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. joshua

    read joel 2 habakuc 3 psalms 102&77&33 ezequiel 38&39 and ester and isaiah 17&24 mathew 24 jeremiah. daniel malachi 4 see for yourself that revelation is written in the old testament as it is in revelation. wake up. 2 corinthian.6... the person who wrote this still sleeping in the dark. wake up u know nothing....

    April 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Clif

      You're right. You, who has read that chapter MAYBE twice the whole way through and picked out very small sections to support your own beliefs in your own context, know MUCH more about the interpretations, context, and underlying translations than someone who has devoted their entire life to studying the texts. Cheers.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  2. Athane Khagan

    Good post, TRinATL ! It was indeed the historical John the Apostle.

    And in regard to the posts about gods and holy books of other religions; as a young adult I questioned the Catholic beliefs that I grew up with and read the books of many different religions – Torah, Koran, studied Buddha and Sidhartha, Hinduism. I've also talked with people of Islamic faith, Chinese Ancestor Veneration and a Rabbi at a Synagogue. I've listened to atheists who make no sense to me – this universe is all an accident? I don't think so.

    My conclusions were that every religion holds the same good beliefs and virtues in their own interpretation, when undiluted by men wishing to bend that religion for their own gain. All worship a higher presence that put us here and watches over us and to whom we will return and account for our actions in life. I never returned to Catholicism but I am an ardent Christian – because I believe that many messengers came to give us instructions on how to best live here – Moses, Buddha, Confusiius, etc. – but Jesus the son of the Creator was the perfect example of how to live on this Earth.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Clif

      No... it wasn't John the apostle. How dense are you people? And you wonder why atheists think you're idiots. This is coming from a believer BTW.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • sybaris

      Well you then missed the biggest lesson in all of your alleged studies............that you don't need religion to be a good person.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • tsoho

      Since being a good person is completely up to you and independent of religion. A question for you to ask yourself, sybaris:

      Are you a good person then, or are you a selfish person?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • sybaris

      tsoho, only in the twisted rationale of the faithful would goodness independent of a god be deemed selfish.

      By your logic anyone who isn't christian is selfish.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • tsoho

      That's not what I'm saying, sybaris. I am asking you to ask yourself if you are a good person. Leave God out of it. Just look at yourself and the way you treat other people. Do you love them as much as you love yourself, or do you love yourself more? Are you a good person, or a selfish person?

      You claim that you can be good without religion. I'm just asking you to ask yourself if you really are. I don't care to know the answer. I just think it is important for you to answer that question for yourself.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  3. stainedundies

    Many of the comments here sound like Christians who feel threatened by the truth. Maintaining their twisted interpretation of the Bible has also been more important than seeking after truth.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Clif

      Agreed 100%

      April 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • sybaris


      There are two things religion requires in order to perpetuate:

      Ignorance and cognitive dissonance.

      The faithful will showcase both in this thread.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  4. Steve

    Simple logic test: Which of these is more conceivable?

    (a) The book of Revelation was written in a specific context with a certain agenda?


    (b) the writer got privileged information from God and accurately portrayed the end of the world?


    April 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  5. BlogHaha

    The Anti Christ are the Americans

    April 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • getalife

      Work on getting your subject and predicate to agree.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Clif

      Clearly you have a much deeper understanding of the ancient texts after not really reading them than someone who has devoted their entire life to interpreting them. Cheers.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  6. Last man

    Anyone who has done any serious research into Revelation, for that matter the whole Bible – knows that there are Known Facts about the Book, and what are believed to be facts. The Bible worshiping sector rejects the Known Facts in favor of what they believe to be the facts.

    Known Facts; No one truly knows who wrote each individual Gospel, Book Of Rev was not written by a familiar disciple of Jesus, All early Xtians believed that Jesus was to return in their Lifetimes, not 2K+ years later. These are but three KNOWN FACTS that Bible Worshipers deny and ignore.

