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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. Bill

    Another religious story on CNN written by someone who has no clue about the Bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Joe

      That's the problem with religion... Everybody has their own interpretation and everybody thinks theirs is better.

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

      I always find it amusing that, when people hear version of an ancient silly fairy tale that slightly contradict their own personal versions of an ancient fairy tale, they always assume that everyone ELSE is wrong, that only THIER personal interpretation of their version of their god could possibly be correct. They have no evidence one way or the other of course, just blind zealotry combined with an arrogant assumption that they must be the ONLY ones to know the 'real' interpretation of this centuries old book of fairy tales.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • sam stone

      so, bill, you feel that YOURS is the objectively correct view?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Bill

      What I have are facts. I am not sure where this person came up with their facts.

      Even non religious people agree that the John of Revelation was the same John that wrote other books of the bible. Go look it up. This person describes him as just a Jew and a mystic. What? Never heard that before.

      Because of the style of writing most historians ( religious or not ) date the writing of Revelation to before the fall of the city.

      John wrote this to rebel against the writings and beliefs of Paul and other writers of the bible. What? Revelation is not only prophetic writing but it is a letter to the seven churches that almost entirely follows the writing of other apostles.

      Funny that you people just go ahead and attack. Face it, you are scared of the possibility there may be a God. If I live a good life based on a lie I just die in the end but I lived a good life while here. So what? If there is a God and you are wrong. Wow! Tough luck for you.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Livelystone

      My thoughts exactly!

      Enough to make one wonder if there is a reason behind CNN (as in principality) consistently picking Bible authors who do not know there left hand from their right hand.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  2. Livelystone

    When a person apprehends the truth of the Bible and God's Word is proven through the miracles that God works through that person. This happening is called "faith with works".

    If the author of this book knew the truth people would see "signs and wonders" (miracles done by God) following behind her. That is what Jesus meant when He said that "by their fruit you shall know them"

    The only author and book that I know of that speaks the truth and is witnessed by miracles of healing and raising the dead following behind the author is "Modern Day Prophet" by Douglas Duncan

    April 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  3. Patmos Lover

    You referred to Patmos in myth number 1. As a lover of the island of Patmos, I'd like to point out that it is part of present-day Greece, not Turkey.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  4. AGuest9

    "He [Athanasius] was primarily responsible for shaping the New Testament while excluding books he labeled as hearsay"

    Technically, the bulk of the New Testament is hearsay. There are essentially two gospels, Mark and John. Ironically, John Mark (reportedly, a cousin of Barnabas) was the name of an interpreter to Paul on his journeys..

    April 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • AGuest9

      Nice "Reply" function, there, CNN.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Mennoknight

      Luke was a doctor who was was a trained historian who interviewed living eyewitness. That is hardly hearsay. He interviewed people like Mary, mother of Jesus, and the other women (Mary and Martha) and some of the 120.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • AGuest9

      It's odd how he would have interviewed these people who were older, since he wasn't part of the first generation of disciples. He recorded traditions, and interestingly enough, it wasn't until the Second Century that Luke was associated with these writings. It's also odd that if Luke was so meticulous in his scholarship, he would not have introduced the time-frame issues he does with references to the "census of Augustus", which there was none recorded, as there were in 28BCE, 8BCE and 14CE.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  5. eric

    Modern day Patmos is located southeast of Ephesus, between Turkey AND Greece...

    April 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  6. John

    Here we go again, with the ultra Liberal media – CNN – at work again trying to demean the Bible as the word of God. This is SO predictable...

    April 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • sybaris

      So what you're saying is that the bible is not the word of a god and to assume it is would be demeaning.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Gaunt

      Demeaning the Bible as the word of god is as easy, and as straightforward as demeaning the Egyptian book of the Dead, or the Norse Eddas. YOU happily dismiss as myth every other holy book of every other religion past and present, then like a hypocrite, get all huffy when your intellectual betters do the exact same to your interpretation of your version of your 'holy' book. How predictable.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • physnchips

      I pretty much had the exact same discussion with our methodist minister at a bible study. Let me assure you, the church was not funded by liberal media. Here goes the ultra ignorant, not understanding the context of the bible again...

      April 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • wayne

      the problem is the bible was written by men not god,its too stupid to be the word of god.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • alphabatt1

      If the Bible is the word of God, he/she must be schizophrenic. The accounts of Creation are different between Genesis1 and Genesis 2 and the literal 7 days of creation would have been 7000 years according to 2Peter, which says that in Biblical time " one day is 1000 years and 1000 years is one day".

      April 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Jeff

      Its not liberal – its a study. Believe it or not, bt you have to wonder who the sheep is when you fail to have an open mind about something "sacred."

      April 1, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • sam stone

      And we have the Christians, who congtinue to claim that THEIR view of "god" is the objectively correct one. so predictable

      April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  7. lolwut

    Wait, there are people who interoperate alleged holy books in different ways? Gasp.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  8. Christina

    I think that where the article says "hearsay" it should actually say "heresy."

