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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. Vidaurri Higgins Jr.

    It is not if Jesus would support healthcare reform it is if you support it!! Dont bring him in the argument because Jesus did not like to argue he was more walk less talk vise versa. He was and still is the best of both worlds.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • rizzo

      But if you said to him "Jesus, do you think people should be allowed to die because they are poor, even though the society that they live in is perfectly capable of saving them?", I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have said "Yea and they should die, as they should lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. Screw Thou, Got Mine." as he drove off in his Hummer.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  2. helomoto12354

    There are so many factual inaccuracies in this. I'm going to stick to what the Vatican says not this idiot.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • nice work

      Thanks for the comment. Irony is not dead – I love sarcasm.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jon

      Did you ever wonder how a religion founded in the holy land of Israel by a Jewish carpenter somehow became moved to a small place in the middle of Italy?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • mandarax

      The Vatican says there is no pedophile priest problem...

      April 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Ξ

      Why?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • nice work

      Guys, I believe this post is sarcastic – I mean it can't possibly be serious about listing to the Vatican.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      We should be charitable to the less educated. Obviously the author is a Protestant, and the problem with being a Protestant "Biblical Scholar" is that the Bible was written a thousand years before Marin Luther was born, yet they refuse to accept anything from before the "Reformation".

      April 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  3. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Humans assign God(s) as the answer to all things we don't yet understand .. so that pretty much makes God the anthropomorphized sum total of all human ignorance.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • mandarax

      I like that! Is that your own idea? True.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Yes Mandarax, I came up with that one during a discussion with my Southern Baptist sister .. she didn't care for it much but had nothing to counter it.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  4. david

    pure simple fantasy, like "the Lord of the Rings" stuff

    April 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  5. BelovedRod

    First, let me say that this information is not original to Pagels. There has been books out for years with this same erroneous message; more than likely, she plagiarized her book from authors that have come before her.

    Second, Wow! You mean to tell me that she read the book of Revelation twice...I can see how she is an expert now!

    April 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  6. Sheila Slawinski

    I think God Himself will have the final say on this subject, it's going to be sooner than many think! You have to study all of the books in the bible to fully understand it's revelations! I find it very telling that cnn would post such a artical just day"s before christians from around the world are to celebrate what's considered the most important teachings of our faith! I bet they wouldn't have the balls to come out with such garbage against any other religious faith, is it because they know that their heads would be demanded served on a silver platter? Shame on you cnn! Keep faith brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus! we know what's to come :)

    April 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • BLOCKthisCOMMENT

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Mike

      Hi Sheila, Amen and Amen! Proverbs 3: Lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him...

      I appreciate your analysis about why CNN chose now to discuss this, but, Oh well....Paul saw his imprisonment as an opportunity for the Gospel, ie. Phillippians 1...so here is another chance to engage the world with His mercy, truth and love.
      And by the way....He is risen!

      April 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  7. BelovedRod

    Third, the key to unlocking the mysteries of Revelation is by using the other 65 books of the Bible that come before it. This is called 'scripture interpreting scripture' and it is the only way to interpret scripture correctly. It is no secret that there are around 800 allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation and all that in only 404 verses. Being a gnostic, I highly doubt that Pagels studies the Word of YHVH and IF she does, I doubt that she allows it to interpret itself.

    Fourth, everyone who is interested in the actual meaning of 'the mark of the beast' (a 'beast' symbolizes a kingdom in the Bible) should check out what Walid Shoebat says about this as it is extremely enlightening. Walid has much to say about how Islam is talked about from Genesis to Revelation and can be verified by anyone. Here are a few links for easy look up...(the first link is Walid talking about this, the second is some guy I don't know, but who shows pictures of the actual text and also pictures of Muslims wearing the marks.


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtquNNEO7Fw

    Anyone who finds the links provided above interesting, should listen to Walid talk extensively about how Islam is related in Hebrew scripture and all thousands of yrs. before Islam was even born.

