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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. RJG808

    Using a gnostic author to describe another position and main source on an article on the Book of Revelation is like having Joel Osteen or Rick Warren write about the Torah or Quran, and putting it on the front page of CNN.com as an article to be taken seriously. Stop wasting people's time and find a pertinent source. Tabloid journalism & shameful.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:04 am |
    • Brandon

      A Historian or a religious studies professor will tell you the same thing.

      Hint: preachers are not a credible source; they devote their lives to faith, not the pursuit of facts

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • dinosaintange

      FIRE THE JOURNALIST! IVE BEEN, WELL ALMOST WRONGLY INFORMED!!!!...LAW SUIT!!!!!. CNN IS SLOWLY BUT SURELY GIVING ITSELF A BAD REP BY LETTING THESE NONSENSE JOURNALISTS SCRIBBLE MEANINGLESS PARAGRAPHS ON PAPER FOR THE WORLD TO SEE....MOST SAD PART IS SHE ACTUALLY GOT PAID TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE; WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  2. MARANATA

    The only myth here is the brain washing that CNN does to it's viewers.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Brandon

      You do realize the way you laid out that sentence is counter to the idea you where trying to express, right?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:06 am |
    • KC

      Amen.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:09 am |
  3. NoOne

    Yes, this article is an april fools joke.
    the world is not going to end
    APRIL FOOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Oh and i am the actual author of this article!
    APRIL FOOLS!
    and I am a Christian
    April Fools!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    and I am a pawn of the Devil
    April Fools
    And there is not going to be a major news event in 5 hours.
    April Fools
    and I am no one
    April Fools!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:03 am |
  4. George Bush

    The bible says it is OK to sell your daughter into slavery, the book is nuts.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • Brandon

      the fact that is has an extensive "how to" guide on slavery itself is pretty damn disgusting; the sad parallel between religious people using the bible to condemn gay people in the same way they used to use it to justify slavery is really apalling

      April 1, 2012 at 6:05 am |
    • George Bush

      It is hilarious to me that people quote Leviticus as gays being an "abomination against God, but the same section lists pages of other abominations against God including: eating most seafood except fish with scales, wearing clothes of blended fabric, and sowing different seeds in the same field.
      Sounds like people should be at Red Lobster telling people in cotton-poly blend shirts eating a slad mix that they are committing several abominations against God.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:18 am |
    • dinosaintange

      ...OK....GEORGE BUSH?.....REALLY?...CHANGE YOUR NAME BEFORE YOU COMMENT ON "SERIOUS" ISSUES.....

      April 1, 2012 at 6:35 am |
  5. Roxey

    There's no such thing as 666. but i do know you can get a lot good stuff at wal-mart for 9.99.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • lorraine

      Ha, ha, ha good one Roxey, I like it...

      April 1, 2012 at 6:09 am |
    • dinosaintange

      WOW.....WAS THAT A JOKE....?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  6. Franny

    In genesis God tells us the Earth is everlasting, and in Revelations? It talks about the destruction of the world. that appears to confuse many, and I figure world means population of people, which is different from the term "earth". We will be the ones who will make the earth uninhabitable, which will destroy our world. If we are created in Gods image? Then maybe it's up to us to avoid this destruction? It's really hard to believe in a book that's caused so much death, and destruction to mankind, and so totally misunderstood that it continues to cause division, hatred, and destruction among people. We all have our own beliefs about right, wrong, good, and bad. It's no wonder so many folks are confused with all the interpretations.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • NoOne

      you are correct
      world does not = earth
      the world is not going to end if world =human kind
      revelations says this.. what she doens't want to talk about and neither do most christians is the tribulation saints and christ on the thrown.. how come a scholar doesn't even want to talk about this?

      April 1, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • George Bush

      Right the Earth is everlasting, it is a molten ball of metal that will never cool off, even when the sun goes supernova and destroys all the other planets in the solar system and then burns out completely.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • KC

      The book hasn't caused death and destruction to mankind....mankind has done it all to itself. Don't blame a book or a belief, blame the man who commits the act.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • NoOne

      How come no one wants to talk about the tribulation saints and after christ defeats the antichrist... and then christ takes the thrown of the one world government? how come no one wants to talk about the reign of christ for 1,000 years after the tribulation. How come?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • Gaunt

      KC: you are missing the point. There will always be good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things. But for good people to cheerfully do bad things, that takes religion. Only through religion could generally good people celebrate the burning of a woman alive at the stake because they were 'saving her soul'.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • George Bush

      KC, so who killed nearly every living being on earth in the great flood? Was that man or the generically named "GOD"?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • pntkl

