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.”
Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. It'll happen, likely sooner than we all think. That'll be a glorious day!
Yes! It will be a glorious day when the world ends! I can't wait! Maybe we can all escape on our space ships.
Never going to happen. Not everyone believes in your god and their beliefs are just as valid as yours.
Elaine Pagels is mostly correct on this.
Want to make me a convert? Tell my why God allows children and babies to be murdered and molested? Testing our faith you say? The Devil has to do his work too?...what? Why does he not strike them down before they do these acts?
you are asking the same people who believe a Jewish zombie can communicate with you telepathically to save your soul from a evil that a woman made from a rib and dirt who was tricked to eat a magical fruit by a talking snake.
as I expected.....no answer.
Revelation is certainly one of the most intriguing and 'revealing' books in the Bible. It points out the events leading up to Christ's Second Coming with exciting and frightening narrative, That Elaine Pagels is considered an 'expert' on Revelation seems unlikely since she has failed completely to connect the dots from Daniel to the Gospels to Revelation. But it is this unexpected? Not really. People will try to discredit the Bible and esepcially Revelation since they cannot understand the meaning. Beginning with the Book of Daniel, John the Revelator strikes a straight path to the end times by following the prophecies of Daniel pointing out the 'real enemy of God's people'–the Beast. To find out who the Dragon and the Beast are, you need to immerse yourself in the Bible–yes, it does mean study for yourself. To claim that John's hallucinations were directed at the Romans is a new twist and ignores the history of Revelation. CNN has done Christians a favor. Maybe now, people will ask questions of their pastors, ministers, reverends etc. and perhaps, get some real answers. This book is the real deal of End Time Events! If you are a Christian and want to know what is in store for YOU and Planet Earth, then, this is the opportunity that the Holy Spirit has provided for you. Many will attempt to try to destroy the Word and the truth of God's Judgment–but remember, Truth is found in the Holy Bible.
The Book of Revelation is all about John? No, this is how John opens The Book of Revelation:
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. 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. God bless you as you open His Word!
so, how many years have you had your head in the sand? Answer my above question will honesty.
Excellent reply to this Christian-hating networks attempt to sway its readers to "The Truth". Thank you!
you and your other clown religious fanatics can't truthfully answer my question can you? Continue to believe and waste your life.....I'm going to go get the latest edition of World of Warcraft so we can all be on the same page.
i think the Christians are mostly angry because they can not force people to believe their drivel anymore. the world would like to move beyond the dark ages please. your welcome to find yourself a cave next to the Taliban.
Goodness, I never realized I had been FORCED to believe. Who is to blame and who should I sue?
Actually, this is one of the things that amuses me in a sad kind of way. Many atheists seem to think that people of faith have either been brainwashed, coerced or are more stupid than anyone else. They just don't seem to be able to handle the fact that many of us are rational, educated human beings. I guess it scares them or something.
No..the smartest of you know it's drivel and use it to turn a buck on the rest with spewing one of the thousand half truths you can find in the bible back at you with commentary every sunday.You want to feel you have meaning in this universe that places you above the rest. you want to be special . I understand we all want that.
What a bunch of garbage. Elaine Pagels shows an amazing gift of imagination. She needs to stick to "science"-fiction, rather than trying to improve on the Word of God.
so does the bible.
John Blake and others are free to believe what they want, one day they will stand before an almighty God like the rest of us and give an account for the things they have said and done.
Pagels interpretation is no more or less valid than anyone else's. Who knows what drugs these people were taking when they wrote the bible? Could have been whacked out of their minds on ergot or jimson weed. Trying to "divine" what is in the bible is a fun parlor game, but has no basis in reality or correlation to real life.
HEALTHCARE IS EXPENSIVE TOO. GAS PRICE IS EXPENSIVE TOO. GOD LESS COUNTRY. and more socialist reforms. Please LEGALIZED Abortion.
Welcome to DARK AMERICA.
@JON Not once did Michael use the insults you just showered on him on Miss Pagel. That is why I believe the Bible but not Atheism.
@JCIZZLE-Of course it does! I always wondered why a 16yo Nigerian cud swindle an American but Atheists like you make me believe it. She said she doesn't unserstand it.
ya the koran is fantasy
O.K. THERES NO GOD...LOOK AROUND...LOOK AT EVERYTHING...THIS JUST HAPPENED...TAKE YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE SAND OR BETTER STILL KEEP IT IN IT SO WE DON'T HAVE TO HEAR YOU.
it would all still be here without us and without us there is one to say god's name....god exist cause we exist
I'm amazed at how anyone believes this crap anyway. I mean how many bibles, religions and beliefs are out there? Who makes you right? Killing each other over religion is exactly what our Gods teach and believe right? Faith is what you need they say.......why? How about showing yourself once in a while to prove you are real? We are all here by accident until it can be proven different.
there's 10,000 religions out there, and the only thing they agree on is the other 9999 have got it totally wrong......
When Christians talk of Christ who do you think they were referring to? And why are atheists busy disproving he ever existed 2000 years later because they claim his biography was false? I can't laugh!
