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. sharpsburgian

    Always ironic to me that those who work so hard to discount and dismiss Revelation are at the very same time illustrating how its prophesies of the world turning against Christ are being fulfilled to the letter.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Turth7


      April 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Even more ironic that precisely that same view has been purported by the hundreds of different interpreters of Revelation over the centuries, all of whom mutually contradict one another, many of whom directly call each other blasphemers.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Sheila


      April 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  2. Margaret Zukoski

    Why is this writer's opinion of more value or more correct than anyone else's?

    April 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Largely because of her long, distinguished career as a scholar on these topics, and her countless peer-reviewed papers on the same.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • just me

      It's called education and credentials.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  3. John

    Turn to Christ now before it's too late..... life is short!

    April 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Or...what? I love how self-purported Christians invariably begin and end with threats. Including a threat of eternal punishment administered by their compassionate, loving god.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Heywood

      and obviously, so is your schlong, John

      April 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • A Witness

      There is a difference between a threat and a warning.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  4. Turth7

    The Jezebel comment in Revelation is to make you refer back to the Old Testament chapters where she is written about, NOT that women can't lead in churches....this author is a complete false prophet. Without understanding who Jezebel was, you can't possibly figure out what Jesus is even telling you. So, proof enough that this author is a DECEIVER.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      I'm not seeing any proof. Maybe you should submit your research for publication in a peer-reviewed journal – you know, the way Pagels has hundreds of times over the course of her long, distinguished career.

      BTW – Pagels discusses the connections between Revelation and the Old Testament in enormous detail, and is extremely well aware of the connections between the books.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Bx


      April 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Eric G

      Well, you are partially correct. No verifiable evidence has ever been presented to support the existence of ANY god or gods. Thus, they are all false prophets.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  5. A Witness

    Pagels' statement that "[John] doesn't even say Jesus died for [our] sins" is erroneous. John could not be more clear regarding this cornerstone of the Christian faith. He repeatedly calls Christ the "Lamb". Any biblical scholar, whether believer or skeptic, would, or should, know that John is referring to the Old Covenant practice of sacrificing the animals to expunge sin. Under the New Covenant, Jesus suffers the penalty of our sins through his crucifixion. Hence, He is the "Lamb". John's writings absolutely say the Lord died for our sins. Hallelujah!

    April 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  6. dragonflydreams

    God is outside of time and space, to him soon could be 2000 years. If you believe one part of the bible, you must believe it all. The only way to attempt to understand Revelation, for it to makes sense is to take it literally. Many prophecies predicted in the Old Testament are yet to come to pass and many have to do with the end times.
    I'm thankful that the author has the right to state her opinion/point of view, as we all do in this country for now. Her words are music to the ears of those that don't have a clue and don't want to engage in finding out for themselves what this book is about. It sparks fear in those that don't know God/Jesus, that don't want to face their fallen state. So to think that someone wrote an article that basically says "don't worry, be happy" they are relieved. It's sad.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Yes – dam n her fact-based research to hell!

      April 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Mike

      outside time and space and yet still has the genitals to be refereed to as "him"

      April 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Eric G

      In your first sentence, you make claims that your god exists, and also exists outside of time and space.

      First, you will need to provide any evidence that your god exists for verification. You will also need to provide verifiable evidence that an area outside of time and space exists. Once you have established those hypothesis as fact through the examination and verification of supporting evidence, we can address weather or not your god could exist outside of time and space.

      You have made a lot of work for yourself with one little sentence. You are going to be very busy for a very long time. Order a pizza in case you get hungry.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  7. chill out

