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. Don McLaughlin

    I stopped reading alot of the comments here, because there is too much of the "me" and "I" going on. There are a great number of theoligical books that are not in the Holy Bible. Organized churches have tried to manipulate thier followers in many differant ways through the years. The only way to really Know what is right, and belongs as the word of God, is to know God in your heart. Be filled with the Holy Spirit and allow him to guide your life. Pray for knowledge and understanding in the word of God. My prayers go out for all the blasphemers who "create" thier own gospel, instead of following God's.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  2. BlindLittleTwig

    The book of "Revelations" is written in a Spiritual context (Like much of the scriptures are) and can only be understood spiritually. It is not a Carnal text.
    Those who do not accept or believe that God is spirit and have not had spiritual experiences through "Jesus Christ" cannot even begin to understand these writings. "Jesus" is the "Word of God" anyway.. not scripture. That is why one must know him to have any understanding.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  3. Fifth Horseman

    RE: Four Horemen of the Apocalypse

    Suggested Reading:

    September 26, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      trojan horse on site

      October 12, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  4. Lorraine

    Well, Mrs.Pagels, I will let you know that with so many ins, and outs, of this book revelations, I'd say that it's all poppy crock, its all Hollywood, except for the fact that it may have been the down fall of this guy the devout jew, who was exiled from the island Pat mos, now that I can side with. Otherwise, the book of revelations is an off-shoot of the book of Daniel, but with more of the movie effect. It's all made up. The book of Daniel 7, tells the ultimate truth of what had happened with the 10 horns, meaning the past, and future, of religions, and governments that had ruled, from julius c. to augustus c. to constantine who legalized christianity in 311bce 4th century, and that will rule over this world diversely from the enemies in Psalms 83, and Exodus 17:14-17, of the Creator of Life YHWH, known as God to most, because His divine name was removed from this book of remembrance, its true name, in MALACHI 3:16, about 6800 times, to mislead people from the illumination of truth, the word of YHWH.

    People like garbage, the book of revelations is that, but personally in Daniel 12, it's scary enough for myself, and has more rational truth that makes sense. Those who will awake, is considered the resurrection that we who awake from the lies in the NT,not true book, are illuminated, our seeds will live on forever. For as taught by Moses, to us in Deut.32:45-47, doing YHWHs law, the 10 commandments, 'prolongs' ones life, as Job lived for 4 generations of his new families life doing it, the law, which is more of a realistic event, and is rationally in my view. Also, in Isaiah 53:10, this servant will 'prolong' his life doing the law of YHWH.

    So Mrs.Pagels, read Genesis-Malachi of the true prophets, as taught in AMOS 3:7, YHWH does nothing without His prophets; and you will see for yourself what's 'true', and if you have questions, call 1-773-874-0325, the movement of Jeremiah 23:1-8. PRAISE ONLY YHWH.

    September 23, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  5. Christian Chapman

    Well if Pagel abd CNN says it then it must be true and worthy of all our attention.

    September 18, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Lorraine

      kiss -_- suck up!

      September 23, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  6. Mark S.

    Miss Pagel's assertions that the gospel writer John was writing based on his own life experiences is borderline blasphemous to the Word of God: "1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
    2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
    3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand."
    God tells us through 2 Peter 1:20, 21: "20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."

    For Miss Pagel to suggest that John wasn't written by the gospel writer of John is probably untrue based on Godly Bible scholars, but mildly debatable. But for her to suggest that the writer of Revelation was writing based on his own life experiences against the Roman government is borderline blasphemous against the Word of God and greatly contradicts what I wrote above about how writers of the Bible are divinely-assisted by the Holy Spirit in their writings. It's also preposterous to read Revelation and conclude anything but Jesus' message of His impending return to earth to end this earth as we know it and restore a new Heaven and new earth with all Godliness intact. How she can read Revelation and not get this is just beyond me; but I know who's probably behind her misguidings.

    September 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  7. stephen

    far be it from me to take what i have heard and re

    September 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  8. mama kindless

    I don't know why people think this is nothing more than the writings of a mad man who was high as a kite at the time. He smoked a little weed, got hungry, ate some spoiled food, slipped into a puddle of bath salts – then next thing you know he decides to be a creative writer. Rubbish – all of it.

    September 12, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Lorraine

      looks like after being ran to greece like many jews were during the book of ESTHER, he needed a bit of consoling ok, it was a rough time.

      September 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  9. Royal Thandi


    September 12, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Lorraine

      HIS NAME IS YHWH!! look it up.

      September 23, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Austin Anderson

      This is ultimately in response to Lorraine.
      YHWH, God, Lord, Yahweh, Jehovah,etc., are ALL the same thing.

      September 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  10. Tim

    J E S U S – IS – L O R D !!!