    There is a huge divide between critical study of the Bible and Worship study of the Bible, and currently that divide is growing wider and wider due to a falling backwards in Belief and Worship to a more unlearned and outright ignorant time in Xtian history.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. Josef Bleaux

    So what the heck? Why is this news? It's ancient mythology, who cares. Why is CNN trying to push ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tious nonsense? How about some news about reality?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Clif

      There are a ton of different subsections on CNN.com designed to appeal to a very wide range of people. This is one very small subsection that for once had a link on the front page, much like all of the other sections do regularly. If you didn't want to read it you didn't need to click it. If you want news on "reality" you could have clicked another of the hundreds of links on the front page.

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

    What, you mean to tell me some oppressed, frustrated writer of the first century was just writing about his experiences and his desires?

    Say it ain't so. How could that be? So rational, so reasonable.

    Now, let's all debate whether that's more likely or that an invisible sky God took over the writer's fingers and wrote it Himself through the writer. Ok, that didn't take lone. Debate over now.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  9. Rob

    All of this time and effort spent over something that isn't ever going to happen...

    April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  10. Juan R. Prestol

    As a religious piece this article lacks substance, and as responsible journalistic work it is misinformed. It is true that we do not have to be theologians to understand the book of Revelation, but at least we will need to be serious students of Scripture, Apocaliptic literature and history. Presenting the book Revelation as in contradiction with the writings of the apostles and Paul's is simply evidence of lack of knowledge on the part of the writer. Revelation is a fitting conclusion to the different themes and motifs found in the Old and the New Testament. By the way, the island of Patmos is not Turkish territory, it belongs to Greece.


    April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Slight of Hand

      The writer is referring to a book. Perhaps you should go to the source before assuming anything. Also, look on a map where Patmos is. You honestly think it was never a Turkish territory??? It is like 30 miles off the coast!!

      April 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  11. Boudabef

    Hey read this article about revekation.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Tom

      Why does CNN have to put this story on the front page on Palm Sunday? So sick of being attacked by CNN for being a Christian.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  12. Ryan

    WOW! Can we say "bias"...? If you guys will read a line or 2 about Pagels, you'll learn that she's big on Buddhism and the Gnostics. Therefore of course she's going to interpret scripture with her own filter. The Gnostic Gospels are dismissed for simple reasons, they're not eye witness testimonies. People who had 1st hand knowledge of the Messiah Jesus, whether in the physical or supernaturally (Paul). Paul did author more scripture than the others although not having physically met Messiah before His ascension, but does everyone see how dramatic His conversion was? Kinda adds some credibility to His testimony. If Richard Dawkins started making claims of a Christian conversion and then had extreme actions that showed proof of his conversion would it be safe to say that our society would have to say that it's legit (whether you attribute it to something supernatural or him losing his mind)?
    Next her portrayal of John as an opponent of Christianity is ludacris. His issue with the "synagogues of Satan" was that Judaism was recognized by their government but Messianic Judiasm/Christianity was not. They claimed to have a King (Ruler) aside from Caesar and also refused to bow to Caesar on "the Lord's Day". I can go on and on but this poor one is way way off. Gotta go make breakfast. Take care.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • joe

      The Gnostic Gospels are dismissed for simple reasons, they're not eye witness testimonies.
      If you would actually read you canonized Jesus stories you would quickly realize that the authors aren't in most of the stories. Do you understand what that means? It means they weren't present to witness the stories they write about. Look at the beginning of Luke where he states he's writing about things handed down to him.

      That's why the Christians came up with the "God Breathed" the words theory because the gospels by admission weren't eye witness accounts.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Clif

      I honestly don't think so at all, I just think you're overly sensitive and you read that into it because of your insecurity and personal beliefs.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • BADGUY

      But..it is believed that NONE of the books were written by "first hand witnesses" of Jesus. In fact, it's my understanding, ALL the books of the bible were written between 100 and 200 years AFTER the death of Jesus.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Ryan

