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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. nate

    This woman has a point. (but only one!) The book or revelation has been discussed and argued for a long time. There are many many interpretations of it. (thats where she is right..the rest of what she said was her opinion). The last thing we need is yet another individual interpreting the scriptures for themselves!! Why wont people understand this!! They were written by prophets and apostles and represents the mind and will of God. In order to be understood they must be interpreted by a prophet or apostle of God. The scriptures were written by revelation and need to be understood by that same power of revelation....NOT scholarly knowledge....Just my thoughts

    April 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Dan

      If we can't interpret them, what's the point of reading them?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • nate

      do you really think they are open for individual interpretation? isn't that was caused us to have soooo many religions? all different interpretations of the same book

      April 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Dan

      Its impossible to read and understand without interpreting. So either you interpret or you don't read it.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • tevii

      Same book?? Hindu religion is the oldest living religion. So by what you are saying christianity is not real but a misinterpretation of the hindu religion.
      But if you want to keep to something more familiar, the bible is essentially a Cliff Notes version of much older Summerian texts.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  2. erich2112x

    Revelation is actually man's first action adventure drama.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  3. Mark

    EVERY DAY ON CNN SOMEONE HAS TO WRITE AN ARTICLE ATTACKING THE CHRISTIAN FAITH, EVERY SINGLE DAY.

    Such ignorance. The book of Revelations is not mythical...it's happening even today. And there is an "Anti-Christ" - he is Satan incarnate.

    The author refers to Nero because Nero's name adds to 666. What he fails to realize is that 666 is an sort of an anti-christ SPIRIT that has lived for thousands of years; however, it will also be personified in an END TIMES LEADER (anti-christ).

    Anyone who persecutes the church is this so called "anti-christ"

    1 John 2:18 – "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now MANY antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour."

    stupid stupid authors that write up articles about something they know nothing about.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • erich2112x

      How are things over at the Koresh compound?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • reason

      The article is informative. Why do you hold on to the myths of a stone age society?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Josh

      I fail to understand how explaining the Book of Revelation is Anti-Christian.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • babaelf

      You so-called Christians [and this is from a RC priest] don't worship God, you worship a book!

      April 1, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  4. Michelle Lee

    Blasphemy.... Revelations22:18: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll."

    April 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • momoya

      What if I just assume one comma for greater clarity-does that get me a ticket to hell?. How can anybody trust a being who delights in trapping people in his eternal fire-torture pit?. You can't believe a guy like that!!!

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

    I believe there is a GOD like the majority of the people in the world however,whenever man does the writing it is fallible and has an agenda.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  6. E.

    Does it really do any good to argue theology here? Waste of time. A person believes in God or they don't. Long quotes from Bible text does nothing to change a person's mind. Find a better outlet for your religious opinions. Judgment of others, people you've never met, is ridiculous. Stating that all liberals are godless is an example of your judgmental nature. Hard to believe this book raised so many hackles.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  7. CHRIS Ggear

    QUOTE 1: 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.”

    QUOTE 2: 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.

    MY REACTION: How can this twisted-sister be an Award-winning – leading biblical scholar?

    She cannot even put 2+2 together.

    See my other post...or read it for yourself the Revelation.

    God bless...

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

      Because SERIOUS study into the origins of the biblical text lead AWAY from the god it describes and TOWARD the reality that the bible is a book of collected myths.. Christians just don't dig that deep or study that closely.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  8. Geraldo

    The Bible warns of False Prophets and Great Deceivers....And it has begun....

    April 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  9. marlo rocci

    The whole book is myth. That's why atheism is winning.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Rick

      Winning what exactly?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • John John

      I have always seen religion as the gunk that fills the void from a lack of understanding. Ya gotta put something in there, right? Why not make up stuff, put it in a book, and keep the peasants in line?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Mike

      What's your evidence that the religion/book is completely a myth? Do you not accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who actually lived and had followers? There is plenty of evidence OUTSIDE the New Testament (numerous Roman historians such as Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and others who mention him and his followers in their writings) that Jesus did exist and did create a big stir in Judaea, creating problems for the Romans. In fact, there is more proof that Jesus existed than there is for many other historical figures that no one disputes the existence of. It's intellectually lazy to simply dismiss it all in the face of such evidence. You might not believe in the divinity of Jesus, but you cannot deny that he was a real person (a fact contemporary historians agree upon), and he did have many followers, and does to this day. Anyway, there are many brilliant people who believe in God, just as there are many idiots who believe in God. If you don't see God in things, then you're not paying attention.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  10. lynnBlue

    Blah blah blah. I prefer to believe the Bible rather than some talking head of the week.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  11. splasher6

    oh well then, if 'a famous author' say's so then its sorted. I guess CNN looking for some gasp of the market will now become the atheist mouth piece... sad really with such a start

    April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Dan

      These aren't new ideas that this one author is proposing. These points have been pretty well-agreed on for years (among scholars, not religious leaders).

