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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. The bible got one thing right..

    The truth shall set you free. Ironic really...

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  2. Straz

    Everything in this article is credible with little bias, but a christian may argue that the bible was not influenced by the writers' personal experiences, but rather that the bible was written by God through his disciples.

    However from a realistic standpoint, I have to agree with most of whats being said, though I am not familiar with Jewish numerology and I am not totally convinced that "666" is the equivalent to Nero's imperial name. Again, this is only one theory, the point is that John was influenced by many personal experiences. Humans wrote the bible so there was no way it could not have any bias.

    I would also like to address "ALL NON BELIEVERS WILL BURN IN HELL"
    As an atheist, I would strongly suggest you stop making that argument. Athiests like me will point out that you are only using blind fear of the church to make a point you can't prove instead of using any kind of logic or rationale. Someone could just as easily argue by saying "All believers in God are wasting their lives". Just looking out for you buddy.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  3. Sidney Yuan

    First of all, Elaine Pagels’ book is filled with false claims and information. The article mentioned that Pagels said Revelation does not even mention Jesus died for our sin. This is not true. Revelation 1:5 says, “ from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood”. I seriously doubt if Prgels had even read Revelation. The following are replies to CNN’s four big myths of Revelation.

    1. It’s about the end of the world

    Pagers said Revelation's main target is Rome not the judgment of the world at the end time. If this were the case, how can one interprete the following verses. Rome did not have kings and armies that can be gathered around the earth...

    Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon (Revelation 16:16)
    And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army (Revelation 19:19)

    2. The numerals 666 stand for the devil
    Pagels says 666 referred to Nero. This is false based on internal and external proofs.

    Internal Proof: Revelation 13:14 says, “It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived”, referring to Anti-Christ’s dead and resurrection in the future (imitating Christ). Was Nero dead and resurrected again?

    External proof: Irenaeus, disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was the disciple of Jesus, said Apostle John loved to use 666 for Anti-Christ, not Nero.

    3. The writer of Revelation was a Christian
    To determine who’s the author of scripture, theologians often rely on internal and external proofs. Internal proofs: the author referred himself as John (1:1, 1:4, 1:9; 22:8). External Proofs: Polycarp, who was a disciple of Apostle John, taught that the book of Revelation was written by Apostle John.

    Moreover, why would the writer open the book with Revelation 1:1 (below) if he was not a Christian? He referred to himself as a servant of Jesus Christ.

    Revelation 1:1- The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:

    4. There is only one Book of Revelation
    While it is true that there are many heretic books out there, there is only one book of Revelation. The fact that there are heretic books does not prove that the Bible is wrong.

    It is puzzling why CNN tries to demean the Bible as the word of God time after time.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • TLC

      <>
      Wow. Time to brush up on your Roman history. Of course Rome had kings and armies. Rome conquered other civilzations ruled by kings. The proper name Caesar came to mean king (kaiser, czar, both forms of Caesar.) The "Earth" was only as big as John knew it to be.

      The whole thing is a fantasy. I bought into it briefly, realized how stupid it all really was, and returned to logical enlightened thought, where no Sky God (which one, son or father? I thought this was monotheism, guess not!) is going to burn me for all eternity for not believing for a tiny sliver of time - my lifetime.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    Don't worry, Jesus has overcome the bad world. Remain faithful and wait for his second coming.

    Revelation 1, 1-8:

    The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: 2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. 3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand. 4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; 5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. 7 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen. 8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

    The great topic of the Bible beside salvation is the suffering of the Christian Church, which she has to bear in an antichristian world. A man, who remains in his redeemer Christ, will face hostility in this godless world.

    However, Jesus Christ, who has suffered like no one before him and after him, has overcome the demonic world. Christ had a free human will and a divine will (two wills). Despite cross, rejection and suffering Jesus remained "in God". The great merit of Jesus was it that he remained in God, although he had to bear superhuman sufferings. Christ has rolled back the Fall of Adam.

