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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. Obama from KFC

    .....Wow...now I finally know what the 666 mark on my neck is!

    –Obama

    April 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  2. Moncada

    Mercadería de oro, de plata, de piedras preciosas, de perlas, de lino fino, de purpura, de seda, de escarlata, de toda madera olorosa…
    ¡Ay, ay, de la gran ciudad, que estaba vestida de lino fino, de purpura, y escarlata, y estaba adornada de oro, de piedras preciosas y de perlas!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  3. richard

    Bravo, Ms. Pagels, bravo!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  4. Don Brush

    I would tell people to read the book of Revelation and see for themselves what it says – it promises a blessing to all those that do read it and a warning not to change anything contained therein. This article is based on a women's personal opinion of Revelation and I think she is totally wrong in her interpretation and it is a stretch, to say the least. I am not trying to convince anyone of anything – JUST READ IT FOR YOURSELF.

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

      Rev 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 10:18 am |
  5. Nathan

    I have faith that all of you religious nut jobs will soon burn in hell. God told me so. Can't wait.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  6. patmosinGreece

    Patmos is in modern day GREECE – not Turkey!

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

    Religion has been taken and used to control people since the beginning of recorded history. There is no god, wake up people. We peer down at the atom with its electrons circling, the building block of the molecules and compounds that make up our universe. We see bacteria along the way but I don’t want them worshiping me. Now stare up at the solar system with its planets and circling, look familiar? They are the building blocks of what’s next. We are the bacteria here.

    That’s what I believe, not in some mystical creatures.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  8. Matthew

    This must be an April Fool's article!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  9. sam

    WHAT?!?!? The bible is SYMBOLIC??! This changes everything!

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

      For some it would. It would also make the world a much better, happier, more peaceful place.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  10. Chip Lusko

    Perfect. Such predictable coverage from CNN on Palm Sunday. Question: Who nominated Ms. Pagel, 'One of the world's leading Bible scholars?' Wish I could be here when CNN covers the resurrection of the two witnesses in Jerusalem from Revelation 11! That will be some Breaking News. They will just blame George Bush.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  11. 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 amazing 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 10:14 am |
    • Mary Curry

      I completely agree. I went to catholic schools for 11 years. One of my religion teachers made an excellent point when we were questioning a passage about beating your wife and children. She said, "the bible was inspired by God, but written by man. Therefore it is fallible."

      April 1, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Wonder Woman

      Finally, an intelligent person who actually believes as I do. The Bible was written as a metaphor for life, for how we should live, how we should treat others, etc. It is NOT the actual words of anyone but the monks who wrote it. It's a story. A wonderful story that can guide us all and teach us invaluable lessons. But take it for what it is.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  12. carlos333777

    I love it when erudite, learned, wise men in their infinite capacity for stupidity deny that GOD exists. I literally jump out of my skin full of joy. It is people like him that are needed to keep the lake of fire and brimstone burning forever. Let us give them a hand of applause!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      How utterly stupid.

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

      I don't deny that there is a chance that God exists, but how is it stupid to not believe in God? Please layout in logical fashion how someone could not possibly come to the conclusion that God does not exist.

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

      You "literally" jump out of your skin?
      It's easy to see how you fell for the bible with sentences like that.

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

      Matt, are you telling me that "literally" does NOT mean the same thing as "figuratively"? That the use of literal is in direct opposition to a simile or symbolism? Hmm, so this man's skeleton, muscles, and organs move right on through his skin, yet, he is able to type and communicate here. If so, that would be hard to explain, and since no explanation is readily available, it must be a divine occurrence. Carlos wins.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  13. Matt

    My favorite thing about the scam of religion, is the fact that nobody has ever seen god. God–if he wanted–could come "down" to Earth again and say "hello" or "just wanted to let you non-believers know I'm not made up."
    Religion is the most divisive brainwashing machine of all time, yet it is also probably the most lucrative.
    Why does God need you to believe in him? How do you not see the insanity of that.
    Why does he need money?
    You are scared of death.
    You are scared if the unknown.
    Let it go.
    Have faith in yourself, for you can see yourself and the fruit of your own actions.
    You can be genuinely happy once you accept it is you who accomplishes and fails.

    Don't be afraid.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Tired of the Bias

      Clearly you would say that since you don't believe the Bible. The last time I read it, there were instances of when God came down to Earth to "say hello."