      40/50 A.D. – 95 A.D. dates are approximate. Also, Luke collected info while doing his own investigation into the claims. He's your only gentile author in the for certain. His research is taken from first hand accounts. I've also heard many say that Luke and Acts were accounts recorded also for a defense that could be presented to the Roman gov't for Paul. Please give any other supposed dates of contemporary gospels. It would be worth looking into thanks for feedback. Sorry I don't go for the subjective or no objective truth stance, I think it's pretty weak. I've been an agnostic and done some minor research of other religions but feel that the belief that mankind is broken and damaged or for that matter evil fits. From a liar to serial killer mankind seems to fall apart and are incapable of fixing ourselves. Kinda opens up your worldview when you see it that way. Also illuminates scripture that much more and makes them more and more relevant to today.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  13. Jason D

    Its a good thing the bible doesnt give a time for all this as buddism did and the mayans did and some fool of a preacher did..TWICE because theres nothing thats going to ruin a faith then not meeting your 'dead by date' to find you dont even get fireworks.

    I've seen the asteroids, seen the lining up of the planets, seen the noreasters like no others, red rivers, news of frogs in the rain, dead fish everywhere and still 'No end of the world', i doubt if every jew went back to isreal it would end the world, or if four people trot by on horses and call themselves the four horsemen of the apoclaypse.

    FACT IS:-

    If you want to stick around as a faith then NEVER say or PROMISE something that can be proven wrong at any point in the future, if you give a date make it 'fudgy' or they will see right through you like the snake oil salemen you are

    April 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  14. dave z

    I agree, this is a typical CNN liberal view... twisted and distorted; it reminds me of when the devil spoke in Genesis, " Ge 3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
    Ge 3:2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,
    Ge 3:3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
    Ge 3:4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.
    Ge 3:5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
    I thought he said the anti-Christ was not real?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Jason D

      Did you know that by far the majority of people who go to church and even quote parts of the bible havnt even read it cover to cover....meaning they own small books of quotes to look like a real christian, or their leaflets that the church gives out at sermons that have quotes in them.

      But most wont even read the book, as far as a book club goes they wouldnt even still around for the first week, infact as a percentage more athiests and agnostics know more about religion then the actual members of each religion.


      April 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Clif

      You're so cool. Are those the only verses you know?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • BADGUY

      You REALLY convinced me!

      April 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • awasis

      The Bible is garbage and for people with a 3 rd grade view of things. Just the mountain of contradictions alone should indicate to someone who uses their brain that it is all nonsense. But that's the point. you have to suspend all logic and rationally to believe its claims. Not one supernatural claim in the Bible has ever been proven. Not one. The level of stupidity and ignorance demonstrated here by some is truly breath taking. And please save me "Ill pray for you" or "you're in big trouble now" comments. Neither of them are worth the paper the Bible is written on, because your god shows no verifiable evidence that he exists.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  15. 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 9:43 am |
  16. Docboy

    Who cares? If you are a believer, you will be long gone before any weird stuff happens.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • BK

      Amazing how a group of people can say "its gonna happen any day now!' for 2000 years and still believe it.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Naterade

      How so?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  17. gremlinus

    Blah blah blah. They are symbols. They are timeless and take on the meaning according to the people interpreting them. It doesn't matter how they started out or what the author intended. It matters what the reader sees in it. Sorry I'm having high school flashbacks to being taught the "correct way" to interpret a poem. If you think that, you've Completely. Missed. The. Point. of symbolism and allusion in literature and religion.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • WMoonFox

      The problem is that, when it comes to the book of Revelation, many Christians interpret it very literally. To even presume that it may have another interpretation, as seen in these comments, is tantamount to Satanism.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Redford

      Well said. Nor does she seem to have any understanding of archetypes.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  18. Turth7

    "I fed them in the desert and they became satisfied. When they were satisfied, they became proud. Then, they forgot me".

    April 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  19. LMB

    Just about the only thing that's factual in this article is this line near the end of it :"Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning". Some Bible scholars are just full of themselves. Take what she says with a huge chunk of salt.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • reason

      Take the entire Bible with a huge chunk of salt.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • sybaris

      People should take religious texts with the same measure of skepticism.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  20. Penelope K

    Patmos is in GREECE not Turkey.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • reason

      You are the 4,232nd person to point this out. Thank you.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Joe W

      This is true, however the Turks once dominated the island and even now not too many Turks feel comfortable going to or live on Patmos. @ JoJohn123 also.

      April 1, 2012 at 10:09 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.