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Armageddon Retrospect


This week I will attempt two entries on Armageddon, one as “Armageddon Retrospect,” the other as “Armageddon Prospect.” Ideally, I should do the exegetical work first as I have sought to do so far in this series — an “Armageddon Prospect.” This week will be an exception. I hope you will bear with me; there is a point to this submission even though it may seem odd at first.

The term “Armageddon” has spawned an industry in theology, history, dark humor, national politics, international relations, economics, ecology, nuclear weapons, natural disasters, and searing existential concerns (I have extensive bibliographic references for each of these “Armageddons”). A Google search the other day yielded 33,600,000 entries. “Armageddon” might be Revelation’s most successful contribution to popular perceptions of its message. In this reflection, I’ll touch briefly on the notion “Armageddon Theology” and then explore an existential concern that touches me deeply.

“Armageddon Theology”

“Armageddon Theology” has established a foothold in large swaths of conservative Christians and the political circles drawing support from these groups in the United States. The school of thought for this outlook is futurism, which now commands the largest market share by far among competing approaches to Revelation. Key features of “Armageddon Theology” is fear of communism, uncritical support for Israel, and the belief that Armageddon is a military confrontation that will be fought on Israeli soil in the vicinity of ancient Megiddo.

The current political impact of these convictions is far-reaching. Robert Jewett and others have traced the history of Armageddon sentiments in American Christianity, finding commitments that are “resistant to federal authority, hostile to the traditional American politics of compromise, rejecting government controls over the banking and business systems, and profoundly suspicious of international law and peacekeeping.” Apart from “Armageddon Theology,” it is impossible to comprehend the spectacle of a foreign head of state speaking to a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015, asking the Congress to vote against the policy of the nation’s president. (You can find the speech by clicking here.)

Again, it is impossible to understand this spectacle and the fawning, religious fervor apart from the Armageddon sentiments held by many members of Congress. “Armageddon Theology” inculcates fatalistic attitudes. Given the certainty of Armageddon, should not society play along with the divine plan? Armageddon is the Christian version of holy war. If turmoil ensues, it has theological warrant. Should a discussion of Armageddon ignore the phenomenon “Armageddon Theology”?

Subtler perceptions of Armageddon do not leave out war, catastrophe, or the notion of a decisive event, but they focus on ecological, economic, and psychological realities. In these reflections, the bowls of Revelation do not impose on reality what isn’t there. Damage to the oceans to the point that “every living creature in the sea died” (16:3), as in the second bowl, has yet to be seen, but marine life is seriously threatened. No one knows for sure what the tipping point might be. Damage to “the rivers and the springs of water” (16:4), conceiving the third bowl in ecological terms, is in the twenty-first century such a pressing concern that access to drinking water will soon be a major determinant for world peace. For the fourth bowl, describing permission given to the sun “to scorch the people with fire” (16:8-9), human imagination is not drawing a blank. Some in this reading audience may think of Paradise, California: it is no longer there; there is no Paradise. There is more than symbolic convergence between the fourth bowl and Auschwitz, in one part of the world, and Hiroshima, in another. The crematoria in the extermination camps in Europe, the firebombing of Dresden, and the fiery mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not fictions: they are real-life displays of the power to “scorch the people with fire” (16:8). These events conform poorly to ideas of divine retribution. Revelation describes a world being ruined, with human reality in the 20th and 21st century keeping pace by acts of cruelty as heinous as in John’s vision.

“Armageddon Retrospect”

When I submitted my first draft of my commentary on Revelation to the publisher more than a year ago, much was out of kilter. For one thing, I had exceeded the word limited by a number too big to mention. My editors told me that my content was good, but I was in violation of format and length. Would I be able to bring my manuscript into conformity with what was expected? As to length, I would have to cut my beloved manuscript by 60,000 words. But I said yes, I believed I could do it even if I had to make the manuscript bleed. One of the casualties was a section on contemporary uses of “Armageddon,” especially the satirical reflection by the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the American novelist. I am sharing portions of it in the remainder of this submission.

Vonnegut experienced the firebombing of Dresden first-hand; it is the subject of the book Slaughterhouse Five. What happened in Dresden in February 1945 calls for a pause in our reading of Revelation. This event offers an example of the power to “scorch people with fire” (16:8), and the witnesses could not help themselves: they thought they saw Armageddon.  

Vonnegut was a captive US soldier in Dresden when the fire-bombing began. 

In February, 1945, American bombers reduced this treasure to crushed stone and embers; disemboweled her with high-explosives and cremated her with incendiaries. The atom bomb may represent a fabulous advance, but it is interesting to note that primitive TNT and thermite managed to exterminate in one bloody night more people than died in the whole London blitz.

