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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. JAM

    I understand people disagreeing with what Elaine Pagels writes, based on their faith, but I don't understand all this attack on her credibility, especially since you all have just read an article about her work and not her work. She's regarded as being one of the top early Christian historians on the world, a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, and has been a professor of early Christian history at Princeton for thirty years. None of you that are attacking her credibility as a historian has achieved anything close to this in a relevant field, I'm sure. Also, it seems like the majority of people commenting have never read anything by Pagels, because it seems like the lot of you think she's bashing Christianity, but she's not. She's looking at the history surrounding the writing of biblical passages objectively. I don't see why you're all so quick to judge her work, and yet you can't even consider the possibility that the Book of Revelations could have been written and added as a political tool with a means to an end. Accepting that wouldn't mean that God does not exist or that Jesus is not the savior.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • King

      They once did a study where they put someone in a room with a serious looking person in a white coat, and the person in the white coat ordered the other to shock people and they did. Just because she is Dr, Professor, whoever doesn't mean anything. Pagels clearly has her on agenda, when she says " He doesn't even say Jesus died for your sins", she at best miss representing what the bible says. John does say Jesus is the son of God and the "lamb" which signifies he is the sacrifice. The priest of old were the intellectual leaders of their time and sometimes their own irrational beliefs shaped their decisions. They same is true about intellectual leaders today, if you believe people like Pagels are infallible then you are the naive one.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  2. Turth7

    Praise Our Father in Heaven. May His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. May Jesus lead you on the Way to get the Truth to have Eternal Life.

    Among my prayers, one is at the forefront – that Americans recognize our decline is directly related to when the "satanists in atheists clothing" first started attacking God in our school prayers. When God is withdrawn or forgotten, the wasteland appears.

    Call out to Him today and ask if He is real. You only need Him to tell you.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • sybaris

      The problem with your post, other than it's a delusion, is that if what you were saying is true then any country or region that is not predominately christian was/is in chaos. That is simply not the case.

      Please do some research.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • sam stone

      truth: public school is not responsible for "school prayers".

      April 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  3. no God

    CNN say we did land on the moon.... Yeah... I read people's comments saying "WE FAKED MOON LANDING DUE TO NASA CONSPIRACY BUDGET CUTS. THEY CREATED HOLLYWOOD SPECIAL EFFECT TO BLACKMAIL US CITIZENS.

    Omg.... Where did that come from? Angry Americans...

    April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  4. A Believer

    The author should know that the island of Patmos is Greek, not Turkish; I have been there before. John the Devine was exiled there from what is now Turkey, but wonder how many other "fact" in the story are convoluted if this basic geographic fact (i.e. not subject to debate) is incorrect?

    April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • sybaris

      You are the 3,276th person to point that out.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • SixDegrees

      True now, but Patmos' allegiance is convoluted and has shifted many, many times throughout history. It is nearer the Turkish mainland than the Greek mainland, and has variously been under the control of both, the Roman Empire and held a degree of independence.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  5. seoras

    A hundred years from now, those who write these blogs and the author of this book will be dead and no on will even remember who they were, much less their 'expert' opinions.

    But the Bible and the book of Revelation will still be here and read and believed.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • reason

      Hopefully it will be read and believed a lot less often.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Jon

      God I hope not. Maybe in a few hundred years the IQ of people will go up and we can finally get some actual work done with no more religion in the world.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • sybaris

      Your post is one big ad hom' and makes no sense.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  6. jeremy

    Leave it to COOPERATE Owned a holes like CNN who write stories about religion now Got and Idea for you CNN talk about stuff that matters NDAA, HR-341 STUFF THAT IS IMPORTANT.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  7. tankette

    I believe this: CNN sucks...

    April 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  8. mike

    relegion was invented to control people ..