    Fifth, It is important to get back to the Hebrew roots of Hebrew scripture if one wants to fully understand the nature and character of our Creator, YHVH, through His Word, that came in the flesh, Yeshua HaMashiach.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  8. BLOCKthisCOMMENT

    To have an invisible friend at the age of eight is charming and not a cause for concern. To have an invisible friend in adulthood is however a cause for concern and could be considered psychotic. So how exactly does giving them the name of a deity change that opinion?

    April 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Dinosaur

      It doesn't.. but in America we like to pretend. =)

      April 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  9. Nii

    There are atheists who claim they are bright thaats why they follow that religion. Lets go then. My mom had a degree in the 60s. My Dad a degree and Masters. My big sis 1 degree1 masters and professional degree in Law. I a degree and postgraduate certificate, my lil sis a degree.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jon

      So, what's your point? Are you trying to figure out how your family with college degrees are still dumb enough to believe in the Bible?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • reason

      Atheism is not a religion. You should watch this:

      April 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • rizzo

      "There are atheists who claim they are bright thaats why they follow that religion."
      If you've got a degree, maybe you should give it back. Or is your lil sis the only one who took any English classes?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • bobbyvinton

      are you kidding? oh yeah april fools ha ha

      April 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  10. xion

    Trolls , trolls everywhere'

    April 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  11. belovedRod

    Can someone help me, CNN keeps telling me that what I'm trying to post is a duplicate, but I can assure you, it isn't.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Ξ

      Tell CNN that it is not a duplicate.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  12. Mike

    Hi Dan,

    Well, actually, I've been studying the Bible for 36 years...all of it. I simply suggested those two books as a way to begin to understand the point of the Bible. John reveals God's love found in His son. The Book of Romans is probably the most important treatment of the theology of the Gospel. Regarding my grammar, you're probably correct. Writing takes time and work. When I write seriously, I usually do several rewrites to ensure good grammar, syntax, etc. I have a BA in journalism, I teach secondary social sciences and, can you imagine this, language arts. And I probably am a bit unhinged...I teach middle school. Egads!

    April 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    The Revelation gives account of the persistent suffering of the Christian Church in a godless, antichristian world.

    Indeed, this world has become a world of soulless human robots, led by Obama and Merkozy.

    These soulless robots have lost their human ability to adore the eternal God and instead of God they adore idols like the Mammon.

    However, Jesus Christ tells us by the Revelation that he has overcome the demonic world and lives and reigns in eternity together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. His dominion will manifest soon and he will punish all the worshippers of the God of materialism, which is the demon Mammon.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Rob

      You're confused obviously. Mammon is money and the only people worshiping money are the republicans in the form of business profits. Democrats are trying to say that we should put lets put people before profit. I am all for people of faith stepping in and taking care of the needy, unfortunately we hear a lot of talk and no action.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • rizzo

      Look at meeeee, I'm sooooo put upon, look at meeee the hero martyr for my faith here all being burned to light a Roman garden.

      Oh no, wait, Christians aren't persecuted in this country. In fact, it's really really hard to get into a nationwide leadership role without espousing Jesus and even then people might doubt your Jesusness and call you a Secret Muslim.

      GET OVER YOURSELF AND KEEP YOUR RELIGION TO YOURSELF!

      April 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  14. ignorance is bliss

    Religion should be viewed as a tradition, if you cover your face, wear a cap on your head whatever, no one should judge. My first memory of religion, my family was catholic, then suddenly Christian. As I got older I completely gave up religion all together, I do believe in a creator, but with so much blood shed from all religions, no one is completely inocent, I decided to just try my best to live the best way possible by treating people with respect and not pass judgement. If god is watching and there is a judgement day, that's the chance I'll take.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  15. Fred Hafner

    I believe Jesus died for my Sins. Yes, I make mistakes and Sin. I try to portray my life through my faith. Yes, sometimes I stumble and fall short. I look around me at this magnificent world and all it is comprised of, and I truely believe that the Creator is much wiser than anyone that walks or walked on the firmament of his creation, except for my Lord Jesus. Think what you may, Our lord holds the truth. Your Faith must stay strong even in the face of death.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  16. 3wtrtef

    Atheist are just a bunch of hypocrites nothing more. If you dont believe in God thats your choice but stop trying to tell me He doesnt exist. Go away.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Dinosaur

      We walk amongst you.. We look like you.. We may be very close to you.. ..and you never know when we'll strike.. BUM BUUM BUUUMMM!!