    Adam abandoned God voluntarily, although he was made in a blissful state. Jesus remained "in God" despite infinite sufferings. Hence, Jesus is a "new Adam" or the first born of a "NEW MANKIND", a mankind, which has returned to its Creator and loves him on every condition, even if she has to suffer. Jesus is the beginning of a new creation, a creation in God.

    Jesus Christ is yet in the "Future of the Lord". Jesus has overcome the profane world by the Holy Spirit and God has honored him and confirmed him with the resurrection from the death and has made him ruler of the universe. The meek and humble Jesus, who sweat blood in the garden Gethsemane, because of endless trouble and horror, is ruler of the universe right now and his dominion can manifest very soon.

    "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."

    God, the Father, delivered God, the Son, for the sake of our sins. He raised him from the dead for our justification. Everybody, who believes that and gets sacramentally baptized, becomes righteous: His sins are forgiven and he lives a life of practical righteousness. Despite the attacks of the godless world, the believer remains within his saviour and does works of righteousness. The meek and humble people on earth living in righteousness, will finally manifest as kings and priests of the Most High. God will reward them with very high ranks, because they kept the faith on a hostile, godless earth.

    The majority of the mankind will never believe in Christ, at least not in the true Christ. The majority will believe in the false Christ or Antichrist (The Wicked, Mohammed, the popes and others).

    The revelation is nothing else than an account of the intergalactic war, which blusters on earth between the true Christian Church and the profane world (secular society, churches, which have turned apostate, false religions like Islam, cults like Mormons).

    God tells the true believers through the Revelation: "Don't become worldly again, but remain faithful; I have overcome the world and will come soon and raise you to glory!"

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  5. Reality

    The insanity of Revelation only mirrors the other insanities of Christianity.

    To wit:

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Many contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  6. Michael Bussiere

    A myth is neither true nor false, but rather a narrative that is recognized within a culture and one that has built up over the years. There was a St. Nicholas who was a bishop in Asia Minor in the 4th century. Over the centuries, very recently in fact, he became Santa Claus with the red suit living at the North Pole. It is erroneous to use the word "myth" to suggest something is entirely false or misrepresented.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  7. Dave N.

    It seems Ms Pagels used the cut and paste method to write her book. At best, it seems she saw an opportunity to make a quick buck. None of the information stated above is new, or even shocking. Questions about Revelations have circulated for decades.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  8. Believer of Christ

    Romans 1.18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

    The following passage, are geared towards Scientist and Intellectual people who have a masters or PHD, who study Evolution/Chemistry etc. and were shown thru God the truth, yet do not grant God his right towards the truth they discovered.

    Im never amazed at the ignorance. God won't allow you into his home, just like you wont allow a stranger into yours!
    Luke 13:27.

    And for everyone making fun of reference points. This is how God wants it to be referred. I'm just doing what he has asked when making reference to him. DUH. Read and Do your research. Especially on Project Blue Beam.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  9. vikhockey34

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOpXF-U8_a0&w=640&h=390]

    April 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Tim

      the only thing evil I heard in that video was that dog. "brothers and sisters" we shouldn't stand for barking dogs in random offended christians' videos!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  10. rmtaks

    The only principals of Christianity that are actually useful are ones you already find in every other civilization besides barbarians. Beyond that it goes into dogmatic procedures about having to believe in the son of God dying and getting dunked underwater. Why does anyone have to believe in the son of God dying if they are sorry for the wrong they have done and start doing good? You are just claiming people will go to hell when they don't follow the same procedures and symbols as you even if the end result is the same.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • JM

      How much good can you actually do? God is perfect. We don't measure up. Either we have to pay the penalty or someone does. If someone murders another person, the judge doesn't say: "try to do better next time". There's a penalty that has to be paid. God decided to pay the penalty for all of us instead of just chucking us into hell and being done with the lot of us. Most people don't care. They refuse to believe in Him or refuse to believe that they aren't really wonderful and deserving of His worship of them.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • rmtaks

