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.”
Only four? That's a laugh.
Biblically we are told to take of the poor.
take care (sorry)
im getting my kids help me spread the word god is dead to all the other kids and its worling and im getting other parents to also the kids these days dont want to be controled by you fools so stick that in your book
Well, one thing is for sure....we are about to find out.
Concerning point #2:
Rev 13:17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
Rev 14:11 And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.
Rev 16:2 And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and [upon] them which worshipped his image.
Rev 19:20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
Taking this mark will mean irreversible doom to the recipients.
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.
Good post, which means the fundies will whine about it.
who said anything about blind faith? there is more evidence of a master designer than the possibility of random selection...as i said earlier...there is no way you would argue that the empire state building was constructed through a series of "fortunate" explosions, yet the human cell has more information contained than the entire construction of the ESB...yet you refuse to admit that it COULD HAVE been designed...that is blind faith...
Thank you! The most rational comment I've read in a long time. Now if I could just convince my parents that I'm not sending my children straight to hell.
Have you actually ever read the Bible? Please do this before deciding what is true.
If you need the promise of heaven and the threat of hell to be a good person than you are NOT a good person. It's just that simple. No amount of Hail Mary's or praying to Jebuzz or any other sky fairy will change that.
that's the point...there is none good...no not one..you are foolishly "judging" yourself by the actions of others and determining that since your actions are not "as bad" as others that must mean you are good...but you are comparing yourself against your own morality which is faulty in itself....there has to be a eternal standard of GOOD with which to judge your actions and deeds or it is all arrogance...which is definitely BAD....
Thomas, that makes no sense whatsoever. Science has proven there are NO constants in the universe. NOTHING lasts forever.
martog, An atheist has to believe in more "magic" and a practically infinite number of coincidences and logical absurdities to think there is no God. You are the ones who must believe in fairies to think that creation came about by itself. Think it through, martog. If there is no God, shouldn't there be absolute nothingness? Why is there any matter, space or dimensionality or order or design in the universe at all? Atheist response: "We just got lucky."
Your delusion is complete. I cannot have a rational discussion with your irrational mind. Shalom
Come on CNN this is getting a bit ridiculous. Every time I visit this website there is another attack on Christianity. Have you ever thought of contacting a real, Bible believing Christian for one of these pieces? I would suggest Frank Turek., author of "I Dont't have Enough Faith to be an Atheist". Not really sure what the agenda is here, but it's pretty sad that you guys seem so against a faith that teaches to love your neighbor above yourself, love your wife and children, work hard,etc... Are those things really that bad? Has life in America really been improving since chasing Christianity out of town? If you all think so then great, but forever and always, not matter how many CNN articles are written, Joshua 24:15 will apply: "As for me and my house we will serve the lord"
Atheism does not require faith. You should watch this video:
Frank Turek is a hack. Hitchens destroyed him in multiple debates.
How is this article an attack on Christianity? Get a grip.
A real Bible-believing Christian??? LOL! The only requirement that CNN appears to have for someone to post an article in its Belief Blog is that the author NOT Be a real Bible-believing Christian! Get with the program here.
Hitchens whined in every debate he had with Turek.
how simple the atheists are....look a magical explosion created the entire empire state building...wow!!!!!!! a series of magical explosions created a meticulously designed world....they ignore simple cause/effect explanations...because of their fear of answering for the depravity....
***my bad****...depravity of their own human condition...
You really, really need an education.
You continue to ignore the burden of proof inherent with your claims.
Please describe how atheists ignore basic cause and effect?
I love all these comments. This is the truth and nothing but the truth. Catholics, Mormons and Jehohah Witnesses are not Christians. They are devil worshipers. The Bible says so. Read the Bible. I will not be politically correct. A Christian is who believes in the spirit with faith in JesusChrist. One who worships no one other than God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. No images!!! He who believes confesses that Jesus is Lord and is Baptistized for the forginess of their sins. That's it. Anyone else is hog wash and a believer of the devil.
Actually, according to the Bible, Christians are a type of pagan who should be killed. See Deutoronomy 13:1-10
All that aside, the god-man born of a virgin who dies and rises on the third day was a common near eastern myth character for a thousand years before Paul invented the abomination that we now call Christianity.
Yes, there IS. A God and his name is NOT Jesus. And He had no sons..
The divisiveness and hatred of Christanity.
