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. tutor1

    There is one sentence in this article which sums up the article and the author in my opinion. "Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning." Just another attack on the Church by the media.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • SixDegrees

      I don't see how placing such writings within their historical context is an attack on anything.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Atheist

      What that means is that Revelation is a book that is very hard to fully understand, even after people study it for years. We're all waiting breathlessly for your expert breakdown of Revelation.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  2. Keith

    Concerning point #4:
    AGAIN, see post for point #1.
    This is the revelation of Jesus Christ, not John.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Drew

      Nobody has ever suggested that Jesus authored this text or is even the one who received the revelation. Know your biblical history

      April 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  3. ace8842

    As soon as I read Elaine Pagels I didn't read the article. What exactly makes her one of the world's leading Bible scholars?

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

      The fact that she is not automatically biased toward Christianity's interpretation of the Bible. She actually looks at it objectively, instead of repeating the pap yammered by preachers.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • SixDegrees

      "As soon as I read Elaine Pagels I didn't read the article." – It must make things a lot simpler to just turn off your brain when confronted by things you don't understand. Unlike Pagels, who has spent a lifetime researching and publishing in peer reviewed scholarly journals work based on primary sources.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  4. Lance

    Oh, Elaine, Elaine... Is there anything you hate more than a true follower of Christ?

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

      This exegesis has been well established for many, many centuries. The whole rapture, left behind nonsense is the result of the "dispensationist" interpretation of the bible popularized in the 19th century in America. Knowing the history of your church is better than scornfully wagging your finger...

      April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Atheist

      What, exactly, is a "true" Christian? Every Christian points their fingers at every other Christian and says they're not "true" Christians. You people are ridiculous.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Bill

      Touche, Athiest.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  5. You gotta be kiddin

    Wow...... I cant believe CNN did a highly biased article like this, basically dogging Christianity and claiming Revelations is null and void. This article shows we are in the last days. Soon Christians we be persecuted for our beliefs. Its all a matter of time. This article is complete crap.

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

      no not hunted but ignored and worked around till there is non left.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Ken78

      Soon?? Obama is already persecuting Christians for their beliefs. The golden days of religious freedom in Amerika are over. Get used to it.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Drew

      Jeez... the author didn't do herself any favor by implying that these ideas were hers or were original.

      The simple fact is, what the author articulates is the traditional interpretation (exegesis) of Revelations. The idea that Revelations is a book of prophecy is a new idea (Dispensationalism) popularized by an Englishman named John Nelson Darby who was laughed out of England, but came to America and set up a bunch of seminaries...

      If you do the research, and you will see that the radical interpretation of Revelations is the prophetic one.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Atheist

      Another Christian sobbing that he is being persecuted for his beliefs, while sitting in his easy chair. LOL.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Atheist

      "This article shows we are in the last days."

      Christianity: 2,000 years of "Any day now..."

      April 1, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • SixDegrees

      "Soon Christians we be persecuted for our beliefs." – Well, given that disagreeing with a Christian or asking one to defend their position on their faith in a rational way is viewed by Christians as "persecution", I suppose that's true.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  6. Yellowdog

    People who call themselves "pastors" need fear and hatred in order to draw people to themselves and become either powerful or rich or both (for the last, think televangelism). Those who blindly follow are rightly called sheep.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  7. .

    Yet another Sunday morning cheap shot at Christianity by the pro gay culture at CNN. The only bigotry that is not only approved, but encouraged, is anti Christian hatred.

    CNN. They report. You decide not to watch.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Ken78

      Amen! Preach on, brother!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Atheist

      You guys are so funny. "Oh, woe is me, I'm so persecuted!" LOLOL

      You guys do a great job at convincing others your religion is completely silly.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Bill

      So now, reasoned debate is tainted by Christian bigotry, where anybody with an opinion is labeled as gay. It is not the atheists that are the undoing of Christianity, it is the so-called Christians. Had they been enlightened, caring, loving, thoughtful, forgiving – the things that Christ advocated – they would be better people, even if they were gay. Christians, get it straight, WE DON`T WANT TO BE LIKE YOU. You set such a bad example.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  8. haseeb

    So, the Christianity and Judaism are religions of peace?
    HaHaHa.... All religions are same. They did not do anygood for the humanity and they never will.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  9. eric calderone

    Much of what article, paraphrasing Pagels, says is correct, with the exception of the contention that the author of Revelations was not what we today would call a Christian. Putting that reservation aside, I wish to point out that most Christians today are not confused by Revelation. They realize that it is not a book prophesyzing doom but rather uses the apocalyptic OT symbols and metaphors that most early Christians had little trouble understanding. Revelation is a book about Hope. Most Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have no difficulty interpreting this book. It is those who have cut themselves off from early Christian history and are continually reinventing "christianity" who find themselves misinterpreting this book.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  10. no God

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6zGK-XblGA&w=560&h=315%5D

    April 1, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  11. Keith

    Concerning point #3:
    See point #1 post.
    All scripture is divinely inspired. This was not John's.

