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. jim

    Common folks, get real. You had multiple, conflicting branches of early Christianity, arguing in the shadows. Many denied that Jesus was a diety, some hinted of his survival and immigration to Kashmir. When Constantine needed to deal with political rivals, he usurped the Roman State religion and replaced the clergy with Christianity. All Roman Catholic vestments and most of the mass as well as holidays are based on Roman religion, not any of the Christian variants of the time. The Bible was assembled and interpreted strickly for political purposes. And it worked.
    As for Jesus, he may have been a good, wise man, but we will never know. As for his tomb, it is not in Israel or France, but in Kashmir

    April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Soror Inanna

      Everytime anyone starts talking about this stuff, there are 10000 interpretations of meaning, hence - the fall of the Tower of Babyl and all our languages are babbling. What they should be doing is not worrying about that but instead worrying about the fact that.. THE ONLY PERSON THAT IS DESTROYING OUR PLANET FOR US - IS *OURSELVES*. Yes there are hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis and earthquakes, but global warming and making military weapons to kill each other is what's really gonna do us all in. And god didn't do it - we did it.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  2. Chris

    What about the 5th myth...that the book of revelations is something other than fantasy fiction?

    April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  3. Truth

    All religions are based on faith, including the Truth of Revelation and the Bible. However, even in todays great belief in science, the answer to afterlife will only be known after you die.

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

      Uh science doesn't require belief. Do you believe 2+2=4 or is it a fact?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Soror Inanna

      :o) agreed. but the mystery of life is quite apparent...

      April 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Truth

      Sybaris, that was math. Exactly how did the universe begin. How did matter become alive. Why do we have free will in a causal universe. Science is 99% hypothesis and belief, unless it is God already.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • drm

      Dear "Truth",

      "Exactly how did the universe begin. How did matter become alive. Why do we have free will in a causal universe."

      We're working on the answers as we speak, just as we were many generations ago when the questions of the day were, "Is the world round? How big is the ocean? Why do I resemble my mother?" Be patient and science will eventually hand you and/or your decedents the answers to these question of our day. Of course, rest assured, we'll have a who new batch of perplexing ones in the future.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Truth

      Dear DRM – I understand that is what you believe, but these questions are not as simple as finding an atom. You can never prove how the universe began. The forensic evidence is gone. The probabilities of matter becoming alive are infinitesimal. If you believe in infinitesimal improbabilities, that is your choice. As for me, I do not believe we are biological computers or zombies. I believe we have a spirit. Since a spirit is immaterial, then by definition, science which reveals the material, cannot be used.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  4. CHRIS Ggear

    QUOTE from above:
    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.” (CLOSE QUOTE)


    A) 1 John 1:7 "…the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

    B) Revelation 1:5 "To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—"

    C) Revelation 7:14 "These are they who...have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

    D) Revelation 12:11 "And they overcame him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony…"

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

      Pagels is in excellent company here, including that of Martin Luther, who wanted Revelation removed from the Bible on the grounds that "there is no Christ in it." He relented for other reasons, but his criticism stands.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  5. PABLO

    For those of you who think that the book of revelations is irrelevant or a myth, soon you will live it in your own flesh and it is NOT going to be very pleasant. Please look up Dr. David Jeremiah on youtube and inform yourselves on a series of studies about this great book of revelations.

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

      But don't hold your breath people.. because pablo is delusional.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Soror Inanna

      Do you honestly think that your flesh won't burn and that you are a sole survivor of the imminent holocaust? I bet you talk the talk but in your dark secret fear of death you just don't know... you just don't know do you. SO QUIT TELLIN THE REST OF US HOW IT IS.

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

      Hey Pablo, I have some ocean front property in Arizona. I'll sell it to ya real cheap.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • drm

      This guy is about as authentic as his 'honorary' doctorate.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  6. Luke1:37

    I believe in Jesus Christ. Period. You atheists, non-believers or whatever can say what you want about my beliefs. It all comes down to FAITH. That is what I believe. God said it. I believe it. That settles it. I would rather live my life believing in God, dying, and then find out maybe I was wrong, then to live my life not believing, then die, and find out He is real. I already know He is real, and I believe in my heart that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I am not going to force my beliefs on anyone. The wise ones already know the Truth. I also know that I did not evolve from apes either. The bottom line is FAITH. God Bless Y'all!