Christianity: The religion where everyone points at each other and says "You're not a real Christian!" LOLOLOL
They say, "Be Jews or Christians [so] you will be guided." Say, "Rather, [we follow] the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth, and he was not of the polytheists." The Quran 2:135
PROVE GOD and ANTI-CHRIST hates you....
Why? Because you didn't win LOTTERY TICKET. Hate them back.
Why does an article like this make people so crazy? It's ideas people. Not persuaded? Fine. Convinced? Ok. Neither convinced nor not convinced, just curious? Fair enough.
Ten Reasons You Know you are an Atheist.
1. You were likely brought up a theist (probably a Christian if you live in the USA) and had to do your own thinking to rise above the beliefs that still occupy the mind of the believer. This usually involved being smart and working hard at school and college so as to get a good, accurate view of the natural Universe and overcoming significant social pressure to dumb yourself down and conform. In short, you had the guts to ask the hard questions and the brains to spot the weak answers. The more you came to understand the Universe, the less reason there was to believe in a god and the more you came to appreciate human nature, the more you understood why billions of us still do.
2. While rejecting the supernatural elements of the Bible, you nevertheless retain a large amount of the morality taught today by mainstream Christianity. To the extent you reject Christian morality, it is where it is mean spirited – such as in the way it seeks to curtail freedoms or oppose the rights of $exual minorities. In most other respects, your basic moral outlook is indistinguishable from that of the liberal Christian – you just don’t need the mother of all carrots and sticks hanging over your head in order to act in a manner that you consider moral.
3. You know a great deal more about the Bible than most believers. This is because you took the time to read it yourself and did not rely on the primary-color simple stories you learned in Sunday school. You have also probably done some research into the historical Jesus and have a good handle on where he REALLY fit in to the broader picture of the Middle East at the time. Needless to say, his miracles and other magic powers soon started to look pretty unlikely.
4. Your knowledge of basic science and history is much stronger than that of your average believer. You likely have a basic working knowledge of physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology and cosmology and a good idea of the history of life on this planet. This acc.umulated knowledge puts you in a position to judge the claims of the Bible in a critical light and they are almost always found wanting. To the theist, this makes you “elitist” and ‘arrogant”.
5. You relish your role as a religious minority in the USA, as this gives you an impetus to fight and you understand how others with unpopular, but doubtlessly correct views have felt throughout history. There is something altogether satisfying to you about having a deep conviction you are right and being viewed with disdain for your views by the errant majority. You feel a quiet confidence that future generations will look back on you as a member of a class of trailblazers, as religious supersti.tions go into inevitable decline in popularity.
6. You are likely more environmentally aware than your theist friends and colleagues and unlikely to fall for claims of industry and wind-bag politicians concerning the impact of man’s activities on the environment. You could no more act in an environmentally irresponsible manner because “god will keep us safe” than you could jump of a ship, believing King Neptune will keep you safe.
7. You generally have a live and let live atti.tude, but will fiercely defend any attempts by theists to thrust their views on you or your children, directly or through control of school boards, the legislature or the executive. While you are prepared to debate and argue passionately with the theist on an intellectual level, you would never wish them harm or ill will. You know you are likely to be smugly told you will “burn in hell for all eternity” for your healthy skepticism. This highlights what you despise about religion, as you would not wish a bad sunburn on another, simply because they have a different religious view to you. You have never heard of an evolutionary biologist strapping a bomb to himself and running into a church yelling “Darwin-u akbar”.
8. You likely know more about other religions than your average theist. This makes you less fearful of them and enables you to see parallels. You realize that, if you were born in India, you would have been brought up with a totally different religion. You realize that every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. They cannot all exist and you see the error all faiths make of thinking only theirs exist(s). This “rising above” the regional nature of all religions was probably instrumental in your achieving atheism.
9. You likely have a deep, genuine appreciation of the fathomless beauty and unbelievable complexity of our Universe, from the 4 nucleotides that orchestrate every aspect of you, through to the distant quasars, without having to think it was all made for you. You likely get more out of being the irrelevant ant staring up at the cosmos than you do in having to pretend that it was all made to turn in majestic black-and-white pirouette about you.
