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. humblegentleman

    Even if the ostensible prognostications delineated in the Bible are just fables, Christianity can be considered to be a moral compass, if nothing else. How many murderers out of all the known murderers do you know of who were fanatics of Christianity? There are some, but a very small percentage.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Bob

      Uh, you might want to use a different compass. Check out the disproportionate numbers of Christians in US jails and you'll find the truth to be different from your perception.

      Also, as far as murder goes, Christian god is the grand champ of that crime, and a big proponent of it throughout the bible:

      One example of dozens is Numbers 31:17-18:
      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      And we haven't even gotten to the explicit bloody sacrifice instrutions in Leviticus yet.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement. Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • wow

      'Moral Compa-ss' ? Like the inquisit-ion? The christians mas-sacre of over 11 million Indians when coming to America? Hit-lers catholic and christian? Or the child ra-p-es and so-do-my, the worst crimes of cover up by the vatican?

      Quite a compa-ss you have there. Or do you like to ignore the truth and pretend the religious are so different from others?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Agnostic

      I guess you just can't bear to accept the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades against the Muslims (oh yeah, the first Crusades got to Turkey and killed a city full of Christians), the Protestants and Catholics killing each other in Europe for hundreds of years, ya da, ya da, ya da. Christianity is a moral compass for selective believers.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • DebbieNJ

      Bob – I thoroughly enjoy your simple logic! Having grown up brainwashed in a strict Christian religion which could not answer simple questions posed by children, I find it refreshing to find other sound minded people who recognize reality.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  2. RGC


    The Bible was written by men – human beings who cannot help but to dramatize events and occurances just as the majority of people do today. It was also manipulated by the Catholic church to meet it's own needs. Then King James retranslated the entire thing – mistakes and mistranslations included. In my opinion it's a wonderful and often comforting book, but the idea that people believe the Bible word-for-word and think that it has gone hundreds of years unchanged is amazing to me. Go on and play a game of "Gossip" with just a handful of people and see what happens. Believe in Jesus, his teachings, and his message to love one another as you would yourself; that is what truly matters. But don't be fooled that the Bible is an entirely accurate recollection of the events and teachings of the past – and I apologize for offending the people who do.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse | Reply

    Mary Curry

    I completely agree. I went to catholic schools for 11 years. One of my religion teachers made an excellent point when we were questioning a passage about beating your wife and children. She said, "the bible was inspired by God, but written by man. Therefore it is fallible."

    April 1, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |

    Wonder Woman

    Finally, an intelligent person who actually believes as I do. The Bible was written as a metaphor for life, for how we should live, how we should treat others, etc. It is NOT the actual words of anyone but the monks who wrote it. It's a story. A wonderful story that can guide us all and teach us invaluable lessons. But take it for what it is.

    I completely agree...

    April 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Bob

      What a wonderful life guide the bible is:

      Numbers 31:17-18

      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Note also that the bible is very clear that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes your sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Please, stop referencing that Christian book of nasty, AKA the bible, as a guide to, well, anything.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement. Be free of Christianity and other supersti-tions.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  3. Denise

    The whole bible is fiction and myths with a few historical markers thrown in so it doesn't get tossed out outright. Only very stupid, gullible, and weak people believe it.

    Next story...

    April 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  4. WEZ

    This article basically says to dismiss everything that the book of Revelation says. I love how people can make up their own conclusions with no facts whatsoever to support them, and then write an article on it. Amazing.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • GoRemote


      April 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      You are talking about the bible, right?

      April 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • reason

      Next they will want us to dismiss the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus!

      April 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  5. John

    GOP preach about Jesus but follow their own god Russ Limbaugh......

    April 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  6. Loretta

    Why just choose the Bible . Dare you attack the Quran.. What about all the other religions . I

    April 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • wow

      I agree, they are both delusional.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • kAY

      Well, I'm not sure why you think this book is an "attack" on the Bible. Seems to me the author is simply trying to explain the historical foundation of Revelation and how that can help people determine the actual meaning of the book.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  7. no God


    April 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • John

      No doubt it was a fake. The supposed flag and all other apparatus should still be there on the surface. Why no more pictures????? It has been 43 years why not show more pictures with the new technology we now have and lay this issue to rest .It never happened it was hoax. Technology was not there in 1969 to land a space aircraft on the moon and have the ability to blast off from there to go home. Not in 1969....

