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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. Lewtwo

    The whole thing is a myth .... just like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • I don't have a religion, i have JESUS

      sorry to ruin your party but the iliad has some part that are historical, proven by Heinrich Schlienmann who discover Troy

      April 2, 2012 at 3:14 am |
    • sam stone

      if you have jesus, you have the christian religion. sorry to burst your little bubble

      April 2, 2012 at 5:48 am |
  2. Heydeedoo

    There is no more explaining the book of Revelation than there is an explanation for madness.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • SixDegrees

      I would disagree, in that Pagels' placement of the book in its proper historical context makes it quite understandable.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  3. frankied

    you will believe ( I DO), OR not. only HE will really know, so why argue?

    April 2, 2012 at 3:00 am |
  4. ask

    "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 in present-day Turkey."

    I dont know about the analysis in the book but if someone cant check that Patmos is a Greek island how acurate can he be on as issue approx 2.000 years old?

    April 2, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • Thud

      Elaine Pagels did not say that about Patmos.... the author of this particular article seems to have made that error.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • Kingjames

      I agree.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:27 am |
  5. jim

    Revelation is a pile of childish nonsense. Why a "scholar" would spend any time at all on a book that talks about a red, seven headed dragon is beyond lunacy. CNN should get out of this and return to being a respectable news organization. Leave the myths and fairy tales for the Fox crowd. They will believe anything.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • Gaunt

      While you are correct that it is a myth, it is absurd to insult scholars for spending time on it, given the importance and significance of the Myth. Scholars pour over and become experts in the Illiad and the Divine Comedy, should the Bible be ignored simply because it is a series of myths and tales loosely tacked onto generalised historical events?

      April 2, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Perhaps you should read Pagels' book and find out exactly why Revelations attracts such attention. Placed in its proper historical context by Pagels, the book makes all kinds of sense, and illuminates the history of the early church and the times in which it existed.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • Arthur Lee.

      The bible describes future events, and heaven, with representative imagery, what the people at that time are able to understand, and grasp. And, it's meaning hidden for you to try to understand, that is, only if you want to. Art.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • Not true

      Well said.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:21 am |
  6. lastofall

    Sorry, but scholastic achievement is not the mediator between God and men. As for this scholastic achiever's conclusions, it is her mere opinion, nothing more; just as is mine.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Maybe. But there's a large difference, in that Pagels backs up her opinion with examples, facts, references and detailed, logical arguments.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • Kingjames

      i like what you sais

      April 2, 2012 at 3:30 am |
  7. esilef ovat

    Please get your facts right! The island of Patmos is NOT in "present-day Turkey". The island is part of Greece.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:55 am |
  8. ECFC

    what a bunch of nonsense! why would CNN even print this ladies ridiculous and completely erroneous assumptions about the book of Revelation?!! the writer was against Paul, and the others preachers of the gospel? and was a gnostic?!! thats ludicrous and laughable by any student of the Bible–unless one is reading it with an agenda in mind (as this auther obviously was!)

    April 2, 2012 at 2:54 am |
  9. tonilynnchaco

    Elaine Pagels is someone doesn't understand the bible. If you read revelation it was written not only to the churches at the time of John the beloved being alive and exiled but it was also intended for the future audience which was all the believers then and in the future. 666 "nero" was a type and shadow of the anti-christ to come. All of the enemys of God are anti-christ. Nero, Herod, Pharoah, they wanted nothing to do with the true and living God. Therefore Anti-Christ. Have we forgotten that the bible is infallible and that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to help steward what books made it into the canon. This is not rocket science. It's called reading the word and not leaving it "open" to our own interpretation but scripture reveals scripture and it's only through God and His spirit living in those who declare that Jesus Christ is the son of God that would hear from the Holy Spirit what Revelation is. Jesus is coming back soon and Revelation is the book that is a manual for the end times.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Claiming that Elaine Pagels doesn't understand the bible is an utterly hilarious statement. And not in a good way. She has more biblical chops than most entire congregations of evangelical know-nothings.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • readitbeleveitreceivedit

      you better say that!!! amen!!! amen!!

      April 2, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • Gaunt

      "Have we forgotten that the bible is infallible and that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to help steward what books made it into the canon."

      (laughter). No we have not 'forgotten' your silly delusional belief in your absurdist, contradictory, error filled book of fairy tales. How can a book that consistently gets its history whong and consistently contradicts itself be 'infallable'?

      Even if we ignore those glaring facts, why is it that YOUR ancinet book of creation myths is perfect and infallable, while you simultaniously believe that all OTHER ancient books of creation myths for other faiths past and present as just fairy tales?

