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. Randall

    I like religions that promote killing others when they don't believe you. That makes sense right and will get you to heaven?

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

    Buzz kill.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  3. Bill

    Ahhhhhh – but Satan is BUSY. Just as the word of God said, and sure enough at every turn he is there spreading hate and discontent.

    As a side note – just be aware that unless the "Truth" be within you (and a few of you know the meaning) one will not and can not fully understand the word as written...... thus many misconceptions............


    April 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  4. Rob

    Whenever I read one of these boards there are two things that continually astound me. I simply can't believe that there are so few people who are capable of taking things in context. It's a blog post, not an article. As such it's a statement of opinion, not fact. To call this biased is like calling out the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for it's right-wing slant. Yeah, you'd be right... you'd also be stating the obvious. The second thing is that people continually dismiss, out of hand, assertions with which they disagree without providing any rational counterargument. You're free to disagree respectfully if you wish. However, unless you're going to explain why you disagree with this respected biblical scholar, you're not contributing anything to the conversation. Then again, you know what they say about arguing on the internet....

    April 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  5. Randall

    How many football games will Jesus attend this year? Probably a ton of Jets and 49ers games.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  6. Rational1

    Someone walking through Central Park claiming to hear voices giving him/her commandments and talking about the end of the world, is (rightfully so) locked up and given treatment. Someone walking through Central Park claiming to hear voices giving him/her commandments and talking about the end of the world (and the voice they hear is someone names jesus), and they're given a white collar, a church, and a podium to preach from. Doesn't change that they're both nuts and hearing the same voices.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  7. kirk

    thinking them selves to be wise they became as fools
    i think that about sums up what i think about this article
    its ignorance and stupidity is manifest for all who actually
    read and study the word

    April 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  8. Aezel

    I'll make all you Christians a deal. Next time you have a loved one get cancer, you will simply try to pray it away, and cure it using the "facts" in the Bible.

    I on the other hand, will go to the doctor, who will use scientific knowledge about our genetic make-up to cure it. Genetic knowledge I may add that comes from biologists who use it to also understand evolution.

    We'll see who lives, and who dies. You got the balls to put your money where your mouth is on your book of myths?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Question

      The point you miss is that cancer or not, everyone dies. At that point, you can trust in your evolution and I can trust in my God on what happens next.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • JDonald

      I'll bet that you will both die. At maybe different times but modern science does not have an answer to eternal life.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • scranton

      Usually Christians pray with the doctors. Let's make a deal. When the doctor says there is no more he can do for you when your cancer is no longer treatable, you will be praying for a miracle and asking for Jesus to forgive you just to hedge your bet in the final days. Go ahead and take your balls out of your mouth now.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • cns

      I don't know any Christians that refuse to go to the doctor.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  9. Aseelah

    If Jesus had been sent by God to deal with all of the immoral intricacies of man ( slavery being one of them), he would still be here today. God knew that the heart of man was wicked. It is for this reason that He gave is son Jesus to die on the Cross for our sins that man would have a conversion of the mind, as Paul in so many words put it.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • mb2010a

      The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are all one being...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  10. Randall


    April 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Randall

      sorry, i meant 2012.....can wait for the new season.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  11. Y'all disgusting

    Well that's just great. CNN – Christian News Network. What's with all the religious articles CNN? These piece of sh i t fundamentalists are everywhere. CNN has become all about the controversey to gain readers. If it isn't about religion then it's about f4ggotry. If it isn't about f4ggotry, then it's about racism. Worthless news site!

    April 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • mb2010a

      You should probably go back to FOX then...I'm sure you'll be much more comfortable over there. They are soooo unbiased...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • kkd1013

      Wow, aren't we quite an angry bigot. You must have a miserable life. Those of us who do not cast judgement like you do are living much more happily than you. We only have one shot at life; it's such a waste to live it so negatively. God bless you.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  12. palintwit

    Jesus is koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs, koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs...

    April 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  13. Diaria

    Has we know now,the power of rome rest at the vatican,now from were the the new world was coquere an put on place
    Were politic is one within,now we live in a new world order wich is in place,for we are the poppets of the circle.guess may fellows who is the anticrist now vicary of christ,which the power of rome rest at the vatican,an from there all the nation,came to worship,an the day of the beast sunday, so we all follow santan an his coquere of humanity,

    April 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  14. Mr. Duckworth

    On Palm Sunday – CNN posts an article that most people will reduce to: things in the Bible are myths. Owner Ted Turner is outspoken on being anti religion and not supportive of the many good things religion does daily – and his CNN media clearly reflects this. What a biased site – not neutral reporting at all – not fooling me. Time to find a more objective site for news..