10. While you have a survival instinct, you cannot fear death in the way the theist does. You know that the whole final judgment story, where you may be sent to hell if you fail, is Dark Ages nonsense meant to keep the Church’s authority. You also know that you were dead for 13,700,000,000 years before you were born. It is impossible for you to fear death, for the simple reason that you know the capacity to fear (or to feel pain or discomfort) itself dies. You will not even know you are dead. Fear of death is as meaningless to you as is the fear of a vacuum, the fear of not being born. You feel a lot more secure, and indeed a deep comfort, in this knowledge, than you would in trying to yoke yourself to some quasi-hope that every part of your intellect tells you is untenable.
I didn't know evolutionary biologist is a synonym for atheist. lol.
martog, Thanks for your predictable dose of atheist arrogance! The army of atheists must scour the internet for any religious article, so they can propagate their hate and error upon us all. One would think that most people are atheist, if you read the comboxes after these articles (only about 10 percent of human beings are atheist).
That was phenomenal! Thank you!
@ankenyman: "hate and error"?
Please describe how this post was hateful or in error.
Commenter ankenyman, like many Christians, can't stand it when people who don't believe in their religion dare to actually voice their opinions. To people like ankenyman, freedom of speech is reserved for Christians only.
@ankenyman You vastly overestimate your importance to us. We really don't care if you spend your entire lives in fear, bowing to apparitions and praying to shadows. You all seem to think we hate your god because you simply don't understand how we could believe he just doesn't exist. We have no desire to win you over to our side. You don't belong here.
martog, An atheist has to believe in more "magic" and a practically infinite number of coincidences and logical absurdities to think there is no God. You are the ones who must believe in fairies to think that creation came about by itself. Think it through, martog. If there is no God, shouldn't there be absolute nothingness? Why is there any matter, space or dimensionality or order or design in the universe at all? Atheist response: "We just got lucky." It must be terrible living without any purpose or hope.
religion has done more throughout history to propogate hate and arrogance than any other thing that man has contrived. Please try to get your head out of the sand. YOu want an example of religious arrogance? You ever seen Vatican City? It is one the richest cities on the planet! That rediculous man called a Pope could feed an entire starving nation with the jewels he wears. Please try to educate yourself just a little bit with something other than Bible nonsense.
Absolutely brilliant. I am happy to be an atheist.
The reason that I do not fear death. . . There is no afterlife, and thank goodness for that. Who would want to spend an eternity surrounded by closed-minded, bigoted, hateful Christians. They are insufferable enough during this lifetime. To spend an eternity surrounded by them. . . now that would be hell.
Thoughtful post, martog. I agree with most of what you say, and while I also roll my eyes at evangelical types, I offer a couple of additional points.
1) "You likely get more out of being the irrelevant ant staring up at the cosmos than you do in having to pretend that it was all made to turn in majestic black-and-white pirouette about you."
Yes, I agree you're probably correct that this life is all we get. I certainly do not hang my hat on any kind of traditional religion. However, I could not disagree more that we are "irrelevant". Carl Sagan said "we are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self-awareness." Our expanding knowledge of physics has revealed just how special creatures like us truly are. Our lives may be fleeting and brief, but that doesn't mean they are irrelevant.
2) ankenyman says "It must be terrible living without any purpose or hope."
Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Our knowledge of positive psychology reveals that our lives our deep with meaning even before considering whether there is a God and/or an afterlife. Live your life in support of the healthy human spirit – be true to yourself; seek the simple things that really matter, not externals; and be a kind and generous soul.
3) It is amazing that we're here even once. While I find arguments that consciousness survives the death of the human body unconvincing, it could be true. I don't fault anyone for having that belief.
However, I don't direct my energy there. I focus on what gives me greatest confidence, which is this life. If there turns out to be more, that would be great. Even when I used to believe in God I never thought He would send me to the "fires of hell" just because I thought he didn't provide enough evidence to believe certain things.
Concerning point #1:
Rev 1:1 ¶ The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified [it] by his angel unto his servant John:
The truth, people can't understand the truth that everything that is written was only written by man and nothing else. If you choose to believe otherwise then you will condem them using words again written by man.
And they say, "None will enter Paradise except one who is a Jew or a Christian." That is [merely] their wishful thinking, Say, "Produce your proof, if you should be truthful." The Quran 2:111
Who says so? The Bible doesn't! U r using hearsay!
Nii: So, if someone quotes from the Qur'an, it's hearsay, but if they quote from the Bible, it's not? You're a joke.
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