    April 1, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • jeremy

      Religion is or the Media - Might want to think about who own CNN

      April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  9. Kristi

    This is the most rediculous thing I've ever read...ACTUAL biblical scholars believe Revelation points to the end of the world, that the number 666 has something to do with the evil in the world John described as anti-Christ, etc. This doesn't even begin to capture the essence of what the book of Revelations is all about. Thanks for nothing, CNN. Christians: please don't get your facts from a news article that doesn't even know Patmos is a Greek island.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Jon

      Lol you must admit, if someone 2000 years ago said, "You know what, I don't like the number 666, it's the devil's number". It just sounds silly. Not to mention the world has been around billions of years before man, and it will be around billions of years after. People can't be so arrogant to think the universe and their God only revolves around them. People aren't that special.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Joe Arimathea

      Patmos appears to be closer to Turkey than Greece. Hey...I'm Hungary to eat my Turkey in Greece! Hahahahahaha. It's all a joke. Why do we base our lives arounf writings of people who believed that stars were windows to heaven ans that donkeys and snakes could talk instead of reality?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Punisher2000

      Consider that the papal office uses vicarius filii deus on the papal crown. That latin phrase, when translated into the numeral equivalent for each letter(hebrew numerology) total 666.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  10. Joe Arimathea

    A new commandment I give to you, That you love one another; as I have loved you.

    Yeshua

    Any questions?

    April 1, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Yes. Why, then, would his dad toss anyone who disagrees with him into an eternal fire? Doesn't sound loving or compassionate to me, even a little bit.

      Are you sure you're worshiping the right god? Because yours sounds a lot like he has leathery wings.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Joe Arimathea

      Personally I don't believe any of the dogma. Yeshua, if he existed at all, was a man who advocated peace and love. There's nothing peaceful or loving about modern Judaism or Christianity. Look at American evangelicals and Israeli politics and policy.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • sybaris

      Uh yeah, what are you going to say to Zeus?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  11. Stephen

    Not surprising that CNN would post such a twisted view of the Word of God right before Easter. Media is too predictable these days.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Pagels' book was just published. It's no surprise that an article on it would appear just now.

      And Pagels' view is hardly "twisted"; it places the book of Revelation in its accepted historical context. It's an interesting, scholarly read.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Alex

      Christianity is demonstrably immoral and it's why secular morality continues to win out. Have you ever even read the bible?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • jboh

      A book that has been translated, retranslated, and retranslated over again by people w/an agenda, is not the word of God. The dead sea scrolls show that their is no commandment "thou shalt not kill". The original text is "thou shalt not murder". Big difference. Also, "forty days, and forty nights", is an idiomatic expression for a long, indefinite time. Same as our "ages and ages". If anyone claimed to see some of what Moses ect saw, they'd be locked-up in a loony bin.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • sybaris

      "Not surprising that CNN would post such a twisted view of the Word of God right before Easter. "

      Why is it twisted?

      Because it challenges your beliefs?

      Why do people choose to remain ignorant?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • sam stone

      And, of course, both the pompous and the pious claim to know the word of god. so predictable

      April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  12. John

    Jesus was on the side of the poor,downtrodden,disabled and forgotten. The GOP is on the side of the 1% and preaches hatred. They have unfortunately created their own god their Pharaoh Russ Limbaugh.......

    April 1, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • John

      Ditto

      April 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • 49% pay NOTHING

      Stop blaming the 1% for your problems. Quit spending money you do not have and start paying your share. The 1% cannot support hte United States if they gave 100% of thier money to the wasters in Washington.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Democrats are the 1%

      Democrats make up more of the 1% then Republicans so why do you always blame them?
      Why doesn't the 1% that are Democrats just give up all their money? No the celebrities in Hollywood just donate their "time" to aks the rest of us to donate OUR money.