      April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  12. Joe Arimathea

    The writers of this drivel were no different than Pacific Islanders who worshipped volcanoes. Why are we having a debate about this baloney in a modern world? Talk about Islam being thirteenth century! This stuff is older that that. It's right up there with Nostradamus, Firtune telling Gypsies and guys sawiing a lady in half. But a great majority of American simps believe in this hocus pocus. No wonder therey were able to ship our jobs to China, India and VIETNAM!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • momoya

      Irony.. The answer to your question.. We are dealing with this in a more serious way than it deserves because it's a mass effect.. The masses believe in christianity, so articles like this one deal with the subject squarely and seriously.. One day, hopefully soon, more people will have your perspective.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  13. no God

    Easter Bunny, Santa Claus holiday..... What about FLYING SQUIRREL holiday?

    April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • SixDegrees

      I like squirrels.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:06 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 11:08 am |
    • John John

      Hey I don't have a problem with Santa Claus. Mostly because people are realistic about him. Jeebus on the other hand... How can anyone with a 3rd grade education BELIEVE that gunk?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • DeeDee

      I am a christian. "True Christians" do not celebrate the holidays which are linked to paganism. Easter, Christmas, etc. Research the true origins.

      April 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  14. Andres

    The writer of this article is so ignorant and doesn't know anything about the Bible....God bless you,,,,

    April 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Maya

      The author of this article is writing about the views of one of the world's leading Biblical scholars. But I suppose you know better, eh? Typical Christian arrogance.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Brett

      I completely agree. Those who don't know Christ are blinded in their own sin.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • HawHaw

      You're hysterical. Try taking a basic Biblical history course.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  15. Turth7

    She doesn't even know Jezebel is detailed in the OT?

    April 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Why yes, she does in fact. She spends a large amount of time in the book discussing this point.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Turth7

      Then how can she not "grasp" the concept that Jesus is telling you to look back to her in the OT to help unerstand how the house of Israel became corrupted??? In no way was John or anyone else talking about women not being in the churches.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  16. Ay Caramba

    The early Church was heavily manipulated into a version of Jesus that does not truly reflect the teachings of the Christ. It was all done to benefit Rome, it did not work. Rome fell anyways. They then manufactured a Jesus out of several people and built the book we know as the bible throwing out books that did not conform with their vision. Then they manufactured an opposing religion known as islam to oppose it and set the Jews, Christians and muslims in a constant struggle for a diversion as a means of control. It still did not work. Enough of the Christ teachings survived to make a difference. They are coming back and will be revealed once the Roman Catholic Church falls and their archives come to the light. Then you will all know the terrible fear they have of the Christ. You will know the terrible betrayal and abomination of keeping him on the cross all these years.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  17. Voice of Reason

    If atheism was a religion (which it isn't) the christianity would be its satan.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Makarios Eshoo

      Atheism is definitely a religion sir, instead of order and authority you say chaos and chance. You also sub-out the word God for "time" because you've reasoned that given enough time, anything can happen. Also not to mention atheism has prophets, like Darwin, and Dawkins....

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

      Atheism IS a religion. Just like "bald" is a hair color.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  18. The Day Comes Soon

    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.

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

    April 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • momoya

      That's hilarious!!!!

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

      And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast; 4 they worshiped the dragon because he gave his authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?” 5 There was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies, and authority to act for forty-two months was given to him. 6 And he opened his mouth in blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle, that is, those who dwell in heaven.

      7 It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. 8 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • quintablo

      are you insane?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Tom

      Yes we can = Thank you satan? And the President (who is a christian) is a devil worshiper? Who comes up this is ridiculousness? There is absolutely no factual bais for any of this. It just oges to show people will always beleive whatever they want to.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Dan

      The messages have to be understood backwards, then formed into barely intelligible speech, and then interpreted because they have no syntax. Oldest trick in the book.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  19. Kat

    An interesting view. She's a gnostic of course, I have one of her other books. I don't feel that this is very relevant to the individual though. Everyone dies eventually, and your "revelation" begins then more sooner than later.

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

      Or that's where it ends.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  20. Mike

    This author may be a leading "religious" scholar but she is definitely NOT a leading "Bible" scholar. Think what you want the Book or Revelation is about the Revealing of Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He came the first time to die for the sins of the world humbly appearing in frail human form born in a stable. Revelation shows him coming back as to rule with a "rod of iron". The key message is bow your knee now or later because no matter what each of us will face him and recognize his as Lord of All.

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

      hahahaha. really? and you think thats true?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • HawHaw

      And you base your opinion on WHAT exactly? You believe Revelation is about the modern day because, uh, WHAT? Because you want it to be. And that's really pathetic. You want the world to end. You want plagues across the planet. You want insane war and hate and darkness. That is why you people manifest such horror in the world – because this is what you WANT to manifest. This is your spirituality. What's awful is the common belief that we who know you are insane are supposed "respect" your "beliefs." Your beliefs are killing this planet and thousands of millions of children every single year. You hate Christ. Just admit it.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Woody

      "Revelation shows him coming back as to rule with a "rod of iron". – Mike

      Why would Jesus use such old technology? Couldn't he update to a rod of t-itanium, or some other space age stuff?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Vince

      I just think it's shameful that a theological scholar would write something like above deceiving people into believing that evenything is ok that Revelation is not about end times. People need to understand Christ is coming back again and soon and they need to be right with the Lord. And the book of Revelation is real and if they are not right with God they will face punishment. It's real! not just a story of the books author John's times as the writer above would have you believe. So don't be deceived.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:32 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.