      The hypocricy of the blind zealot is an amazing thing to behold.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • Gaunt

      "Have we forgotten that the bible is infallible and that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to help steward what books made it into the canon."

      (laughter). No we have not 'forgotten' your silly delusional belief in your absurdist, contradictory, error filled book of fairy tales. How can a book that consistently gets its history wrong and consistently contradicts itself be 'infallable'?

      Even if we ignore those glaring facts, why is it that YOUR ancinet book of creation myths is perfect and infallable, while you simultaniously believe that all OTHER ancient books of creation myths for other faiths past and present as just fairy tales?

      The hypocricy of the blind zealot is an amazing thing to behold.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:09 am |
    • The_Mick

      Pharaoh wasn't "anti Christ." First of all he lived 1300 years before Jesus of Nazareth. Second, the official archeologists of Israel, like Israel Finkelstein at Tel Aviv University who is in charge of research at Megiddo (Biblical "Armageddon"), now say that a study of ancient populations patterns show there was no significant population change at the time, nor conquering destroyer of cities. In other words, they're saying the Exodus NEVER happened.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • Kingjames

      The Book od Revelation is sealed, and it was sealed on purpose.But Thank God at this end time it is no more sealed. For the promise was that It has to be revealed for the people of this evil age that we're living in, today time. If you can not humble yourself to become lke a child, God wont reveal it to you. The Devil doesnt like two books in the Bible: Genesis and Revelation. Why? because these two books reveal How he started and how he will end. Satan will always attack these two books by virtue of people like Pagels. We thank God for His gifted people that He send on earth from time to time to help his children to get full meaning of His Message. i recommend Pagels to read "The revelation of 7 Seals" and " The 7 Church Ages" by William Marion Branham. God doesnt need an interpreter, interpret His Word by fulfilling it. if u dont understand the meaning of some passages in the Bible, be enough humble before God so that He reveals it to you. And again, not everybody will get it.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:07 am |
  10. Andreas Sarris

    You write that the Revelation was written on the island of Pastmos in present day Turkey. Wrong. Patmos is in present day Greece.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • SixDegrees

      In her book, Pagels spends time discussing Patmos' convoluted sovereignty. It has been ruled at various times by Rome, Persia, Turkey, Greece and has had bouts of independence along the way. Blake is not so careful.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:56 am |
  11. Michalle

    Typo correction: change to disprove to "prove God isn't God". In any case you get the picture (I hope).

    April 2, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      you are making an extraordinary claim. i don't need to disprove your claim - YOU need to prove your claim.

      otherwise, prove my testicles are mary and jospeh, parents of the messiah. remember, by your logic, if you can't prove that isn't true, then it's true.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:49 am |
    • Michalle

      The claim has already been proven because the scriptures speaks of people such as you. Your words compliments the bible and you are giving glory to God without even knowing it. Thank you for being the person you are because it only solidifies my belief in God. Take care and God bless.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Circular reasoning, and a complete lack of any actual evidence or other factual support.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Gaunt

      Michelle, is this what passes for logic in the back-alley seminary which you gained your dregs of an education?

      because the book of fairy tales says 'there will be people who do not believe' does not mean the fairy tales are true, and to claim that is just laughable. You might be interested to know that the Koran and the Norse Eddas also claim there will be unbelievers. So I guess that INSTANTLY means Odin, Thor and Heimdall are real gods.

      Fact: There is absolutely no positive, verifyable evidence for your god. None whatsoever. Suck on that fact for a while.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • Michalle

      I love it! Again, thanks for proving the scriptures to be true. Disbelievers abound and with insults to boot! I am so happy that you are who you are because if you weren't then the bible would truly be a "myth". Take care & God bless!

      April 2, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • sam stone

      how does one go about proving a negative?

      prove that the flying spaghetti monster is not god

      April 2, 2012 at 5:51 am |
  12. Arthur Lee.

    Rewriting and omitting passages from the bible itself to fit one's own human standards = Dangerous, and Deadly. The light of God is pure. It don't need tampering to fit our own darkness!!

    April 2, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • Arthur Lee.

      The only way believers are finally going to fully decipher and understand the book of Revelation is when the prophecies of that book already happen!

      April 2, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Arthur Lee.

      A one world government, paper money gone, instead a bank account mark on the hand or forehead, another despot world ruler who thinks he is god, a one world religion allowing many others into it, and christians hated because they wont buy into it! I think that's coming folks!

