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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. dav

    Pagels just a nausasist fool.When will cnn start putting up articles from people with real credentials.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Andrew

      Such as????

      April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Peter Rabbit

      like you Dav? Write something and submit it or just move over to Yahoo and read from your like-minded folk.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  2. David

    Revelations is easy to understand if you have the guidance of the spirit. Those who do understand it perfectly. John wrote the book as an exile on Patmos. No other man did. John was the same apostle who walked with Jesus, and carried the spirit. If you want to know the truth, seek it from the one who gave it, God, not some person who claims to have "Our" answers. The book sounds like a lot of misguided enthusiasm.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Andrew

      Try holding a rock to your forehead while reading it.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Andrew

      We don't know who wrote Revelations and it was the worst choice the Council of Trent made, flawed men, flawed choices.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • AGuest9

      Again, if we have people believing nonsense, then this is what we end up with. Several church "fathers", from Denis of Alexandria to John Chrysostom indicated that the author of Revelation is not the same person as "John", as the writings are very different.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  3. 999

    I always wondered about the 999 plan I looked it up I looked at it down I looked at it sideways and still wondered. Then I flipped it over and it all became clear 666 Hermann is the devils brother from another mother

    April 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  4. seyedibar

    If you believe in Revelations.... APRIL FOOLS!

    no seriously. April Fools. The entire book kicks off with him eating the word of god and having visions, just like Ezekiel. It's fairly obvious that he's referring to a psychedelic. So if you trust in the outlandish fantasies of a middle-ages-acidhead, you're really missing the point of the whole philosophy.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • jd

      Its hard to understand the Bible when you take every word literally and not open your mind and heart to what is being said – eating the word of God is not in the Physical sense -

      April 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  5. BigDeek

    Yah, the Bible and all religions are pure myth because humans today are all knowing and have all the knowledge of the universe and have complete understanding of everything. Therefore, anything else is not possible. (sarcasm...)

    April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • seyedibar

      pretty sure we've learned enough by now to rule out ghosts and sorcerors and a demon world beneath the earth's crust.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Andrew

      The "christian" folks seem to be getting less intelligent and more demagogic.

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

      Yes Andrew, let's bow down to your wonderful wisdom. Right.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Peter Rabbit

      it is easier to believe in something you don't have to understand on the word of others then it is to research and discover for yourself. it comes down to our own immature intelligence and emotions.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  6. Sowhat

    If I ever ran out of toilet paper I would use the pages of the bible to wipe my backside – that's all it's good for.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • jd

      Roger Rabbit – if you don't believe that's fine with me and the Christian nation, but what does it say about your respect for let's say anything when all you want to do is clean you backside with anything you don't like or agree with?
      On the other hand I would not use anything you wrote on paper to clean my backside – its not worthy enough for that use.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  7. Leo

    THis is Front Page CNN and they clearly perpetuating Anti Christian thought and use these articles to manipulate politics as well.

    How can you use a woman who says the following about the book of Revelations when she admits she doesn't even understand it??

    "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.”

    April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • SixDegrees

      They can say that because it's the truth.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Andrew

      The Council of Trent was flawed, hence, your bible is flawed. King James was a drunken sodomist, too.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • MikeH

      How can you trust anyone who says they have all the answers and couldn't possibly be wrong? If there is one thing intelligent people know is that they don't know everything and that they reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow as new information is introduced. Our answers today are the best we can do today and we will continue to seek a better understanding day after day.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  8. Carole

    You know ... people can argue forever about the Bible and its meaning. But ONE thing that cannot be argued or disputed is what I know to be true in my heart ... that life-changing experience that I have had, the relationship that exists between God, His Son, Jesus, and myself ... and the interaction that I have had with Him for my whole life. I TRUST HIM ... come what may. I don't have to know all the answers! Personally, I think the 666 represents the "credit score" ... and that CREDIT is the beast that will serve as our demise.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Andrew

      Choose your misconception and stick to it.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Your own belief does not mean it is true! There is no verifiable evidence for god and until there is, it does not matter in the real world.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • seyedibar

      Correct. Nobody can argue that you aren't deluding yourself.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • CounterwwDavid

      And not all truth can be empirically prove. Grow up.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Peter Rabbit

      glad you find comfort in your belief; just don't start any wars in its name or mingle it with politics...thank you.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  9. kitambi

    Wheat....Chaff...select "auto-seperate"....wow that was easy.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Andrew

      That judgement is not your concern, period.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  10. Andrew

    So many completely mistaken American evangelicals have misused Revelations to contradict Jesus' principles and commandments. I think the great majority of you are going to Hell, which is another mistranslation/extrapolation...

