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4 big myths of Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation has terrified and confused readers for centuries. Few agree on its meaning, but many have opinions.
March 31st, 2012
10:00 PM ET

4 big myths of Book of Revelation

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) – The anti-Christ. The Battle of Armageddon. The dreaded Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

You don’t have to be a student of religion to recognize references from the Book of Revelation. The last book in the Bible has fascinated readers for centuries. People who don’t even follow religion are nonetheless familiar with figures and images from Revelation.

And why not? No other New Testament book reads like Revelation. The book virtually drips with blood and reeks of sulfur. At the center of this final battle between good and evil is an action-hero-like Jesus, who is in no mood to turn the other cheek.

Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars, first read Revelation as a teenager. She read it again in writing her latest book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.”

Pagels’ book is built around a simple question: What does Revelation mean? Her answers may disturb people who see the book as a prophecy about the end of the world.

But people have clashed over the meaning of Revelation ever since it was virtually forced into the New Testament canon over the protests of some early church leaders, Pagels says.

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“There were always debates about it,” she says. “Some people said a heretic wrote it. Some said a disciple. There were always people who loved and championed it.”

The debate persists. Pagels adds to it by challenging some of the common assumptions about Revelation.

Here are what she says are four big myths about Revelation::

1. It’s about the end of the world

Anyone who has read the popular “Left Behind” novels or listened to pastors preaching about the “rapture” might see Revelation as a blow-by-blow preview of how the world will end.

Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation was actually describing the way his own world ended.

She says the writer of Revelation may have been called John – the book is sometimes called “Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine” but he was not the disciple who accompanied Jesus. He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos, off the coast of  present-day Greece.

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“He would have been a very simple man in his clothes and dress,” Pagels says. “He may have gone from church to church preaching his message. He seems more like a traveling preacher or a prophet.”

The author of Revelation had experienced a catastrophe. He wrote his book not long after 60,000 Roman soldiers had stormed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burned down its great temple and left the city in ruins after putting down an armed Jewish revolt.

For some of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem was incomprehensible. They had expected Jesus to return “with power” and conquer Rome before inaugurating a new age. But Rome had conquered Jesus’ homeland instead.

The author of Revelation was trying to encourage the followers of Jesus at a time when their world seemed doomed. Think of the Winston Churchill radio broadcasts delivered to the British during the darkest days of World War II.

Revelation was an anti-Roman tract and a piece of war propaganda wrapped in one. The message: God would return and destroy the Romans who had destroyed Jerusalem.

“His primary target is Rome,” Pagels says of the book’s author. “He really is deeply angry and grieved at the Jewish war and what happened to his people.”

2. The numerals 666 stand for the devil

The 1976 horror film “The Omen” scared a lot of folks. It may have scared some theologians, too, who began encountering people whose view of Revelation comes from a Hollywood movie.

The Omen” depicted the birth and rise of the “anti-Christ,” the cunning son of Satan who would be known by “the mark of the beast,” 666, on his body.

Here’s the passage from Revelation that “The Omen” alluded to: “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”

Good movies, though, don’t always make good theology. Most people think 666 stands for an anti-Christ-like figure that will deceive humanity and trigger a final battle between good and evil. Some people think he’s already here.

Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation didn’t really intend 666 as the devil’s digits. He was describing another incarnation of evil: The Roman emperor, Nero.

The arrogant and demented Nero was particularly despised by the earliest followers of Jesus, including the writer of Revelation. Nero was said to have burned followers of Jesus alive to illuminate his garden.

But the author of Revelation couldn’t safely name Nero, so he used the Jewish numerology system to spell out Nero’s imperial name, Pagels says.

Pagels says that John may have had in mind other meanings for the mark of the beast: the imperial stamp Romans used on official documents, tattoos authorizing people to engage in Roman business, or the images of Roman emperors on stamps and coins.

Since Revelation’s author writes in “the language of dreams and nightmares,” Pagels says it’s easy for outsiders to misconstrue the book’s original meaning.

