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. Bilbo

    I wonder how this 'expert' interprets the army of 200 million marching from the East into what's now Iraq. That's a hard number, and when it was written many times the entire worlds population...not now. Of course you know what they say about opinions....

    April 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • 7 Headed lampstand

      Are you trying to prove the author's point?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Bilbo

      7 heads? No ...200 million is not an opinion.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  2. downinfront

    The author of revelations is he, himself, the anti-christ. Cunning he is. His poison is infecting us even today.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  3. 7 Headed lampstand

    Anyone who knows anything abou ACTUAL biblical scholarship already knows this. The problem we have in the US is not that people are religious, it is that they are religious but ignorant of the meaning of their own religion, let alone the religions of others. And as is so often repeated in the poltiical realm, because these people are ignorant going in and do not bother to take 2 minutes to read or check anything, they just beleive whatever they hear or are told to believe.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  4. Bill

    Seek truth and you will find it. Knock and the door will be opened.
    This article is one man's opinion.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • 7 Headed lampstand

      and that is EXACTLY what the problem is. This is based on SCHOLARHIP and UNDERSTANDING OF THE TIME. It is reading the book in the CONTEXT in which it was written, looking at other literature of that time, looking at the history of the early church. It is not "opinion" like "i think choclate is the best ice cream." It is scholarly and meaningful look at the writing and thus derives actual meaning. Not – "I read it and the words mean this to me, even though I am reading a translation of a translation of a translation and the culture I live in is nothing at all like the one this was written for."

      April 1, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • Uncle Dave

      And so is your post.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Mike

      Amen brother. John Blakes opinion is so full of confusion and doubt and deception it's unbelieveable... I guess I used up all my belief on God. Sorry John Blake not going to get off my hands and knees for you, until I can lift your spirit up.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  5. Linda

    Interesting. Wonder if anyone has noted that the final battle "at Armageddon" is fought not by the armies or anyone's military but by the Rider on the White Horse (Jesus) who fights the battle with a shepherd's crook .. better tr. of the "rod" - and the sword coming out of his mouth ... the Word. No human fisticuffs, folks.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  6. dk

    your jesus is a myth to begin with. the Romans kept amazingly in depth and accurate histories and no where in any of them are mention of this so called man who caused the Romans to supposedly crucify him. No where is there any shred of evidience outside the bible which is a work of myth that Jesus existed. For centuries your church murdered millions to force people to believe as they did. the spanish inquisition alone lasted 800 years.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Quoting

      Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius

      April 1, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Anton

      It is amazing that Christians always cite their bible as evidence of their religious arguments, and it is evidence because God was somehow involved.in the statements.There is no arguing with a true believer.Searching through religious history is facinating and demonstrates the totally human-centered religious cultures across time, including today. Christianity can talk about Jesus all it wants, but that doesn't make it so.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  7. Eric Swan

    So light reading for you. http://www.watchtower.org/e/20091201/article_04.htm

    April 1, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • roland

      What is that an April fools joke. Have them answer this. Why is God's throne standing in the midst of the 4 Axis points of the zodiac. Then get back to me. Ask them why the woman describe has the same characteristics as the GODDESS VIRGO. Numerology is used and divinations based on astrology to predict the end times. All the reason given as to why God destroyed the Canaanites and why God destroyed Babylon. So he will destroy you for using that book to divinate his return based on Astrology and Numerology.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • 7 Headed lampstand

      Must be an April fools joke. Jehova's woitness literature? Really? Even the word Jehova is an example of people centuries later misinterpreting ancient texts. Jehova was an attempt by German scholars around 1500AD to find a way to write out the Jewish word for God – which had deliberately left out the vowels to make it "unpronouncable." So the Jehovas witnesses, a cult that eschews all learning and scholarship m(ever wonder why a religious cult would not want it's members EDUCATED????) is so of base it does not even have a biblical based name, just an historical error.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Bilbo

      John 1

      1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.

      2The same was in the beginning with God.

      3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

      New World Translation mistranslates this passage to tout Jesus as A god..one of many. The litmus test for any cult...they take away from the efficacy of Christs work on the cross. The Jews knew what he was claiming...which is why they tried to stone him.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  8. 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 7:34 am |
  9. Mike R

    Like most ancient text, the bible is a fountain of wisdom through parables and stories retold. People can blow it out of proportion as the only way to sit next to god in heaven. But that point-of-view can create dissapointment and resentment of the whole book and their faith all together when the truth is revealed. I can see people retaliating their faith by creating all the evil that revelations depicts. But, thinking positivly, this can be seen as a revelation in itself so that we can build the kingom of heaven here on earth...with the help of god, of course.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  10. GhostColin

    Magical Bronies save the Universe!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Zach


      April 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  11. Dane

    Here is something that will make some very angry, and I am sure at least one person will deride me as a false teacher but as a Biblical scholar who is on my way to a Ph.D. and who takes great pleasure from genuine exegesis I would love to see the church recognize articles like this. Misreading Revelation has caused so many problems that it isn't worth counting them off here. The only other section of books misused as often are the minor prophets of the Old Testament. Guess what everyone, Jesus came that we might live abundantly today not hope for something coming tomorrow. If the only reason you have faith in Christ is in case the end of times come and all the non-believers are going to get what is coming to them then you are doing it wrong and when you do die I am sorry to say that Jesus' response will be "When I was hungry when did you feed me? When I was thirsty when did you give me something to drink? When I was naked when did you clothe me? Away from me I know you not."
    True Christianity and self righteous fundamentalism are two completely different things, one is concerned with others the other is concerned with legitimizing our selves. Before someone else says it of me I will say it of them. Repent. You are wrong and are give all of the rest of us a terrible reputation.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Bilbo

