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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. Ken

    Seventh-day Adventists understand the book of Revelation and can demonstrate its harmony with other Bible prophecies. John Blake doesn't have a clue what he's writing about – pure garbage.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  2. Carl

    The AntiChrist is in the White House.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • nimitta

      Thanks, Carl, for illustrating Dr. Pagels' thesis that theology is inevitably politicized!

      By the way, there's no such thing as an Antichrist, or the Devil, or Heaven, Hell, or the Rapture. Just sayin'...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  3. TownC

    There are many competing views of Revelation and of the Bible as a whole. It's almost as if this article is presenting this view as definitive. Obviously it is not. The difficulty surrounding the correct interpretation of scripture shows the need for modern prophets.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  4. WaltD

    Elaine Pagels is an honest and excellent Biblical Scholar. She is right on. This is a book, written in esoteric language, about hope to those followers of Jesus who were a threat to the Roman Empire and its use and abuse of power. Would that more preachers and church members engage in Biblical scholarship and understand the initial and primary message of Jesus about serving the poor and the powerless, rather than have the church joined at the hip to the rich and powerful of our day. What a difference the church would make in our society and world!

    April 1, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  5. Dave

    Occam's razor - IIt is a principle urging one to select among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation of the effect.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  6. musa

    It is easy for me to understand Authors like Pagels because with all the knowledge she has, she can't understand the book of revelation. its not for unbelievers. Please don't read the Bible for fun. I believe every word in the Bible is true. Read the book of Daniel and tell me its nonsense. Without the holy spirit in your life some things in the Bible will never make sense to you.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  7. joe

    The Communist News Network (CNN) is at it again.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • dave z

      I agree, this is a typical CNN liberal view... twisted and distorted; it reminds me of when the devil spoke in Genesis, " Ge 3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
      Ge 3:2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,
      Ge 3:3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
      Ge 3:4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.
      Ge 3:5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
      I thought he said the anti-Christ was not real?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  8. bizziel

    No God. No Devil. Bunch of crap. Can't believe full grown adults follow and live this garbage. All religion is a myth.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Onslow

      Here, here! We will only become a successful civilization when we give up primitive, nonsensical religious belief based on fear of death and the stupid need for a supernatural being to give our lives purpose.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  9. 633music

    The Apostle John wrote this book under inspiration and no true Christian has ever doubted its place in the Bible Canon.
    Simply stated, Revelation describes the destruction of a world dominated by Satan and those who refuse to accept the fact that the creator has the right to determine the destiny of a world he created. Read Rev:21:3 and 4, you will find the books true message of hope.
    Want the truth? Say a prayer, to yourself and he will send someone to explain.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  10. ghostdansing

    Pagels has been doing some nice scholarly work here. People will believe what they want to believe. They can start by believing the Bible itself is a compilation for essentially political purposes under the Roman Emperor Constantine after his conversion, and that it certainly was the result of significant editorial triage in terms of what was included. Sola Scriptura is indeed a fundamental error among Christian Theologians; for some accepted as fundamental truth.

    It would be interesting what everybody thought of Revelations had it been relegated to Apocrypha and not included.

    When God is engaged by Man, it is always through the eyes of Man. Religions are artifacts of Man's search for meaning in the face of a massive unknown, and existentially in the face of mortality; death. Human beings have remarkable imagination. Perhaps one of the gifts provided by God alongside the ability to reason allowing for a tolerable, even interesting existence.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  11. John

    I read as far as the 666 supposedly being Nero, spelled out in a Jewish numerology system that I cannot vouch for. Well, that certainly makes more sense then the idea supernatural beings, good or evil, would actually care about or even have names or designations.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  12. DD

    How bout you let people decide & believe whatever they want to, and mind your own business.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • .

      Good idea. Can you tell the bigots at CNN?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • WMoonFox

      We tried that. Isolationist policies are what lead to WWI and WWII. Extremists have to be brought, kicking and screaming if need be, into the light. Intelligent discourse is the preferred method, but shunning the ignorant and unwilling to learn is an option.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • EVN

      I'd be good with that, if only those who believe weren't so busy telling me how to live, passing laws that reflect their religious bias, and generally running around convinced they have a monopoly on the truth.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • EmcK

      Hmmm. . . . didn't you just violate that suggestion yourself via the insinuation that the author shouldn't state views contrary to their own? Is it your contention that only YOU should be able to state your views?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  13. Evangelist

    Don't think that this article represents some sort of ubiquitous scholarly view. Pagels is a liberal scholar who doesn't actually believe Jesus is Lord, much less obey Him. There is other reliable scholarship that supports the truth of the Apostle John's authorship. If you read the rest of this article carefully, you see that most of it is simply revisionist conjecture based on pre-existing bias. Anyone with enough time can do weave an alternate narrative about historical facts that sounds plausible; don't be fooled. Additionally, most commenters haven't read Revelation over and over and studied it's parallel passages in the rest of the Bible in a serious attempt to understand it. While I don't understand it all yet, it is clear that Pagels' opinion is tantamount to lying. Read it for yourself. It tells of events that are much more cataclysmic than anything that has already happened, such as the killing of one third of mankind (Rev. 9:15), the simultaneous events of the sun becoming dark, the moon becoming like blood, the sky vanishing, and every mountain and island removed from its place (Rev. 6:12-14,) and most importantly the physical return of Jesus Christ Himself from the sky (Rev. 1:7, 14:14-16, I Thess. 4:16, Acts 1:11,) and these are just a few. Most important to an intelligent approach to the Book, you must realize that it most certainly does not exist in a vacuum as Pagels implies. Matthew 24, Daniel, and many other shorter passages corroborate its events, although it is not always easy to determine exact sequences of events. Don't fall for this article's storytelling masquerading as scholarship.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Sagan