Can we swing these comments around to health care?
sad part is people will read the book and believe it.... what dribble
Prayer changes things .
Atheism is as viable as any religion. Every person is defferent and correctly believes in what they want,
prayer changes nothing otherwise there would be world peace already and poverty would be erased. you Christians are mostly angry because you can no longer force those to believe as you do anymore... i hear the Taliban calling your name... back to the dark ages with you.
Let's stop and look at prayer for a minute which is done by the vast, vast majority of believers. The facts are that numerous studies have been done by some of the world’s most prestigious groups (Mayo Clinic, Duke University Medical Center, Harvard, American Heart Association, etc) that show that prayer clearly does NOT work. If you think otherwise, then I suppose you must be more educated than they are (and places like the Mayo Clinic has strong religious affiliations with one of their main hospitals named St. Mary’s).
If prayer really works: How many amputees has God/Jesus miraculously cured? There are so many “miracles” that happen, yet it is amazing how not one amputee has spontaneously regenerated a limb. I guess God hates amputees.
The Bible says you if two or more of you pray to God, your requests WILL be answered without question. My friend and I just prayed for instantaneous world peace… yet “amazingly” it didn’t happen. If you say it is because I am not a believer, you and your friends pray for instant world peace and see if it happens. We both know it won't happen.
Here's the trick: No matter what you pray for, it gets answered because of the way that people allow for there to be no "bad" option. Christianity. com says, "We have to trust that He knows what’s best. God answers prayers in the form of 'yes', 'no' and 'wait'. Sometimes the hardest answer to accept is 'wait'. It’s difficult to be left in limbo, wondering how God will handle our problem, but we must have faith that He will!"
Thus, imagine that I put a box of cereal on the counter, and I say to you, "Pray to the box of cereal." I tell you that if you pray to the box of cereal, it will answer all your prayers. You are skeptical, but you agree to try it. You pray to the box of cereal to give you $1K.
Now I say to you, "The box of cereal answers prayers in the form of 'yes', 'no' and 'wait'. Let's see what happens."
What is going to happen? There are three scenarios:
Scenario 1: Out of the blue, a check for $1,100 arrives in the mail tomorrow. It is an unexpected tax refund check from the IRS. I say to you, "See! The box of cereal answered your prayer!"
Scenario 2: Seven weeks later, out of the blue, you get a cost-of-living raise and it happens to increase your salary by $1,200 per year. I say to you, "See! The box of cereal answered your prayer! You just had to wait patiently."
Scenario 3: Nothing happens for six months. You ask me, "Why?" I say, "We have to trust that the box of cereal knows what’s best. Let's be patient."
Look at what happened: In scenarios 1 and 2, the box of cereal really did answer your prayers. And in scenario 3 we are waiting for it to answer your prayer, knowing that it is doing what is best for you.
Now let me ask you: Will you get down on your knees and worship this box of cereal?
Probably not. But why not? You won't worship the box of cereal because you know it didn't do anything. The box of cereal did not "answer" your "prayer." The box of cereal did not cause you to get a raise or get a check in the mail. Did the box of cereal do anything at all? No. Absolutely not. You know that. We both know that. It was nothing more than a coincidence.
If the criteria is 'Yes', 'No' and 'Wait' it appears that box of cereal answers EVERY prayer. But we both know that the box of cereal did nothing. Thus, you are just fooling yourself.
Meanwhile, atheists have the highest IQ's (as determined by numerous studies) and guess who has the lowest IQ's? Yep, that's right, religious zealots.
Prayer changes nothing. If prayer changed things, everyone would be a MegaMillions winner, no one would ever die and Rick Santorum would be president already. Get over it – religion is all about fairytales.
I don't feel angry or deprived of my mastery of coercion skills
Dixon, No where in the Bible does it say the following....
"The Bible says you if two or more of you pray to God, your requests WILL be answered without question. My friend and I just prayed for instantaneous world peace… yet “amazingly” it didn’t happen. If you say it is because I am not a believer, you and your friends pray for instant world peace and see if it happens. We both know it won't happen."
God does however promise us that when two or more are gathered in his name that he will be there (Matthew18:20). I believe that God does answer prayers. He may not answer them the way I want them to be answered, but they are answered all the same. And yes, God does know better than me. God isn't some genie you can call up to fulfill every want and need.
As for your claim that atheists are smarter than the "religious zealots"...my guess is you'd consider me one of those "religious zealots" because I'm a Christian. You may want to try reading Romans 1:21-22.
Wendy: Those scriptures were written by man, nothing more. You can quote the buybull all you wish but it means nothing in regards to providing proof of prayer working. Scientific studies have been done that show prayer has no effect on anything and that it is only a placebo.
@Wendy: Oh goodie... a non-believer having to teach a believer about their own faith! How fun!
"Dixon, No where in the Bible does it say the following....
"The Bible says you if two or more of you pray to God, your requests WILL be answered without question....God does however promise us that when two or more are gathered in his name that he will be there (Matthew18:20)."