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

      God said that he will come and save the faithful and burn Mystery Babylon and the kings who have frolicked with her, he would rise the dead from Hell and Hades to judge them all. It's not time yet, just hold on and... Don't be afraid.

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

      To can't use the Bible as a reference. It's like me saying Voldemort exists because he is clearly in the last boom of Harry Potter. Try another source.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Tired of the Bias

      Unfortunately, any reference I give, you will discount by simply saying "I don't belief that source, so give me another." Yet here I go: The Gnostic Gospels (which have never been included as part of the Bible), the exta-Biblical portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Book of Mormon. Believe it or discount it, there are books out there that support the Bible. I'm sure you will discount them all though because you do not have the faith to believe–you will say they are all based on the Bible so they don't count.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Matthew Terhune

      Just because you temper your attempt with "you will probably say this doesn't count," doesn't make you right. The book of Mormon? The book thy says black people are cursed? That's your source.
      I give up. You must live somewhere where everyone blindly agrees with you, because that nonsense doesn't fly where I'm for
      Incidentally I spent 12 years in catholic school, so I am very schools on the other side of the argument. How much living in atheists shoes have you done, I wonder.
      I don't actually wonder, because I know the answer is none.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Tired of the Bias

      You asked for another source besides the Bible that talked about God coming down to "say hello." I gave you three. You dismissed one of them out of lack of understanding (the Book of Mormon doesn't say black people are cursed. You've taken one phrase and twisted it). You ignored the other 2 sources. But I go back to what I initially said–you will dismiss all of them because you want to. It doesn't matter what I or anyone else says.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  14. JC

    At 12:00 EST Today, Come listen to a prophets voice, hear for yourself what Mormons believe.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      Mormons believe that after Cain slew Able and was banished, he went to the Land of Nod and took a wife. Since there were no other people but Adam and Eve and Cain at the time, they believe he married an ape and that's where black people came from. I had a Mormon preacher tell me that several years ago. It was in their official beliefs until the 1960's. Nice religion. Instead of Mormons they should call themselves Morons.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  15. Juan in El Paso

    Not to smart to attack Christianity with an election comming. With Obama forcing churches to pay for birth control and attack like these from the liberal media Obama has less of a chance of winning re-election. SO, please keep them comming liberal media.

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

      How is this an attack on religion? Pagels is a leading Biblical scholar, with years of primary research and countless peer-reviewed publications to her credit, as well as the admiration of her peers.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      Ancient myths and ignorant superst!tions need to be attacked. They need to be opposed at every opportunity.

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

      Pointing out inconsistencies and questioning interpretations of something is not an attack. There is something terribly wrong with people if they cannot discuss differing views. It's even worse when people cannot take the time to come up with some research to bring to the table rather than relying on gut feeling.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  16. Jose Antonio

    My question is, where can we find these other books that didn't make it to the Bible?

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

      Jose, Google is your friend.

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

      There are many, many collections of them available. A search on "Gnostic gospels" will turn up plenty.

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

      The Gnostic bible by elaine Pagels on amazon and the newly found book of judas also at amazon

      April 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  17. 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 10:13 am |
  18. RG

    I thought the whole book is based on myths... virgin birth, resurrection, walking on the water, healing blinds,

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

      Turning water into wine, two of every species in one boat for 40 days, parting the Red Sea.

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

      Reason, it was the sea of reeds. Somewhere along the way someone slipped up on the translation, but it made for a more remarkable story so we've stuck with it.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  19. ShowMe

    Overall, there is very little new information here. Christians today also have a wide interpretation of Revelations. Many, if not a majority of us, do not subscribe to the "rapture" theory.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  20. Derski

    What's with all the people saying that CNN is slamming christianity in this article?! They're trying to enhance people's understanding of it, people who are saying with that this is hands down wrong or bullying frighten me. It just looks like people don't want to be exposed to a different way of thinking and the bible is supposed to open your mind. Many of the stories are symbolic, meaning they can often be taken several different ways, each one to make you think about how that way of thinking relates to your current life and if you're being a good human being.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Turth7

      "Exposed to a different way of thinking"...go to the beginning of the Bible and read what the serpent said to Eve "I can give you knowledge". Please don't fall for the oldest trick in the book.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      I've read the bible from cover to cover. Just ignorant old archaic mythology. Nothing more. No one with any intelligence would believe that nonsense.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:20 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.