A little over four years ago, the last living U.S. veteran of World War I died.[i] As of last year’s seventieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, only about one million veterans of World War II remain alive.[ii] Few Americans currently know a living World War II veteran. Still, the generations roll on. Most of our older veterans are now from the Korean War. My father, who turned seventy this year, is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Even our Desert Storm soldiers are turning gray. It seems that every generation of Americans has had its war—and this nation isn’t so much different from the rest of the world. War is part of the human experience.
Sometimes I hear people pointing at some current conflict and saying, “Jesus said that in the last days there will be wars and rumors of wars—we must be getting close to the end.” Unless I have time for deep theology, I just smile and say, “Yep,” because I know that “now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed (Rom 13:11)[iii],” and that we have been in the End Times since Jesus split history from BC to AD. Still, they have a point. In His apocalyptic discourse, Jesus did say:
You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs….But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:6-8, 13-14).
Jesus’ “beginning of birth pangs” is not the End Time Tribulation. He said that the Gospel had to be preached in the whole world before the end would come. The verb tense he used points out that you “will be hearing” (continuous action in the future) of wars and rumors of wars. In other words, war is part of the human condition, and it’s going to continue right up to the end. Just because there’s some new conflict in the world, that’s not a sign that that the world is coming to an end. Just as surely as war is part of the world’s past, it will be part of the future. The Book of Revelation has a lot to say about both the earthly and cosmic conflict that rages between the powers darkness and light.
From the beginning of John’s book of Revelation, Jesus reveals Himself as a fearsome Lord with burning eyes and the Word of God represented as a sword in His mouth (Rev 1:14-16). The word “war” appears twelve times in John’s Apocalypse. The first time is in Revelation 2:16, where Jesus tells the people of Pergamum that if they do not repent of their false teaching, “I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.” It takes a lot to rouse the Lord’s anger, but spiritual deception is enough to rally Him to battle.
In chapter 6, when the seals are opened and torments released , the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse bring conquest, war, famine, and death. Christians are martyred and cry out for justice. These are things that have been taking place since the foundation of our faith, and they will continue to the very end.
In chapter 9, when the trumpet of God’s judgment sounds, an army of unearthly locusts led by a demon prince makes war on the earth. Four angels who had been bound at the Euphrates are released, killing a third of mankind. Terrifying armies invade the Holy Land. Many biblical scholars have tried their hand at interpreting these terrifying creatures. Some suggest that they are spiritual beings, others that they are monsters of flesh and bone, and still others that they represent helicopters and tanks. Rather than painting myself into an interpretive corner, I’ll simply say that they represent war that leaves death and destruction in its wake.
Revelation 11 has the Antichrist making war against the two witnesses of God. He brings everything in his arsenal against them, but they destroy their enemies with fire from their mouths (again, representing the Word of God). They also have the ability to invoke plagues, as Moses did on Egypt. Eventually, they are killed but rise victorious three and a half days later.
Chapter 12 depicts a cosmic war between The Dragon (Satan) and a woman (Israel), who is clothed with the sun, moon, and stars. She bears a child (Christ), whom the Dragon tries to destroy, but both she and the child are whisked away to safety. Personally, this reminds me of Satan’s attempt to do away with the infant Jesus through Herod’s treachery, and God’s protection of the holy family in Egypt for about that same time—three and a half years. This is but one example of the war that the Devil makes against God’s plans.
Another example is given in the same chapter—a more ancient struggle in which the archangel Lucifer became Satan (The Adversary) when he rebelled against God’s rule and was thrown down by the archangel Michael and the heavenly host. This heavenly narrative is overlaid with the earthly story of Israel bringing forth the Messsiah so the reader can see the connection between celestial and terrestrial struggles. Since Satan is unable to gain victory over Christ Himself, verse 17 says, “the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” In other words, the war continues even to this day. As long as believers uphold the name of Christ, the Devil will beset us.
In Revelation 13:4 ,7, and 10 we read that the Antichrist makes war against God’s people. Many are killed and many are led into captivity. God’s people are called to perseverance.
Revelation 16:13-16 depicts the armies of the world drawn up to the final battle in the valley of Meggido, or Har-Magedon, or Armageddon. Though it comes from a different passage of scripture, many Bible scholars connect the reaping of chapter 14 with this battle. “And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses’ bridles, for a distance of two hundred miles (14:20).”
Chapter 17 gives Christians hope when it says, “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful (v. 14).”
Revelation 19-20 shows the return of Christ. Far from “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” this conquering King has bloody robes and eyes of fire, and the sword of His mouth strikes down the rebellious nations. The Beast and the False Prophet, and eventually Satan himself are permanently thrown into the Lake of Fire.
All this warfare in the book of Revelation may seem harsh to the average reader who wants to view Jehovah as a God of love and grace. Indeed, the bloodshed in this book is part of the reason why it is rejected by so many. Yet why should we judge God for using war to judge the nations, since they so readily use the same tool to exact their judgment against one another? Violence has been part of the human experience from the very first death. Since Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, humanity has shown itself to be a race that is violent to the core. As a result of sowing the wind, they reap the whirlwind of God’s judgment.
We should not judge God for using such destructive methods for His retribution. After all, every human who is born dies. To God, and ultimately to the human spirit, a young death in war or an old death in bed are all the same thing. Either way, the soul is brought before God’s throne, and that’s where the real judgment takes place. Revelation 14:13 gives a perspective on the death and destruction that takes place in all these wars. “And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” Though believers are persecuted, though they die in war and the plagues and famines that result from war, they are blessed if their hearts belong to the Lord.
The first generation of Christians who received this book of Revelation was not surprised by the violence it contained. Bloodshed was all too familiar to them. In and of itself, that era was closer to death than our own. Besides their greater attachment to the meat they ate, human death was more familiar. Infant mortality, primitive medicine, and short life spans all contributed to people’s greater acquaintance with death. Add into that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the persecution of Christians under Nero and Domitian, and you get a Christian populace that is not at all stunned by the violence in Revelation. To them, it meant that despite Satan’s attacks, Jesus has already won the victory.
The final generation that sees Christ’s return will witness warfare on a scale never known to humanity. When battle lines are drawn up in the Valley of Meggido, no doubt somebody will say, “Aw snap—I read about this in the Book of Revelation!” In that day it would be best not to be on the side that fights against the Heavenly Host
For believers today, all the violence of Revelation reminds us that just as there have been wars and rumors of wars in the past, these are just the beginning of birth pangs. They are going to continue to the end of time. In fact, “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now (Rom 8:22).” We should not be shocked when we see violence and war getting worse. We should know that it will continue to increase as things fall apart, and as the Day of the Lord’s coming gets nearer.
Scripture tells us that warfare is part of the human condition. But we should not be deceived enough to think that it is merely the result of human conflict. Ephesians 6:12 tells us that there is spiritual conflict behind it. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Instead of being angry at the people who cause conflict, understand the background causes and meet spiritual battle with prayer. “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might (Eph 6:10).” And remember that Jesus has already won the victory.
[i] “Last living U.S. World War I veteran dies” By Paul Courson, CNN. February 28, 2011 9:33 p.m. EST. http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/02/27/wwi.veteran.death/. March 25, 2015.
[ii] “The Looming Approach of a World Without World War II Veterans” by Emily Badger. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/06/06/the-looming-approach-of-a-world-without-world-war-ii-veterans/. March 25, 2015.
[iii] Unless otherwise noted, quoted scriptures taken from the NASB.