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. CNN-Great job!

    for NOTHING.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Jeff

      They are moving out of the dark ages!

      Good job CNN

      April 2, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  2. willy

    Well, another book about scripture to teach new information that the early Christians could not see because we are after all much smarter then they were. New revelations on revelation is hardly new but these have been hashed out long ago. Many people will tell you the books don't mean what they say and often, these same people do not believe in miracles. Thank you for the brain exercise but that is all it is.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  3. Jack Kieser

    They missed the biggest myth of all!

    #1: "The Book of Revelation". It turns out that the entire book is a myth in and of itself!

    April 2, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  4. topfuel500

    Religion is a business, and I have always found it interesting how there were so many books written but only a few make it into the Book whatever book it may be. Why aren't all the books included? And they make fun of science .

    April 2, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  5. cooper

    there mere fact that the bible is composed of borrowed stories should say alot...the fact that the new testament is dominated by pauls writings should say even more!!

    April 2, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Nobody

      Why is everyone so upset that people believe in God? If they believe in God and wants to live a good life, then it’s great. If people believe in God and commit evil act in the name of God, only then I have problems with those “individuals”, not the entire community that believes in God.

      April 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Thats the Nice Nazi Argument.

      Your movement is destroying this planet.

      It is bigoted, absurd and demonstrably dangerous.

      If you support the madness then you will be held accountable.

      April 2, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @William Demuth

      They just don't get it.

      April 2, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Voice of Reason

      Well, where I come from you give fair warning.

      The no quarter flag is up, and Jeebus has got to go!

      April 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • willy

      The truth is important. But no one should be forced to believe if they do not see it your way.

      April 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  6. Voice of Reason

    What makes more sense?

    When you die you just die and that's it...or

    When you die your spirit or whatever you want to call it (that invisible thing that we cannot see or touch or smell or hear), magically goes to a magical place where these other invisible things are and then we do what and what for? If someone could describe to me I might change my mind but right now I think I'll just die and not worry about it.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • William Demuth

      Well its hard to sell tickets to nowhere, so the Charlatans would have to get real work.

      For them its just easier to con old ladies with a hope to survive death.

      Same con for centuries. Parasites one and all.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • JM

      Read Mere Christianity. Lewis was an atheist (and a professor at Oxford).

      April 2, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • momoya

      Lewis was a good writer with very poor arguments for or against christianity.. His arguments for christianity imply that he never got over the influence of the belief enough to be considered an atheist by anyone other than himself.

      April 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Cq

      Lewis began as a Christian and died as a Christian with a brief period where he dabbled in atheism when he was young, and people make him out to have been some great atheist leader who saw the light, or something. He and Antony Flew, a man who became a believer only in his old age, are your big heros. Big whop!

      April 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  7. John Herf

    @voice of reason...you are the bigger fool. You anger at something you claim does not exist. You are the one with simple rants and no true intelligence in your replys. Your simple replies shows your lack of intelligence. Also referencing wiki definition of delusion is also stupid. Wiki is only a dictionary of the English language which by the way is in comparison to most other languages to be the most primitive of languages with a fraction of words and meanings in comparison to most other languages. Translating Greek and Latin to English is dificult because of the limitations. Funny how atheist will believe in Demons and spirits and then call God and the Bible false. If you have the evil side of what it explained in the Bible then you clearly have good as well. How can you believe in ghosts and demons and not believe in Angels, God and the trinity? Also explain to me what you gain by being so hard core atheist? What is your end game? If you have a short time of say 80 years of life and do not beleive in eternity then what are you trying to do? convert people into just believing in a earthly life with limited years and why do you want to? It is because you are evil and seek to decieve.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      Wow John Herf!

      You have a lot of assumptions don't you. I surely do not believe in anything supernatural, that includes the devils and ghosts. Man you live in some crazy world in your mind.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      You know John Herf? If you were to remove all that trash you have rolling around in your head and stopped and appreciated the wonder and fascination of this universe and how precious our life is and the short amount of time we have to realize all of this. I'm nearly 3/4 of a century old and I have finally woken-up to reality. I have a passion for it now like I have never had before. I was on the other side just a short time ago, just going along with the god thing and believing that there may be an after life but I started to really start asking the hard questions and there were no reasonable answers just belief and faith. It doesn't hold water for me anymore. I found that if there is anything bad in this world it is the belief and faith in the supernatural and its intolerance to critical thinking.