Still, they take heart from Revelation’s larger message, she writes:

“…Countless people for thousands of years have been able to see their own conflicts, fears, and hopes reflected in his prophecies. And because he speaks from his convictions about divine justice, many readers have found reassurance in his conviction that there is meaning in history – even when he does not say exactly what that meaning is – and that there is hope.”

3. The writer of Revelation was a Christian

The author of Revelation hated Rome, but he also scorned another group – a group of people we would call Christians today, Pagels says.

There’s a common perception that there was a golden age of Christianity, when most Christians agreed on an uncontaminated version of the faith. Yet there was never one agreed-upon Christianity. There were always clashing visions.

Revelation reflects some of those early clashes in the church, Pagels says.

That idea isn’t new territory for Pagels. She won the National Book Award for “The Gnostic Gospels,” a 1979 book that examined a cache of newly discovered “secret” gospels of Jesus. The book, along with other work from Pagels, argues that there were other accounts of Jesus’ life that were suppressed by early church leaders because it didn’t fit with their agenda.

The author of Revelation was like an activist crusading for traditional values. In his case, he was a devout Jew who saw Jesus as the messiah. But he didn’t like the message that the apostle Paul and other followers of Jesus were preaching.

This new message insisted that gentiles could become followers of Jesus without adopting the requirements of the Torah. It accepted women leaders, and intermarriage with gentiles, Pagels says.

The new message was a lot like what we call Christianity today.

That was too much for the author of Revelation. At one point, he calls a woman leader in an early church community a “Jezebel.” He calls one of those gentile-accepting churches a “synagogue of Satan.”

John was defending a form of Christianity that would be eclipsed by the Christians he attacked, Pagels says.

“What John of Patmos preached would have looked old-fashioned – and simply wrong to Paul’s converts…,” she writes.

The author of Revelation was a follower of Jesus, but he wasn’t what some people would call a Christian today, Pagels says.

“There’s no indication that he read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or that he read the gospels or Paul’s letters,” she says. “….He doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.”

4. There is only one Book of Revelation

There’s no other book in the Bible quite like Revelation, but there are plenty of books like Revelation that didn’t make it into the Bible, Pagels says.

Early church leaders suppressed an “astonishing” range of books that claimed to be revelations from apostles such as Peter and James. Many of these books were read and treasured by Christians throughout the Roman Empire, she says.

There was even another “Secret Revelation of John.” In this one, Jesus wasn’t a divine warrior, but someone who first appeared to the apostle Paul as a blazing light, then as a child, an old man and, some scholars say, a woman.

So why did the revelation from John of Patmos make it into the Bible, but not the others?

Pagels traces that decision largely to Bishop Athanasius, a pugnacious church leader who championed Revelation about 360 years after the death of Jesus.

Athanasius was so fiery that during his 46 years as bishop he was deposed and exiled five times. He was primarily responsible for shaping the New Testament while excluding books he labeled as hearsay, Pagels says.

Many church leaders opposed including Revelation in the New Testament. Athanasius’s predecessor said the book was “unintelligible, irrational and false.”

Athanasius, though, saw Revelation as a useful political tool. He transformed it into an attack ad against Christians who questioned him.

Rome was no longer the enemy; those who questioned church authority were the anti-Christs in Athanasius’s reading of Revelation, Pagels says.

“Athanasius interprets Revelation’s cosmic war as a vivid picture of his own crusade against heretics and reads John’s visions as a sharp warning to Christian dissidents,” she writes. “God is about to divide the saved from the damned – which now means dividing the ‘orthodox’ from ‘heretics.’ ’’

Centuries later, Revelation still divides people. Pagels calls it the strangest and most controversial book in the Bible.

Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning.

“The book is the hardest one in the Bible to understand,” Pagels says. “I don’t think anyone completely understands it.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Church • Devil • End times • Faith • History • Jerusalem

soundoff (8,460 Responses)
  1. chadchumley

    Christ has returned with a New Name coming in the "Glory of the Father" or Baha'u'llah meaning Glory of God. The sealed book is unsealed. Much of Revelation has to do with Muhammad's revelation which lasted 1260 years before the Bahai revelation came in Persia. For more information go to http://reference.bahai.org and look under the 'Abdu'l-Baha tab in the book Some Answered Questions, which has section devoted to explaining the "unsealed" interpretation. May the Jesus bless.