      And I always hear that Jesus has to die because God needs sacrifice for sins. Why does God need sacrifice? Especially of the innocent? He writes the rules, he doesn't have to be an insatiable tyrant if he doesn't want to.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • rmtaks

      JM: We can do a lot of good. Since the world hasn't fallen apart and we can actually form societies with laws about human rights, we have the ability to make things better. That defeatist message that we "can't make things better" is the part of Christianity I hate the most. Maybe things won't ever be perfect, but they can be pretty nice if people stop being intolerant jerks.

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

      Who is innocent? Except for small children? It depends on what you are measuring. If you say that one has to be perfect, then no one is innocent of doing wrong.

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

      JM: God specifically asks for pure sacrifices, Jesus being the purest of all. There is some tribalistic obsession with shedding innocent blood to atone for one's own mistakes, and it's a sick cop out of a world view. I would rather God tell me I have to grind some stone for 1000 years in purgatory than "oh you suck too bad, I'll send my innocent son down to die and if you believe in him everything is cool."

      April 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • rmtaks

      And let's not get into the infinite harm I've done that I can never atone for. I'll have a finite life with a finite number of actions, no one needs to suffer eternally for that. And that isn't punishment, because there is no lesson to be learned. It's just the embodiment of rage – you're going to suffer infinitely for being my enemy.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  11. Communion is for Cannibals.

    No? What are you eating then? Your ritual eating of flesh makes me sick to my stomach. How about some blood to wash that flesh down? You people are sick.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  12. Idol Girl

    I'm in agreement with this Pagels woman concerning Book of Revelation.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • paul

      she said i don,t think anyone clearly understands it, what she means is she has not idea what so ever as to what she was talking about, please go read AND UNDERSTAND BEFORE PRINTING YOUR FALSE RELIGION

      April 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  13. nice work

    Pagel's book sounds like a good and reputable work of scholarship. Real, solid research always scares believers because their "faith" is very, very shaky. That's also why atheists and intellectuals scare them so much. Anyway, this sounds like a good book – I'm looking forward to reading it. Thanks.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • JM

      A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell. – C.S. Lewis

      April 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  14. Marc

    When will society ever learn that no one religion is right? Since the beginning of time, humanity has looked to a higher being for the unknown. No one person can tell us how the universe was created or how we got here. Where did the atom come from for the Big Bang and if God created it where did he come from. No one has a clue as to how it all started and how it will end. Like all stars, our sun will die which will mean an end to life of Earth. i believe having faith in a certain religion is a way to socialize and be helped through the hard times. When it doesn't seem like anyone is there for you, having that one figure to look after you seems to make it all better. Also, most religions are a form of government. A leader saying you must live this way or this very bad thing will happen is just a way to ensure that someone will listen to them. What did the primordial have to look up to before Adam and Eve (and Lilith) started hearing from God? No one will know. So for now, quit arguing and live life beacuse we can all agree that SOMEDAY, we will have die.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  15. JessSayin

    Elaine, your village called, they want their idiot back.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  16. palintwit

    Don't forget, everyone. Today is April Fool's Day. The day we celebrate Sarah Palin. Actually, now that I think about it, She's pretty much the fool 365 days a year.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  17. Randy

    As one who has studied eschatology, the woman who wrote this book is spiritually clueless. But, she'll probably sell some books, and isn't that what it's all about?

    April 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • pride much?

      Sounds like she has also studied eschatology. So... your claim is sort of meaningless.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  18. Anthony Capone

    April Fools! They're all myths...

    April 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  19. Mr. Ungodly

    Ah....all religions and their books are myths.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  20. Chuck Danger

    Christianity= the reason our great country is going to shi^%t. CNN the access Hollywood of cable news.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:50 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.