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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. tj sam

    religion poisons everything. it's been lying to people for thousands of years that horrible things are going to happen. Eternal tourment awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love for us? Religion is man made and it shows

    April 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  2. rationality

    lololol! six degrees!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  3. Not sure what I believe anymore

    I think people like Jeus and Muhammad were trying to bring hope and order to the disenfranchised of their time by using a belief in "God". Hitler, Mussolini, Reverend Moon and others like them have done the same thing with or without the use of religion. Some do not survive through the ages (Hitler, Mussolini) and others do (Jesus, Muhammad). Overtime, these relgions then get co-opted by othes (the Catholic church, Islam) for their own purposes but they don't a;ways include "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". I am starting to believe more and more that if there were no religions, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, we humans would probably find somethig else to tear our self apart over!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  4. John

    Do not believe everything you read in any holy book after all it was written by man and not GOD.....Man has an agenda. GOD gave everyone a brain use it. Like the author said certain men decided what should be included in the Bible and what should not just like other Holy books. We have created GOD in our image instead of the other way around......

    April 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  5. dnsdamenace

    We chase misprinted lies.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  6. Turth7

    The Book of Job outlines what happens when Satan is allowed to be in charge. It is meant to help you identify the time. We know that the kings of the earth are given over to the power at a certain point in time. Let's see if we are close.... He detroyed Job's:

    1. Job / Livelihood
    2. Housing
    3. Family
    4. Transportation
    5. Health

    Yes, I would say we are close, very close.

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

      Just like the GOP and the Wall street boys who destroyed America.......You are a right wing extremist who needs to read the Bible and quit listening to your Pharaoh Limbaugh...

      April 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • John

      So what you are telling me is that because things are terrible in the U.S., that we must be in the time of Revelation and the end of the world? While China may be communist, which I am not at all happy about, comparably, they are in a time of relative great prosperity compared to where they once were. The same could even be said about Russia, though they still have many issues with corruption left over from the communist era.

      I thought Manifest Destiny was a concept ruled out in the United States in the 1800's, but perhaps I was mistaken.

      Those in the United States who are most willing to create laws that allow the off-shoring of jobs and are the the least willing to create laws to protect the weakest in society are Republicans. Last time I checked, Republicans have a strong Christian religious foundation.

      Perhaps the real truth, if there is one, is that The Church is the real embodiment of the anti-Christ? It would not be difficult to interpret any number of passages in either the old or new testament to provide proof for this theory so what makes it any less true. Realistically, what better way for the anti-Christ to perpetrate his will than through something trusted by God's followers?

      April 2, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  7. MrSmee_DFN

    The book of Revelation is so commonly mus-interpreted as a "End of the World" prophecy. It is not about good conquering evil. It is a prophetic road map of the future of God filtering out sin over time take mankind to a new phase in our development from the sinful flesh to the spiritual body.

    If most people had one iota of having studied the events written in Revelation chronologically...it is a slow filtering out of mankind's sin nature...whether you are Christian or not, if that's not how you have come to understand the prophecy then maybe you should take up sports trivia ;) .

    MrSmee_DFN

    April 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. Jon

    Rome: 1 , Jesus: 0

    April 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Turth7

      The good news is that we know who wins! Don't choose the losing team.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  9. Matt

    This writer has forgotten two important principles about the book known as the Bible. First is that the Bible was penned by men, but its author is God. The other is that the author, being the most powerful being in the universe is the one who has insured that the Bible we have today is authentic.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Jon

      If god is all powerful, why would he need some poor illiterate middle eastern farmer to write a book for him?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • MikeH

      Interesting concept, but history says otherwise as the Bible has shifted over time through varying translations. While those facts and evidence of such exist, could you please provide some that prove God "authored" the Bible and pick and chose which stories were included.
      Feel free to believe whatever you want, just don't insult people by acting like personal belief alone is a reasonable explanation for anything.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • B

      God is a metaphor for the mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought—even the categories of “being” and “non-being”.

      How can a metaphor write a book?

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

      There is only one book that God allegedly wrote himself directly, and that is the Ten Commandments. But accounts seem to indicate that the writings were laser-engraved....

      The author is God? Who REALLY knows? There are many psychotic schizophrenics throughout history, like Mohammed, Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Jim Jones. If these people (besides mohammed) were place in the time of Jesus or before, we would be reading the 'Gospels of Jim Jones and David Koresh'...

      April 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • keith1952

      I don't think I will ever quit laughing at such stupid assertions.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  10. no God

    Does anyone know why people believe in FAIRY TALES?

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

      The same reason people buy snake oil.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • MrSmee_DFN

      Because people believe in UFO's and life in the universe which that have no other choice than to believe in it based on faith...prove life exists anywhere outside of planet earth...you can't so you also have another fairy tale...little green men...ooops! sorry...little grey men.

