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)

    There is NO GOD... Look at cancer people dying, sick people dying, and bad healthcare. Holy bible is just a book.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Ken78

      Why does someone who only believes in himself post in a Belief Blog? Shouldn't you find the Atheism Blog and post there instead?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Sawyer

      Bad things happen because we live in a fallen world. It will all be made right again one day. READ THE BIBLE BEFORE MAKING JUDGEMENTS.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • JennieD

      Whay can't people just accept that not everyone is going to have the same views. I am so tired of people trying to force or scare me into believing something that I feel is a mass misrepresentation of actual meaning.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  2. What The

    Jesus was a jew and his family practiced jewish holidays and traditions. Christianity was invented long after he died. Christians seem to have a hard time agreeing on exactly how to practice their beliefs: protestant, catholic, lutheran, episcopalian, unitarian, etc...that's fine with me though.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Arran Webb

      I knew Jesus as well. Do you remember that silly goat they had that ate all the spinach that time?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • Ken78

      Christianity was invented long after Christ died? What is that – a bad April Fool's joke?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Myquida

      Wow Ken, you must feel SO oppressed as a Christian in today's world! I mean boy, you guys sure are a minority, right? Being a Christian must be so hard!

      April 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  3. bryan

    Absolutely not surprised another "bible scholar" claims that a book of Gods Word is misunderstood or misguided. Just another sign we are at the close of time. God help us who love You to stand for You and Your one and only Truth!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  4. Allison

    Yawn......Every Easter, authors like this are dragged out to attack Christianity. Very predictable and boring. This author could not be more mistaken.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Ronald Trotter

      Happy April Fools Day Don't believe everything you read.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Ken78

      They don't wait for Easter at CNN. It is a weekly occurence here. Remember and never forget – CNN was founded by a man who called Christians "losers."

      April 1, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Pat in IL

      I don't see how you are seeing this as attacking Christianity. Maybe you need to read the article again.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Myquida

      Wow Ken, you must feel SO oppressed as a Christian in today's world! I mean boy, you guys sure are a minority, right? Being a Christian must be so hard! How do you deal with it?

      April 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  5. Arlen

    When I read the line "Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars," that told me all I needed to know. By whose authority is she one of the leading biblical scholars, CNN's? That's hilarious considering CNN was only formed 32 years ago.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Ken78

      CNN (and most of the Mass Media) will only recognize someone as a leading Biblical scholar if they do not believe that the Bible is actually God's Word. That is the chief qualification.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  6. John

    Jesus is the Anti-Christ. Think about it. Does Christianity today have even the remotest resemblance to what he stood for 2000 years ago?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  7. Nii

    Happy April Fools Day atheists who think Christians are irrational. Happy Palm Sunday to all Christians who prove them wrong day in day out!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • andrewfosho

      i must have missed this event day in and day out.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Myquida

      So you believe the earth is only thousands of years old, you believe women are second class, you believe that a man built a boat and put two of every single animal on it, and you believe MANY more insane things, and we only "think" you're irrational?

      Yeah, that's gotta be it.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  8. thomas

    the koran is a lie too

    April 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  9. You get it here

    Wow, now I can come here to learn all the latest religion news.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  10. cecil burrow


    No-one really believes all this nonsense.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • primatica

      what day these ideas where presented to us on this site is irrelevant and a cop out in arguing this with reason. but it's pointless arguing with zealots

      April 1, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  11. 0RacKL

    Patmos is not in Turkey. It's a Greek island.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Ken78

      Shhhhhhh!!!!! They said she was this all-knowling super-Bible-scholar. They didn't say she knew anything at all about geography.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  12. Cliff

    when will you be doing the Myths about the Quran?

    yea thought so.....

    April 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • You get it here

      Ya, like is it true the 15 virgins waiting for us men in heaven are actually nuns with shotguns....?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Maj

      If there is any book that may be from God it would have to be the Quran. Non-Muslims will tell you that as well, you just have to read a bit of it and you will understand. Also in terms of authenticity, it is quite difficult to determine who wrote the Quran for Muhammad was illiterate and the Arabic of the Quran is the most eminent manifestation of the Arabic language.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  13. JP

    Hey, the whole bible is just a fantasy trip to begin with. Why should one of the books in it be any different? The writer just got hold of some heavy drugs & had a bad trip, nothing more than that.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Cliff

      Fantasy, like Darwinism, and global warming?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Jon O

      Hey cliff, when you go to the doctor and get an antibiotic, do you get the original antibiotic or the one they've altered to be effective against the evolution of drug-resistant diseases.

      Which one do you want, cliff?

      Because developing immunities to antibiotics is evolution of the disease.

      You lose.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Jon O

      The glory of evolution is that its taking place all around us every day and the ignorant creationist still attribute it to magic.

      Different breeds of dogs? Magic.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Quoting

      Jon O

      A frog turning into a possum...thats your magic macro-evolution. Micro-evolution happens still but Macro-evolution never happened

      April 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Myquida

      Haha, "a frog turning into a possum"? Careful, your ignorance of basic biology is showing. Not that I'm surprised. You are a Christian, after all.