    April 9, 2014 at 12:17 am |
  2. Doug

    If you are interested in learning more about who Jesus is, what he has done for you, and the historicity of his ministry, read Lee Strobel's book The Case for the Real Jesus and also check out http://www.equip.org. God bless.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsiDukXIeVY&w=640&h=390]

    January 23, 2014 at 6:00 am |
  3. Doug

    Myth#5: All born again evangelicals believe in the "rapture" and Tim LaHaye's privatized version of eschatology (study of end times).

    The fact of the matter is these bogus theories were virtually unheard of prior to the 19th century when it became increasingly popular for self proclaimed Bible teachers to try to set dates for Christ's return. In fact, the New Testament offers embarrassingly scant evidence for most of the claims made by LaHaye, and many verses even contradict some of his dispensational views. For example, he loves twisting scripture by claiming all Israel is God's people, even when both Paul and Jesus clearly taught that being physically descended from Abraham did not determine this at all (John 8, Galatians 3:28-29).

    There are alternative evangelical views emerging that are going to help the church get back to what it was meant to be rather than what doomsday enthusaists have made it into in the last century.

    January 22, 2014 at 5:59 pm |
  4. Doug

    I can name at least half a dozen scholars who disagree with her view.

    Or how about the gross fallacy in her words "he doesn't even say Jesus died for your sins". It would be nice if Pagels bothered to read the Bible itself before making these claims. Revelation 1:5 reads "to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins BY HIS BLOOD"

    January 15, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
  5. Doug

    In Pagels' s worldview the only idea that is truly beyond belief is that Jesus was the Son of God who came in human flesh to die for her sins and that the Bible is an accurate acount of His life. Because she repudiates the possibility of Christ's first coming being true, it should come as no surprise that she scoffs at His second coming.

    January 14, 2014 at 3:29 pm |
  6. Doug

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIwV__gW5v4&w=640&h=390]

    January 10, 2014 at 2:09 pm |
  7. Doug

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eje2FjlAkVo&w=640&h=390]

    January 10, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
  8. Doug

    http://www.equip.org/bible_answers/who-wrote-revelation/

    January 10, 2014 at 12:10 pm |
  9. fdunfey

    All opinions are not equal. Critical analysis requires a knowledge of the subject for which the author has demonstrated very little in regards to what I did read. I was doing personal research when this website c/blog came up. When I find assertions being made that have no sound source or rational argument, I dismiss the source as hearsay. Whether it is or not in reality i Do not know. I have to take the Alpha and Beta risk associated with my methodology in searching for knowledge.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:22 am |
  10. wfitzgerrel

    Elaine Pagels has been de-constructing Scripture for years. She has championed Gnostic gospels and other non-canonical books. For some reason the networks consistently give voice to radical critics of Scripture and never really check out well-reasoned evangelical responses. I am interested in Revelation myself. I do agree with Pagels that it is a difficult book. I have begun a series of articles on Revelation at http://www.lastdaysworkshop.com. I shall probably give more credence to the so-called "myths" that Pagels believes she has totally destroyed. I encourage readers to check out some evangelical studies of Revelation. They will find that these scholars do not all agree by any means. But I think they will find that there is respect for the Scripture as it has been received by the church for centuries. The church did debate the books that were received into the canon and those that were rejected. The church did so carefully and prayerfully. They recognized that many of those books that were rejected advocated theologies that were not compatible with the revelation of Jesus Christ as God, the Second Person of the Trinity who has joined the human race as the son of Mary. That theology was not intended to subjugate women or promote anti-Semitism or create a church hierarchy. It was the theology of a God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

