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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. martog

    CNN.Com is becoming more and more like a Christian Radio Station. But than, they never really were about facts but prefer fabrications. Sounds just like the bible!
    Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Quoting

      Man how many times is this gonna be copy and pasted

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

      Hey Mr. "gman" ... whoever wrote the above had YOU in mind ... read it, and if the words are too big, have your invisible "sky-daddy" help you with the words longer than 5 letters.

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

      It is true that many gods are mentioned, but which one prophesy what will happen thousands of years in the future? Or which of them has opened the Red Sea dry to pass a group of more than one million people and destroyed under water the powerful army of the Egyptian empire? Or which of them has sent his own son to earth to die on the cross for you and me and everyone who wants may have the opportunity to have eternal life?

      April 8, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts or goblins

      Which one? None!!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  2. CHEESE

    The media & government tried to bring back religion. LOL. Here are list of TOP TEN TRENDS.

    1. Higher Godless Education. Increase Evolution, Darwin Studies, and dinosaurs is not a myth. Failed students who believed in God.
    2. Separation Church and state. Ten commandment is buried in USA so the people can't see it. people committed greed, lie, cheat, steal, etc. The city fell into recession and societal collapse.
    3. Less Winning lottery people. more than 100 million people brought lottery ticket. They feel God don't like people.
    4. Tim Tebow and linsanity become overrated failures.
    5. bad healthcare and forced millions of people to buy insurance which they can't afford. FAILED
    6. Failed to end middle east wars. blocked by media punishment.
    7. Roman and Jews killed Jesus. No more God. No more healing miracles. Today, horrible healthcare system and expensive.
    8. religion started to become fairy tale story like harry potter, lords of the ring, etc
    9. Socialism spread like monster and covered 97% of the world
    10. And finally Rich don't pay taxes. Government did their best to hide it with Lottery income tax.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  3. Samuella

    I did some research on on you...and I have some questions....????? How can you be a daughter of William McKinely, when he died in 1901..????.his 2 daughters, one died at 4 years old and the other at 4 days old.???? You quit going to church, because a jewish died....why is that????
    You sound like a bitter woman who is trying, like satan, to go after God's children and our faith....We know God and His Son, Jesus.....only the true ones will stand against people like you....you know there is room at the cross for YOU TOO!!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  4. ch

    perfect day for this article April fools day for anyone who would believe this dribble

    Oh and I hope all the athiest enjoy their holiday today also

    April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  5. Francis

    Elaine Pagels got her doctorate in divinity from Online University...she is the world's foremost scholar on the last book of the bible. All hail Elaine....I think she should just stick to works more on her level like Psalms or Ecclesiastics. Garner what you will from those Elaine. Or maybe give us a fresh rendition of Genesis.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • RB

      She knows virtually nothing about the bible.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Joe

      Tell me again what Online university she attended? Because I'm pretty sure she got her undergrad at Stanford and her PhD at Harvard (easily considered the best religious studies school in the United States), but keep pumping these comments full of misinformation!

      April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  6. I love Jesus

    Simply put, God’s word is real. You can accept it as fact now, or you can accept it for fact when it’s too late. I won’t argue about this at all, but I want all to understand that satan is using articles like this to rock the world to sleep and desensitize them to the truth.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • CGreen

      Thank you!! Satan is working in this world at a feverish pace of late because he knows that his time is short in getting souls to Hell. As for me, I will follow the Bible because Jesus came to save us-it's called FAITH, a lot of you folks out there ought to try it. And shame on the media once again in misleading the masses on the Bible, why don't we hear the media slamming mohammed as the false prophet he is? Anyone who goes against me, goes against my God. You all know the phrase- you're either with me or against me? That too is in the Bible.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • gman

      @ cgreen,

      AMEN , HOLY GHOST REVIVAL !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  7. Rick

    It is essential that we do not read the bible literally but as methaphor and myth. The reality and meaning of scripture is more profound when understood as applying to the peoples and culture of that day. Christ is much more real and alive when he is experienced as fully human and not some sort of supernatural magician. Much of the bible has been distorted in this way by preachers who do not understand historical Judaisim or the cultures in which it flourished or was persecuted. The Bible is a wonderful book of human response to God and shows how human beings can both fully experience God or being utterly evil and ignorant.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  8. Writerscramp

    Just 4 ? the entire bible is a vast collection of myths, lies, fabrications and outright fairy tales designed to placate the feeble-minded

    April 1, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • VETTE

      Do yiu believe in GOD ?What if your wrong..............................

