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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. Moncada

    "The one who was, the one who is, and the one who will be." I love Biblical mysteries.
    "Babylon the Great, Mother of harlots and all abominations of the Earth."

    April 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  2. Gawd

    Only 4? LOL

    April 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      perhaps you can explicate your case against Biblical claims, without being silly or using straw men such as literal vs. poetic.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  3. Frank

    CNN, yea you people are REAL AUTHORITIES! Just where does this person get her info anyway? I think she needs to read Revelation before she comments on it.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • david burns

      I have read several of Ms Pagel's books and always find them interesting and informative. No matter what you think of her opinions and findings, she is recognized as one of the world's leading scholars on the bible. She has read most everything in and about the bible and is far ahead of you in whatever you think you know about the bible., No matter whether you agree with her oir not, she is a very intelligent and informed scholar and knows the bible inside and out.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  4. joshua

    see dr owour. good luck

    April 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  5. Deborah Torres

    This amazing scholar obviously has never read the last scripture in Revelation! This great story CNN has posted shows how desperate Satan is close to his demise, and how blinded he has people and confirms that we are living in the last days!

    April 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      Why don't you remove your head from your a**??

      April 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • reason

      People have been saying we are in the last days for thousands of years. Only the blindly faithful would not see that.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Those who ridicule Deborah have no grounds, and no sense. Disagree if one must, but one cannot dismiss another's view, having none of their own.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Moncada

      @Reason- the Bible says "no man shall know the time of my coming..." something like that, so no man knows the coming of Jesus Christ but we do know it is within the lifetime of his followers.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • dmadam

      Christians have been thinking we live in the last day for centuries and nothing happens. Such a delusional group of suckers. They just can't get over the fact that they can't be immortal.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  6. Nathan

    Ah, here are all the posts of the religious nut jobs. To hell with them all since the misplace their own importance.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      faith goes beyond reason in response to the enigmatic. Your ridicule of people having faith is unfounded and shameful.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  7. Leonid Brezhnev

    There is no god, no afterlife, nothing. Grow up, and step into reality. This is all there is.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Moncada

      I wish not to share your morbid view on life and death.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      You have no grounds for making claims about Divinity. It is just ignorant hubris, unmerited pride that speaks so boldly, like a gnat attacking an elephant.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  8. rapman

    Wow, I guess the prerequisite to being an established commentator or biblical expert is too just have an opinion no matter how self emulated it is. The bible talks of the love for Christ growing cold in the last days. Look around us people the secular progressives are doing a bang up job of demoralizing our country and world. Without the moral absolution of a loving God to reign us in you have the proverbial reaping of what you sow. Pray, pray and pray some more!

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • DirkDiggler

      I prayed a lot to win the $650 million Mega Lottery, didn't win. Maybe theres no God then?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • sam stone

      ooooh..empty proxy threats.....how frightening

      April 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Your detractors are evidence of what you write, my friend Rapman. They wallow in the murky swamps of their ignorance and conceit.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • sam stone

      rapman: fill us in on when we were this christ following country. was it when we could own other people? when women were second class citizens? when blacks were 3/5's a white person? please, inform us

      April 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Moncada

      @Samstone- No it was hen the country had some moral and dignity.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  9. Joe

    But Jerry. You really dont knowbthat for sure. Only God knows for sure. Ive known all my life the bible could be full of errors or mis truths because it was written by and mostly influenced by man. Your just repeating what you learned through childhood or heard others say. Every person must discern for themselves.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  10. joshua

    your money dont give it to the church. give it to the.poor like the bible tells you to do. wake up.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  11. 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 9:50 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      There are histories of thought that may serve to enlighten one, not so easily dismissed.
      And the Christian message of humility, owning up to one's failings, and thus being fully accepted is not too complex.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  12. Turth7

    "At one point, he calls a woman leader in the early church community a Jezebel..."

    Oh my...doesn't this author even know that there are several chapters in the OT that discuss a woman named Jezebel????? She married one of the kings of the house of Israel. Her father was a high priest of baal and he became a king and ruled out of Tyre. Guess who God ompared this king to? Satan! Jesus is showing you HOW the the house of Israel became corrupted by evil!

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  13. adri39

    After reading this article I was expecting a big APRIL FOOL's.....what a good article to put on CNN on April Fool's Day.
    (Psalm 14:1) – "The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." I agree with the earlier comment that those who do NOT have the guidance of the Holy Spirit cannot discern the Bible and, even then, it takes years and years of study and then we will only understand a tiny bit of the Bible. Jesus IS coming back and then we will "SEE" the whole picture. Until then, we Christians will continue to study the Bible and pray for the nonbelievers in hopes that they too, will one day become a child of the KING !! Today is Palm Sunday not April Fool's Day !