    April 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • AGuest9

      Actually, it likely is all hearsay. Revelation was not written by the author of "John". First off, there is no claim to be the apostle John in the book. furthermore, the grammar, vocabulary and style of two books are very different. It may be that it was written by a follower of John, or [gasp] by someone who shared the first name. The authorship was also denied by several church "fathers", including Denis (Alexandria), Eusebius (Caesar.sea), Cyril (Jerusalem), Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  9. nick thegreek

    He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos in present-day Turkey.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Patmos is a Greek island with Greeks leaving in it..Even the most extreme Turkish imperialist would not call Patmos a Turkish Island. An official correction is needed from CNN

    April 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Turth7

      God always provides clues to identify false prophets. Their words can never be 100% correct...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  10. hector

    I am always amazed at the zealot like fierceness with which "devoutly" religuous people attack an intellectual and historical analysis of religion. Why do so many feel so threatened? Let the non-believers and the sceptics speak! Why not? Let them speak their ideas. At the end of the day it all boils down to faith. So if your faith sustains you and sustains the words you hold dear then that is all you need. But to shut out ideas and discussion is ignorant and close minded and the furthest thing from the pursuit of truth. And in the end is not God the ultimate truth?

    We waste so much precious time attacking each other over words on paper. Did Jesus not say that word that mattered was that which is the living word of God? Not the dead words written down as dead stones. The living word brothers and sisters! Live it and interpret it as you see fit, find comfort in it as your spirit moves you, but do not anchor yourselves so fiercely to ink on paper. The WORD of the ever living GOD resides inside each of us. That is the message of the Christ.

    I will now get off my soap box. Let the slings and arrows fly!

    God bless all...

    April 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Turth7

      God helps you understand what you call "dead words". The words becomes "living" and you see what they really mean.

      If you want to support a false prophet spreading lies and leading people astray, then their blood will be on your hands. That is made very clear. Notice Jesus tells you two things in Revelation that you must have: "Faith" in Him, and you must do as He commands. You left out that second part....

      April 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Janey-Mae

      Beautifully put.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  11. saggyroy

    4 myths? I counted 5. Somebody is wrong.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  12. abelorozco

    The author of Revelation was anti-Paul?!! Ridiculous. Someone who believes these views is not a top biblical scholar.

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

      Biblical scholar? Is that kind of like a "Bigfoot Expert"?

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

      Please explain why you think she is wrong. Don't just rip her apart.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Yahweh.

      biblical scholar..... nice oxymoron

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  13. Rob

    While I respect Pagel's approach to interpretation, I believe it's flawed. See my presentation here for reasons why Revelation should be interpreted in a futurist sense: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/the-parousia-how-to-study-bible-prophecy

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

      Rob,

      Your presentation is Excellent! Thanks for sharing. I have a premillennial view of things and look forward to the blessed coming of my Lord. Come Lord Jesus, Come.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  14. 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 9:55 am |
    • Steve

      I agree with your assessment of organized religion (even though I am a non practicing catholiic) but I also agree with your second statement and believe in a just god. I try to live my life accordingly.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  15. Michael

    "The deceived and the deceiver are the Lords"

    April 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  16. Zieroh

    This comes as no real surprise to any of the non-Christians. One of the cornerstone books of the New Testament was written by a nutjob. And now it is held high by modern-day nutjobs as proof of their destiny.

    Just because some nutjob wrote something almost 2000 years ago doesn't make it God's truth.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  17. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Just the fact that the Bible had people piecing it together from their "choice" of writings which fit their needs at the time is enough to prove its false. The Bible and God(s) concepts have evolved and continue to evolve.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  18. April

    None of this is new :) And, Pagels is a well-known, highly respected theologian.

    Left Behind ruined the book of Revelaton. Revelation is a beautiful, mysterious book, and no one REALLY knows what it is about. It is not a timetable of the end, but it is a promise of an end to great suffering and loss in this world. LeHaye (and others in his vein) have reduced it to a "how-to" of the end, and used it to terrify people. Before you judge, sit down and read the whole of Revelation in one reading.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  19. dbiglobal

    ALL religions are stories about the stars, planets and the sun - astrotheology. Most people haven't heard of it.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  20. cellman

    I am a Christian, but I do not deal in a lot of absolutes like most people. I trust that Jesus is Lord, savior, and rose from the dead to erase the world's sins, and was God in the flesh. I believe that God can manifest Himself however He wishes. He can be a possum, cat, whatever He wants, but He came to earth as a man to teach us, to save us.

    That said, I don't presume to know how to interpret Revelations, and I am surprised anyone would claim authority on it. It's one thing to say, "I think it's about this or that," but to say with absolute certainty is arrogant and ignorant, in my opinion.

    Along these lines I choose to have both an open mind and a skeptical mind, which is what all good scientists have. When we hear or read new information we must not outright accept or reject it. We must open our minds to it ("hmm, interesting, I wonder if it's true") while also keeping a healthy level of skepticism ("hmm, interesting, I wonder if it's true").

    This is why I, a Christian, am open (but not 100% accepting) to the idea of evolution, the big bang theory, and more. I truly believe life evolves. This is proven on a microbiological level, without a doubt. But I also believe God created us, in His image, and how He did it is a mystery. Genesis gives us a basic description, but it was written through Moses, and was for a people who were not well-educated and needed a simple understanding.

    What I do know is that we are creatures of this earth who have the same characteristics of the other mammalian creatures: breathe air, feed milk to our young, give live birth, grow fur/hair in strange places, fight, mate, poop, etc. We are not independent of this earth. We are very much animals who are dependent on this planet, and I believe God intended it that way.

    But I also believe He gave us a soul that is a level above any other animal. While other intelligent animals are aware of death, can be self-aware, and more, I believe we are the only animal on this planet who knows we are going to die.

    But I could be wrong, and that's an important thing to understand: People who can't admit they might be wrong are people who probably ARE wrong.

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

      hmmm, that's an interesting perspective. I wonder if it's true? ;)

      April 1, 2012 at 10:18 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.