      April 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • William Demuth

      No Atheists believe in demons or fairies that I have ever met.

      I have met several who do believe your supposed savior does have many fairy like qualities

      April 2, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • momoya

      What do you mean by "endgame?". Nobody knows what the future holds?. What does the attractiveness or ugliness of a possible "endgame" have to do with the truth?. Do you not believe that sewers exist because they're ugly?

      April 2, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • No need to believe

      John, i hope you stepped back and read that out loud to somebody before you posted it. Thats the reason Christians hate atheist so much..... Cause they don't understand how the Christian is not locked up Ina straight jacket for hearing voices....

      April 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • sam stone

      Wow, John Herf, aren't YOU the pompous one, claiming to know who is evil?

      April 2, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  8. Marc

    For the Christians out there – why does this interpretation bother you in any way? Are you only motivated by your fear of doomsday? The message of Revelations is "This, too, shall pass." If you read it that way, it becomes a positive motivation to move forward, and it takes nothing from your faith. Only an idiot would feel threatened by Biblical scholarship that has the opportunity to see things anew – perhaps as God truly intended, as opposed to what gets pounded into your head by two-bit hucksters. How about that?

    April 2, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  9. Eli

    The book of revelation is about the name itself "revelation". The word needs to be revealed to the reader, see whats beneath the words. Matthew 13:11 reads, He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. Nice try Pagel, but ask God to shine the light of his word on you.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  10. JM

    For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. – Robert Jastrow

    April 2, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • momoya

      I think that any intelligent being (as god must be) would honor those who utilized reason over blind acceptance.. By the way, god-believers don't claim to use LESS reason than non believers; they claim to use reason better, more, and accurately.. That is the real issue: Believers think their reasoning is correct, and nonbelievers think their reasoning is correct..

      So now you see how your entire anecdote is pretty silly.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  11. The Jackdaw

    All the bickering is a joke. The Bible, and in fact all spiritual texts, are written metaphorically. In other words, they are intended to be nebulous. By being nebulous, their messages can be applied to many situations, both ancient and modern. They allow people to extrapolate meanings that were never considered by the authors. This is intended to be good, as the writers knew that things would change over time and that by doing this, their words would be relevant forever. The problem arises one of two ways. 1: people try to take their meaning literally and therefore miss the point entirely and get so upset about it that they are willing to kill to make their point or 2: Negative meanings and interpretations are made with the intention of doing harm.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • William Demuth

      Well, sort of, kinda, not.

      The Bible was written allegorically.

      Some of Jeebus's speech were but the Bible is primarily allegorical

      April 2, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  12. JM

    [The New Atheists] are not open or willing to go where the evidence leads, unless that evidence sustains their own naturalistic assumptions. They have covertly reduced all philosophical thought and deduction to– ironically—faith!
    – Ravi Zacharias

    April 2, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • EnjaySea

      It's a tired argument that atheists can be invalidated by pointing to the fact that they have beliefs. As if belief itself is what we are fighting against. That's complete nonsense. Of course we have beliefs. We simply don't share your belief in god.

      April 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  13. JohnC

    There's always been good proof that most interpretations of the Bible are a little to a lot wrong. There is only one truth so just because one 'feels' something is right doesn't make it so. There are many different interpretations of the Bible resulting in many different Christian churches. Some big differences relate to just how literal one should take many of the verses. Other differ on many little things. Since there is only one truth then MOST must be wrong. And if most are wrong despite lots of study and prayer there is not guarantee that ANY of them got it right. Add all this to the fact that in some cases committees of normal, flawed humans voted on which books to include and you have a lot of room for doubt.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  14. You can twist words so many ways

    Anyone can read a text and then interpret it a million ways. The bible is no different. Point of fact is that there are many other texts written in the time of the text of the bible that contradict or support what is said in the writings included in the bible. The truth is that a group of men got together and decided on which texts made the final cut. Why they chose the books they chose can be left up to many reasons. Politics, Influence over people, pure faith... etc...

