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. Puzzled in Peoria

    To all the atheists posting here: Please be equal-opportunity haters and include Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in your posts. If you're so moral and good without God, please be fair and hate all religions instead of being just anti-Christianity bigots.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • dk

      Christians murdered millions more than Jews or Muslims put together... ever hear of the Spanish inquisition alone that lasted 800 years?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • reason

      Atheists are generally not haters. They are just trying to help others get past their religious delusions, and they generally do not care which particular religion either, but in America most religious people are Christians.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • indyfan2

      An athiest treats all religion the same. Stop trying to stir the pot by showing your bias.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • dk

      atheist think all of your religions should be relegated to the mythology section and most of us are sick of religious fanatics that keep pulling us back to the dark ages.

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

      Gotta love the whiny self-victimization routine.

      Get a clue. Atheist. Get it? NON-THEIST. That means we don't believe in any religion, and yeah, we a hold all of your fairy tales in equal contempt.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • drkent3

      I don't hate. I just feel sorry for those who have been misled by their parents and those who they have trusted. The universe is much bigger, more spectacular and more wonderous than you have been led to believe. The hardest part to accept is that you are a meaningless bit of space dust instead of an important soul (along with billions and billions of others) that is worth saving for eternity for some unknown and unstated reason...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  2. jimchester

    There is a Greek word that describes this article, "HOGWASH"! The things this so called scholar says are so preposterous that even the least versed Chritian would debunk this trash as heretical and destructive. I have no idea what this person's goal is, because it is quite obvious that exalting God isn't as important as exalting oneself!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • rose

      You are so right.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • drkent3

      I love how you self-righteously claimed that you speak for even the 'least versed Christian', and then claim she is exalting herself. Perhaps you should get an education instead of just following someone else's preachings...

      April 1, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  3. Nmamn

    We will never read about alternative interpretations of Koran, because peace loving followers of Islam will behead you. Christian however are fair game.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  4. Marc

    Wow, All those centuries have past and finally, this person has figured it out. We are so smart in this modern world of ours. I'm especially glad that the Anti-Christ is a myth. I'm no longer concerned for the world. Well, I gotta get back to ogling my smartphone.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  5. Love your brain and your heart

    When I was a kid my dad told me that God liked to test our faith by letting Satan put all kinds of false evidence before us - heretical books like the Gospel of Thomas, dinosaur fossils, cosmological theories that support an expanding and evolutionary universe... You know the things that a rational, reasonable person mind consider evidence that the Bible isn't the only true word of God and might have actually gotten some facts wrong.

    What if the bible was also a political tool to control people, I asked? What if people were using the name of God to their own advantage, I wondered. God wouldn't let that happen he answered. What about other religions, Hindus and Buddhists and Zoroastrians, I countered? All the work of Satan...

    I love you dad, and I believe there is purpose and meaning to life and the universe, but you were wrong. The world turns out to be be much bigger and brighter then that imagined by you and our ancestors. The key to understanding it all is love. Love the mistakes we have made and the lessons we have learned. Accept that there might be a bigger God than the one described by men thousands of years ago.

    Love your brain and your heart. Use your reason to help you find your way through the ignorance and politics of teachings. Love your neighbor as yourself and don't limit your vision of God's love. So it is.

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

      Thank you!!!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • primatica

      That reasoning was taught to you to protect your "faith" from the pain of reality and logic

      April 1, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  6. no God

    Government tried to encourage people to believe in God... Yeah... yeah... what about healthcare, education failure, greed, cheat, etc?

    people give up and stop believing God. They feel it healthy to stop believing Fairy Tales.

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

      NOOOO, the Government takes God out of our lives - children can't pray in school, no public show of love of God. Gov't has taken God off walls of public buildings, BUT, I guess the Washington DC buildings are a little hard to erase God from? LOL Department of Justice, Supreme Court of the United States (they attend the RED MASS each year as a group, Congress' Rotunda..... Need I say more. This, CNN and Obama, will NOT work. LOL LOLLOL

      April 1, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  7. Aezel

    Also: the book of revelations itself is a myth, inside of an entire book of myths. Yo dawg, I heard you like myths about your myths inside of giant myths.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  8. dk

    we need a war on religious insanity. religious people have murder millions in the name of truth and peace and justice. please find your cave next to the Taliban.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • DC from NJ

      I couldn't agree more! Why does humanity keep wasting time, money, and effort on this nonsense?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Matteo

      Yeah, and we should murder all f the religious people! WAR ON..

