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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. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • john316

      if you mean a just God by He is judging by your standards or His standards? How would He judge one in your opinion? Would it be based on "being overall good" or "mostly good"? Can you elaborate thanks

      April 1, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • allan singh

      Who really understands the book of Revelation and can explain the true meaning of its contents? Many of the so called theologians and bible historians, have tried to break down the various scriptural passages of Revelation, only to come up with their subject ive interpretations of what they think is correct. The book of Revelations is full of a lot of allegories and hard to understand passages; statements that can confuse the most brilliant theological minds today. If any one tells you that he really understands this last book of the bible and can provide the explanation for the various verses, he or she is a blatant liar. This book is clouded in mysteries which will only be revealed when Jesus returns to the earth and straighten out things. Until then, my Christian friends, try not to fall into the trap of thinking that some pastor can explain the meaning of Revelation. Pray in all honesty and ask God to guide your thinking.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  2. crc

    You can find Revelation’s though out the bible. Elaine Pagels does not believe the bible or the true word of God. Otherwise Elaine Pagels has no understanding of the Bible because what was stated here is untrue.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  3. Le Cheri

    APRIL FIRST IS THE ATHEIST HOLIDAY—"A fool says in his heart (mind) there is no God" —The Bible, Psalm 53/1

    April 1, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • waffleuppagus

      As an Anti-theist I'm glad to see Atheists are fools on April the 1st, whilst as a (laughs up sleeve ) believer your are a fool 365 days of the year, religobot. "666 is no longer alone" Suppers ready, Genesis 1972.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  4. Mark

    The Author's statement that the "island of Patmos (is) in present-day Turkey" must be an Apri-Fools' Day joke. Patmos is in present-day Greece. Or is it another myth only?

    April 1, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  5. trav

    Revelation is for endtime church and tribulation. their will not be the end of the world...but end of age

    April 1, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  6. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • trav

      your right..religion brings death. Religion comes in when people move God out. We either have God or religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • john316

      what do you mean by "prayer is delusional" and "religion is not healthy"? can you elaborate please?just wanting to know thanks

      April 1, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  7. jbl0

    It's inconceivable to me that the assertion is made that Revelation does not include a reference to the vicarious death of Christ. There are least three mentions of "blood" and "Lamb" (Revelation 12:11, 7:14 and 22:14). Surely it was such passages that carried the day whenever there was a debate about the book's inclusion in the Cannon, but apparently it doesn't keep people from shooting their mouth off.

    "Debunk" means to prove something accepted as truth to be untrue. Is that what the author has done with the help of the reporter? Or does she have an agenda of what she believes that she wishes to propagate through her book?

    Comparing Revelation to such books as those attributed to Paul, James and Peter in the manner that Elaine has done is not useful in a literary context or to those who accept the writing by faith. The writer clearly told his readers at the outset he was sharing imagery of future events, one of the most commonly accepted definitions of "prophecy." We don't waste time comparing the works of Stephen Hawking to Stephen King and the style and content of Daniel isn't measured using the same metrics as the writings of Moses.

    While Christians might debate it's meaning, rejecting it's inclusion in the Bible became a moot point many centuries ago. On the other hand, I suppose if Elaine wishes to debunk the book of Revelation, she's willing to accept the consequences John described.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  8. stvnkrs10

    greatest work of fiction ever written

    April 1, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • john316

      are you assuming its fiction or are you basing on personal study? can u explain please thanks

      April 1, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  9. jewisholiday

    Where the author reports: 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.

    I wonder if Pagels meant to use the term heresy instead of hearsay?