    April 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  11. lovethedifferentcommentsystemsCNN

    the bible is fake too

    April 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Andrew

      Copies of copies of mistranslations of another people's oral history. It takes some serious lunacy to take these words at face value.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • believe

      Yeah, that's why the story has been told for 2012 years, and hasn't changed. Granted the Catholic church in the early years decided what should be in it so we don't know the whole story but you have to have faith. People have had that faith for over 2000 years and now so many are trying to turn the world into Sodom and Gomorrah. Be prepared for the same outcome.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  12. buzzoff

    Leave it to liberal pro pa ganda reporters to bring you the word of god....
    what a joke

    April 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Peter Rabbit

      yes because right wing conservatives are the only ones that god loves. he has only revealed is truth to you...i think the point is that we don't know and the sooner you realize that the quicker you will actually have god in your heart instead of in your mind.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  13. cd

    Minor geographical reference correction: Patmos is an island belonging to modern day Greece, not modern day Turkey.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Correct. Although it is closer to the Turkish mainland than the Greek mainland. And I believe it was once part of Turkey, although I'm too lazy to check right now.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  14. fred

    I really wish people would stop looking at the bible as the infallible word of God. It was written thousands of years ago by people that speak languages that are not even uttered on earth anymore. It's been translated so many times into so many languages, there are bound to be some inaccuracies. It's a book full of great stories and wonderful lessons, but hardly something that should be taken literally. Do you really think that God who created the universe and everything in it is so simple that all you need to know about him is to read this one book??

    April 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Turth7

      Almost everything has TWO meanings, so, basically you can double it's contents. And yes, He gives us what we need to "overcome the earth".

      April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • CounterwwDavid

      It is April fools day, soa atheist article that rejects the word of God sounds just about right. Fools that are warned about the coming of Christ again.... Better wake up Fred.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • cd

      Well said; thank you.
      Many of the same people also think God is so simple as to waste time deciding sporting events. Sad.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • jd

      Of Course Fred!!

      You know nothing about the God the Bible speaks of trust me

      April 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @CounterwwDavid: You're the one needing to wake up! You're the one too blind and apparently stupid to understand that there is no evidence that is verifiable to say your god even exists. The only way this world is ending is when the sun burns out in about about 5 Billion years! The Sun will turn into a Red Giant when it finishes the hydrogen fuel in its core. It will no longer put out enough heat to hold the rest of the sun out, so it will collapse, making the next closest layer of the Sun (which still does have Hydrogen left) start to fuse. this will blow off the outer layers, making a red giant – and huge – nearly as big as the orbit of Mars! If it makes the Helium in the core fuse, it then becomes even larger – a planetary nebula! Betelgeuse in Orion is a red Supergiant! So the Sun will have a beautiful end, but we won't still be here to see it.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • CounterwwDavid

      And YOU. Are the one that is so immature you cannot see past being a materialist!
      Wake up dude!

      Actually read the gospels and actuall think , THINK about Christ is saying in them, instead of being pig headed and thinking you are so damn smarte Ethan everyone else. Atheists, all the same.... Elitist, chip on their shoulders, think they are smarter than everyone else, and can only function with their five senses.

      God really DOES love us all, this is why the years are counted since his death and resurrection.

      Either you were brought up believing in. God, or have been running from Him for a long time.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  15. Paco

    Blasphemy!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • fred

      No it's actually fact. I was taught the same things that she said in Catholic schools 30 years ago.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Faithful

      She wrote a book! OK – But the "would be" "seems to be" "he was probably" "may havecome from" and "Patmos is in modern day Greece" --when it's actually in modern day Turkey don't inspire confidence in THIS reader.

      True, there is no tangible proof in the Old Testament, But there is proof in The New Testament – the Turin shroud [which some scientists THINK they've 'disproved' but others say it is a certain as they can be that it is the image of Jesus [right down to the fact that the disporovers are stumped by the fact that the cloth is made of FLAX based linen which has not been used since AROUND the time of Jesus!