    September 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Yes, Tim, jesus is lord,an idol, but YHWH is the King, look it up, and He is the only savior, and redeemer we have as said in many scriptures in the book of remembrance, the OT, and YHWH changes not in Malachi 3:6,as He teaches us not to be dismayed. Isaiah 49:26, Isaiah 60:16, Isaiah 43, and many more in the so called old tst. To remember it all. YHWH does nothing without His prophets in Amos 3:7.

      September 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  11. dan

    the biltermi

    August 29, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  12. Tim


    August 29, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  13. Shakingmyhead

    If it was during the writer's time, then why is it not in history that Nero or any other Ceasar was struck to death by sword to the head and resurrected 3 days later? How did all the world view in real time the death of the two witnesses and then see them ascend to heaven after the 3rd day when God says "Come up here". Wow, CNN been around that long? You are also trying to tell me Jesus has already returned and we are in his Millenial kingdom a thousand more years later? Not to mention that we have all this hell on earth in his extended-life kingdom?


    August 28, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Lorraine

      Its all crap, the NT that is , it does not fulfill the OT, the 'book of remembrance', confirmed in Malachi 3:16, which mean its all a lie, and YHWH changes not in Malachi 3:16; and so that you know, no man can ever die for another man's sins, Ezekiel 18, 14:14-21, Jeremiah 31:30, and Deut. 24:16, we are all responsible for our own sins, and children are YHWHs. All praise goes to YHWH the creator of all life, Adam, & EVE. YHWH Bless.

      September 23, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  14. red bottoms

    Hello, i think that i saw you visited my website thus i came to eturn the favor?I'm attempting to find things to improve my website!I suppose its ok to use a few of your ideas!! red bottoms

    August 17, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  15. gigi


    August 13, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  16. Jonathan

    How can Elaine Pagels have the book of Revelation and say that John did mentioned Jesus dying for our sins?

    On the myth referenced "3. The writer of Revelation was a Christian", and the end of this section she 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.”

    When in first few sentences of the book you find John saying on Chapter 1 verse 5, "And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood", by HIS OWN BLOOD. That Blood the washes away all sin can also wash away all ignorance, and bring understanding and freedom from the bondage of this world.

    Can wait until Jesus comes back and takes the throne back!!! But until then I'll keep a watch for fake post like these.

    August 10, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Paul

      Jesus is already back. He returned in 1914 and has been ruling in the midst of his enemies since then. The ride of the 4 horsemen show this to be true.

      August 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Royal Thandi

      Amen Jonathan, so true. False prophets shall rise in the end times, ironically that is written in the book of Revelation.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  17. PAUL

    This Is Such A Demanding Subject Matter To Cover!!


    August 4, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Pood o\aul, it looks like jc(MYTH), IDOL, CLUE, is not doing too good of a job with all of the mayhem on this earth, its worst now, wouldn't you say? WE HAVE ANGERED THE KING YHWH, FOR OVER 2000 YRS. AND WE ARE UNDER THE SWORD IN JEREMIAH 25. PRAISE YHWH.

      September 23, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  18. Mohammed_Islam

    Dear Isaiah_Christian and M,

    You can say whatever you want to... Al Quran teaches that God created human in different nationality, ethnicity, language so that one can interact with other and then HE gave free will to every single one of the human... and every one of us will be held accountable for the using of this 'free will'.... if HE wanted to make every single human to believe in HIM alone without any association with HIM, HE could have... then where is the test? then there is no need of hell and heavens, no need of good and evil... every one will be a good one... but because of free will we have human doing wrong things to others in terms of preaching them to take them away from worshipping one God and so on... and also no will be accountable for others... its like you are on your own on that day and no counselor/helper... the only helper will be your good deeds that you have done in this earthly life...

    O our Lord, have mercy on us on that day as we all are sinner...

    Anyways, I hope you have read following verse where John wrote:

    John 14:26
    Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
    26 But the Counselor, the Ruach HaKodesh, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything; that is, he will remind you of everything I have said to you.

    And so it is mentioned in the quran:

    And [mention] when Jesus, the son of Mary, said, "O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad." But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, "This is obvious magic." Al Quran 61: 6

    Also if you would like to know what Jesus will be asked by his Creator on that day:

    Al Quran 5:17 And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah ?'" He will say, "Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen.
    Al Quran 5:18 I said not to them except what You commanded me – to worship Allah , my Lord and your Lord. And I was a witness over them as long as I was among them; but when You took me up, You were the Observer over them, and You are, over all things, Witness.
    Al Quran 5:19 If You should punish them – indeed they are Your servants; but if You forgive them – indeed it is You who is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.

    Now decision/choice is yours dear brothers and sisters in humanity...


    August 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
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    August 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  20. Everett Wallace

    the anti christ is the world, jesus was jewish, cause jews are weak. the 4 horseman has spiritually been released, so release in spirit first and then in the natural.

    July 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Lorraine


      September 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
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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.