      Hello there American Taliban! What's it like living in that disgusting little fantasy world of yours?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • EVN

      But do fall for the story telling that masquarades as the word of god? Gotta love it – if someone doesn't agree with the bible its because they are biased, yet those exposing the silliness of it all as being true are utterly incapable of seeing that their own bias and brainwashing is at the core of their belief system.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • truthissimple

      If Jesus was Lord, he wouldn't have died. A dead god is no god!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Paul

      Thank you

      April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • gman

      @ truthissimple, one time i saw on a wall,

      GGGGOOOOOODDDDD IS DDDDEEEAAAAADDDDDD !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NIETZSCHE

      then in small letters below that

      nietzsche is dead GOD !

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  14. Dave

    Occam's razor - It is a principle urging one to select among competing hypotheses that which makes the few the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness. Ieast assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation of the effect.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  15. EVN

    Ah, more meaning and interpretation of the perhaps the greatest myth of all. Just what is needed in a world already overtaken by so many believing in their favorite Kool-aid flavor and (usually) that anyone liking a different flavor is damned.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Wren

      EVN, what Pagels is doing as described in this article only stands to liberate people from the unquestioning "kool aid" style of belief - even if an individual does not believe in any gods, the Christian bible still occupies an important place in history. Examining it at a level that respects the historical context in which it was created promotes a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what is, like it or not, a wildly influential artifact.

      Not studying the Bible won't make it go away - it will only encourage further unquestioning acceptance.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  16. 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 live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  17. Candace Jones

    Some things were simply not intended to be "played around" with. THE BIBLE CANNOT BE FULLY UNDERSTOOD WITHOUT THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. I agree, the book of revelation is difficult to understand but only with the NATURAL MIND, one who doesn't believe and refuses to accept Christ. You cannot FAKE this people. The Bible was meant for believers to understand. Skeptics beware of using blogging to distort God's intentions....for the ground in which you stand is sinking ground....I pray that unbelievers will seek the truth for themselves...His way and not the world's way. It very smart and simple to choose the one and only true God. Bless you.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Wootings

      One question: does it hurt to be that stupid?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • WMoonFox

      The bible exists as the word of God, to convey His teachings and bring lost sheep into the flock; but you're telling me that it is unintelligible unless one already believes? How does that work? How am I to be convinced to believe if I must already believe to understand the message? Are believers born believers with a set destiny? What about free will?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  18. wayne

    Gotta love the old testament. Without it hollywood would never of had sone of those great epic movies.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  19. DJensen

    If in fact you don't believe Elaine, doesn't make The Word of G_d untrue. The truth is – no matter who you are, one day, one sweet day, EVERY knee WILL bow, and EVERY one will give an account for their life; EVERY- meaning all.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • reason

      Tell us again about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny! Those are nice stories too.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • TERRY

      Yes, DJensen, you're absolutely right!!!! Just because I DON'T BELIEVE

      April 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • EVN

      What's going to happen to all those ferverent believers when that fateful judgment day comes and there is no rapture? Like so many "end of days" cults already, there will be some sorry excuse about it not really being the end, and the "real" apocalypse still coming.

      Just because you, DJensen, believes doesn't do a thing in terms of making any of it true.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Evangelist

      "...scoffers will come in the last days, following their own sinful desires. They will say, 'Where is the promise of his coming? For...all things are continuing as they were from the beginning...' But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed." (II Peter 3:3-10)

      April 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  20. Pastor Mike Palevo

    Christianity has been infiltrated with Talmudic Judaism as pertaining to Futurism. The Book of Revelation is simply the history of the destruction of Jerusalem AD70, and the events that would take place in that Generation! From ad30 to ad70! It all put in symbolic terminology! Yet, fundamental Christianity has taken it out of it's contexts and symbolism, and put a literal futuristic spin on it.
    Pastor Mike Palevo
    New Life Tabernacle of Chattanooga

    April 1, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Evangelist

      Pastor Mike, one third of mankind was not killed (Rev. 9:15) in A.D. 70, and Jesus has not physically returned to earth (Rev. 1:7, 14:14-16, I Thess. 4:16, Acts 1:11.) There is a limit to how much you can explain away by calling it "symbolic terminology," lest you be in danger of using a hermeneutic which if applied to the rest of Scripture would preclude a straightforward interpretation of just about anything at all. There is some evidence for a preterist or a historical position, but the argument falls to pieces when the totality of Scripture is considered.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • endtime

      The baptism of the Holy Ghost would change your thinking and teaching the truth of the Gospel.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
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