As the lightning comes out of the east, and shines even to the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be" (Matthew 24:27, italics added). Therefore just as Cyrus came from the east to deliver literal Israel from the clutches of literal Babylon, even so will King Jesus descend from the eastern skies with "the armies which were in heaven" (19:14) to conquer spiritual Babylon and to deliver "the Israel of God" (Israel Two) at Armageddon!
What about "Armageddon"? Surprisingly, this exact word is used only once in the Bible, in Revelation 16:16. The Word says, "And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue, Armageddon." Honestly, there is no literal "place" anywhere on Earth bearing this exact name. It's true, there is a valley north of Jerusalem which was called "Megiddo" (Judges 5:19) in Bible days. It was a place where the armies of Israel often met foreign enemies in bloody battles. Because "Megiddo," sounds like, "Armageddon," millions assume this same place will be the location of a final showdown against the Jews. But is this right?
"Armageddon" represents the apex, the climax, the final battle in Revelation. Will it be a military battle in the Middle East? Let's be consistent. Throughout Revelation we've seen Middle East terms like the "seven golden candlesticks," (1:20), "Jezebel" (2:20), "Mount Zion," (14:1), "Jerusalem," (3:12), "the temple" (11:19), "Sodom and Egypt" (11:8), "Euphrates" (16:12) and "Babylon" (17:5) used in a Christ-centered, heavenly, spiritual sense. When it comes to "Armageddon," which is a term depicting the grand finale in the greatest apocalyptic book ever written, does it make sense for God's last book to suddenly shift gears away from its thematic focus by pinpointing a literal, local, high tech, Middle East-based conflagration involving Russians, Chinese, Syrians, and literal Jews?
We don't have to guess. The answer is in the context surrounding Revelation 16:16. While it is outside the scope of this article to discuss the fascinating details, here are the main points:
- The battle involves "the kings of the earth and of the whole world" (16:14), which could not possibly fit inside the valley of Megiddo.
- Revelation's focus is "the temple of heaven" (16:17), not a supposedly soon-to-be-rebuilt Jewish temple on earth.
- The affects of Armageddon are global, far beyond the Middle East (16:18-20).
- The primary system identified as being destroyed at Armageddon is spiritual "Babylon" (16:19), not Russia, China, or Syria.
In essence, "Armageddon" depicts the final battle between King Jesus and His heavenly armies (19:11-19) against the worldwide forces of Satan referred to in the Apocalypse as "Mystery Babylon." At the Second Coming, the devil loses, and his global kingdom comes crashing down. Jesus doesn't need to nuke His foes, but only to use His "sharp two-edged sword" (1:16; 19:15) - which represents His Word of truth (Ephesians 6:17). When Christ descends from the east, He will deliver "Israel" from the clutches of "Babylon." But which Israel will He deliver? According to the thematic genius of the entire book of Revelation, it must be "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16) centered in Jesus Christ whose home and dwelling place is the "New Jerusalem" (Revelation 21:10).
In conclusion, the Middle East remains a powder keg, our U.S. struggle against Muslim radicals like Osama bin Laden continues, and there's no earthly peace in sight. In the midst of such a "Red Alert" environment, millions of America's politically active Christians believe God Himself is not only behind modern Israel, but that He will finally annihilate the enemies of the Jewish State at Armageddon. Left Behind's Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages proclaims this forcefully. Yet, as we have clearly seen, this doctrine is contrary to the New Testament. Beyond this, the teaching is actually harmful because it adds gasoline to an already raging Arab fire. An America at "War Against Terror" doesn't need this!
A careful study of "the Revelation of Jesus Christ" proves that Christianity's massive "God-Is-Behind-Modern-Israel" theology is just not true. Not that God doesn't love Modern Israel, the Israeli people, and Jewish people. But as we have seen, Revelation's focus is not on "Israel after the flesh" (Israel one), but on "the Israel of God" (Israel Two) composed of both Jews and non-Jews (including Arabs) centered in Jesus Christ. If there was ever a time we needed not only to "walk in the Spirit," but to interpret prophecy according to the Spirit, it's now.
Real peace can be found in only one place, and it's available to Jews, Muslim Palestinians, and Christians alike. It's found at the foot of the cross, in the heart of a Man who loves and died for the entire world. Let's surrender our lives to Him, so we can be part of His Israel of God.
For more information on this topic, read Steve Wohlberg's small book, Exploding the Israel Deception, his larger book, End Time Delusions, or purchase his audio/video series, Israel in Prophecy.
- See Prophecy and Politics: The Secret Alliance Between Israel and the US Christian Right, by Grace Halsell. Lawrence Hill & Co., (1989). Deliberate Deception: Facing the Facts about the US-Israeli Relationship, by Paul Findley, Lawrence Hill & Co., (1989). Israelis & Palestinians: What Went Wrong?, by Amos Elon. The New York Review of Books, Dec. 19, 2002 issue.
- Irvin Baxter Jr.'s, Endtime Magazine, Jan./Feb. 1998, p. 2.