      April 1, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  9. fastball

    It's funny how religious leaders go back and forth. First, the Bible was the LITERAL word of God, plain and simple – no ifs, ands or buts about it. Now it's – "Oh, silly....that's what this line MEANS".
    And as a personal note....why is there so much religious stuff on CNN.com? Is there not enough actual news going on in the world, without having to constantly be bombarded with faith-based articles and editorials?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  10. Erik

    This whole article is a JOKE. Firstly of course the writer of revelations was a Christian because Jewish people don't believe Jesus is coming back. He doesn't have to write out verbatim ' Christ died for our sins.' That's what the books of the apostles are for. I know he was classified 'Jewish' at the time but so was Jesus. 666 is the mark of the beast and the number of the devil do not confuse the issue. Anyone who reads can see this. Of course Revelations is about the end of the world... If it is about the end of his world why hasn't it ended? Where's Wormwood? I hope this is a bad taste April Fools joke.

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

      dude even the muslims believe jesus is coming back. should get your own facts straight

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Randy Garner

      JESUS CHRIST. He's just not a provable person.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Rick

      I'm glad to see there is someone out there who understands something about the Bible. Pagels is way out in left field. This chapter of the Bible means something different to many people. To say that it was written by a non Christian is ignorant. She doesn't offer any proof of anything she says. I don't think a non christian could write about a dream given to him from God.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  11. Jesus Christ Pose

    The biggest myth of the book of "Reveleations" IS the "Book of Revelations".

    April 1, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  12. Terry Gold

    Once again, Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s so-called leading biblical scholars by this journalist, got it wrong. Her interpretation is full of 21st century political and ideological bias. Her understanding of the Jezebel reference is but one example showing she can't clear her mind of extra-Biblical contemporary man-made paradigms long enough to see the truth in The Truth.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Randy Garner

      And this is why there are fifty different versions of your religion who all claim to know the real meaning. Don't you realize how hypocritical and ridiculous you sound when you put your bias and bigotry down in print?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  13. Jerry

    There is also a 5th Myth. That there is any truth at all in the bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Jesus Christ Pose

      Hear! Hear!

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

      Have you ever met George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or even Caesar? How do you know these people existed? Did you meet them or did you read about them in a book? The Bible is a history book like any other book. It is also a book about how each individual should conduct his or her life. It is about treating your neighbor with respect and how to prosper. It's about understanding that there is a supreme being who shows us how to live on this planet. (It's the only one we have). Read the bible from cover to cover and you will understand. Use your own opinion.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  14. John Mackenzie

    Elaine Pagels has simply got it wrong. Many people have their own interpretations of Revelation so why has CCN published this article on this particular viewpoint? Read Marvin Rosenthal's book, "The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church", in order to understand a much more accurate scenario of the last days.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  15. rose

    So, CNN is on a mission to ruin Easter Week for fthose who BELIEVE. Pick some other subjects - not "What would Jesus do and this dumb book picking apart the bible. Next Sunday is Easter Sunday. Let's just stop this cr _ _ and GROW UP CNN. I for one will not be tuning in CNN in the future if this is the type of headline we have to put up with.
    Actually Fox has a better news cover than CNN anyway - they are ALWAYS scooping CNN. So, go for the REAL news stories and not fictional books that CNN tries to "make" REAL. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE STOP THIS!!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Bruce

      I agree. And I don't watch or listen to CNN anymore anyway!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Bruce

      I feel the same. And I don't watch or listen to CNN anymore anyway!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • gman

      @ rose, that's ok, we should thank them in a way. it's a chance to converse with the unbelievers.

      happy easter rose !

      April 1, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • drkent3

      Yes – education is bad for believers...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  16. profart

    Love Pagels, and if you are unfamiliar with the real study of this important book of the Bible, Pagels makes a great read. But these understandings of Revelation have been current in academia for decades (and in some of these points, centuries). Is there anything new in this book?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • rose


      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  17. why

    You are here, I am here. That's all that is known!