      Good and evil read the same books. It is only their interpretations therein that differs. A book in and of itself can never replace a personal living faith that is tried, tested, and true. Too many are accepting of argumentum ad ignoratum. That is to say the paradoxical will say and do anything, just to be heard and seen by others as being right, for the sake of their pride, which is seated in their vanity. Working contradictions bind man to hypocrisy; no matter her/his convictions. It is nobody's place to say how you may think or feel, even about compilations of writings. Those that would ask of you to submit your emotive force without restraint only desire a control that is indicative of they themselves being out of control. Happiness is in part knowing you have your own mind when your heart is pure, even if your body fails you.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:13 am |
  7. brad

    I just cannot understand why people put so much faith in a book that was written over hundreds of years by men and re interrupted over and over again with each telling. The book has moral value in some parts but it also condones slavery, murder, maiming, raping, and other atrocities in others. It calls for the death penalty for eating steak and drinking milk at the same time or wearing two different types of cloth but you dont see wars fought over cotton vs polyester.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  8. Only1Voice

    This article sounds very much like the writings of Dan Brown, down to decisions made by Athanasius. When CNN.com decides to take the occasion of religious holidays (like Palm Sunday) to not only post but feature articles belittling reading the Bible in a traditional way, it's hard to not see this as an intentional slap in the face. And, because most of Christianity is passive, CNN.com will appear "above the fray" by not responding or giving equal time to traditionalists. I don't see articles slamming the coming of the 12th Imam on Eid. Why not give traditional Christianity equal respect?

    April 1, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • KC

      Because CNN is a group of coward opportunists, as are most "news" organizations out to be the "authority."

      April 1, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • KC

      BTW, This is coming from an Athiest.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:59 am |
    • Jason

      Because Christians (for the most aprt) don;t blow you up or chop your head off for disagreeing with them. Christianity has, except for a few lunatics, gotten beyond such immaturity. Not sure Islam ever will. :)

      April 1, 2012 at 6:07 am |
  9. Preston Lucas

    I have discovered a few myths about articles such as these:

    1) The author knows what he is talking about

    2) The author understands the work of Christ on the cross, and thus becomes a self acclaimed authority on the matter

    3) The author has read the entire Bible, and understood it.

    4) The author has shown an objective view point to commonly held beliefs

    5) The author actually took the time to ask if this article has helped anyone......

    Folks, we can argue theology all day long, but nothing will alter the indisputable fact that Jesus, the scruffy little boy from Nazareth, went on to die for us all, taking upon himself the significant judgement blow that should have been targeted at you and me instead. Christianity is extremely simple. I'll lay it out –

    1) We should all have a bad place waiting for us when we die, and no cure for our present condition while we live (SIN)

    2) He died and provided an answer for both these unsettling truths.

    3) Believe in your heart

    4) Confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord

    5) You'll get the remedy, and the cure all in one package.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:47 am |
    • Brandon

      No

      April 1, 2012 at 5:48 am |
    • Only1Voice

      Great words.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:51 am |
    • Mark

      So I am to take the word of "some internet guy' over a leading scholar???? Is that your premise?

      April 1, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • George Bush

      "Folks, we can argue theology all day long, but nothing will alter the indisputable fact that Jesus, the scruffy little boy from Nazareth, went on to die for us all, taking upon himself the significant judgement blow that should have been targeted at you and me instead. "

      ___________

      Even that makes no sense. What did having his "son" die accomplish? Nothing! Who was going to punish you for your sins? How did Jesus dying change this unless God was going to punish you.

      What you are saying is like if everyone in the world owed you money so you send your son down to die and that would settle the debt, just nuts.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • Lorna

      This whole article is one big April Fool's day joke, isn't it? And Preston...you rock, man!

      April 1, 2012 at 5:54 am |
    • KC

      Mark...some "leading scholar"? You can't be serious. Scholars are a dime a dozen. No one will recall a single name from this article 100 years from now. There's no Newton or Einstein here.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:05 am |
    • dinosaintange