LOL... too bad you "accidentally" quoted the line IMMEDIATELY after the obvious is stated: Matt: 18:19: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven."
So what part of that is ambiguous to you? What part of that are you incapable of comprehending? Jesus says, "Again" meaning he's said this before. Then he says, "if two of you on earth agree about ANYTHING they ask for, it WILL BE DONE for them by my Father in heaven."
So which is it Wendy? Is Jesus a liar or is the Bible just fiction? Too bad basic logic gets in the way for you.
**** "I believe that God does answer prayers. He may not answer them the way I want them to be answered, but they are answered all the same."
LISTEN TO YOURSELF!! You are doing EXACTLY what I described above with the cereal box analogy.
**** "And yes, God does know better than me. God isn't some genie you can call up to fulfill every want and need."
Yeah, I guess giving those poor Ethiopian kids with their ribcages showing and flies in their eyes some food and shelter is low on God's priority list, but when it comes to helping to get you a job or raise, God is there for you! LOL!!! Listen to how absurd your "logic" is.
*** "As for your claim that atheists are smarter than the "religious zealots"...my guess is you'd consider me one of those "religious zealots" because I'm a Christian."
If you understood the law of averages that most kids learn in grade school, you'd already know the answer to this.
*** You may want to try reading Romans 1:21-22."
You may want to read the parts where Jesus says whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me. So how many homeless live in your home Wendy? What? None?!!? Why do you leave your Savior cold, hungry and homeless? Spare us your hypocrisy.
@TruthPrevails: Well said! :)
So, children are things? Is that what you intend to change with your prayers? Good luck!
To understand the context of a verse in the Bible you have to read the verses before and after. Jesus is talking about matters of the church in the preceding verses of Matthew 18. He is talking about what to do if a brother sins against us. How we should handle it. He's hardly speaking about praying for a job, raise, or 1K from a cereal box.
I don't proclaim to know everything about God's word and I'm pretty sure no human being does. Being a Christian doesn't mean I'm perfect. I do know I'm a sinner in need of God's grace and mercy.
My prayers are usually for others and not myself. I pray for the lost including members of my family. I don't pray for "things". While I may pray for God to heal someone I love I always pray for God's will to be done; not mine. I pray for guidance.
Wow you sure make some assumptions about me. You assume my prayers are for raises and jobs. You have no idea who lives with me or if I do anything for people in need.
@Wendy: "To understand the context of a verse in the Bible you have to read the verses before and after."
Which is obviously why you failed to mention the verse I quoted.
This is from an old site I created and no longer use. I have a PhD in Communication/Linguistics. If you want to learn about Biblical context, this will get you started:
**** "I do know I'm a sinner in need of God's grace and mercy."
You don't even realize what you are doing to yourself. YOUR religion has made YOU feel like you are a bad person (sinner). You are self-deprecating yourself. You've convinced yourself this is "normal." I know, I was once there myself back when I was a believer.
**** "My prayers are usually for others and not myself. I pray for the lost including members of my family. I don't pray for "things". While I may pray for God to heal someone I love I always pray for God's will to be done; not mine. I pray for guidance."
So you know more than the Mayo Clinic, Duke University Medical Center, Harvard, American Heart Association, etc?
If you needed a heart transplant, you'd have no problem accepting their knowledge.
This is a delusion my dear Wendy.
**** "Wow you sure make some assumptions about me. You assume my prayers are for raises and jobs."
You've never prayed for a raise or a job for yourself or a family member?
*** "You have no idea who lives with me"
Do you have homeless people living with you? Remember, lying is a sin. We both know you don't have homeless people living with you otherwise you would have already stated it.
**** "or if I do anything for people in need."
I'm sure you likely donate money and perhaps time to charity (so do atheists). Let me ask you this: If you sold all of your possessions (as Jesus COMMANDS you to do), how many lives of starving children in Africa could you save? Cutting out just your phone, internet and cable services could save countless lives.
As they say all publicity is good publicity.
Thanks for that story. Good honest scholarly research will enable the ignorant, the dumb, stupid, deaf and blind to enjoy the light of intellectual freedom for a moment without the burdensome weight of religious fanatism to cloud your judgement, that is until the pendelumn swings back and plunges society back into another Dark Age, as has happened periodically in all the planet's nations, societies, and religions throughout history. We seem to be going through another one of those times now.
A baffling comment. Not sure which way to take it. Both ways? So your name says it all... and... don't confuse religion, faith and membership. The actions of an evolutionist are as much an act of faith as the actions of a theist. The logic is similar and the proofs equal. Evolution is believed conjecture. There are enough problems in the theory of evolution to maintain reasonable doubt. That is why it is call the "theory of evolution."
The Bible and Christianity are a work if fiction and obscene. The followers are mentally deficient.
Bring it on Lucifer.
"a work if..." bwa ha ha ha ha
Yet we still love you and pray for your salvation
Why you, present your nickname 666if you don't belief i. It
The apostle John I know, and Jesus I know, but John Blake? Another unknown spouting nonsense.
AMEN and AMEM!!
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.