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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. CHRIS Ggear

    QUOTE: 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.”

    BUT JOHN SURE DOES SAY:

    1 John 1:7 "…the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

    Revelation 1:5 "To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—"

    Revelation 7:14 "These are they who...have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

    Revelation 12:11 "And they overcame him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony…"

    April 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • El Flaco

      Her point is that John of Patmos was a Jew, not a Christian. Christianity would not be invented until the Council of Nicea, almost three centuries later. John of Patmos fully expected Jesus to return – not to save the Gentiles – to expel the Romans from Israel and establish a Kingdom of God. The inhabitants of that Kingdom would all be good Jews.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Rich

      "the book is sometimes called “Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine” but he was not the disciple who accompanied Jesus."

      You're mixing your quotes from two different Johns. That's okay, the Bible can be confusing that way – feel for the guy named Judas who wasn't THAT Judas....

      April 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  2. Earthling

    This article makes the ravings of the religious nutjobs even more hilarious. Stories included in the bible were hand-selected for political purposes and have been edited for political purposes over and over again, and these idiots lap it up like mother's milk. What a pack of fools.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Turth7

      "Earthling" ...interesting user name. Man's number in the Bible is "6". The only fool is the person who says "there is no God".

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • JimfromBham

      Even if the early Christian leaders "cherry picked" the early Christian writings to suit their political purposes, your criticism does not disprove the existence of God or Jesus' role as the Messiah. You are only saying something tat we all know – that man is not perfect.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  3. Sbul

    More evidence that the Bible was not so much divinely inspired but politically created to manipulate the new religion at the time, Christianity. Also, read Asimov's 'history of the bible" to further understand this politicalization of Christianity.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • RGC

      The Bible was written by men – human beings who cannot help but to dramatize events and occurances just as the majority of people do today. It was also manipulated by the Catholic church to meet it's own needs. Then King James retranslated the entire thing – mistakes and mistranslations included. In my opinion it's a wonderful and often comforting book, but the idea that people believe the Bible word-for-word and think that it has gone hundreds of years unchanged is iamazing to me. Go on and play a game of "Gossip" with just a handful of people and see what happens. Believe in Jesus, his teachings, and his message to love one another as you would yourself; that is what truly matters. But don't be fooled that the Bible is an entirely accurate recollection of the events and teachings of the past – and I apologize for offending the people who do.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  4. John k.

    This book is no mystery if you read it in conjunction with Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah, and tie it in to the Olivet discourse in three Gospels(Matthew,mark and Luke). And Jesus says through John in Revelation 1:3that "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy , and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near." God would not tell us to do something that He hasn't given us the power and ability to do. If you take it literally,it is easy to understand and believe. The rule to any scripture is "if the literal sense makes common sense, then seek no other sense." maybe you should go to the audio bookstore of Morningstar Christian Chapel online and download the series on Revelation by Pastor Jack Abeelen, and it would be very clear to you. Why people try to cloak the truth with excuses and make it more difficult that it really is,they do a disservice to themselves and will have to give an account to God for their actions. But don't blame God. You can get the Dwight Pentacost book on Revelation or the Walvoord book Things to Come for help in explanation of the Revelation terms/images, but let the Bible interpret the Bible. It has for some 4000 years. I'd be happy to discuss this with you anytime.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      Why would anyone want to discuss ignorant blah blah blah nonsense with you?

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

      Only Bible can interpret the Bible. So we shouldn't try to interpret it, right? So how the he77 are you supposed to make sense of this insane gibberish if you aren't allowed to interpret it?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Rich

      You said it, Josef. Why debate with an obviously intelligent individual, when one can hang out with the likes of you and just be smug, stupid and wrong?

      April 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  5. jewisholiday

    Facts can be right or wrong, but beliefs are more properly assessed as being well-founded or not well-founded. For example, when someone asks you to state the date and place or your birth, of course you can't tell them the facts of such information from your own independent recollection of the event, so you give them information you got from sources you believe are reliable. Since the bible is essentially a compilation of a few facts and a whole lot of beliefs, it does not lend itself to the same kind of scrutiny as one would use to edit an almanac.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  6. PreachersAll

    1) Media Court
    2) Media Religious Services
    3) Media Advice
    4) Media Entertainment
    5) Media Media

    Why, we do not require anything else but CNN and its cohorts! Damn! If only I had CNN when I was first born and listened to nothing else today I, too would believe that my name was Ted Turner and would think just like him believing that the United States is secondary to all and that we should foot the bill for his humanitarian causes – to utterly deconstruct Christianity and diminish the importance placed on Israel!.

    Yes, we all could be Ted Turner clones!.

    Yet – I believe the United States is filled with Ted Turner clones!

    We do not live in a democracy people. This is a federalist republic that has never changed.
    We are comprised of mostly Judeo-Christian families, and that hasn't changed either.
    But – what you hear on the news including and primarily from CNN is that the United States IS a democracy of foreigners or Muslims only and no one else matters!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Nathan

      You are a nut job.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Sbul

      Your rant makes not sense.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      A double nut job.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • MidwstrnGrl

      you elect representatives dont you? we do not live in a direct democracy for such a thing would be impossible to manage. this is a representational democracy. stop listening to fox.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  7. Bud

    Now that you[ve read John Blake, you need to read J. Finnis DAKE! Get a true word-for-word interpretation instead of someone's "theory." Go to the source if you seek truth.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      If I want the truth I'll look to science, not ancient mythology.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  8. Martin

    There are many interpretations of the book of Revelation. To say this one person's studies is absolute truth about the interpretation with the exclusion of other interpretations is narrow minded. These arguments about Nero being the antiChrist are well know to Christian scholars and far from controversial to say the least. I wish CNN would quit issuing what it sees as truth without looking at all facets of belief. But then is there any belief at CNN?

