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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. rjbuchanan

    As a mainline pastor for over 40 years, this is the most absurd thing I have read in a long time. This is something that comes from someone who refuses to see the obvious and has a clear anti-Christian bias. She is willing to see anything but the truth.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  2. Dan Jones

    There is nothing much sadder of pathetic than to see an intellectual try to interpret the Bible. The very nature of God's word and the way God made the revelations are explained by God himself,"I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." The word of God in general, but especially prophecy like Revelations is "revealed" by the Holy Spirit and for some intellectual to think they can intellectually figure it out is arrogance and leads to the kind of trash this author has come up with.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Gaunt

      I love reading all these zealot halfwits who dont happen to agree with this scholar's interpretation, as thier mindless interpretation of their version of their god is slightly different. So they squall and jump up and down and rant about how wrong this person's interpretation of their version of their fairy tale is. Why is it wrong? because they dont like it, and it isnt the same version as they have aribtrarily decided that they believe.

      Its like watching a bunch of children argue about what a leprechaun actually looks like.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  3. Hear Ye

    Fairy tale? Who knows. Accept it or reject it. And never believe anything you hear on a weekend.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  4. Nii

    For someone who hardly understands the Book of Revelation she did a nice job of promoting her ideas, opinions and conjectures as the truth. I will stick to the earlier theories though. Since we are all conjecturing one theory is as good as another for me. lol

    April 1, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  5. dibsy

    Notice how she attacks something that refers to the future, because all else already happened and predicted (prophesied), she cannot deny.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • read James

      "must soon take place"...."the time is near."....first verse says clearly, about the only thing clear in this doc, that it will happen soon...now I know we can debate a lot of things but 2,000 years is not soon or near...John fully expected, in his life, for these things to happen and they did not....'nuff said...J did not come, John died and this book should have died with him....

      The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what soon take place.must He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  6. Ken Thor

    Look EVERY work of literature has roots in its author and what was happening to or around the author when said literature was written. To deny this would be like saying the sky isn't blue. Common n the written word.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  7. Antony Scalia

    St. John the Divine (a Jew) was NOT terribly INTERESTED in the "Sermon on the mount" or having believed that Jesus "died for our sins" (as a lot of Jews do today–just check out "Jews for Jesus" on Google). Those points are taken as "already accepted" in John's mind and therefore are transcribed into the Gospel he wrote. That point is un-important.

    The bottom line is that is that St.John the Divine thought (and its in the Gospel, if John Blake, the author of this article had actually READ the Gospel) that his OWN death and judgement reflects what HE thought "all of us" would be exposed to at one's own final moment of judgement before God–which includes a TOUR of where you could be going–GOOD **or** BAD.

    I'm no Saint, but I try to NOT wind-up in the latter place. I'll find out eventually.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  8. Ken Robinson

    Matthew, Mark and Luke also wrote about the end times. The stories in Revelations have never happen the way it is described in Revelations so it did not happen in AD70. As a lay person who has read Revelations more than twice here are the events I see in the future:
    • Everlasting gospel of the kingdom taught
    • A falling away (departure)
    • Tribulation of the seven seals
    o Man of sin revealed
    o Holy people still living on earth scattered and sealed
    o Sun darkened – great earthquake
    • Great tribulation of the seven angels with seven trumpets
    • The sign of the Son of Man
    • Angels collect selected from heaven and earth.
    • Meek inherit the earth.
    • Hell and the rest of the dead destroyed in the lake of fire
    • New earth

    April 1, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • read James

      "must soon take place"...."the time is near."....first verse says clearly, about the only thing clear in this doc, that it will happen soon...now I know we can debate a lot of things but 2,000 years is not soon or near...John fully expected, in his life, for these things to happen and they did not....'nuff said...J did not come, John died and this book should have died with him....

      The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what soon take place.must He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  9. vpkwriter

    Whew...I am glad Pagels is the first person to figure the Bible out! And as for CNN posting her views...boy, are we lucky! Alas, I must confess, I jest. But, it was an interesting read :)

    April 1, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  10. RPhelps

    Is this the best thing CNN can find to for "Headline News" on a Sunday morning? I think it shows right where there head and heart are. Since when did opinion stuff like this become the lead news story?

    April 1, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  11. runner305

    Four big myths about the book of revelation. In other words, fictional fairy tales from a fairy tale book.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  12. John

    "He doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.” Clearly the author is ignorant of the message of the Revelation. John writes, "They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb..." (Rev.12:11). Every Jew understood the meaning of the blood and the lamb in reference to the Old Testament; the blood of the lambs that was applied to the doorposts in order to protect faithful from death in Egypt, or the blood that was continually offered as an atonement for the sins of the people under Mosaic law. John, along with Paul and others, clearly had an understanding that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah was the sacrificial Lamb of God and that faith in his blood was the means of salvation for those who would believe.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  13. dibsy

    Refer her last quote "I don't think anyone completely understands it." She VERY obviously is one of those people! How arrogant to assume that others dont understand something that she doesnt get!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Gaunt

      So you are claiming you DO understand it? Ard you dare call anyone else arrogant?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Roab

      As I read this article, I went wow – SHE doesn't get it. And she tries to insinuate that others don't. Like you said, what arrogance!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  14. Howie76

    Bible was cannonized by a bunch of dirty old men who wanted political control. A way to frighten the masses. It is still working to this day. They will never let the truth out on their myth.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  15. Constance

    So, CNN, why not an article about the myths of the Koran?

    April 1, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • doc77

      Good point. It seems like Christianity takes more grief than any other faith, especially this time of year. I wonder why?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Reason Together

      How about the myths of secularism, materialism, and selfism. These are far more prevalent in our society than Christian myths these. Perhaps, CNN is so penetrated in thought with these myths that they don't even see the infection.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • AAA

      Because there is no myth about “Koran”. Everything you see in the Quran is what the Muslims in the 14th century saw or read, unlike Bible keep changing every century to fit the people

      April 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • phenoy

      AAA: There more 'myths' in the Koran than the BIble. The Koran contains the old and new testmanets plus even some other books that were rejected by early Christians. Then there is the myth of Mohammed calling himself a Prophet when all he is is a horse thief and pedophile whose psychotic visions of God and angels were rejected by early Christians with whom he tried to sell it to. Mohammed reminds me of Joseph Smith, another psychotic who founded the Mormons. And a lot of the Koran were written men themselves hundreds of years after mohammed died and they ijected it with their own tribal barbaric notions.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  16. Jim

    April Fools!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  17. phenoy

    The main lesson to be learned from this: the Bible was witten and edited by man. I thin Pagels is right about who wrote Revelations and what it is referring to. It was used as a scare tactic almost two thousand year ago and it is still used the same way today.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • dibsy

      Man was just the tool. All prophecies recorded have been correct and timeously fulfilled. People need to wake up.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Patrick

      Phenoy, you are so correct. It is pathetic how the Bible is used to generate money for some fat cat preachers(hypnotics)

      April 1, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • read James

      amen!!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  18. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • WDinDallas

      Spoken like an atheist from the 18th centuy, via la Revolution.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • reason

      Reason is timeless.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  19. WDinDallas

    John Blake is not Christian, he is a heretic trying to discount Christianity and then use it as a tool. One article mocks it, another article is used to influence Christians to vote for Obama. He is anti-christian and should be outed for his views.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Ray in Germany

      Well–that's certainly a self-righteous, condescending reply if ever I heard one.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • doc77

      sigh....more worn out politics, eh?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  20. Aaron

    About halfway through reading the piece I knew one thing for sure; the average Christian was not going to like it. Not one bit.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:16 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.