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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. Scott

    WIDELY disputed.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  2. Scott

    Let's just say this interpretation of Revelation is...disputed.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Sheila - Revelations 101

      There doesn't have to be dispute. Many answers to understand Revelations is in other areas of the Bible. Then there are some things currently being revealed and some things not revealed by God as yet. No one will be able to claim credit for the prophecy and it's proof other than God.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      Sheila, if you want to teach Revelation 101, at least get the singular vs plural thing right.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  3. MM

    When they cry for help, I will not answer. Though they anxiously search for me, they will not find me.
    For they hated knowledge and chose not to fear the Lord. They rejected my advice, and paid no attention when I corrected them. Therefore, they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way, choking on their own schemes. For simpletons turn away from me-to death. Fools are destroyed by their own complacency. But all who listen to me will live in peace, untroubled by fear of harm. Proverbs 1:28-33

    April 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Jespo

      1) If one curses his father or mother, his lamp will go out at the coming of darkness. (Proverbs 20:20 NAB)

      2) All who curse their father or mother must be put to death. They are guilty of a capital offense. (Leviticus 20:9 NLT)

      your god seems to be a bit disjointed sometimes...

      April 1, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  4. Gary Duits

    Nobody go's to heaven against there will,you have a free will so be dead forever.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Gotta love how the loving, compassionate god of the christians will happily throw his creation into a lake of fire for all eternity over the tiniest transgression, then claim that it was their own fault for disobeying him.

      It reminds me a lot more of that other supernatural character in the bible...

      April 1, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • 19861326

      This is definately politics corrupting the truth this lady is crazy and has a total different thought process than real bibical scholars whom read and understand the symbology in the bible. There trying to misdirect people who probably have doubt or are non-believers. Especially with them printing money until the world's finances crash so they can make one world currency with less problems.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Jespo

      I fell in to a burning ring of fire...I went down down down and flames kept getting higher....the more they were stoked by christians and their ilk.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  5. Fish

    I swear there are two topics that always stir debate. Christianity and President Obama... Guess the old adage is true. If you want to avoid a conflict, avoid the topics of religion and politics. LOL!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  6. Sheila - Revelations 101

    What is your question on Revelations ? Ask it !

    April 1, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Denise

      I'll bite.

      1.Why does your god need a book at all, to get its message out (such an obviously flawed book at that)?

      2. How come your omnipotent being can't produce its own website and get with the times? (No, bible-thumper sites aren't written by god and don't count)

      Pretty feeble god you've made for yourself, Christian.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Jespo

      When you meet one who 'knows'....walk away.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  7. Henry

    Here we have another case of the blind leading the blind!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  8. Daniel

    How is this news? This view of Revelation has been around for a long time. It's the preterist view; preterists believe that Revelation deals with events in the first century.

    Is it news every time a biblically illiterate author publishes a book? Must be a slow news day...

    April 1, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      I think the editors just get a blast out of watching the rubes and yokels come out to call genuine scholars "illiterate". It's just so damn funny, ya know?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Wilstar

      Illiterate? Home many books have you published? How many degrees in theology do you have?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • geckopelli

      It's not News. It's an op-ed feature piece.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Daniel

      One's ability to understand and interpret scripture isn't dependent on degrees (Isaiah 29:12-16).

      But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (1 Corinthians 1:27).

      The Holy Spirit interprets scripture (2 Peter 1:20), not Elaine or CNN...

      April 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  9. MM

    You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you aren’t troubled, for all this must happen, but the end is not yet.For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there will be famines, plagues, and earthquakes in various places.Matthew 24:6-7

    April 1, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Ron

      It's a good thing we are living in a time of relatively few wars.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Wilstar

      Now tell me what decade in all of human history that this prediction would not apply to? Didn't think so. It can't be much of a prophecy when it can apply to any time and any place.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Spinner49

      These things have all happened from time to time, but the world is still here.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  10. Enrique

    Is not that I don't want to believe in GOD but no one has proven he exists. The other thing is if there is a GOD and he created this place for his humans children what is to say he has created countless other world for his other chlildren. Why create just one? If he was so lonely that the angels were not enough for him what is to say that we were enough for him? Remember all the books in the bible were written by a human person in an age were illiteracy was the norm.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • MM

      "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."
      Matthew 7:24-27

      April 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Wilstar

      Says who? And with what evidence? You can't prove the bible is true by using the bible. Yet so many people try to do it.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      And remember! Any axiomatic system strong enough to capture the basic facts of addition and multiplication that can prove its own consistency is inconsistency. Damn, I hate when that happens!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      That is, it is INCONSISTENT!!! I REALLY hate when typos happen!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  11. ug