Fire was the weapon of choice, the intensity of the bombing so extreme that it created super-heating akin to a nuclear blast. The experience led Vonnegut to write another essay entitled, “Armageddon in Retrospect.” Like his most famous book, Slaughterhouse Five, the essay is noteworthy for the author’s awareness that language is inadequate for the reality it seeks to convey.  Calling it a retrospect to Armageddon is telling: it means that Armageddon is not an event relegated to the future. It is in past experience, the author casting himself as an eyewitness. 

Let me, then, refresh your memory on an event that shook the world five short years ago, and which is now all but forgotten, save by a few of us. I refer to what has come to be known, for good biblical reasons, as Armageddon.

Vonnegut takes the reader to Verdigris, Oklahoma. There, the overlooked theories of the late Dr. Selig Schildknecht, of Dresden, Germany, have come to light on the cause of mental illness. “What Schildknecht said, in effect, was that the only unified theory of mental illness that seemed to fit all the facts was the most ancient one, which had never been disproved. He believed that the mentally ill were possessed by the Devil.” The connection to Dresden is significant, of course. It means that Dr. Schildknecht has first-hand knowledge of how mental illness manifests itself. He had the fire-bombing of Dresden to prove it.  

These writings trigger scientific research designed to prove the theory. They also have a practical side: to design a strategy to rid the world of the Devil. 

“Trouble with the world is and always have been the Devil,” concluded Pine. “Well, we done running him out of northeastern Oklahoma, ’cept for Mayes County, and I figure we can run him out of there, too, and clean off the face of the earth. Bible says that there’s gonna be a great battle ’tween good and evil by and by. Near’s I can figure, this here’s it.”

The timing of the discovery could not be better. “Then, from Verdigris, Oklahoma, came the announcement that the trouble with the world was the Devil was at large. And with the announcement came an offer of proof and a suggested solution!” 

The sigh of relief that went up from the earth must have been heard in other galaxies.  The trouble with the world wasn’t the Russians or the Americans or the Chinese or the British or the scientists or the generals or the financiers or the politicians, or, praise be to God, human beings anywhere, poor things. People were all right, and decent and innocent and smart, and it was the Devil who was making their good-hearted enterprises go sour. Every human being’s self-respect increased a thousand-fold, and no one, save the Devil, lost face. Politicians of all lands rushed to the microphones to declare themselves as being against the Devil. Editorial pages everywhere took the same fearless stand — against the Devil. Nobody was for him.

But the insight goes to waste, and the quest to get rid of the Devil sours, too. It is too expensive, and the whole thing fizzles when the Soviet Union withdraws from the United Nations Demonological Investigation Committee on American charges that the Devil’s headquarters are in the Kremlin and on countercharges that the Devil is an internal American affair. 

The idealistic researchers, led by Dr. Gorman Tarbell, are left unfunded and on their own. Undaunted, Dr. Tarbell designs a devil-trap at his own expense. It consists of a drum, a lid, and electrical wires. His team deploys it at midnight by the altar of a roofless church under incantations of the Mass of Saint Sécaire, an incantation that is sure to make the Devil appear. 

And yes, he does appear. 

The narrator, who is Dr. Tarbell’s assistant, and later identified as Dr. Lucifer J. Mephisto, freezes at the sight. 

I looked up to see him wide-eyed, leering, trembling all over. He was trying to say something, but all that came out was a strange gurgle.

Then began the most fantastic struggle any man will ever see. Dozens of artists have tried to paint the picture, but, bulging as they paint Dr. Tarbell’s eyes, red as they paint his face, knotted as they paint his muscles, they can’t recapture a splinter of the heroism of Armageddon

At last he reached the drum, stood with stupendous effort, as though lifting bricks, and tumbled into the opening. I could hear him scratch against the insulation inside, and his breathing was amplified in the chamber, awing.

I was stupefied, unable to believe or understand what I’d seen, or to know what to do next. 

“Now!” cried Dr. Tarbell from within the drum. His hand appeared for a moment, pulled the lid shut, and once more he cried, “Now.” 

And then I understood, and began to quake, and a wave of nausea passed over me. I understood what he wanted me to do, what he was asking with the last fragment of his soul that was being consumed by the Devil in him.

Dr. Tarbell captures the Devil in “Armageddon in Retrospect.” He does it vicariously, for the benefit of the rest of us. In a letter said to be written “hours before he vanquished the Devil,” Dr. Tarbell writes the following:

If I have succeeded tonight, then the Devil is no longer among men. I can do no more. Now, if others will rid the earth of vanity, ignorance, and want, mankind can live happily ever after.Dr. Gorman Tarbell.