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Amen Adri39, and let us celebrate the victory!

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • sam stone

      wow, a book written by iron age sheep herders said that about those who do not believe in a (their) god. that settles it right there, eh?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  14. Tim

    Many people ask the question "If there is an all-powerful God, why is there so much evil and sorrow in the world?" The book of Revelation is the answer to that question. The source of all of the evil and sorrow in the world is man himself living under the guidance and influence of Satan. The fate that both mankind and Satan are bringing upon themselves is the fate that they deserve, massive apocalyptic judgment at the hands of a Holy God. In his mercy God has provided a way out for all of those who believe in His son Jesus Christ as the atoning sacrifice for their sin. In Revelation, God is providing us fair warning.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • sam stone

      Your god is impotent. "His" warnings are a bad joke.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  15. Dana

    Let's be honest. The bible is one big myth. When will people grow up and stop believing this nonsense?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • reason

      People are starting to get it. Two thirds of people who enter college holding religious beliefs drop them by graduation.

      According to Pew Research the more people know about religion the less likely they are to believe.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Turth7

      Have you simply ever asked God if He is real? If you haven't been called, I would suggest you do so.

      Do you know that from the beginning to the end, one underlying theme is evident in the Bible? The belief in man over God leads to your downfall. Man's number in the Bible is "6"....

      April 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Ignorance speaks with the loudest voice. Did you miss some of the clever parables, or perhaps disagree with the advice giving Jews in Proverbs, or was it Paul's clarifications concerning those who thought it okay to do evil since they were "saved" or perhaps the allegories eluded your grasp, and if not that, perhaps the fact that the Bible has sold more copies than any other book of total nonsense, which does not speak well of the intelligence of mankind. Surely there must be something that you find absurd, perhaps taking poetry literally, or the 10 Commandments too restrictive for your lifestyle. Speak, oh wise one.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  16. HenryMiller

    “The book is the hardest one in the Bible to understand,” Pagels says. “I don’t think anyone completely understands it.”

    Uh, she might consider the possibility that there's nothing to understand in a work of demented ravings. Trying to makes sense of something wherein there is no sense is futile.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • getalife

      Exactly. Let's try to plumb the depths of something meaninful.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      One might expect a critic to have some grounds, perhaps explaining away the popularity of the Book, by far the most read book ever. Rejection base on ignorance only reflects on the shallowness of the writer.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  17. Follower of Christ

    Rev 7:4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel, divide that number by 6, then 6 again, then 6 again, hmmm, what number did you come up with? For being a book of fables by shepherds or cave-man, they sure were accurate. But doesn't matter how many facts are in the bible, the Hate for Christ is so rampant, you can put facts after facts and it will not matter. There blood boils knowing the fact that they will be held accountable.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • WMoonFox

      Numerology was and is a huge part of Jewish mysticism. You should make at least a cursory attempt to look like you know what you're talking about.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • DirkDiggler

      What does that prove? That they are good in math? Jews have always been good in math.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • dr. livingstone

      Amen.
      .. as sure as the Christ is God, so the devil is fraud

      April 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  18. TheMagusNYC

    Pagels claims that Revelation is the hardest book of the Bible to understand, while reducing it to one man's issues with Rome. She joins with other detractors of Christianity in casting doubt on the nature and mission of Christ, ignoring the greater mysteries of Divine Incarnation and sacrifice.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  19. DirkDiggler

    Athanasius used Revelations to 'bully pulpit' people to submission. Its not surprising. Present day preachers will 'fire and brimstone' people to repent and 'be saved' while collecting money. The very same thing Martin Luther went against is now being used still, and not by the Catholic Church only.
    Republicans do this a lot also. 'If you dont't support the Iraq war, you are unpatriotic' is just one thing.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  20. budshot

    Sorry, but just four myths?? How about the whole thing and everything in the book before it and after it.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      taking pride in ignorance is no virtue

      April 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Dana

      Magus, it looks like you are the ignorant one.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • getalife

      nice shot, bud!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Do these detractors have any substance to contribute? Consider, for example, historical accuracy. It has been claimed that the number and variety of accounts of the life of Jesus exceed those of many historical figures we take for granted. Thus, if we wish to deny the characterizations of Jesus, we would likewise have to deny the veracity of the accounts of virtually every historical figure before the 20th Century. And consider the many Jewish celebrations of today, rooted in the OT; who here totally discounts the source and rationale? Even Muslims draw upon the OT, and rewrite the NT. It's just blind ignorance to ignore the power and influence of the Bible.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.