      April 2, 2012 at 3:21 am |
  13. Believer

    Why would anyone take to faith advice from CNN. Is this the actual motive of these articles to deceive and put down all religion.
    Stick to politics. UNBelief Blog

    April 2, 2012 at 2:37 am |
  14. Michalle

    I wouldn't be too upset by what we are reading here on CNN or any other media outlet. It only proves that the bible is true in every sense of the word that nay sayers would doubt the word of God. I find it ironic that those willing to disprove a "myth" in regards to the scriptures have no basis other than their perceptions of the written word. Then they have the audacity to accuse the authors who wrote the books of the bible of doing the same exact thing. But here's the shocker; the prophets were given divine intervention by God and therefore, what is written is true. God cannot lie. But, for the nay-sayers they will dispute even that fact with trying to find more perceived facts to disprove God isn't God and the word is man-written and full of myths. Since I do not believe in arguing with brick walls it's best to say that we as believers agree to disagree with the non-believers. God blesses us all whether you believe in him or not. Peace. xoxo

    April 2, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      leave the cult. become a free thinker. you'll never regret it.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • Believer

      Spot on... Michalle!

      April 2, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • Jeff in San Diego

      Men wrote the bible and therefore it is, has been and always will be the infallible word of man in that book or any other religious text.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Michalle

      This is what I love about the bible; people are disputing its truth even now. How ironic that the scriptures mention this very fact. Gee, those men of the past must have had a lot of insight to predict the future so far ahead of their time. Thank God there's a God!

      April 2, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • Thud

      Michalle,

      They knew how to cover their butts against possible objections/challenges to their claims.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • SixDegrees

      One big difference: the nay-sayers support their arguments with logical, rational presentation and shore them up with actual evidence and references, whereas their opposition falls back more or less immediately on " 'Cause the bible said so!"

      April 2, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Awake

      Michalle, you should really lay off the crack pipe. you and Tammy Fay should rent a padded cell and discuss your higher order of "divine" thinking.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • John C

      The ability to predict that people will be disputing a religious work / book in the future is hardly a sign of Divine power, but a sure sign of understanding basic human psychology.

      The Bible (mostly the old Testament) was written by men "inspired" by God, either through personal experiences or by (what they claim is) direct instruction. Then there is Jesus, whatever you believe he was or wasn't, he undoubtedly did exist and from all accounts he was a singularly remarkable human being. And in his story you can find evidence that ideas are dangerous, since he was killed for what he preached.

      As for the self authored word of God there are, in my opinion (and again according to the claims of a man many thousands of years in the past) only 10. That's it. No more. So for all intent and purpose, the rest of the Bible is apocrypha.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Anonymous

      try proving god to me and see how that turns out cause i frankly dont believe that jesus could have any "son of god" other than a regular person.

      and yes i am using the quotation marks in a sardonic way.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Michalle

      This is awesome more than you people will know. Thank you again for being who you choose to be and for believing in what you think is the truth. God is truly working and time is clearly at hand. Call it what you want but one day we will all be standing in judgement. Take care and God bless. xoxo

      April 2, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  15. Bootyfunk

    i'd rather discuss which parts of Dr. Suess was real. at least his books were well written.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:34 am |
  16. trollol

    Wrong! The book of revelations is one big myth! It goes along the lines of me telling you someone on earth is going to die in 200 years. No one can tell me I'm right or wrong because we aren't going to live that long! It is a big joke.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:32 am |
  17. Chuck The Canuck

    Might as well be discussing Tinker Bell's favourite colour, or Jiminy Cricket's shoe size.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:26 am |
  18. mario

    I agree with the write above, that CNN is taking a stab at Christianity. Why not slam Islam and Koran and talk about all its errors? oh, I forgot, b/c that would be politically incorrect. Let the mockers mock, the day will come.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • Jeff in San Diego

      Poke holes in all of them – they are all a bunch of mumbo jumbo for sheep to follow.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • Believer

      I think it is well orchestrated, they are attacking religion on all fronts. Hollywood, News Networks and of course Social Networks.
      Islam has been portrayed as terrorists religion, Christians as Zombie Non-Thinkers and Atheists hailed as hero Free thinkers.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • Gaunt

      "Islam has been portrayed as terrorists religion, Christians as Zombie Non-Thinkers and Atheists hailed as hero Free thinkers."

      While I disagree that there is any kind of agenda of CNN to assert this, I do agree that your above statement is, by and large, factually correct.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  19. achilles

    Stop supporting Israeli aggression.

    Research israels crimes against humanity.

    Remember the white phosphorus.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • Gaunt

      You are aware that white phosphorous is not illegal, right?

      April 2, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  20. Rick Coates

    Jesus WINS in the end,ps,who`s side are you on?

    April 2, 2012 at 2:14 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.