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

      There have been several recent studies on it. Seems people have to have SOMETHINIG to blame for good things and bad things that happen when no actual person is responsible. Hence, deities made it happen.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Lee

      Throw out the Bible. Take a long hard look at your body and tell me who designed and created the body. Some say we came from the Ape or from an outer space alien. OK Who created them. There is a starting place and someone or something had to create us. We just happen to call that someone or something GOD.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  11. Question

    How old is Pagels, and what are her personal religious and political persuasions? She read it once as a child and then again as an adult, and yet she has hardly mastered it!!! Now, a book!!! Just leave the Bible alone and don't mess with the Book of Revelation.

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

      She read the Bible as a child with no historical background, then again as an expert in how the Christian religion came to exist in it's present form. If all you read is the Bible itself, you fail to appreciate the full context of how it came to be put together in it's present form. I imagine her stand on a lot of religious issues are formed by extensive reading and study of the subject – rather, say, just from reading one book and spouting off what she was told by some preacher with half her education.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Kathy - Glenale, AZ

      Because they're unable or unwilling to face reality & think for themselves? Pretty sad, huh?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  12. Daniel

    This is not just a singular interpretation. Most Biblical scholars and the vatican agree that the book of revelation was written about the fall of rome. but just like the Hitler's children were brain washed in school to hate jews and all non anglo saxon, there are people who grow up believing the words words of church priest that have to historical knowledge and read the book out of context.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  13. Anti Christ is Coming

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFkJqWIGEXQ&w=640&h=390]

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

      Daniel 8 – Understanding Dark Sentences!!

      23And in the latter time of their kingdom, when the transgressors are come to the full, a king of fierce countenance, and understanding dark sentences, shall stand up.

      24And his power shall be mighty, but not by his own power: and he shall destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people.

      25And through his policy also he shall cause craft to prosper in his hand; and he shall magnify himself in his heart, and by peace shall destroy many: he shall also stand up against the Prince of princes; but he shall be broken without hand.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  14. vikhockey34

    Jesus is the son of god...he will come for his true children soon...just look at the world today....earthquakes, animal deaths, global chaos...everything that was propheciesed is going on.. the anti christ is coming to decieve the world...this article is proof that the media is already starting to decieve the world

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

      Just like Jesus has been there for the Jews as they were getting killed, the dark ages, ww1, ww2. Jesus is dead. He's not coming back. He's not any different than you or me. He just has a bunch of followers with nothing better to believe in.

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

      I think there have been earthquakes, animals dieing, and all other forms of catastrophe you mentioned for centuries. I seriously doubt any of those things are any indicator of the rapture. - I will say we as a human race have invented NEW ways to kill ourselves, In short, I'd be more worried about how we can create our own exodus via nuclear armageddon (funny: a term taken from the Bible in a response toa Biblical article)

      April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  15. Marcia

    This theory is really old. In fact, most priests I know here in Brazil believe this.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  16. NCThoughts

    What if the book of Revelation was written as a symbolic representation of deeper things? Most people recognize that the stories in the Bible are more than just stories–they carry meaning for our lives if we choose to consider the lessons contained therein. Here's one way to look at interpreting Revelation: http://www.sacred-texts.com/swd/ae/index.htm

    April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  17. rlowens1

    The Book of Revelation should not be considered any more seriously than a bad acid trip.

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

      Or the rest of the Bible.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  18. Beth R

    She is so far off base from the truth of Revelations. She needs the Spirit of the Holy Ghost to truly understand the many meanings behind the great Book. It is a shame that so many will believe this garbage.

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

      Right. Because hallucination trumps reason and scholarly research every day.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • rlowens1

      An even bigger shame is that the world has billions of adults with imaginary friends.

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

      Don't you think you should look into the history of how the Bible came to exist before you pass judgement? I think you would be shocked. The Bible is very much a political instrument of the time.

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

      The 'Holy Ghost'? Can she take LSD then?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  19. 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 10:32 am |
  20. slason

    Most of us atheists already knew this about Revelations. You can go through the Bible and point out similar discrepancies and distortions throughout the work of fiction. I don't believe in ANY gods, monotheistic or otherwise. Understanding the roots of religion makes it obvious that it is man-made to explain the unexplained and to give importance to the human race. Religion is the epitome of arrogance.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:31 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 10:34 am |
    • Believer

      I wouldn't be so arrogant and sure of yourself If I were you. In reality none of us knows anything for sure (athiest or Christian). Faith plays a part in everyone's life...even yours! Your putting a lot of faith into something that you have no guarantee is correct, and that is a big risk. I hope that you are right for your sake, but I believe you are wrong. Weighing the evidence, I am convinced that Jesus holds the meaning of life. I hope this doesn't offend you. I'm just trying to have some friendly conversation. Peace out and tacos.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:47 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.