Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End by Bart D. Ehrman
Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar. Ehrman is a modern-day evangelist, someone who spreads the “good news.” His message is that the average reader should understand the Bible using the tools of scholarship that he was taught and teaches students year after year.
Prof. Ehrman has written many books talking about Jesus, leading Christian figures (such as Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene), The Da Vinci Code, and a whole lot more. These books generally are meant for the average reader though he has a few scholarly books under his belt. Ehrman also spread his message in podcasts and public lectures, many free of charge.
His most recent book is about Armageddon, the end of the world, particularly as portrayed by the final book of the Christian scriptures (New Testament), the Book of Revelation. What does the Bible actually say? Is it the same as what many Christians believe? As we saw when looking at a book discussing biblical ethics, the two might not be quite the same.
The end of the world, especially the colorfully dystopian account found in the final book of the Christian Bible, is interesting to read about. But, Prof. Ehrman argues there is another reason to understand what the Bible says and how it is interpreted here. What people believe about the end of the world has real-world effects, including influencing U.S.-Israeli relations.
A person’s religious belief depends on a range of things. Prof. Ehrman argues an informed believers will if anything help themselves in the path of their faith. This book is useful for all types of people, believers or not, to understand what the Bible says about the end of the world.
Armageddon provides a window into the past, helping us understand how some people saw things in the first century in the middle of the Roman Empire. It also helps us understand how these beliefs changed over time and still influence how people see the world today.
Trivia: The word “Armageddon” arises from the location cited in Revelations for a major battle between the armies of good and evil. Megiddo was a strategic location in Ancient Israel.
Why I Read This Book (And You Should To)
I have read many books by Bart Ehrman over the years.
Prof. Ehrman has a down-to-earth style that speaks to the average reader. He has empathy for those who do not agree with him and has a light touch. He has a sense of humor and does not take himself too seriously except to uphold the principles of an ethical scholar.
Ehrman’s books as a whole (I did not find his book on heaven and hell too interesting) are written in an entertaining and engaging fashion. For those interested in the subject of biblical studies (and there is a lot of interesting stuff in the Bible!), he is a good place to go. The book Jesus, Interrupted is a good place to go to get a summary of the main themes in his works.
As a fan, I was a ready-made reader for this work. The book also covers new ground, specifically about the end of the world and the final book in the Christian Bible.
The book’s short length (about two hundred pages) makes it not comprehensive. This is not a complete study of the biblical view of the end of the world. There is room for disagreement on specific details. Overall, I found it a good introduction for the general reader.
No pictures other than the colorful cover photo. Some end notes with extended asides about what was written (for those who like that sort of thing) and an index are provided.
How To Interpret The Bible
Bart Ehrman has various mantras that regular readers of his works will recognize. Prof. Ehrman is a biblical scholar. He interprets the Bible using the tools of historical scholarship. Others will interpret the book, like they do anything, in their own specific way:
Of course when trying to understand these different points of views we need to engage in the work of interpretation. Contrary to what some people assume, texts don’t speak for themselves. They must be interpreted. And this can never be done “objectively,” as if we, the readers, were robots; texts are interpreted subjectively by human.
The way we interpret things is on some level a value judgment. We see this when examining the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Prof. Eric Segall is quite vocal about that.
Nonetheless, an objective interpretation of the Bible respects its immediate audience. The audience of the Book of Revelations was a certain first century Christian community. It was not meant to be a “code” predicting events that would take place in today’s world.
Scriptures can be inspired works and relevant today without artificially interpreting them, disrespecting their original authors in the process.
How to Read the Book of Revelation
The key to understanding biblical books and other historical works is to understand the specific historical context and literary genre involved.
Consider the story of Jonah. Jonah was a nebbish. He was given the duty by God to preach a message of redemption to a major enemy of the Jews. Jonah was not a fan of doing this and tried to run away. He eventually wound up in the belly of a “big fish” (not a whale) for three days.
This tale was not meant to be taken literally. The Book of Jonah in the Bible is an amusing and ironic moral tale that tries to make a point. The Book of Revelation is a type of apocalypse (which means “unveiling” some mystery) that uses symbolism to make its point.
An apocalypse uses visions and dreams, ultimately from a divine source (God, angels, etc.), to explain such things as why there is suffering in the world and how good will ultimately prevail. The book is concerned about a specific time period. The Book of Daniel, for instance, claims to be written much earlier but is concerned about events in the 160s BCE.
Revelations is concerned about the author’s (John of Patmos) community being oppressed by the Romans. The Romans are symbolized as “Babylon.” They might seem rich and powerful. But, in the end, the forces of good will prevail. Read Ehrman’s book to get more of the details.
The author of the book of Revelations was not writing a literal blow-by-blow historical account of how the end will occur. He was preaching a moral lesson.
We are not obligated to follow his guidance. We can interpret things differently. But, if we wish to understand what he wrote, it is important that we at least understand his intent.
This is a lesson that Prof. Ehrman preaches in many of his books. I also would argue that it applies to the interpretation of other works, including the U.S. Constitution. We should try to understand the original understanding of such works and then decide how to apply them today.
The Problem Child of the New Testament
For Christians, the New Testament is often considered the inspired word of God. How the specific books of the New Testament were chosen is often not considered. But, there were originally many accounts of early Christian believers. Only some were accepted as official.
The Book of Revelation was for a long time seen as a problematic work. Its Greek is not very good. People said it was written by “John,” but it doesn’t sound like the John who wrote the gospel and letters. And, the book, well, it’s a bit out there, you know? Just read the thing.
The book is filled with violent imagery, does not show the mercy often found in gospel passages, and glorifies opulence in a troubling fashion. It doesn’t save the day if we think of the book as merely symbolic. (Taking it literally has its own problems, people forlornly expecting the end of the world.) People look toward the Bible for guidance, including for public policy.
The gospels also predict the end of days, discussing how sinners will be punished. The imagery used is not pleasant but does not wallow in things quite like Revelations.
It Is Up To Us
Once you determine what Revelations means, how should we use it today? Or how the Bible generally explains the end of days. And, yes, there is disagreement over the details.
That’s up to us. And, it is not just an academic enterprise. Many people, for instance, think the United States should follow a certain foreign policy with Israel since the Bible tells us so.
Either way, a significant number of people care a lot about the Bible. We should understand it, even if we personally do not believe it is the inspired word of God. Surely if we do think so.
Sometimes, people thought the world was coming to an end very soon, though only a few did anything dangerous. In the 1990s, however, the Branch Davidians became one of these few.
More so than in many countries, biblical literacy is important in the United States. Bart Ehrman helps promote such understanding, including in his most recent book. Check it out.