      April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  9. hung over

    CNN you have allways been a liberal company dont start doing this your pi**ing people off!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • primatica

      Don't get mad , that's very unchristian? You see I don't need a god to tell me it's not right to get as mad as I think you are.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • dk

      a dying breed... amazing we live in a world where we dont have to submit to your mythology anymore

      April 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • jimmyjames1972

      Um, they do this every week and for the most part it is a literal look, take and thesis of historical religious references. Liberals and Conservatives alike to follow and practice religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • huh?

      Yes, by illustrating historical facts from one of the world's foremost scholars, I can certainly see why anti-science and anti-logical readers would be offended. Did you even recognize *any* of the people listed? Can you contradict any of the evidence provided with your insurmountable biblical knowledge? Do you even know what the qualifications the book's author has? God forbid you stop waggling your tongue for 5 minutes and consider the history involved.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  10. Dom

    Something in the Bible doesn't mean what we think it does because of years of misinformation and abuse? I am so shocked. /popcorn

    April 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  11. joco

    "Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars" by who's definition?? She is lost and misguided...

    April 1, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  12. thomas

    relidgon is a cult

    April 1, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • JRoed

      Christianity isn't a religion. It's a relationship.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  13. Linda

    Today is Palm Sunday – the day Christians remember the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. How disappointing it was to see this article posted and also given such a prominent place on CNN's homepage on such a special day in the Christian faith.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • F23A4

      Jesus' return was triumphant one in that he came to provide the only way to avoid God's condemnation of us for our sins. (read: Salvation) Relating to the article above, Christ's next return will be all about righteousness and judgment. We can accept salvation now OR face judgment later!

      Anyhow, don't let this article sway you one way or the other as it's written by someone who is misguided or simply deceptive. Read Revelation along with Daniel, Matthew 24, Ezekiel and 2 Thessalonians...meditate on these verses to understand why God has mapped out the future as such.

      Aside from salvation through the Lord our Savior, scripture is the biggest gift God has ever given to mankind as it captures His essence but only when taken in its entirety, NOT when we ignore Revelation, Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 or any other verse that make us uncomfortable.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  14. Mythbuster

    Myth. Its all a myth. Religions are peoples way of dealing with their mortaility. Accept the fact that once we die we die.....

    April 1, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Nii

      Sadducees believed that once you die you are dead. That did not stop them from believing in GOD.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • RB

      Mythbuster, your myth will be busted when you feel the flames of hell.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Quoting

      Funny people think the only reason a person believes in God is because their afraid to die.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  15. mark

    its "amazing" that John Blake, will criticize the Christian faith. i bet he won't dare write an article criticizing the Jewish faith, or Islam, or Buddha, or any others?? prove me wrong John Blake. write articles criticizing other faiths as well and publish them as "Best Sellers"

    April 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  16. Jim

    Bringing out Pagels again? No one in the scholastic community takes her seriously and you expect us to do so? Her opinions are based on the basic presumption of gnosticism being rampant in the Christian church by the time of the writings which the evidence does not support.

    When one starts with a faulty premise, one gets this type bunk that is easily shown wrong. Leave it up to CNN to keep getting Elaine more "ink" though – retreading discredited scholars is normal 'round these parts.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  17. Jesus Is Lord

    Jesus set me free 5 years ago and I will be forever grateful to Him. If you believe that there is any other way to Heaven except through Jesus, then you have been deceived. Jesus is the ONLY way.

    Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, repent, obey and be saved!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Rgeneration

      Amen. Amen. We may not meet each other down here. But we will in a short while up there.

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

      And how does your comment in any way reflect upon this article?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  18. AnnaLuisa

    It's a very interesting article and I'm sure the church people aren't happy now. Evil people are all over the earth: friends, family members, politicians, church goers, neighbors, etc. It's just hard to accept the idea. I'm a believer and I have a big problem with people trying to impose their ideas.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • crazyvermont

      Doubt that Christians are too upset with the book if knowing anything about Pagels, her background and her purpose in life...........

      April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  19. Ron Gardner

    In light of the fact that so much of Pagels' previous work was based on gnosticism, this tripe hardly surprises. Gnosticism is religion a la carte, with a generous dash of whatever the adherent thereof defines as "knowledge".
    As for Pagels, professing herself to be wise, she became a fool. And Blake? He manages to infer that a book series that began in 1995 is to blame for the Bible having been *misinterpreted* by billions readers for the past 2000 years.
    Next!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  20. dk

    The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree...
    Yeah, Christianity makes perfect sense.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • button

      Amen…

      April 1, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Eddie Hurley

      it's like looking in a mirror depend's on the angel you look from you have your angel set so you can't see nothing else

      April 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
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