      Evolution doesn't just "happen". It happens over millions of years. Evolution to a Christian is just blue instantly turning into red one day. To someone with actual knowledge of it, it's blue gradually turning into purple and then into red over a long period of time.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  14. Statsdoc

    I wonder what would happen if CNN front-paged "THE FOUR MYTHS OF ISLAM"? I would imagine that a large building in Atlanta, Georgia would be burning right now. I think it is a testament to Christians that they turn the other cheek, but it is a sad testament to CNN. They are quite willing to bully Christians that show no tendency to violence, but will not say a thing about Muslims that threaten the lives of infidels in their own countries.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Ray

      Muslims have no problem with scientific or textual criticism, it is part of the religion to ask questions. This is why many have accepted Islam such as myself. I looked into the religion to find faults but I found beauty, simplicity and truth. May Allah guide us all closer to the truth.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Alex

      This is an insightful and educational piece, and it does not bully Christians. Unless you view educating them as bullying. And your comparison to Islam is poorly done, because you're comparing an entire faith (Islam) to a single book within the newer half of the Bible (Revelations). Apples and oranges, my fruitblind friend.

      I sincerely hope that your handle does not indicate you have a doctorate in statistics. If so, how on earth did you get such a degree without some ability to comprehend and reason?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Statsdoc

      Bullying is a pattern of abuse, which CNN has shown over and over regarding Christianity. I think the founder of CNN has made it quite clear on his feelings towards Christians. I will let the actions of Muslims in the Middle East speak for themselves. Christians are fleeing in terror as Muslims have persecuted them. While there is not doubt persecution of Muslims in some places by Christians, it does not rise to the same level of severity. Jesus preached love for all, and that includes those that do not believe the same.

      I will defend the ability of the writer to present her opinions all she wants. That is called freedom of speech (as is my right to criticize). However, show me a single article published by CNN which dismisses or questions any part of the Koran? It does not exist..

      April 1, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  15. Michael

    What exactly makes Ms. Pagels an authority on the subject? What are her credentials? I suggest the book "Heaven is for real" to the readers. There you will read about a little boy who went to Heaven, while under anesthesia, where God did reveal the end of the world to him. What he conveyed is pretty close to the events depicted in the book of Revelation. See for yourself.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Jon O

      Thank you, Michael, for – in a single paragraph – showing the rest of us the core evil of religion.

      You're an expert, right? Where are your credentials? Yet your interpretation – or the one you buy in to – has to be the right one? Why? Where's your proof?

      Or, you're just an arrogant jerk.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • JCizzle

      Sounds completely realistic and believable.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Jokie X Wilson

      I visited the Vatican last summer. I think this article is spot on and not at all disrespectful. Just because Revelations is rooted in the life of ancient times doesn't mean it isn't a history that hasn't repeated itself over and over. Visit the Vatican and look at their booty from their war with the ancient Greeks. I think they purposefully don't keep it as cleaned up as the Christian art ;-{P} And it says a lot about what all of the fuss is about.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Myquida

      That's funny, I've been under anesthesia many times and didn't see anything.

      Maybe it's because I'm not delusional or a liar. Or both.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  16. Jawal

    Every belief system has a non-negotiable foundation that does not compromise; Islam, Hinduisim, Buddisim and even Orthodox Christianity have a core that is foundational. The liberal theology of Ms Pagles is a different religon. When you reject 80 percent of what the religon believes you cannot be considered with credibility–a Christian. You cannot be a Jew and believe in Jesus nor can you embrace the teachings of the Unpanishads and claim to be a Muslim. I wonder if CNN would allow a front page on wether the Hadith (the authorative sayings of Mohammed) is supposed to be taken literally as 98 percent of Muslims world wide do or if Hinduisim still contributes to the Caste system which is still a part of Indian society today and has very harsh consequences for the poor....Liberals know in America they can spit, mock and dissect Christianity and be safe–insult Islam or Hinduisim and you better hire body guards.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  17. Jon O

    Prayer changes nothing, science saves lives every day and doesn't require that you worship a murderous invisible man as payment.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • VETTE


      April 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • Myquida

      Why is it that these retarded Christians can't seem to master not typing in all caps?

      April 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  18. thomas

    Religion is killing our world
    jewish people only keep their religion alive in the public eye so they can steal more money from you fools who believe them
    believe that ha ha ha ha

    April 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  19. Jerry Pelletier

    WOW...CNN, you can rip apart and dissect the Bible....But why don't you do that to the Koran? I think you guys and gals are a little afraid of even talking about the Koran....but no problem ripping apart the Bible!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Jon O

      Probably because we're in America and Christianity is our predominant religion, stupid.

      Do you think religious scholars in, say, Israel talk about the New Testament all the time?

      Thanks for showing exactly how simple minded you are.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Myquida

      Poor Jerry, I bet you must feel that as a Christian, everybody is out to get you here in the states. I mean yeah, you are the vast majority in the country, but who cares right? Clearly Christians are the persecuted ones and not the ones in every single position of power there is.

      Give me a break. A christian whining about being persecuted is the dumbest thing imaginable. Well, not the dumbest thing. What Christians actually believe is a little more dumb.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • roland

      Alright but we're talking about the book revelations. You can be a christian and not believe in it.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Myquida

      Let's look at a few things here:

      1) You say atheism isn't healthy for "other living things". You realize all animals are atheists, right?

      2) Prayer, since the beginning of time, hasn't changed a single thing. Prayer is a lazy man's way of feeling like he contributed. It is just about the most apathetic and useless thing somebody can do in a time of need or crisis. Saying "I'll pray for you" is basically saying "I care a little, but not enough to actually help you. I'll make myself feel good, though."

      April 1, 2012 at 2:46 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.