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

      Do you know what faith even means?

      April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • JC

      What you've just described is not Faith. It's Fear. Enjoy a life of that.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • sybaris

      "I would rather live my life believing in God, dying, and then find out maybe I was wrong, then to live my life not believing, then die, and find out He is real."

      IOW, I believe ........... just in case.

      Loads of integrity in that.

      I would rather live my life considering all the evidence and then making a rational and informed decision rather than being a robot for religion.

      Regardless, you don't know that you won't be answering to Zeus, Ra or FSM.

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

      "The wise ones already know the Truth. I also know that I did not evolve from apes either."


      April 1, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  7. Soror Inanna

    What I think is amazing is that anyone is trying to interpret the visions of someone heavily induced on hallucinogens. What I'm waiting for is their brilliant interpretation of Aleister Crowley's "Vision and the Voice." I think the only person who could've commented on Revelations is the guy who wrote it. Instead of sitting around worrying about whether the world will end because God wrote it down - maybe they should consider instead what Augustine said about FREE WILL or anyone else for that matter: THELEMA. "WILL." Or, the God given ability that we have to be able to change our own destiny. Like for example, using alternative fuel, trying peace on for size. Well, that would first require that lobbies don't give money to congress like the Defense Industry so that we have to make semi-nuclear weapons to blow up other countries with. Until they can use their free will to make the world better - BEST BE SURE THAT IT IS THE END. And you don't need revelations to show you that one - CNN does just fine.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  8. Rogue Missionary

    April Fool's: 4 Myths of the Book of Revelation. Nice one CNN & John Blake. Nice entertaining fake review of the Book of Revelation. I'm glad you mentioned that the author's understanding of Christianity was founded on her work of the Nag Hammadi, which is anti-Christian. The earliest these texts date to is 3rd century, aka over 150 years or so AFTER the disciples died. Compared to the New Testament texts existing today that date to the time of the Apostles writing. Which should hold more credibility? The Nag Hammadi is a book of Gnostic Gospels, which the early church clearly stated in the Bible was anti-Chrisitan (not the Nag Hammadi, but Gnostics in general). Gnostics didn't believe in the Bible, so we appreciate the full disclosure in your article. Next time I read a story about the Holocaust, I'll be sure to read an article written by the Iranian president. I'll get about as much biased opinion from him as I am from Pagel and Blake.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Thomas

      Rogue, correct you are. Hats off. Great post. Succinct and spot on

      April 1, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  9. Suzanne

    BE advised I only posted 1 comment, which now cant be found...

    April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • getalife

      Thank you for update. Keep us posted.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  10. Denver Reader

    Sounds like a great book. I really appreciate all the work that's been done by historians lately to debunk Christianity and get people out of the imaginary thinking where they become easily manipulated by politicians, bosses, husbands, parents, etc. because of it.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  11. JennieD

    So many people are taking the bible so literal, because this person or that said you must have faith and not question. People are so closed minded and ignorant. I think we will only be able to theorize about the bible, there will always be controversy and that is never going to change. People need to look within themselves and figure out there true beliefs. Who am I and who are you to tell people what is right and what is not re guarding the bible and its meaning. Unless you were there and you could ask the person who wrote it, why they wrote it....it will never truly be understood. Who knows this book of revalations could be written as entertainment and Christians are making it sacred and not to be questions.....its like in 2000 years someone finding a copy of the Harry Potter books and saying they are divine. Religion is just a comfort for closed minded people who need a reason for why they are here and a reason to live their lives and connot accept that like everything, we die and that's the end. People really need to realize that there are things that everyone is not going to see eye to eye on...therefore controversy is always going to exhist.

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

      Maybe that is because the Bible was written literally.

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

    Do ANTI-CHRIST pay taxes?

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

      No, they sell bibles.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  13. Brett

    Jesus changes lives for the better, heals diseases, sets people free from despair, fear, emotional trauma, etc. I've seen it with my own eyes, experienced it. Religion is man made, can't save you, destroys you. I've been there, done it. Only Jesus is the answer to all the worlds’ problems but unfortunately most people reject Jesus and that is why we have the problems in the world as we have.