    Always some clown fron cnn who knows more than the rest...giving it the liberal terrorist twist of course,,,no wonder cnn is laying people off...LOL! cnn...loser of the media outlet.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Rik

      nicely said from a bible hugger

      April 1, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Emmy Skaddittle

      Jesus was the Original Liberal

      April 1, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  12. MM

    Galatians 2: 20 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me. That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Jespo

      If a man is caught in the act of ra-ping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.
      Deuteronomy 22....there's your god.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  13. NY City Lights

    The atheists enjoyed their most cherished day April 1st by reading this article by Bagel.
    Happy Tools day.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  14. ug

    Always some clown fron cnn who knows more than the rest...giving it the liberal terrorist twist of course,,,no wonder cnn is laying people off...LOL!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Peter

      nothing says unbiased like calling all liberals 'terrorists' (sic)

      April 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  15. Jespo

    May I pose a question: Abortion is a 'sin' to Christians yet the bible states you must ki-ll your child if they disobey or shame you, Why is it ok to ki-ll your child after they are born and not before? Can't seem to find the answer in the 'big book of truth'.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Wilstar

      That's easy Jespo. It's because God is an evil freakazoid baby killer who likes to mess with our minds. Jesus is his zombified love child.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  16. wow

    The "book" was written by old white men trying to restore some kind of power in their village. It's funny how some of you bible loving people are the worst criminals in the world behind closed doors. Hieroglyphics mean more. Then again, most of you believe in Obama Care and in about 100 years, some moron will come across it and think it's another form of the bible. Morons.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      I hardly think the bible was written by white folk.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Ron

      SixDegrees – Don't tell the Christians that they will all convert to Scientology out of racism.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  17. Robert

    The word "Anti-Christ" (regardless how you spell it) does not even appear in the Book of Revelation. This myth that an all powerful megalomaniac will someday arise to torment the world is an Evangelical myth that only arose in the last 200 years. The real meaning of the word Antichrist as used elsewhere in scripture is simply to describe anyone and anything that has a spirit contrary to Christ and his teachings. That describes most of the people posting here, as well as most Atheists.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Jespo

      thank you for your kindness....intolerance and hatefulness are not admirable qualities...

      April 1, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Sheila - Revelations 101

      The "man of perdition" is not a myth. Yes, there is a "spirit of the antichrist" which is comprised of all persons and powers who set themselves up against Jesus Christ. Many use the term antichrist interchangeably with the "lawless one", "the man of perdition", 'the Beast".

      April 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Jespo

      how is the 'man of perdition' not a myth?.....

      April 1, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  18. Statistic

    It's funny to read all of these people arguing against this article by quoting the bible, when this article is about faults in the creation of the bible and the translations of the bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  19. b_briane

    Dixion,
    You forgot to mention that God will always be the Supreme Being and in being supreme he has said he is gonna kill ALL the wicked agian and throw them in the Lake of fire and brimstone, the 2nd death. and that number is way LARGER than your silly mathematics. Also actually the number of people that died in the Flood was over 1 trillion, and oh yes God killed Lucifer and changed his name to satan and he is gonna kill satan agian. Also you forgot that Lucifer killed Adam and Eve in the garden, satan has been a liar and murderer from the Beginning is what Jesus said about the devil. Also there is no Bible verse that commands believers to kill unbelievers, you are false in making such a dramatic generalization.
    And this article is full of lies about the author of Revelation, and what Revelation is about.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Wilstar

      And you are more of an authority on the bible than a bible scholar because? Oh wait, because you have read the bible? That's like saying you're an expert on German psychology because you read a German textbook about it before you learned how to read German. Here's an idea: Why don't you CONSIDER the possibility that everything you've been taught about the bible has been wrong because those who taught it to you were not experts!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  20. AARONRYAN77777

    THE MARK OF THE BEAST IS THE RFID CHIP PEOPLE WAKE UP!!! ITS RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOUR EYES REVELATION IS TRUTH OPEN YOUR EYES THE CHIP UNDER THE SKIN WELL ITS HERE ITS BEEN HERE THE RFID CHIP IS IT THAT GOS UNDER THE SKIN . . . and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name."

    – Revelation 13:15-17 RFID CHIP GOS IN THE RIGHT HAND PEOPLE WAKE THE HECK UP!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Rip Van Winkle

      Stop making noise! I wanna go back to sleep.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
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