    April 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • reason

      So what do you think of the four throne creatures covered in eyeballs and having six wings, as described in Rev 4:6?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • jc

      Well, they didn't say this is the truth. They just discussed what the author of the book says. You make your own mind. Also, what makes you think just because somebody is discussing this or criticizing the bible doesn't believe? or that nobody believes at CNN? aren't you making a blanquet statement? but then again...it seems like many people do that today

      April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Chris

      Yeah, cause, like, that's the main problem...nobody just believes stuff anymore.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  9. 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 10:05 am |
    • Ben

      Well said, 'reason'! I couldn't have said it better myself. Just think about how many flavors of religion there are on Earth. 10,000+? The modern ones in the US alone are mostly scams run by people getting money from gullible people.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  10. 2manyfreaks

    Is it true that if a Budist Monk practices his religion for 75 years and then a Christian tells him about the "right religion" that the Monk must give up his religion or he will burn in Hell?

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

      No. According to most evangelicals, he will burn in hell anyway.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • jesse

      true. fear motivated systems have a unique smell, don't they?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  11. Dan

    Don't read Revelations backwards. A jackal will show up at your window.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  12. reason

    Revelation 4:6

    In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.

    How does anybody take this seriously?

    .

    April 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Joe Williams

      YOU SHOULD

      April 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Rational Atheist

      Lol... not to be taken literally. Yes? Symbols within symbols. But Revelations is so thick with symbols and so utterly out of place in the whole pantheon of 'books' that it should have never been included in the Christian bible. That being said... i guess they thought that they needed some 'scary' passages to keep the masses in line. "Give them hope, but not too much." (anon)

      April 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • reason

      The Easter Bunny is a more compelling story. At least he poops chocolate eggs we can eat, and does not damn billions to eternal brimstone for picking the wrong religion or being born in the wrong place in the world.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  13. BUDDY IN PA

    Elaine Pagels may declare herself as a Biblical Scholar..but many of her peers will call her a Heretic just as we will call the CNN reporter who has written this story !

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

      Actually, her peers call her a scholar, too. Hard to argue when someone has spent a lifetime doing primary research, has published in countless peer-reviewed journals and won the respect of the scholarly community within her field.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Rational Atheist

      Heretic, huh? Guess we'd better get out the dunking chair. Or would burning her at the stake be better for ya? Oh – I have a better idea – let's put you and your Jihaddist buddies together on some island and let you guys fight it out to the death. Last one standing gets to make a declaration. Okay with you?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  14. hmm

    4? The whole entire bible is a book of mythology!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Rational Atheist

      see... that's the problem with a total lack of information. You make stupid remarks like that, that reflects badly on the rest of us who really have a bead on what's going on. Read a book – any book – it'll do you some good.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Rich

      Yeah... about that: I'd be thrilled to go through all the "myths" in the Bible that have been borne out by archaeological evidence, but I'm not doing your homework for you. It's not like you'd recognize a fact if it fell in your lap anyway.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  15. jorge washinsen

    You can bet someone had a lot of free time on their hands.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  16. JoJohn123

    Hey, CNN: Interesting article, but please look at a map. The island of Patmos is not "in present-day Turkey." It is very much a part of Greece's Dodecanese Islands chain.

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

      Correct! But perhaps the word should have been "near" instead of "in". Patmos is in spitting distance of Turkey, and extremely far from mainland Greece.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  17. jorge washinsen

    Never could figure why everyone was always naked. Must have been like a Florida climate or all artist were disturbed as our shrinks might say.

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

      It's a celebration of God's creation.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • hmm

      It's an excuse to stare at naked artist's models all day.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  18. Deborah Torres

    People dont fight, Go to church today and receive what God has for you and to bless his Holy name, This is a tactic to keep BELIEVERS home from church... dont fight with satans elves... ONLY THE FOOL SAYS IN HIS HEART THERE IS NO GOD!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Good luck

      Amen

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

      Sure, let's ignore the fact that at least part of the Bible is just the insane ramblings of an angry man from long ago, and go and pray to God. It's better to be positive. So why on Earth do people need a Bible?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • kkd1013

      Just because a person is not a christian does not mean they don't believe in God. That's rather unintelligent of you to make the assumption that being non-christian = not believing in God.

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

      Satan's elves???
      hahaha

      April 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Matthew Terhune

      Wow. I'm a Satanic Elf! How cool is that? I need to go buy some sort of outfit for that, right?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  19. brutus

    This article is absolutely nuts...Pagels sounds like a conspiracy theorist, who now applies her wild theories to the Bible. People will always buy and read books that are controversial and different, no matter if basically all of modern and classical scholarship find it hogwash.

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

      Uh – Pagels is a leading Biblical scholar, with a lifetime of research and peer-reviewed publication backing her up.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Newyorker

      Sure, only a crazy person would dare question the authenticity of Revelations. M8r8n.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  20. Sam

    Country of idiots....
    Thoses comments remind me of 6 year old children arguing whether Santa Claus lives on a cloud or in the North pole.

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

      I agree. Especially reading through some of these comments... Some of them are very loopy! It's sad.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Santa lives in the North Pole! What kind of heretic believes he lives in a cloud? Those people are going to burn in Santa's Workshop to keep the elves warm!

      April 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • rationality

      well said sam!!! finally someone makes sense! i wish the "holly rollers" would just go to church and stop trying to make everyone else as miiserable as they are. So tired of the incessant "bullying" to accept them and THEIR beliefs.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:37 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.