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

      A true follower of Jesus wouldn't care. The government of this world belongs to Satan. Your not supposed to even vote. The winners are hand picked and will never be able to do anything other than his bidding. Powers and Principalities my friend, not flesh and blood – that does not refer to ranks of angels – it refers to government.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  13. Lauren

    Why don’t you believe in God? I get that question all the time. I always try to give a sensitive, reasoned answer. This is usually awkward, time consuming and pointless. People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like “it’s true to me” and “it’s faith.” I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe,” comes across as both patronizing and impolite. -Ricky Gervais

    I can't agree with Ricky more.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • alfranken

      There is logical proof there is a god if you at respect a plausible theory of a god in the terms of science:
      If we smash molecules together to create energy which is one of our most advance technologies of our time then you have the big bang theory. So, if there is a god, then he started existence by smashing molecules together - or at least to our best knowledge.

      So that makes us a god of a sort if we can generate such awesome energy - because after all, everything pretty much evolves from that.

      So don't believe in God in the sense of Christianity, Judaism,Islam... but rather on your own consensus of what a creator is.

      I would imagine you can demonstrate how you can smash molecules back in the day of Christ that would make you a god .

      Just because there is very little or no evidence that intelligent beings exist outside our world doesn't dismiss the theory and it is agreed among your gods (scientist) that it's obtuse and arrogant to believe otherwise.

      So there ya go

      April 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Lauren

      Thank you for having a respectful response to that. I understand where you're coming from, I guess I just don't agree with the term 'God' and the stigma that goes along with it. Ricky's article I quoted had another paragraph which I whole-heartedly agree with as well; Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution -– a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us –- with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • purebredmutt

      I willl be standing there on that final day. Ricky Gervais having just been tossed into the pit of fire. G-d will look towards you Lauren. Will you really say "I can't agree with Ricky more"? You were given one thing in this life (free will) and you are free do deny what you wish. Good luck with that choice.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  14. mike

    bullshiet lol i also dont believe in santa claus or the easter bunny...lol

    April 1, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • no God

      This means we didn't landed on the MOON. We faked it by putting HOLLYWOOD Special Effects.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • purebredmutt

      Good to hear Mike – those are both Pagan holidays.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  15. 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 10:48 am |
    • WhoseReason?

      So you'd rather put faith in mankind's, or your own, reason? So REASON becomes your god, the deity you worship? Like France before the Reign of Terror. Those who have faith in God who is beyond human reasoning, a God who is ominpotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-loving, perfect in requiring justice according to holy standards of perfection, and yet SO loving that He provided the means by which we can be statutorily perfect not according to our own works, but according to our faith in the second Adam, that is Christ, the perfect sacrifice (ROMANS 5; I Corinthains 15:22). Man's reason is inconsistent, flawed, ever-changing and depraved. True reason and rationality (ROMANS 1) starts with God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." I Corinthians 1:25, NIV

      April 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  16. no God

    Every schools in modern day encourage kids to stop believing evolution theory, dinosaurs, darwinsim...

    Many years ago government made a mistake by putting to kids to believe evolution theory, dinosaurs, darwinism. Now they have become Manchurian Candidate. The art of brainwashing and prove God doesn't exist. HIGH GAS PRICE EXIST!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  17. Jason

    The History Channel said the same thing years ago, so why did CNN publish this article now?

    April 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  18. prorealisrael

    Pagels doesn't get it. If you begin with an atheistic assumption you won't. The Book of Revelation is an incredible prophecy of world history from the first coming of Jesus to the second. This is called the Historical View. It has to be understood as literal history but told in the symbols of the Old Testament prophets. It has proven to be incredibly accurate, and predicted such events as Napoleon imprisoning the Pope in Rome, down to the year. Understood this way at this point in the early years of the 21st Century, most of the Book of Revelation has already been fulfilled. Pagels in a word: shallow scholarship. Very uninformed.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • reason

      Anybody can write the future when using nothing but symbolism.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  19. B Davis

    Patmos is in Greece...just saying.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  20. Laura Beam

    You told me I had already said what I did iin my post,I have never left a post here or anywhere else, am I I censored?

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

      Probably.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:24 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.