What is the point? I am embarrassed to ask such a primitive question. Good literature does not like us to decide “the point” for a simple moral lesson. Nevertheless, let me do violence to Vonnegut’s reflection by suggesting a few “points.”

First, the existential backdrop is the fire-bombing of Dresden and the quest for a remedy. Dr. Schildknecht has found it: civilization needs to come to terms with the Devil and put him out of commission. While this creates a clean line of demarcation between human beings and the Devil (“the Devil made me do it”), it incriminates certain types of action. Only a devil could imagine Dresden, or the Holocaust, or Hiroshima. We are on board with the author if we come to agreement not only on the wisdom of eliminating the Devil but also on the actions that need to be eliminated. Such agreement is not a matter of course. In the seventh plague, “large hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, came down from heaven on people” (16:20-21). John should be excused for putting out a pound figure that to him was huge beyond belief. It is modest, however, if we imagine that the objects falling from heaven are not “large hailstones” but bunker-busting bombs in the twenty-first century, each weighing a whopping 30,000 pounds. By Vonnegut’s logic, we will do well if we understand that such weapons of destruction are conceived and built in the laboratory of the Devil.

Second, Dr. Tarbell’s heroic struggle with the Devil posits the Devil as a menace separate from human beings. And yet he, Dr. Tarbell, must himself go into the devil-trap to get rid of him. Does this make Dr. Tarbell a Christ-like figure who defeats the Devil and his deeds on our behalf? On this logic, is Christ speaking through Dr. Tarbell, saying that his work has put the world in a better position to “rid the earth of vanity, ignorance, and want.” It is more likely that Vonnegut means to locate the Devil within. He makes the Devil almost indistinguishable from the self. The notion of trapping the Devil in a barrel is ironic. It is the demonic element in human form that needs to be confronted and exorcised.

Third, Vonnegut says that the world at first has a good thing going in relation to the Devil. Everyone agrees that the Devil is the problem, an insight that gives a huge boost to human self-esteem. Consensus falls apart when various sides locate the demonic in the other. No one wants ownership of the Devil that is near. In Vonnegut’s construct, the prospect of world consensus fizzles when the Soviet Union and the United States fall into a blame game as to where the Devil is headquartered. This game has many incarnations; there is at this point no agreement in the world where the “Great Satan” is located although there are candidates aplenty.

Fourth, “Armageddon in Retrospect” differs from Revelation’s showdown. The world has not acknowledged the reality of demonic evil or admitted to being under its influence. Neither Auschwitz nor Dresden nor Hiroshima did much to raise the status of the devil — within or without — although it should have. In fact, the world post-Armageddon — in Vonnegut’s retrospect — has not acknowledged anything that comes close to descriptive adequacy. 

Fifth, Vonnegut’s meditation should not be allowed to go to waste. It works well for the fourth bowl: a consuming fire burning; discarded writings retrieved and studied; madness on the loose in the world; the Devil brought back to life and dignity. The conflation of the human and the demonic is legitimate even if it is inadequate to say that the Devil caught in the devil-trap is a human being. Vonnegut concludes gloomily with a comment on Beethoven’s inspiration, and then on his own. “I was goofing around like everyone else in Indiana and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

Sixth, Vonnegut’s view of “Armageddon” preserves a role for the demonic even if he uses it as a figure of speech. His disgust is appropriate. Indeed, the revulsion of the secular person for the demonic deed is vastly superior to the perverse enthusiasm for violence that is found in “Armageddon Theology.” Good interpretations of Revelation will in my view stand a greater chance of success in the secular realm than by hoping to correct audiences already mesmerized by the poison of “Armageddon Theology.”

Seventh, the power to “scorch people with fire” (16:8) is real even if the fire-bowl happens one step short of Armageddon. The historical reality in Vonnegut’s scenario refuses to be called divine retribution — what would he say if we told him that Armageddon shows God at work? Dresden and Hiroshima have in common incineration by a blast of fire that consumed everyone and everything in its path. Civilian nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown real-life horrors worthy of the seven last plagues even though they happened in peace time. As one first-hand account to Chernobyl put it, “Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.” The rhetoric of the fourth bowl is pertinent even if the bowls take the imagination in a different direction.

This is the Armageddon retrospect. What is the prospect?   


Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019

Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019

Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019

Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019

Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019

Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019

Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019

Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019

God Reacts: The Three Angels’ Message, March 5, 2019

Timeout: “The Smoke of Their Torment,” March 8, 2019


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Image Credit: WikiArt / Nicholas Roerich (Public Domain)


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