      Our Lady of Fatima appeared in May 1917 to 3 shepherd children. By the power of God she worked the miracle of the sun - witnessed by 70,000 people. And BEFORE you say they were 'brainwashed Catholics' - the vast majority were ATHEISTS . The man who reported it so accurately was an ATHEIST. Before this Porugal was Communist/Atheist. After Porugal became a Catholic country.

      Our Lady of Fatima [after promising THEY would never go there] showed the children HELL. Actually Hell. They described it in detail and believe me the horror is just as real as the revelations account.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • AGuest9

      Faithful, you have an issue with one instance of inconsistency, but can accept children's fantasies as "truth"?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • AGuest9

      BTW: PATMOS (Island) belongs to PATMOS (Municipality (Kapodistrias plan)), PATMOS (Municipality (Kapodistrias plan)) belongs to KALYMNOS (Province), KALYMNOS (Province) belongs to DODEKANISSOS (Island complex), DODEKANISSOS (Island complex) belongs to SOUTH AEGEAN (Region), and SOUTH AEGEAN (Region) belongs to GREECE (Country).

      April 1, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  16. daneste613

    I doubt anyone would read this mythology seriously or take it as real thing from god... but who knows! there are weird people everywhere!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  17. Mennoknight

    The most dangerous misinformation is misinformation that is sprinkled with truth.
    The Truth: 666 was talking about Nero and the Roman Empire not about the future.
    The rest of this article is CRAP Theology based on out of date theories.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  18. cajun queen

    Woe to those that call evil good – or change or add to the Bible Holy Inspired Word of God. At the end of time there will be wailing and gnashing of the teeth – the Bible clearly warns us of what is in store for those that do not believe and obey. I would much rather live as there was a God and find out there isnt than to live as though there is not and at the end of my life be facing eternity in hell with Satan himself – the fallen angel. We can look at our world today and see where Satan has taken us – God has taken his hand of mercy off of us and given us the live we have chosen to live – He did the same thing to the Israelitis and they were begging for his forgiveness and to restore them to the life that He had for them. We are given fair warning and time to make the right choice – I know what I have chosen – Thank God for His Amazing Grace. Unfortunately it rains on the just and the unjust so I have to live with some of the mess that our corrupt leaders have placed upon us all.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Mansour

      I agree with you and be blessed

      April 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • bobdog

      Don't take this personally, but you're an idiot.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • davidWA

      I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too! Fairy tales. The whole thing.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  19. believe

    Just another atheist idiot, it's a shame that so many people in the world and in this country are thinking in this way. The far left liberals who think giving a child a "time out" instead of actually giving punishment to teach right from wrong are the problem. This is why we have so many kids going to schools and shooting their peers, so many that show disrespect to others.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Nord Jim

      Somehow, I doubt that one of "the world's leading biblical scholars" is an atheist. Is that really the only way you can understand somebody who disagrees with you? How childish.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      So beating a child is the answer in your opinion? That's rather immoral and against the law!

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

      So you don't think removing prayer from school had anything to do with the rampant violence we have been experiencing for 20 years in elementary, junior high, high school and college?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • angryoldguy

      Believe: Ms. Pagels is not an atheist, by the way. She is a christian theologian. Look it up before you make ignorant assumptions about others. BTW, isn't that forbidden? You know, "bearing false witness"?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  20. 4commonsensenow

    lol, read your bible and forget the disinfo.In otherwords do your own research.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Joe Goins

      CNN puts this on the opening of there website. Do they have any standards. The writer of this is beyond clueless. CNN, must be just a clueless to print this person. Its so bad, that its hard to believe they are serious. Has ANYONE at CNN ever read any of the Bible?

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

      I see she read it twice before writing her book. I wonder... about all of it.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Faithful

      Amen to that! The Old Testament gives us the background of God's Covenant to his people. It shows what He will do out of love for his people; but also His POWER to keep us in line in order to save us.
      The New Testament givess unlimited merscy as long as we accept the terms of that mercy; which is "Treat others as you wish them to treat you" and "Love others as much as you love yourself"

      April 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
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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.