Armageddon 101: The True History of the End of the World

Revelations associates Megiddo in northern Israel with the end of days, but as the struggle over Jerusalem threatens to bring the apocalypse closer, we may want to revisit that assumption

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John Martin - The Great Day of His Wrath,circa 1851
John Martin - The Great Day of His Wrath: A vision of the apocalypse, circa 1851.
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

We use the word "Armageddon" to mean the end of the world, but where did the word come from? How did it become associated with the final catastrophe that will end humanity? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer, because it requires us to peer into the mind of a man we only know of as "John."

Clay vessels dating to about 3,000 years ago, that had contained jewelry, found at MegiddoCredit: The Megiddo Expedition, by Pavel Shrago

Early Judaism had no tradition of the world ending in a day of divine judgment. No such notion appears in First Temple-period material in the Hebrew Bible. But the idea does suddenly appear in prophetic books penned after the late 6th century B.C.E., such as Deutero-Isaiah, Zechariah and Daniel. For example:

Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you” (Zechariah 2:11).

Since this belief is uncommon in ancient religions, it could hardly be a coincidence that Jews began to believe in a final reckoning just when the Persians entered their lives and became their overlords (during the exile in Babylon). The Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, holds that the world will end with a final showdown between good and evil. Jews must have learned it from them.

When Christianity branched off from Judaism 2,000 years ago, it took this belief. The concept appears throughout the Christian Bible, and in fact the Book of Revelations is wholly devoted to it.

Tell Megiddo: Wire statue of horse "drinks" from ancient trough on ancient paved courtyard.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Revelations consists of a prophetic description of how the world will end. Its writer identifies himself as John, but other than his name, nothing is known of him, and the traditional identification of him with John the Apostle is likely not true.

Yet whoever this John was, he played a decisive role in molding the Christian conception of the eschatological end of days. John, who wrote Revelations in Greek, also bestowed upon the English language two words for the end of the worlds: apocalypse and Armageddon. The origin of the first is clear, but the latter is puzzling.

"Apocalypse" is a Greek noun meaning “uncovering” or “revelation.” It is the first word of the book in its original Greek. Thus, as was the common practice at the time, it became used as the name of the book.

Since the book describes the end of the world, its Greek title began to be used by English speakers to refer to the end of the world itself, which is how we got the word apocalypse.

The origin of the word Armageddon is far more difficult to explain.

Evangelists visiting Tel Megiddo - the postulated site of Armageddon.Credit: Rami Chllouche

Out of the mouth of dragons

In Revelations, Armageddon appears in Chapter 16, where John tells us that he heard “a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, ‘Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.’”

He then goes on to describe these “bowls of God’s wrath” being poured on the earth: The first is an outbreak of “festering sores”; the second the turning of the sea to blood and the death of all that live in it; the third is the turning of the rivers into blood; the fourth is the scorching of the people by the burning son; the fifth is “the kingdom of the beast” being plunged into darkness; the sixth is the drying up of the River Euphrates.

Jewels found in Megiddo hoard, about 3,000 years oldCredit: The Megiddo Expedition, by Pavel Shrago

Then before he gets to the seventh and final bowl - a mighty thunderstorm accompanied by massive earthquakes and a hailstorm of biblical proportions - he says that “he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon” (16:16).

Who exactly is gathered to Armageddon is not exactly clear from context. It might be “three impure spirits that looked like frogs” and “came out of the mouth of the dragon” or "the kings of the whole world."

Either way, according to John, just before the world comes to an end, they will convene at “a place which in Hebrew is called Armageddon.”

Beads found hidden in Tel Megiddo, from about 3,000 years agoCredit: The Megiddo Expedition, by Pavel Shrago

Whatever John meant by this, it is clear that he believed that just before the end of the world, something momentous would take place there. Later Christian theologians interpreted this as meaning that this would be the site of the showdown between the forces of good and evil, which will obviously end with the victory of God and the good.

But where did John get “Armageddon” from? The most common interpretation is that John was mangling the words har Megiddo, that is, "Mount Megiddo." But where he got the phrase har Megiddo from is a mystery that scholars have been trying to explain ever since.

The view from Megiddo

The identification of the town of Megiddo with the site of apocalypse has some merit, since it is mentioned several times in the Bible, tellingly, as the site of several epic battles, such as the Israelites vs. the Canaanites (Judges 5:19) and Judah vs. Egypt. In the latter struggle, King Josiah, who the bible explicitly calls the best of the Judean kings, was killed:

"While Josiah was king, Pharaoh Necho king of Egypt went up to the Euphrates River to help the king of Assyria. King Josiah marched out to meet him in battle, but Necho faced him and killed him at Megiddo"
(2 Kings 23:29).

Excavating Megiddo: A neighborhood of small homes and workshopsCredit: Ariel David

The main challenge to the interpretation that John was referring to a Hebrew text that talked of har Megiddo, is the fact that Jews never referred to a “Mount Megiddo” – and for good reason. There is no mountain at Megiddo. At most the site could be called a small hill, or more accurately, a tell.

In fact, when the Bible actually refers to a geographic feature related to Megiddo, it is not a mountain but a valley:

Tel MegiddoCredit: Yaron Kaminsky

On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo” (Zechariah 12:11).

Perhaps John got just got that fact wrong. Or maybe he thought the valley would become a mountain. It is unclear.

A scholar named John Day, writing in 1994, has suggested that John mixed the eschatological message of Zechariah 12:11, which features Megiddo, with the text of Ezekiel 38 and 39), which does feature a mountain, albeit not Megiddo:

In future years you will invade a land that has recovered from war, whose people were gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate” (Ezekiel 38:8).

Newly installed sign to U.S. Embassy in JerusalemCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Meaning, maybe John took Ezekiel's mountain and Zechariah's plains of Megiddo and wound up with "Mount Megiddo". Perhaps.

Another avenue taken by theologians and scholars suggests that the original word was “megiddon,” not Megiddo at all – but a word derived from the root G-D-D (or G-D-ayin), which would mean the mountain in question was the mountain of “gathering” (or “being cut off” – meaning, “destruction”).

The Greek translation of Zechariah 12:11 may relate to “the plain of Megiddo” in this way, but no such high-altitude gathering places appear anywhere in the Hebrew writings that have come to us.

So it seems that we will have to wait for the apocalypse or Armageddon in order to find out what exactly John meant. If evangelical supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump have their way, and his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem spurs that final reckoning - we may not have to wait long.



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