      April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  8. Kevin Mo

    If you read the article carefully, all of her conclusions are based in pure speculation, not sound historical evidence and logic. First, Revelation is inseparably linked to the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament and Matthew 24 and 1 and 2 Thessolonians in the New Testament, and therefore directly tied to what Jesus said, etc – it is very much Christian and about the end of the world in that regard. As for the writer's views on women, the fact that he writes about "Jezebel" does not mean he was against the apostle Paul, etc. Using her reasoning, one could just as easily argue that because it speaks positively about the woman who gives birth to a child, or Jesus' marriage to His bride, that it is very much linked to the Christianity of Paul and the other followers. Any disagreement in early Christianity, as alluded to in the article, was worked about publicly in the New Testament, and it was always resolved by going back to what Jesus' actual teaching was, in conjunction with the Old Testament. This goes the same for "more than one book of Revelation". There are numerous reasons for rejecting the other "apocalyptic" books: John's (the apostle) book was historically tied to him and it relates to Daniel, Matthew, etc. Same goes for Gnostic views, etc. They did not fit with the historical testimony of the early apostles. This is horrible scholarship, at its best.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • TM

      Every view is speculative. That's why we call it belief.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • confirmed catholic

      But isn't the entire bible lacking "sound historical evidence and logic"?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  9. Shauna Washington

    It's amazing how myths that developed thousands of years ago are still believed and followed today. At best, Jesus was a nice man who did good, helped people, and was murdered. At worst, Jesus was a myth and this myth was deified into a god. Either way, the Book of Revelations has always read, to me, like Science Fiction....similar to the X-Files. Read it, enjoy it, and then move on with your life.

    Elaine Pagels forgot to mention how the Book of Revelations copied passages VERBATIM, word-for-word, from the Book of Enoch. There is nothing inspirational at all about the Book of Revelations.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  10. 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 10:56 am |
  11. springthecat

    "We told you so"? What a great Christian sentiment

    April 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  12. mike

    like a heard of sheep baaa baaa..lol

    April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • L.Johnson

      It's "herd," not heard.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  13. Voice of Reason

    If the earth was divided in two, one side for believers the other the non-believers. I would bet that the non side would prosper both in intellect, science, medicine and economy. The belief side would deteriorate trying to cure all of its social ills with high rate of mental illness, crime and overpopulation. As their side swelled and their resources diminished they would begin to force their way to the other side. Would the non side fight for freedom? You're damn right they would! Bring in on!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  14. John

    GOP and the Wall Street boys destroyed America and now they are trying to destroy Jesus of the Bible who preached Love and Mercy and not Hatred and Bigotry which the GOP party is now promoting.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  15. Joe

    4 myths in a book of myths, what do you expect

    April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Turth7

      Very sad that you don't recognize your Creator. If you want to know the Truth, just ask Him with an honest heart. Don't rely on man to teach you what His words mean. Let God and Jesus directly teach you.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Joe

      Truths are based on facts not some fantasy

      April 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  16. starkn1ght

    i always figured the beast with 7 heads would have to be a world leader who is adept at deceiving his army that he is following a good purpose.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • John

      How about the GOP and the Wall Street boys......

      April 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • starkn1ght

      revelation says on one of his 7 heads appears to be a fatal wound that has healed, so the ppl follow him in wonder. but we dont follow barack in wonder yet so im not sure..

      April 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • DeeDee

      The beast with 7 heads represent the Succession of Seven World Powers...Egypt...Assyria....Babylon.....Medo Persia......Greece....Rome.....Anglo-America. (And the wild beast that was but is not, it is also itself an eighth king, but springs from the seven, and it goes off into destruction Rev 17:11) The eighth is League of Nations-United Nations.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  17. Tom

    The article is certainly sensational. Presenting as fact many disputed claims. Just seems to be tagging onto the Da Vinci Code "Myth" of how books made it into the Bible. Revelation was among the questionable books along with Hebrew's etc...but it became Canon for very reasons and not just the decision of one man and claimed here.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  18. GreatGrany5

    As a teenager back in 1945 I remember The EXPERTS poopawing the idea that Israel would ever again be a nation. Our world then was very much aware of the the Belfore Declaration that promised a homeland for the Jews who had been decimated during World War 2. All of those EXPERTS were shown just how much they deserved the designation of EXPERT when Harry Truman, then Prresident of the USA ordered the vote in the UN to be Yes for the recognition of Israel. In fact, the very name of Israel was determined at the last hour. It was called that because it is what the HOLY SCRIPTURES called the Land eons ago.
    This current EXPERT is just as reliable as those EXPERTS OF 1945. Revelation is the Revelation of Jesus Christ and reported by John, the Apostle that Jesus Loved. Zeez! When are you ever going to get it right. TIME WILL TELL!

    April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Lenore Arbaugh

      Very true Great Grany5! We may not know what it all means but this woman surely does not either. What about the prophecies of Jesus in the Gospels. If one doubts them, they are doubting Jesus. There will be a lot of surprises soon and Jesus will have the final say. We may not know the answers, but Jesus is the ANSWER. The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  19. Seriously??

    " “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.” "

    Is this an April Fools joke?
    "...and from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood..."
    (Revelation of John 1:5, NET)

    How is that not clear enough?

    April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • GreatGrany5

      You asked "Is this an April Fool's Joke?" It has to be for surely the powers that be CNN would have enoughj sense to recognize that Evil is afoot in our world today but none of what is happening right now is a surprise to born again Christians. It is progressing along and fear isn't the product that God (YAHWAH) is producing. He isn't the author of evil or confusion.

      Sunday school lesson complete. Have a blessed Sunday.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  20. Doug C

    The word of God warned us of people distorting the truth. This just proves it.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Turth7


      April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Agnostic

      Pass the cool-aid please.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • DeeDee

      I totally agree with you.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Dennis


      April 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
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