    April 1, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • It's pronounced 'Dumas'

      They are...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • mb2010a

      Buh-bye, then...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  15. Vinny

    This article makes a lot of sense. A lot of people are trying to locate signs and symbols detailing end of world when the book is not even about apocalypse. There are just so many "revelation alike" books out there. People need to stop wasting time and focus on the real world.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • mb2010a

      Yup...hopefully the Mayans have it right. December 21, 2012...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  16. Horus

    How in the hell is this front page news on CNN?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • mb2010a

      It's Sunday...duh.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • JDonald

      Just remember it is April Fool's Day. CNN and its Jewish editorial staff will go to the worst extremes to undermine the Christian faith. But over one million American Jews now claim to be Messianic and believe that Jesus Christ was their true Messiah. Israel will use the kooky Christians and their end-time beliefs to promote Zionism to the nth.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  17. Pedro

    Religion = Poison

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

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • BetterDeadThanFed

      But, Reason, if we were judged by how (good) we lived, what would be the criteria for good or acceptable? Even many serial killers and rapists and pedophiles feel they have led a "good" life. I hope that I don't share a Heaven with these type of self-described righteous people.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • kkd1013

      reason – I couldn't agree more.

      Betterdeadthanfed – You seem to be subtly saying that only christians that believe in today's bible will be allowed to enter an afterlife, if there is one. That sounds like judgement and bigotry, which the bible says not to do. Let me further explain bigotry. It doesn't have to be a judgement based on race, like many people perceive. It's judgement based on someone being different from them. Judging all people who are not christians (as you are doing) is bigotry. Way to go, good christian.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  19. mb2010a

    Google "missing books of the Bible". There are over 500 books that were purged from the Bible by the churches over the years. Revelations should have been one of them. I would come closer to believing Nostradamus, but no one can understand him either...

    April 1, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  20. sumday

    with scholars like that it is no wonder so many of the faith are lead away these days. Revelations was about the "end of days" NOT the end of "John's days"- It is written about the future to come- but Israel had ALREADY been destroyed when it was written- and much of what is described in Revelations never occurred at the fall of Israel so if it’s to be believed at all it must be believed that it was written about what is to come not what had already happened. 2nd it says "for it is the number of MAN"- and in Daniel it says they will mingle THEIR seed with the seed of MAN but they will not cleave together. Most of what didn’t “make it” into the bible was anything that directly related to angles or sprits. The early church did their best to suppress anything that wasn’t directly human and started denying the angles, and demons having any impact to humans or any teaching of them- this was in stark contrast to what the early Christians believed in.
    I swear I don't even know why these so called scholars even claim to be Christian when it is extremely clear that they don't believe in the Christian teachings- instead they do their best to discredit and change interpretations at every chance they get to promote THEIR version of it.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • reason

      It is so annoying when Easter Bunny scholars try to claim he does not really exist. Only Bunny Believers should be allowed to comment about his egg laying greatness!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • mb2010a

      "nstead they do their best to discredit and change interpretations at every chance they get to promote THEIR version of it."
      Isn't that exactly what every Christian church in the world is doing? They all change the Bible to suit their own needs. What a waste of time. This is the 21st century people. We no longer need this nonsense, or at least we shouldn't...

      April 1, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • HenryB

      Oh, come on, are you so afraid that somebody may question your beliefs that you feel you must question this author? I understand your belief system and that anything that does not conform to it may feel uncomfortable. The fact is that it is healthy to discuss these things. I am sure that people didn't feel comfortable either when the issue of the round earth was discussed.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • kkd1013

      And you obviously believe the interpretation that YOU were taught and lives that very close-minded life that is criticized in today's society. Today's "christians" don't practice what they preach, and make more judgements of others than those who do not proclaim to be christians. Arrogance and the inability to open yourself to intelligent interpretations is now what leads christianity, which is not what I was taught that it is about. It's just a shame that people like you refuse to expand on your own knowledge by dismissing everyone who does not believe what you believe. In the end, it's how we treat people in our lives that matters, and most christians I know judge and dismiss people who are unlike them.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • BetterDeadThanFed

      Also note that it is common to reference one thought/writing in the Bible with another one (elsewhere in the Bible). In (small) part, this is why many believe the Bible to be the word of God as these writings were made at different times and different places where the two authors didn't speak with each other and hadn't read each other's writings, yet, they are consistent with each other. Thought being that each author was divinely inspired.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • DHoff

      Sad someone so confused about the topic they are talking about gets so much press. She does not even definitively credit John to authorship but goes on to discredit him. As they say, one who is confused will spread confusion. She is noted as a scholar yet not well read even in the process of Canonical Scriptures. Yes it was not random how they chose books in the Bible. Just because you do not agree with John's writing does not make it untrue. As far as understanding it, well let's just say time will tell for her. If she read the book she would see a great warning in what she is doing...in Revelations 22:19 "And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." Mr Blake sadly to say you'd be better off reading a comic book for Biblical commentary then Ms Pagels lostness. One thing is for sure, we will all have a better understanding of Revelations...not by reading her book but by personal experience.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:27 am |
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