    April 1, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Alan

      Except for the stuff that was made up, and we call religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • 7thSon

      I'm pink... therefore, I'm spam.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  18. gingersrule1

    I think America is a lot like the Babylon described in Revelations. I first read Revelations about 6 months ago when I read the new testament cover to cover. I remember I had a dream before I even started Revelations about a giant hail storm with 100 pound hail the size of men. Then within days of having this dream I read in Revelations the story about hail in the end of times the size of men. It was so weird that I dreamed about something that is described in a book days before reading it. Revelations is definitely hard to understand. I don't think the author John didn't like the apostle Pauls teaching. I think there were people like the crowds Paul talked too that called him God because he healed people and that John didn't like that. Neither did Paul. When people called Paul a God he tore his clothes and was angry. These people still wanted to hear what Paul had to say and believed in Jesus but then when confronted with the healing of a lame man they accuse Paul of being a God. I think those are the Christians John had any disagreement with. Jesus told a lot of stories when he was alive. I think that's how he wanted his followers to teach as well. Most Christians aren't telling stories with morals they try to cram Bible verses down everyone's throat til they choke. That is not how Jesus was. He may have known the Bible but he wasn't checking for a gag reflex.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  19. PoisonOkie

    As usual, a mix of people of faith and non-believers. Stars and matter in just our one (known) universe are so large and many in number, the ability to comprehend this number is vitually impossible, just as is the 11 (or 13) dimensions, if you prefer to go with string theory or membrane theory. Where do you think all of these things originated? A "big Bang"? The Big Bang was a single event, not the very "beginning of eveything", as you cannot (short of God), make something from nothing. You want to argue that? Ok...Bring in Quantum Mechanics....Quarks, Bozons, and anitmatter...shure they wink in and out of existence, but something triggered that. Something caused it to happen...could be they crossed a dimensional plane that cannot be seen or detected, and simply cannot exist in this dimension. Or they crossed from a parallel universe, or the bumping together of a universal membrane boundary. There are so many things that us pin-headed humans do not know, nor will ever know. Except know this....all of the trillions of stars within the trillions of galaxies that cover billions of light years did not happen on their own. Something besides a single, natural event caused it all to happen. The believes know who created it all. The non beleivers will try to use the human brain (and trust me, we don't very much in the grand sceme of things) to explain away it all. It has nothing to do with pain and suffering here on earth, and What God does and does not do. He have the blood of his son to save all of us, so those who say he is to blame for our own suffering and pain are just wrong.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Taylor

      Wait, so believers have the final, ultimate answer! That's amazing! Why doesn't everybody know about this! It's gotta be one of the greatest accomplishments in human history! Oh wait, it's not. Your claim to "know how it all began" is nothing more than filling in your gaps of understanding with the word "god". It's an intellectual stopsign. "Think no further than here", this question is too hard. Your god that caused a fluctuation in the quantum foam resulting in the big bang is so far removed from the god of any religion that he might as well not exist. Christians fall back on the god of the gaps argument every time they are confronted with new scientific discoveries. God has been chased out of every pocket of human ignorance you've tried to hide him in. It's only a matter of time now.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  20. ocinfo

    If God really does exist, why doesn't he set the record straight and say which books of the Bible or other religious books are correct and which ones are not? If the Bible is true, a lot of people are going to hell simply because they were led to believe the wrong books. You would think that a loving God would want to set the record straight.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • rose

      He does. Go too Church, any church. You will feel God's love. For sure.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • profart

      You are expecting 1. God to communicate the same way people do and 2. for God's logic to be human logic. You are also basing the question on a humanization of what "God" might be.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • chuck

      None of them are correct because they were written by human beings. How could something so much bigger than us be understood by us. It can't, simple as that. The books can be good and helpful but in the end they are the words of man, not God.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • gman

      @ ocinfo , read 1st john 4 in the bible. test ye the spirits. once you know this you will see why god lets us grow
      in discernment on our own. anything that testifies to the risen christ is what's important. once you know this
      you can weed out satans lies and learn to discern his word. that's what he wants for us. he gave us free will
      to learn and use it for good and his glory. anything that testafies against the risen christ jesus is of satan.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Jellyfishdude

      maybe because the word of God is made with a veil, visible to those who truly seek it.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Steve

      God does not force Himself on anyone. He provides proof of His existence and that's for us to use our minds to seek out. The evidence is there but we choose to believe things that make us feel better about ourselves. If we choose not to believe the bible then we will support people who share and expound this view, even if their facts aren't straight. Read other biblical scholar. Read those both for and against the orthodox Christian views. Do your own research. Make an informed decision on the truth.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • MT

      He has.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:59 am |
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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.