      PREACH IT BROTHER, PREACH IT!. THE BIBLE ALSO TALKS ABOUT THOSE WHO WILL TRY TO LEAD ASTRAY (CONFUSE/DECEIVE) THE CHILDREN OF THE ONLY TRUE LIVING GOD! IF YOU LET THE AUTHOR OF THIS ARTICLE DECEIVE YOU THAN YOU SHOULD START PRAYING RIGHT NOW THAT THE LORD GUIDES YOU TOWARDS THE "RIGHT" PATH IN TRUTH. I BET THIS AUTHOR ISNT EVEN A REAL CHRISTIAN! BUT HAVE THE NERVE TO WRONGLY INTERPRET GODS WORD TO MEN?.....I PRAY SHE/HE OR WHOM EVER FINDS GOD AND SEE WHAT REVELATION "TRULY" MEANS, BTW, A LOT OF PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THIS BOOK OF THE BIBLE VERY CLEARLY. SUCH AS MYSELF. THANK YOU VERY MUCH! AND IM GLAD MY HEAVENLY FATHER PROVIDED ME WITH UNDERSTANDING TO DO SO

      April 1, 2012 at 6:22 am |
  10. doctore0

    There is only one thing that is more crazy than the bible.. its people believing it.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • Objective

      Than atheists believing in scientific fact that always proves itself wrong. Example: For hundreds of years it was scientific fact the Earth was flat.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  11. Bob

    To see a true, clear interpretation of the book of REVELATION, go to: trackingbibleprophecy.com

    April 1, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • George Bush

      Is that your website? Are you getting money for hits? Religion is the biggest money grabbing scheme of all time.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • Bob

      No, not my website. Completely free, with no advertisements. No one makes a cent on the website. It just disseminates information.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  12. NoOne

    The world is not GOING to end. April fools everyone. You can take a big sigh of relief.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:41 am |
  13. Dave

    The number 6 represents something being imperfect. Anyone ever thought that 666 could represent someone imperfect on three different levels. Imperfect of body, imperfect of soul and imperfect of consciousness/mind

    April 1, 2012 at 5:40 am |
    • NoOne

      How is it an imperfect number. We know that jews thought the number 10 was perfect. If you referring to the anti-christ as an imperfect being, this would be correct, the prophecy clearly states that that the anti-christ is a puppet... he is controlled by demons..in my estimation he is controlled by the Scarlet woman..and she rides the beast under her. but its not that easy to understand in complete logic. And consciousness is not mind (thought).. consciousness is something else (akin to soul) but not mind.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  14. Brian Burns

    You know, I kin understand when simpletons on Facebook mis-spells werds and has troubles wit they're grammers, but when journalists at CNN start frikking up HEADLINES, it is rely APAULING!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 5:37 am |
  15. Joe

    This book recounts very much subjects of its time, but do does Isaiah, the revelation of David (which John's revelation references quite often), and many other books of the Jewish tradition (I say Jewish because Christianity was originally Hebrew, and many of its authors would have written in similar symbolic fashion).
    The point being, it does not disprove the theory of Christianity to say John used events of his day to describe a future Apocalypse, or unveiling of the truth. I personally don't believe the Bible to be a holy book (it's a cobbling of authorship spanning generations and often references books and prophets we have no record of today), but I don't think it can be disproven by science either. It's an issue of faith, people, not of science.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:37 am |
  16. Mike R

    The bible is a fountain of wisdom through parables and stories retold. People can blow it out of proportion as the only way to sit next to god in heaven. But that point-of-view can create dissapointment and resentment of the whole book and their faith all together. I see that as a revelation in itself so that we can build the kingom of heaven here on earth...with the help of god, of course.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:37 am |
    • Brandon

      most works of fiction tend to have pretty useful life lessons; doesn't mean they are anything other than fiction. Harry Potter spins a great deal of friendship, sacrifice, and courage... but I'm not particularly worried about Voldemort eating my soul.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:03 am |
  17. George Bush

    Religion is like brainwashing people. Once they believe or are brainwashed it is harder to get them back than brainwash them in the first place. You cannot have a logical discussion with religious zealots.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:35 am |
    • Paul

      I think your brain needs washing

      April 1, 2012 at 5:37 am |
    • Brandon

      Paul,

      How old where you when you started to go to Church? How old when your mother/father/grandparents started preaching about God and Jesus to you? What was your parents religion? What is your religion?

      Now ask that of every religious person on this earth. You'll find a remarkably predictable trend.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • George Bush

      Of course you do, a good cult teaches members not to question its own beliefs and to recruit others. It brings more power and money.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • George Bush

      Good point Brandon, if Paul's parents were Muslim he would be just as sure about the Koran being the real word of God.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  18. pray

    Nice piece of fiction, though admitedly the author prefaces many with "he would have", "He could have", and "might haves" to keep us understanding this was in fact a piece of fiction and not non-fiction. Interesting read however.
    Try a novel, we could use some more good fantasies.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:34 am |
  19. Tracy

    I can't tell if you are trolling or weird.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:31 am |
  20. The Dude

    April 1, 2012 at 5:30 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.