    December 26, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • jamie

      I believe everyone should research all beliefs in God and Jesus as well as other spiritual beliefs. The only way to understand anything about Christ you have to study the Gnostic scriptures as well as the Hebrew and Greek versions. The bible is just like any other book. It is inspirational and gives the reader a message to live by. But to say that it is absolute truth is absurd to me. The only reason Christianity is in power now is because of politics and they have taken that power and the name of their god to control the human race. The catholic church's power is built on the blood of innocent people. the use of gods name to force conversion on others claiming their God supreme. If any Christians have been aware of the recent findings in archeology and science then you would be well aware that a lot of the stories in the bible are not accurate at all. But here's the catch. Stick a book in the bible that scares the pee out of people and stick hell in there too. Free will out the window, believe or else. Of course people will follow right or wrong. The millinium was supposed to be the second coming too. when will they give some other religion a chance. Maybe should get rid of religion all together. No more who right and who's wrong. Live for each other the earth and the universe. Then you will find God. He and She feminine and masculine.

      January 21, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
      • JB

        "I believe everyone should research all beliefs in God and Jesus as well as other spiritual beliefs."

        Spoken like a first world elitist who doesn't seem to realize that not everybody has the time, resources, literacy, or education to do all this "research". And just how long would you expect that to take, anyway? Besides, after researching one or two and realizing they're bogus, I'm guessing most people wouldn't bother continuing.

        January 21, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
  11. bawspopsSog

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    December 22, 2013 at 3:01 am |
  12. lol??

    article,
    ".................For some of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem was incomprehensible............."
    The author must think the earliest followers forgot this,

    "Mar 13:2 And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down."

    One would think the not-Christians would have been the ones horrified since Christians ARE the TEMPLE.

    December 20, 2013 at 2:01 am |
  13. Jamie Snyder

    I just read a book called The Second Exodus: Reviving the Dead Knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. It argues that the Old Testament biblical texts are veiled, containing a hidden message that only the doctrine of Jesus could decipher. At first it sounded corny, but after reading it, it makes a very strong argument that there is a whole lot more going on in the Bible than anyone can currently see. It is essentially claiming that all of mankind is obliviously living under the prince of the world (deception) because we can’t see why the Bible is truly divine. Wondering if anyone has read it, and if so, if they have any insight if what that book is claiming is actually correct?

    December 20, 2013 at 1:34 am |
  14. richard

    What Ellen Page might have been reading as a teenager like me but she didn't do one thing I did she didn't go to the father...Instead she stuck with too much junk the fact is Adam n Eve read the first three chapters to for six .... Are slowly but surely from her teenage years till now she would have found more a better answer than what she posted I haven't even read them I don't even have to.. You got follow my notes go see the whole Bible come clear right before your eyes nobody has to go to church everybody have to be on the same page because God's Word has been testify to him and he is working right now..Good luck all God bless you in the name of Jesus Christ amen..

    December 15, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
  15. richard

    Yeah if you guys would just read Genesis chapter 3 verse 5 Then reread it..Because eve And Adam read those chapters of that verse.. Uncovering and revealing of the Bible no longer a mystery... Revelations is a Spiritual part of a man Where from the snake all the way to that of evil can turn into a false prophet and claim Words from the Bible they just aren't true..Which in turn defiels Our fathers word.. From the beginning to the end..The words capital and " see the behold come Are for his children to pay Attention to.. You read it this way listen to what I say and The whole Bible will come clear right before your eyes..for Gentile that I did the word they read it... And immediately was in heaven for the whole host.. I'm no profit haven't read the whole Bible yes I don't think I am one.. One comes what I will be your guyses problem you made him up like that.. The fact is our fathers working right now.. Nobody in heaven or earth to dispute the Adam and Eve in read those first three chapters of the verse 5..I got the verse 6 everything was clear..Before seven there eyes were not open to the flash and flash world..The snake is the part first part of our intellect that starts to deceive Live profile which becomes the Beast the false prophet the Dragon Exedra.. everything.

    December 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
  16. kangelos

    Christianity and particularly the teachings of Christ is no more than an allegory of parenting and growing children with some morals. In that light the "Apocalypse" is no more that the chastisement to wayward children of the angry father coming to give them a beating. Quite frankly there is nothing Christian in the books presentation of Christ as a vengeful angry blood shedding god. Also the mention of anonymous elders sitting by God's throne whose only job is to kow tow to God is just plain hideous.

    December 5, 2013 at 9:15 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.