      Your PH.D...or TH.D...do you even know what you're getting? is worthless. I too pursued this path just long enough to know what a pile of horse dung you'll find in every seminary in the land. Get a real education and get a job. Otherwise you'll be mired in the muck of moden religion for the rest of your life, making decisions by commitee instead of by faith and following the money. You don't need a degree...the Lord knows his chosen...and by the foolishness of preaching saves them that believe.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Terry

      Dane – I like your line of thinking. The bible is a great treasure, but many throughout history have abused, misused, and misunderstood the message, and given all believers a bad rap. We should keep in mind the two greatest NT commandments foremost. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. I find this to help me focus on what is most important.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • leslee

      Thank you dane! Good to see there is another true believer out there, as I feel we are too few and far between. People, the so called Christian garbage you see on TV, and hear about worldwide is not necessarily true Christianity. I have studied religion privately for 30 years. Academically, I am a mathematician. My only desire was to know God, and make sends of all the different viewpoints here on earth. I've read it all-every "holy" book I could get my hands on, and even considered other teachings. Thank God for his Spirit! When a person is sincere (not by our standards, but by His) He will guide you and make his wisdom known. For me, it was the book of Luke. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father, which is in heaven." God got a hold of my heart at that moment, and accepted my prayers and saved my soul. There was no church involved, no preacher, none of this "accepting christ" garbage. He accepted ME! He looks on our hearts, period.
      So am I going to lose sleep about this revelation debate? No. I am satisfied with the fact that if God didn't want it in there, it wouldn't have been in there. Yes, it is difficult to understand, but, like dane, christianity is about living for today, submitting to the creator of the universe, and walking in the path Jesus walked and applying his teachings to outr daily lives. Do we mess up? Yes. Are we perfect? No. Do we keep trying? Every day. Does God understand and forgive us when we sincerely ask? Always.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  12. CM

    Revelation is to evangelical Christianity what jihad is to Islam... both moronic, ancient concepts designed to keep the knuckle-dragger segment of the followers in the fold. They're too dim to wrap their heads around the ideas Jesus preached like compassion and charity, so they needed a nice book full of blood and judgment and bigotry to keep the mouth breathers drunk on their own importance and slavering at the jaw with eagerness to start dishing up some biblical violence... a la Crusades, Inquisition, Salrm witch trials, suicide bombings, abortion clinic shootings, etc.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Bilbo

      20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

      21Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

      22Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

      April 1, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  13. roland

    For all the poeple discrediting the writer instead of discrediting the assertions are doing a disservice to really proving Jesus.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Mike

      I disagree. Revelation was written literally. There is no metaphors being used in that book. This is purely a demonic article being used to speak calamy against Christians. Well go to hell atheists, if you want but believe in God today because you never know if today is your last day.

      I find this article to be offensive and persecuteful towards Christians. Here's a big F U to John Blake.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  14. silvereagle

    What about the missing books of the Bible that long ago scholars thought should be banned.Let the people of today read them and decide for themselves what they meant.Truly this person still doesn't understand what the Bible actually means.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  15. Paul Wimberl

    Pagels – Pagean just sayin

    April 1, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  16. john

    Definitely not the work of a scholar or of a reputable reporter. The Book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus, not John. Just because some have called it that does not make it true. Also this book has it's own divine outline, read Chapter 1, verse 9. It is about the things that were, are, and will be. It definitely is about the end of this world as we know it and about the coming of the the New Kingdom and New earth. Be forewarned and prepared, God is a a loving God and desires that all be saved, but also a just God and will allow those whomsoever choose to reject HIm to do so of their own free will.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  17. Ben from Winnipeg

    Let's get this straight. Afte 2000 years of people reading this book and coming up with different understandings that go along with a very general common understanding from the original readers who understood the time and culture of it's writing, a scholar comes along and decides that she alone actually "gets" what is written and that all others are wrong? Seriously... even the least intelligent out there have got to see the problem with this argument.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Bilbo

      This kind of stuff has been happening for 2000 years...it's how the truth get buried.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  18. Jason

    Love how they do a whole article on one biblical critic without even mentioning any others scholars views. This lady wrote a book trying to gain credence for some of the pseudopigraphal books. Of course she would interpret Revelation this way. It helps her arguments. And her view of Athanasius taking over the church councils to push the book, wow! How many liberties can you take with history before being fully discredited?

    April 1, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  19. baroug

    Patmos is in Greece.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • roland

      Now it is. Like Athens was once under Turkish control. You wouldn't go back and read a news article from that time and say oh that's not true Athens is in Greece.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  20. RPhelps

    I feel saddened for the people here that reject God because they think He's unfair or unjust. You cannot put human qualities on God, He has none. You may have some Godly qualities that he has blessed you with, but His mercy and Grace are not what we see as mercy and grace. If you're in rebellion and do not accept the amnesty program offered to you by the Messiah, you will get what the scriptures say that rebels get. Don't feel that father is unjust for not forgiving people that reject His free gift.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Mirosal

      And your proof of a "god", loving or otherwise, is .....???? Humans have been around for 200,000 years, and now YOU are the one with the proof, after all this time?? Hell, you might just win a Nobel Prize now .. we're all ears, let's hear your evidence.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:35 am |
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