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Looking Back in the Lutheran Spokesman

From August 1967 —

* THEOLOGIANS — ANOTHER KIND. It was to be expected. The turmoil of the six-day Arab-Israeli War had hardly ceased and its echoes were still being heard in the halls of the United Nations when prominent churchmen began to refer to this youngest war as ARMAGEDDON. Nor did all of these voices come from such writers and scholars as we spoke of in a previous issue, theologians who bear the name but are barren of its import because they either question the authority of the Word of God or empty its terms of their simple meaning. At least some of these we have in mind at this time are men of an entirely different stripe, men for whom the Bible is indeed God’s inspired and inerrant Word.

But these are writers, teachers, and preachers who nevertheless have in one form or another embraced the teachings of Millennialism. They accept without question what the Bible says about Christ’s coming to judge all the world at the Last Day. But at the same time they inject the idea of a previous return of the Lord, prior to the Day of Judgment, a special coming which would have the purpose of establishing His visible Kingdom over all the earth, to endure for a thousand years, or which would at least usher in a period of great prosperity for the Church. ARMAGEDDON would then be the field of battle between the forces of good and evil, the victory which would usher in the period of perfect peace and plenty. The reference is to the only passage in Scripture where this particular word is found, Revelation 16:16. “He gathered them together in a placed called in the Hebrew tongue ARMAGEDDON.”

Considering the dramatic nature of this recent war and adding the fact that it was fought at least in part in a land that Christians call Holy because it was the scene of the Savior’s work, it is not surprising that men who are given to millennialistic views like to interpret these events as a fulfillment of the prophecy from Revelation. On the basis of this verse and in connection with other similar passages they make what seems to be a strong case for their teaching — until one considers a few hard facts.

It is simply a fact that both parties in this conflict, Arabs and Israelites, agree in their rejection of the Savior-ship of Christ. Both refer to Him as a great prophet. But neither will grant what Scripture so clearly attributes to Him, namely that He is the One in whom all Messianic prophecy is fulfilled, whose sacrificial death on the Cross constitutes the great atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, that He is in truth the very Son of God. It seems strange, therefore, that Christian teachers should hail this particular conflict between non-Christian nations as ARMAGEDDON, the final battle between the forces of good and evil, the event which is to usher in the Millennium. They had a better case when in World War I the British under Lord Allenby drove the Turks out of Palestine, yet that hope also failed.

But history has a more striking example than either of these. Toward the end of the Eleventh Century the Christian nations of Europe were stirred with a mighty ambition, to rescue the Holy Land from the hands of its Mohammedan rulers. When after untold hardships Jerusalem was finally taken in the last year of that century, it must have seemed as though ARMAGEDDON had indeed taken place, that the Kingdom of Christ had now been established on earth, to stand until His final return. Yet, as one disillusionment followed another until Western power failed utterly in maintaining itself in that far Eastern land, one thing had been made abundantly clear by God Himself, namely that while the Kingdom of Christ will be built and will stand, it will not be built and will not stand by way of military action, by force of arms and armies. That is the lesson that modern Millennialists have failed to learn.

One asks how this can happen to men who are so sincere in their loyalty to the Word of God, who acknowledge its absolute authority without question. The answer lies in their failure to observe two important principles in the interpretation of Scripture. One is the fact that much prophecy, particularly in the Book of Revelation, is in the form of figurative speech. Take that verse which speaks of ARMAGEDDON in its context, beginning at verse twelve. This is the passage that describes the work of the sixth angel of that chapter, pouring out his vial of wrath upon the great river Euphrates. In this part of the apocalyptic vision John saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet. The picture language is obvious. Even the Lord’s own words in verse 15, “Behold, I come as a thief,” use what is clearly recognizable as a figure of speech. Should one then not consider at least the possibility that the ARMAGEDDON verse refers to spiritual rather than military warfare? Certainly there is no lack of evidence to support this legitimate interpretation.

The other principle that has been ignored is this. When interpretation becomes difficult because figurative speech is involved, should not one then turn to those passages of Scripture which treat the same subject, but do so in clear and simple terms, particularly when it is Jesus Himself who is doing the teaching? The entire question of Millennialism with its romantic notion of a double return of Christ would never have come up if men had given proper attention to what our Lord Himself has said so clearly and so comprehensively on this particular subject. Take Matthew 24 and 25, those two great chapters that speak in such detail concerning the last things. Jesus had just foretold the destruction of Jerusalem when His disciples asked Him, “Tell us, when shall these things be,” and had added the second question, “and what shall be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the world?” Jesus answers both questions, speaking sometimes of Jerusalem and the Temple, sometimes of the end of the world, sometimes using the former as background for the latter. But nowhere is there a word about a double return. There is only one coming, and that is for judgment. Nowhere is there room for a Millennium. Note that after describing the great tribulation which foreshadows the end, chapter 24:29-36 tells what shall follow immediately thereafter — the Judgment! The various parables, particularly the one of the Ten Virgins in the opening verses of chapter 25, call for constant readiness. There will be warfare indeed, but it will be of a spiritual kind. There will be persecution (ch. 24:9), false prophets will come (v. 11), even false Christs will arise (v. 24). Yet in spite of all these obstacles “This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (v. 14).

This is the sober prospect presented by our Lord to His disciples, indeed to all His followers for all time. It is a prospect of a Church that will be faced with persecution, trials, controversy, and dangers of all kinds, increasingly so as the end draws ever nearer. The picture leaves no room for the extravagant dreams and expectations of Millennialism. But it does offer a wonderful comfort. “When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Lk. 21:28). And this picture is signed with a promise that is clear and emphatic: “But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved” (Mt. 24:13).

Is this not enough? Should men want to add anything further to this? The teachings of Millennialism may be wishful thinking, but theology they are not!

Edmond Reim