    April 1, 2012 at 6:50 am |
  10. fbcyouthauction

    When will CNN stop using reporters with little understanding of biblical scholarship to write about these complicated matters? They are out of their depth, and they present these stories with so many errors, mischaracterizations, and false assumptions as to obscure any real insight.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • rw

      cnn writer has no idea yet cnn calls it myths time will tell every other prophesy has been fulfilled up to his point and the rest will be fulfilled in its time. The gospels state that Jesus came to die for our sins God heralded it with excitement to the world that there is forgiveness and man can be reconciled with God the creator.... But man who regrets Jesus will have to fend with God themselves where look like will be really mad this point

      April 1, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  11. Legolas

    How dare you insult The Lord of the Rings by comparing it to Christianity! Christianity is a myth! Middle Earth was a reality...I know that because I visited it in Wellington, NZ.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:48 am |
    • john316

      when you say "Christianity is a myth", is it by assumption or personal study? because history has proven Christianity did and still does exist. can you explain please thanks

      April 1, 2012 at 7:07 am |
  12. Cassarit

    Beware the bible scholars who don't believe what's written in the bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:48 am |
    • jbl0

      tru dat

      April 1, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • awasis

      Why? Because they usept your literal inpretation? You fundies can't accept that your literal interpreation is wrong and stupid. Willful ignorance and stupidity.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  13. daphne

    this "article"is the worst excuse for an interpretation i have ever read. unbelievable.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • trav

      i agree...garbage. somone has not done their homework or had the Spirit's leading

      April 1, 2012 at 6:51 am |
    • awasis

      Yea the worst because it upsets your ignorant iron age backward interpretation. "Guided byt the spirit"? What a joke.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  14. alfranken

    The book was designed to be correctly interpreted during the end times. So we are far from that apparently. And I don't think the characters are as symbolic metaphors as some would like to believe.

    We've came a long way in genetic engineering and we are have just scratched the surface.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  15. doc77

    Sounds like more anti-scriptural nonsense to me. None of us Really understands Revelations that much.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:42 am |
    • Agamemnon

      Did you ever hear anything about scientific fields as history, sociology and linguistics? The texts of the bible were written by men who had their own historical, political and sociological background. Knowing these you can interprete and decode religious texts which were not imagined and written in a vacuum, especially when them were created in an epoch as the Roman one about which we know a lot about because of the excellent state of source material.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:03 am |
  16. NoOne

    There is not going to be a major news event at 11am EST today. SO don't any of you atheist, Christians, or scholars come back here to CNN to see if there is one. There will be none. THat is a LIE. And I am No One.

    Happy April 1st, 2012.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:41 am |
  17. BRADLEY DUKES

    I JUST DO NOT THINK THAT THE CREATOR OF THE WORLD WOULD JUST SINGLE OUT A ONE SPECIAL PEOPLE AND LET THE REST JUST TURN TO SALT. RELIGION WAS AND STILL IS THE BEST WAY FOR A GOVERNMENT TO CONTROL LARGE NUMBERS OF PEOPLE.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • Charlie

      I concur...if he created us and loves us and is all powerful, why does need us constantly feeding his go by worshipping him? Why would an otherwise good person who doesn't believe b left out, but a criminal and adulterer who accepts jesus at the end of his life be given preference. Seems that would be a corrupt system led by.an egomaniac.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • john316

      what you mean by that statement?can you elaborate? thanks

      April 1, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  18. Alabama_Al

    Perhaps I'm missing something, but it seems logical that if the Almighty desired to communicate with humanity, either individually or as a whole, He would want His message to be unambiguous. The Bible is certainly not that. I have never understood how any book as opaque, open to differing interpretations, inconsistent, and with many sections demonstratively wrong can be seen as the divine word of any godly being.

    The article is just another illustration of a tenet common to all religions: We do not do God's bidding – God does ours.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • trav

      dont be foolish in your speaking. If He created all then we must be wrng. Blame yourself and others and not God.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  19. HL

    It must be Sunday,another hit job on the Bible. Snicker.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  20. Saint William

    Revelation goes to show what weed will do to the brain...

    April 1, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • NoOne

      St. William, LMAO

      April 1, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • Antony Scalia

      If THAT is true, then WHY does weed help cancer patients eat and have a better quality of life?

      SHOVE your argument where the Sun don't shine, you idiot.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:16 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.