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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. Antonio

    Funny Jesus wrote the bible in the way it is so only certain people can know the meanings. So people like biblical scholars have no clue what the Word of God really means. And they will never know.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Ohplease

      The bible is easy to understand. A bit of historical and language knowledge helps to clarify the less obvious statements.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Antonio is correct. The Scriptures say that the natural mind cannot understand the things of God because they are spiritually appraised.
      This may explain why atheists posing here often ask the same basic questions over and over, even after reading the explanation, eg, who created God? Another God? And on and on.....

      April 1, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      the bible is the scariest book ever written. thank god there's no god, lol. he's a maniac. and jesus was just a cult leader, if he existed at all. the stories are taken from other religions/mythologies before them. the book is a terrible guide for good living, telling you to murder innocent non-believers, g.a.y.s, disobedient wives and children, slavery is fine, etc. it's also full of ignorance and bad information.

      for a better ethical system, try Humanism. i challenge any christian/jew/muslim to compare their religious morals to the ethics of Humanism. you will find Humanism offers a more humane, compassionate, respectful, logical and responsible way of living.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • Nathan

      Antonio, do you know then? I guess no one knows !

      April 1, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Ohplease

      The bible was not written for God. It was written for man.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  2. Ohplease

    There is one day in the bible that Jesus instructed his followers to observe... According to the Jewish calendar that day falls this year on Thursday, April 5th. Peace.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Thurs, apr 5? What holiday is that? I looked on a calender and it's called 'holy thursday', sounds catholic and not a major h'day at that. Why apr 5? Is it jewish?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Ohplease

      It is the memorial of Jesus death. Nisan 14 It is not coincidence that this also falls at the time of Passover...

      April 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • Just Saying

      Of course it is not a coincidence–Jesus was in Jerusalem celebrating passover at the time of his death

      April 1, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Ohplease

      It has the same purpose as, and is meant to replace Passover.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  3. † In God We Trust †

    http://santorum.com

    May God make you win this battle............ Au Revoir non-Christians Muahahaha

    April 1, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      santorum has a snowball's chance in hell of winning. sowwy.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Just Saying

      A very reasoned, kind and may I say christian argument

      April 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Nathan

      I really hope you guys nominate Santorum.

      After a few more election cycles of fundamentalists railroading the republican agenda, perhaps we can get back to some economic conservatism without having to put up with the nutty religious right. Then perhaps the republicans can win national elections again. Good luck.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  4. primatica

    reading all these fanatics makes me wish their really will be a rapture so I can stop hearing maniacal nonsense wielding a over a thousand year old anthology....come on take them away already

    April 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • 1mommicked1

      For God so loved primatica, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      and yet u linger here primatica.
      Self-abuse much???

      April 1, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  5. gman

    GGGGGOOOOODDDDD IS DDDDEEEEEAAAAAADDDDD !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NIETZSCHE !

    nietzsche is dead GOD !!!!! see who gets the last word.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i heard that joke in my first year philosophy class. turns out Nietzsche wins though. not because he was right about God being dead, but because God never existed...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • gman

      @ bootyfunk , unfortunately for you god will be here long after you're dead also. just as the mountains and earth
      and all he created are still here and have been here much longer than you.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      and so will unicorns and the tooth fairy! hehe.

      once you leave the cult of christianity, you will see clearly how warped your thinking was. christianity is like any other cult. the only difference is it is accepted by society, so it is called a religion. when it first started it was a cult. once no one practices a religion/cult any longer, it is called a mythology. christianity will go the way of the dinosaur and become a mythology like all the other religions before. and man will be better for it. we will rise above the religious violence that continues to plague our world. religion is constantly pushed into the shadows by the truth of science. say goodbye, religion. you're on the way out...

      dum dum da dum, dum da dum da dum da dum

      April 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • gman

      @ booty funk , it sounds like you are an authority on things that have been around a lot longer than you.

      dinosaurs , mountains , rivers , ect....;;; How old are you compared to all of creation and how

      many galaxies have you been to ?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  6. Gene

    The person who wrote these four so-called myths in completely clueless.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      I thing you need gene therapy.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Just Saying

      The person who thought this statement was a reasoned argument is clueless

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  7. artcephas

    Prepare your hearts before the Lord. He will come again, and reward everyone according to his works, whether good or bad. Keep the commandments, turn from wickedness follow Christ.. before it's too late...some of you may say... "oohh it's only fables, it can't be true" or "God wouldn't judge and punish the wicked" or "God is merciful, he is love" Yes God is love but he is a Judge also... If believers in Christ are true and correct as well as the Law and the Prophets (Bible) then you will stand alone in Judgement Day, without the mediator and Messiah Yeshua "Jesus" Christ on your side. Repent and live...seek Jesus...