      April 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jon

      It's like you saying 2+2 = 50934. It's your choice to believe people who know the truth or you can just believe your lie. Atheists just want people to be educated. It's very hard when people ignorantly and stubbornly follow a book without evidence or proof any of it actually happened or is divine in the slightest.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Ξ

      The Earth is not flat either.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Brian

      What exactly is hypocritical about being an atheist and telling you there is no god? Do you even know what hypocrite means? We constantly have Christians trying to push their beliefs on us so you shouldn't be surprised to get some push back.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • BLOCKthisCOMMENT

      Religion does three things quite effectively: Divides people, Controls people, Deludes people.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • 3wtrtef

      @Brian I rest my case. Hyprocrites because they alwasy complain when someones trys to tell them abotu God yet all Atheists do is try to convince everyone that God doesnt exist.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Sardukar

      Funny I say the same thing when you approach me with your neanderthal book...

      April 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • 3wtrtef

      @Jon and where is yoru proof? LOL I thought so. Another deluded Atheist.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • bff

      3,
      Athiests have good reasons. What's yours?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  17. Mark

    It is interesting to see how many people who have posted on this article are threatened by God and the Catholic church. Take your fear and use it for good. Learn about the church instead of holding on to your hatred.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Jon

      Lol people don't fear the church per se. They fear the idiocy of people who follow such drivel.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • bff

      Jon is correct. We fear the irrational ramifications created by believers that base their actions on nothing but failh (translated – nothing).

      April 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • rizzo

      I know a lot about the history of the Catholic church. There's a whole bunch of warmongering, digging up dead people to try them for heresy and kiddy diddlin in that history...

      April 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  18. Bible just a theory

    If humans didn't waste so much time arguing about invisible magic gods, demons, witches, angels, demons, devils, etc., I bet we could cure cancer, alzheimers, MS, lupus and other unpleasant diseases a LOT SOONER!

    April 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  19. Dean

    Most Biblical scholars would share Pagel's viewpoints. View serious Christians believe in a millenial reign. They believe it describes the conflict with the Roman government. Read the first 3 verses. John states that the events in the book are to occur soon. Why do so many miss that crucial information?

    April 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Nii

      Prophetic time is different from living time. They mostly use eternal calculations which are periodic instead of a timeline of events. "SOON" means aanything from 1day to a bn years. The Roman Empire fell in 1482 or so. Is that soon enough?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • rizzo

      Nii: So basically what you're saying is 'prophetic time' is whatever length of time you need to explain what happened? Well Jesus confirmed to me that you're wrong, it's actually called "Alien Time" and it's however long it took aliens to create the world and hide the unicorns.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Mike

      Hi Dean, You're probably correct regarding biblical scholars...I'm not sure I'd agree with most, but a lot. I think this probably has something to do with the way they approach the Bible, ie from a presupposition fo anti supernaturalism. In other words, they begin their study from the perspective that there is no God, can, therefore, be no miracles, and thus, its just another book written by a bunch of authors addressing contemporary political, social and religious issues....rather than it being what it purports to be, God's supernatural revelation to man personified in Jesus Christ. I don't necessarily have a problem with your observation that it had something to do with the conflict the church had with Rome...if that is taken into context with the notion that many biblical prophecies had dual fulfillments, ie. the contemporary fulfillment and its fulfillment in the future, ie. the end of history and the second coming of Christ. many blessings.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • rizzo

      Mike: What you're talking about was invented whole cloth by American preachers a bit over 100 years ago. I know you like to fantasize about your heroic role in stopping that antichrist at the end of history or whatever, but the Bible actually talks about nothing of the sort. You're much better off focusing on doing good works and giving away all of your possessions to the poor and downtrodden if you're looking to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, because Jesus isn't coming back any time soon.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. Boiseguy44

    So, no one answer = just a bunch of voodoo. Why do people world-wide continue to fall for fairy tales?

    April 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.