    Instead of just believe what one group of people put forth and claimed to be gospel... educate yourself and read beyond what is in the bible. It may change your mind and it may not, but at least it will be your own thoughts, interpretations and beliefs.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  15. Stephen

    I love seeing Christians get all kerfuffled. Make relevant and spot-on points as to the obvious ridiculousness of their "end of days" lunacy and they pout like little school children. You think they'd be used to being so wrong by now.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      I just keep hoping that they will take their ball and go home.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • William Demuth

      They also blow up buildings with daycare centers and finance Militias to overthrow the government.

      When you cast dispersions on the fantasies of the indoctrinated, they are, as they have ALWAYS been, capable of unspeakable atrocities.

      Do NOT underestimate the depth of, and the danger inherent in their madness.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  16. A Believer

    Mathew 11:25: "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to the little children"

    April 2, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • William Demuth


      You're thanking Jeebus for making you an idiot?

      April 2, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Otto

      God did not reveal anything to the little children, the religious indoctrinated them....

      April 2, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      In other words: "I find it much better to be dumb, because without thinking about things I can convince myself that i'm better off this way."

      April 2, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • just sayin

      He is thanking God the Father. See where it says 'Father' there Willie? Through the Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ , implied. You misspelled Jesus, Willie, i can see you are of limited ability.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • just sayin

      Being dumb seems to work for you jack

      April 2, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • just sayin

      if we could get otto seven years of intensive study we could probably get him to be as dumb as jack but its doubtful.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • William Demuth

      just sayin

      Nah, Jeebus is just the ghetto translation.

      Besides, you are a Polythiest, you know the whole trinity thing.

      One For all and all in one God. Sort of like the Fantastic Four without the Invisible Woman.

      I know you think the Virgin makes four, but I suspect even you aren't folish enough to believe in three wise and one virgin Palestinians, are you?

      April 2, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • just sayin

      You have my sympathy willie not many are as bad off.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      @ just sayin: Way to mount an argument by attacking the source instead of using good material. And way to get my name right. A Jackdaw is a kind of blackbird. Jack is the name of a person. Two different things. Just like mounting a coherent argument is completely different from directly attacking the person who has a different view. Kootoes to you and your God!

      April 2, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  17. There. Are. No. Gods!

    '4 big myths of Book of Revelation', this is an article about the percieved myths of a book of myths. Can anyone else see how ridiculous these fairy-tale religions are? There. Are. No. Gods!

    April 2, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ..

    April 2, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Otto

      Nothing fails like prayer.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Really

      Atheist don't believe in God! Oh well, God doesn't believe in atheist!!!

      April 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Tony T

      Otto- prayer can and will only work if you truely believe. I do believe prayer has failed for you and I'm sorry for that. God will not enter the heart of me that have no faith. If you want god to fill that void in your heart, you have to open it up to him first. Everyone has been blessed with the freedom of choice. You can't stand against Got but expect him to help.

      April 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • question

      "Atheist don't believe in God! Oh well, God doesn't believe in atheist!!!"

      not according to your bible...

      April 2, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • sam stone

      god doesn't believe in atheists? well, we know that atheists exist, so god not believing in them indicates that "god" is either not omniscient or intentionally deludes "himself"

      April 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  19. Greg C

    I believe in Christ but I think too many people believe in someone's opinion of what the scriptures are saying. What's going to happen when we pass "a few" months and we're still here? Then we will hear about how it's happening, mixed up the dates and so on. This is what happens when imperfect man tries to herd followers into believing what he thinks is right. Sounds just like the what the Catholic Church was doing. Love God, Love Jesus and love life because it's a gift from God.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  20. William Demuth


    Your God is a lie, and you are indoctrinated.

    (Now where did I put that damned Lion?)

    April 2, 2012 at 11:37 am |
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About this blog

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.