    April 1, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Mike

      Well said. Thank you and God bless you. Come, Lord Jesus!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • jason

      great article. its too bad most christians dont know the truth about how the bible came to be. most wouldnt believe it or listen anyway. truthfully if jesus appeared to us today the christians would be the ones who wouldnt recognize him!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  8. Crad

    Such a shame. All this talk about the bible and people fighting about it. Its a book with words about god. Its not god. God has nothing to do with religion. In fact his son despised religion. Its a shame a large majority of people have rebelled against these caractures that were set up in the first place by men. People laugh at these ideas of god being a "bearded man sitting on a throne in the clouds that will throw you in hell if you dont believe in him".. Some human beings came up with this and the rest use it as a reason to not believe. Its barbaric. Its such a loss for those who dont talk and walk with god every day. You are missing out. And why would you settle for "proof" when it comes to believing god exists? Thats such a faulty system, proof. Why settle for such a low denomination of acceptance? Proof only exists on earth anyway. Things that can be proven here on earth might not make sense or even exist in other places in the universe, but youll accept it as evidence of god? And even if proof and god had something in common, youd then have no free will. Youd HAVE to believe in god then. It doesnt make sense. I wish people would use their minds.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Ed

      If you were truely bright you would have done this in one fifth the space. Please rewrite and consolidate. You have till tomorrow.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Crad

      I cant write what i feel like writing? Thanks for calling me dim because i like to speak my mind.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Nathan

      You sound like a decent guy. I'm an atheist but you're the type of Christian that doesn't bother me at all. Good luck in everything you do. I wish you well.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  9. brianna

    The Bible is real and this author better watch what they write because God doesn't like people taking away from His Word.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Briana you are delusional.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      The bible IS real. That doesn't mean that it is true though. The Harry Potter books are real too. You just need to learn to separate reality from fiction.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Just Saying

      I thought the bible taught us to judge not lest we be judged?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • aa

      ya, it is a real book...written by real, ordinary people, who had opinions about their future, past, love, war, existence and meaning, that was then used and manipulated by other people with power and influence so that they could promote their own agenda that furthered their power and influence. the same exact thing goes on today. if there is an afterlife or not is fascinating, but, don't go giving the bible this devine meaning when it is just a collection of mostly biased opinion peices...like if the NY Times, USA Today, MSNBC and FOX all contributed stories to publish a book. people have not changed from the beginning of time.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  10. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Crad

      How can you really say that when you have no idea what prayer is?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      delusion |dɪˈl(j)uːʒ(ə)n|
      noun
      an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder: the delusion of being watched.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  11. Gilmar Oliveira

    Someone has told: "It is impossible for someone to proceed a test in the laboratory and prove that God does not exist. It is necessary to have faith. In the same way, it is impossible to proceed a test in the laboratory and prove that God exists. It is necessary to have faith."(Margenau)
    If Revelation comes from God, it will be realized on time.
    If Revelation does not come from God, it will not be realized.
    The high risk is to assume that does not come from God and in fact to be the God's true word.
    I also do believe that texts from Holy Bible refer (for some) even to the previous ages or are fully compatible to what is yet to come.
    God himself will take care about his word.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Just Saying

      The fallacy comes in the line if the revelation comes not from God - it too should read it will be realised in time.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  12. jokesonyou

    Is this article an April Fool's joke?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      No, but religion is a 5k year old running gag.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  13. ZorakLives

    Much of what contemporary Christian evangelicals believe is contrary to the early teachings of Christianity or based on fundamental misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Older Christian denominations recognize that Revelations is an allegory not a literal outline of the end of the world. Anyone who believes in the rapture is rejecting over 2000 years of Christian theology.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Artillery

      Where did you get that from?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  14. FifthApe

    Entire book is a myth from the bronze age.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  15. david

    Good thing we have books that tell you how to think if you are incapable of thinking for yourself. Everyone needs to feel important. Too bad some people need to feel important by telling others how to think.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Crad

      Its human nature. Even athiests spend time trying to tell other people how to think. Just read this board.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  16. RoadRunner, Albuquerque, NM

    Jesus Saves.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You are delusional.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Ed

      He must have quite a bank account by now!

      April 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • like that

      Jesus saves RoadRunner but not Voice of Reason.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  17. A Believer

    Interesting that this article appears a week before Easter. I wonder if articles of a similar nature but about Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism will be published soon?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • cosmicsnoop

      The majority of people in this country already discredit those beliefs. Just need to discredit this one in this particular country. They are all of equal, dubious validity.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  18. gman

    the assumption about revelation being a myth is based upon a womans writings. since the bible is written by
    man and people claim it's fallible then who says there is any truth in this womans writings or has she now become
    a god that people believe her bs. who says any of us even exist. what evidence do you have since
    all things are fallible. maybe you only exist in your own mind. good luck when christ returns.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Nathan

      Your views intrigue me and I would like to subscribe to your news letter.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • gman

      @ it's called the HOLY BIBLE , it's available in any book store.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  19. † In God We Trust †

    "Prayer does not work"

    Of course prayer does not work if you don't believe and trust God from your heart 100%.
    God will lead you to improvement/better when you pray for something.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • Des

      On the belt buckle of every German fighting in WWII: "Gott Mit Uns" – God Is With Us.
      ~

      April 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • just sayin

      Would you expect them to declare God is on the other side?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Crad

      Des. Are you saying you think god actually came to earth and inscribed that on their belt buckles?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Just Saying

      Ignore just sayin– not only can he not come up with his own name he can't contribute in a meaningful way to the conversation.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • like that

      Des -

      It just shows that Hitler used people's faith in God as a tool to further his own ends. It's the most heretical thing one can do, to harness a person's soul in order to drive one's own chariot.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  20. geelo

    I am very disappointed to read this on CNN. The author is conveying what they think is true, as real factual information to the masses... which is 100% incorrect on many levels. I forgive the author.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      What do you think your religion does moron?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • Crad

      Voice. What is that your religion does?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @Crad
      Voice. What is that your religion does?

      I have no religion and propose that we should tax the churches and to keep religion and god away from our children and our government.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Crad

      Sure you do. You wouldnt be here posting against other peoples religion if you didnt have a religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Just Saying

      If you could just articulate what you mean in an explicit fashion then the discussion can begin, but by generalising your aspersions on the article it looks just like name calling

      April 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
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