    Each time something like this comes around it is not surprising at all. It will get even worst, and since we are discusing Revalation some verses came in mind, chp. 17, 8-14. But we that also are "bible scolars" by the power of the Holy Spirit and the great mercies of God and our Lord Jesus Christ, know the truth. I say the "truth" as an encouregment to those that are the elect but still a littlle weak.You know where to go. some references, mathew chapter 10, and 11, for example verses 16-30 of chapter 11. Or John chp. 15, 26-27, chp. 16 . chp. 17, 20-26.
    As far as these articles, there are other references, for example one of the clearest picture in the Bible, is Romans chapter 1 verses 18-32. But also let us keep in mind Eziekiel, chapter 25 verses 1-7, read once in a while chp. 33 or 37 of Eziekiel, Also mathew chp. 5, 13-16,
    We aren't here to change the world. Remeber the words of Jesus in Revalation chp. 22, verses 8-17 and the words of the Father in Genesis chp.3 verses 14-19. Perhaps someone will take it in the heart, and if they do, here are some other references, all of Psalm 22, and all of Isaiah 53. Those that are true to The God and Son Lord Jesus Christ, believe the Bible just as is and all that it says, Since we are made in the image of God we have one of the greatest evidence that nothing else has,including material things and animals, or enything else except us,humans, and that evidence is conscience, resoning, choise and will, and that in knowledge, confeses all in the spirit that God gave us , 1 Corinthians chp. 2 verses 7-16.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  8. !

    The author sounds like a truly atheists............ MAO, pol pot, stalin killed religious people

    April 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Eric G

      Wow, you must be new here. The old "Mao, Pol Pot & Stalin" argument has been addressed and debunked many times.

      Besides, I think that religious people have killed more religious people than any other group.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  9. Jezzy

    I can't wait for Santorum to become our president to wipe out all non-Christian @sses from this IN GOD WE TRUST nation!!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • just me

      Let's see if your prayers are answered. I'm betting they'll go unheard.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Heywood

      Yeah, look where your God got good old Tim Tebow

      April 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  10. Collin Christopher

    My favorite part of the comments section of a CNN religious article is when the Jesus people try to point out the factual errors. It's kind of adorable.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  11. N.Y


    April 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • UncleM

      Proven by circular logic and abd believed by fools.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Lateef Salami

      We have to be free from sentiment when discussing religion matters.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  12. briffault

    If you're a believer, great, if you're not? Fine, you'll find out some day one way or the other. Might want to curb the nasty little remarks until you're on the other side and finally realize that "Oops, maybe I shouldn't have made fun of everyone without the same opinion as me".

    April 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Dogfart

      Rule #1: Don't acknowledge the trolls.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  13. Bx

    All lies

    April 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  14. Donny Pauling

    I'm currently reading this book and finding it interesting. Pagels puts out thought provoking information in all of her books.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  15. N.Y


    April 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • larryb

      now this is a true american christian

      April 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Dinosaur

      hush up, nancy.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • TheDudeAbides

      Really? Why?

      April 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Thank you, Rick Santorum.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Peter Grenader


      April 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • just me

      Uh Oh. I see more gun violence on the way.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • IriG

      I guess you will be the first to go since you are not operating in the character of the Messiah. What an ugly & nonchristian thing to say to nonbelievers!
      2 Tim. 2:16 "But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness." Eph 4:29 "29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."

      April 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Dogfart

      Please don't feed the animals.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  16. Jamie

    What does man- made religion have to do with Jesus and his teachings.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • mandarax

      Everything. They are one and the same.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  17. Deonte Ferguson

    Have u been seeing whats going on in the world???? Christ is coming back sooner then we think!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • tallulah13

      People have been saying that exact same thing for 2000 years.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Heywood

      Yeah, he is skipping back all the way...God is a false hope for weak minded people.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  18. SANDRA


    April 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It's great that you believe that, but truth requires proof and you have none.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • uglytruth

      Don't forget. The bible is supposed to be taken literally:

      Matthew 16:20
      Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ.

      Obviously a man with some good ideas about kindness and charity that we other humans completely twisted to serve our selfish needs.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  19. Dinosaur

    I've preached Atheism enough for once day. But it's Sunday so I gotta shave my nads and head to church. Happy April everyone. May the force be with you.. ..always..

    April 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  20. bj412

    George Bush’s name add up to “666″ in Hebrew numerology too:
    * G = 3 (gimel)
    * e = 5 (heh)
    * o = 70 (ayin)
    * r = 200 (resh)
    * g = 3 (gimel)
    * e = 5 (heh)
    * B = 2 (beth)
    * u = 70 (ayin)
    * s = 300 (shin)
    * h = 8 (cheth)
    * total = 666 (Antichrist)

    April 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Heywood

      I think your moms name adds up to 666 as well

      April 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts or goblins

      What happens if you include the space between given and family names? What happens if you include his middle names or just the initials? Where are the rules for making up this bullsh!t?

      April 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
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