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

      "Jesus changes lives for the better, heals diseases, sets people free from despair, fear, emotional trauma, etc."

      You can swap out Jesus with any number of historical religious figures and have the same results.

      Regardless, I challenge you to provide one living example of your Jesus regenerating the limb of an amputee.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  14. anastasia

    First of all, you illiterate moron... You write, "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 in present-day Turkey."
    Patmos was and will always be GREEK.

    Get your facts straight!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Ross Andrew Simons

      you clearly don't know the definition of illiterate.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Sunny

      No, you are wrong, Anastasia. John was a Aramaic-speaking Jew. Look it up! Get your facts straight.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  15. REALLY?

    "John of Patmos" was a disciple of Jesus and also knowns as "John, the beloved." For Pagel's to write they are not one in the same is incorrect. Furthermore, the twelve disciplines of Jesus were Jewish. Therefore, it was not like John of Patmos was Jewish, thus, he could not have been one of the first twelve disciples of Jesus. In addition, John was not angry at the believers of Jesus, he was concerned with the moral standing of the churches found throughout the eastern world. He wrote a letter to each church and urged them to repent. Today those letters are reminders to believers of Jesus to make sure our hearts have not grown cold, but instead make sure your faith is ALIVE!

    I do not know the extent of research Mr. or Mrs. Pagel conducted before writing her/his book. But some basic knowledge, based on the text itself, would indicate their theory is incorrect. She/he might be using other texts to write their "book" and avoid the written words that are found in the book of Revelation. But even doing some outside research, I am surprised he/she did not come across this, would uncover a unique fact about John of Patmos and/or John the Beloved: John was a half cousin of Jesus. He is also known to be the longest living apostle, thus writing his second and last book, Revelations.

    People have to be careful of taking "ones word or opinion and digesting it as fact." Asking questions and verifying the facts are key to gain individual knowledge. In the Bible, the Lord encourages people to seek truth and to have knowledge. In proverbs it states, that the people perish for LACK of knowledge.

    So don't take my word for even what my little comment states and/or suggests. Research, discover and read for yourself what the book of Revelations really does say!

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

      Well put

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

    The GOP and the Wall Street boys who destroyed America are followers of their own god Russ Limbaugh......

    April 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  17. alter boy

    "Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man…living in the sky, who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer and burn and scream until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you and he needs money."

    April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  18. C Grimes

    It says she read Revelation as a teenager and then again when she wrote the article. And she thinks she has insight that real Bible scholars don't? This is news?

    April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  19. Tom D

    Why is it so hard to believe that God would talk directly to someone? Is it because it hasn't happened to you? Anyone with a brain can actually read Revelation and tell that it is Jesus who comes to John to tell him of the things to come. But this guy is too busy making up bizarre lies, and making up his own history about what really happened. There are things he talked about that didn't even occur in Revelation. Read it for yourself. And just something to think about, can you tell me of any other nation that has been destroyed off the face of the Earth and then re-established? That happened to Israel twice.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Gaunt

      "Why is it so hard to believe that God would talk directly to someone?"

      Why is it so hard for you to believe that Thord rides down from the heavens on a lightning bolt, watches the humans of the world and dispatches valkytries to bring those who died well in battle to the halls of valhalla?

      You assume this and all other gods and religions are silly myths, then get all huffy when your intellectual betters do the exact same thing to YOUR silly myth.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  20. HispanicMan

    This chick wrote nothing but BS. She obviously wrote stuff just to sound smart or intelligent. Too many flaws in her naive opinions. For example, the number 666. The bible shows that the number 7 is the mark of perfection according Gods standards. No imperfect creature can obtain that perfect mark. So using the numbers 666 on a wild beast of Revalation which represents the governments and false religions, it shows that they have missed the mark of perfection, 7. Using it three times, 666, was for emphasis as to how bad governments and religion have failed.

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

      You think too much.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Write your theory up and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. If it gets published, you'll have one paper to hold up against the countless that Pagels has published.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:17 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.