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

      If scripture is divinely inspired... why do the 4 gospels have differing accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection?... why are some stories left out of the earliest texts (stoning of the adulteress... the loaves and fishes)? Just something to think about

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Atheist

      The Bible is a huge mess of error and contradiction. If it's the work of a god, that god is pretty dumb.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Bill

      Keith, do you REALLY believe this nonsense. What a sad excuse for bad writing. Don`t you thnik your god had more important things to do than to act as an editor. Have you ever heard of the Council of Nicene

      April 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • eric calderone

      Divine inspiration refers to what prompted the authors to write. However, the writers wrote as fallible human beings,and their writings reflect their fallibility. The intended interpretation cannot be reliably inferred by whatever individual happens to be reading, for as readers we also are quite fallible.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  12. NonoTheist

    I do not understand people of faith. You completely accept (and promote) a wild world of fantasy angels, demons, gods, with convoluted rules of free will and destiny.

    What is so wrong with the real world that follows some very basic rules and that's it? It is OK to not know things. Let go of trying to understand the motivations of imaginary beings.

    I gave up the Tooth Fairy when I was very young. I only got the Christmas presents I told my parents about, not what I told the department store Santa.

    All this discussion and debate about Revelation reminds me of some kids arguing about whose wizard in Magic the Gathering casts the strongest spell.

    Come on humanity, it is time to give up on fantasy and give reality a try. It means accepting that you are not special, not chosen, not destined. You can choose your own fate, and you alone are responsible for your actions.

    I know that some people can not live without their religious security blanket, but they are minority who need our support and sympathy. We should not let the people who are scared of reality run our planet. Challenge your candidates who are afraid of imaginary things, vote in people who are sane and rational.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • You gotta be kiddin

      You call it fantasy, and myth because you do not believe there is something greater than yourself.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Nii

      I like "evolutionary biologist" better. Atheist sounds so unlearned.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • A believer

      Nono Theist, If you are correct, I have wasted a lifetime. If what I believe is the truth, you will have wasted eternity. Following Jesus' teachings has given me a good life, I am content.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  13. thomas

    jesus was the beast

    April 1, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  14. Nii

    Is evolutionary biologist the new synonym for atheist? LOLOLOL

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

      No it is a synonym for Biologist

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  15. Rahul

    It turns out – this whole article is a lie. I realized as soon as I read the first "myth." Seems like part of CNNs anti-Christian agenda.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Ken78

      What do you expect? CNN was founded by a man who called Christianity a "loser religion." The statement of an obvious anti-Christian bigot. To my knowledge, CNN has never publicly backed away from that statement.

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

      everyone should have an anti christian agenda. christianty belongs to mythology.

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

      To be eligible to work in CNN Prime Time show you have to be Jew.
      Wolf Blitzer, John King, Donna Bash.....

      April 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Everything in Moderation

      You will never be able to fully understand your religion until you are prepared to examine its foundations.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Lesley Kinney

      And your proof is? The mythology of Jesus is just that, mythology. Every major civilisation has has it's "hero" mythologies. The hero is always born of a human woman and a God. Walking on water, turning water into wine, raising the dead, healing the sick, all components of much earlier religions. Ignorance is the handmaiden of organised religion, ignorance is what keeps it going.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  16. Adam

    I hope those who live by faith rather than proof can read this article without losing their beliefs. There are many non-believers out there but those who still do should recognize evil in every form. To those who live by faith, do not be distracted by this article.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Right. Clap your hands over your ears and repeat, loudly, "LaLaLaLa! I can't hear you!"

      April 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  17. Kurt

    Just enough truth to get me reading... but it was a steep downhill plunge after that. The whole part about John being against the libertine Paul? If you had actually read the Bible you would know this idea is ridiculous.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Thezel

      you didn't read the article. It wasn't the John from the Gospel, but another John.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  18. NamVet67

    there's no proof.....not even evidence

    April 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  19. SoM

    There is only one problem with Pagels view of this book. It was not written after the destruction of Jerusalem. It was written in the early 60s of the first century. Chapter 11 confirms that the temple was still standing, and it predicted its destruction by Roman soldiers. Simply put, Pagel is wrong!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • drtdwood

      That is a minority view amongst Biblical scholars, the vast majority of whom date Revelation to the late first century AD.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Very few modern scholars accept such an early date for Revelation's authorship. The current consensus is that it was written sometime close to 95 AD.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Lesley Kinney

      So there is no possibility that it was written as if it were before the destruction of the Temple? I could write a book now foretelling the bombing of the Twin Towers and in 2000 years, who would know? That simplistic acceptance of the Bible is what religions rely on. Don't question, just have faith! Anyone who has studied the history of that period would have questions about the way the NT was written.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  20. marion52

    I believe everyone has a right to their opinion,but if they express their opinion and it is not a fact, then it shouldn't be advertised so the public will read it, especially our children! The first 20 years of a childs life is the most important part of what they will become. When we as adults allow this kind of trash to be put on the internet, it brain washes everything good we have taught our children to believe in. Christ paid a debt that we owed (sin) and he humbly accepted that debt and then died on the cross to save us from God's wrath, all because he loved us. We need to express that same love to each other, and only then will things bad going on in this world will change!!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Tom

      You realize the hypocrisy of what you are saying, right?

      "if they express their opinion and it is not a fact, then it shouldn't be advertised so the public will read it"

      This describes every religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • reason

      When I read the first half of your comment I thought you were talking about the big lie that is religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:36 am |
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