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. BLOCKthisCOMMENT from Satan's right hand man

    The only words missing from the bible are once upon a time and happily ever after.

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

      Actually you are wrong. It starts out "In the beginning" and then speaks for those who are saved who will live in eternal peace and joy ! Maybe you should read everything in between too !

      April 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  2. jemzinthekop

    The biggest myth of Revelations is.... Revelations. This if course is all from the big mythical work with the talking snakes and the big boat with all 250 000 species of beetle and the talking fiery bush and the guy who ruined the wedding for anyone that was pregnant or under the legal drinking age by turning the water into wine, or the guy that lived inside a whale, or the people that turned into pillars of sand, or the giant body of water that was divided so people could walk through it, or the food that fell from the sky, or the giant beanstock (oh wait that is another myth), or man and woman that had two sons yet somehow managed to spawn the entire human race, or the people that built the tower into the clouds, or little boy that killed the giant with a slingshot, or any other the other silliness that makes the human race abandon every sense of logic they were either born with or inherited through life experience.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Sheila

      Nothing is impossible for God. What is really ironic though, is that the non-believers like you are going to believe "The Lie", the illusion that is sent to you for your non-belief of God, and through that lie you are going to worship the Beast and take the Mark of the Beast, and live in misery and then be victims of the "man of perdition" when he raises great destruction on the whole earth. So you don't want to believe in God, but you are going to believe the real lie later. Isn't that interesting.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  3. Doug

    Untill we know for sure the answers to the questions we can't answer now there will always be attemps tp explain the unknown. My guess is, we are not alone in the universe, that there are other beings out there living on other planets.The odds that there aren't other civilizations in the universe is zero.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  4. Stephen

    Pagels is in no way an authority on a truly biblical understanding of Revelation. Her views are anti-Christian, anti-biblical, and anti-God. When it comes to understanding scripture, faith, Jesus, God, or Christianity, Pagels is clueless and her books are anti-religious spin; avoid them.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • reason

      She also upsets the Flat Earth Society by insisting the Earth is round.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      You are correct that she does not have a "Biblical" understanding of Revelation. That's what makes her work trustworthy — it doesn't start out with a pre-conceived bias.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  5. Emily

    There are always going to be people who will deny the truth of the Word. Always. The Bible even tells us that.

    "Above all you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." – 2 Peter 1:20-21

    April 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • reason

      Just the same as all religious texts.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  6. Kerwin Jones

    If we would study Revelation with the book of Daniel that would make it much easier to understand. These two books are brother and sister. They explain each other.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Pagels spends a great deal of time on this topic in her book.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  7. BLOCKthisCOMMENT from Satan's right hand man

    Faith is belief without and against evidence and reason; coincidentally that`s also the definition of delusion.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Turth7

      Let's see..your user name is "SATAN'S RIGHT HAND MAN".

      That would explain your lies.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Toad

      More fortune cookie shit. Have you thought of moving onto cute baby animal posters?

      April 1, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • BLOCKthisCOMMENT from Satan's right hand man

      Suppose you've chosen the wrong god. Every time you go to church you're just making him madder and madder.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  8. Justin

    This Elaine woman has no idea what she is talking about. She claims the Book of Revelation never says Jesus died for our sins but the fifth verse says exactly that.

    Revelation 1:5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

    To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood

    She also claims Paul supported female leaders in the church which is contradicted by a number of his letters to various churches

    April 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Please explain why Martin Luther wanted Revelation removed from the Bible, because "it has no Christ in it."

      April 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Wayne

      Justin, you are quite right. So we must take Pagels at her word: She read the book exactly twice. Once as a teenager and once in preparing her own book. I suppose that she must have overlooked a few things like the one you mentioned. If she actually said "He doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins" in her book then clearly she skipped the first chapter as you have pointed out.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  9. CNN repeatedly lies about the Bible

    CNN-Shame on you for having articles written by non-christians about the Bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You are kidding aren't you?

      April 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      I guess we can all stop listening to what self-professed Christians have to say about Muslims, then.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Teddy Maples

      Agreed! What is their real agenda here? CNN, you can try all you want to discredit the word of GOD, but you are going against the Almighty God and you WILL lose

      April 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • CarolSong

      I marvel that "believers" feel that God's Word is so easily threatened. As a teenager I was taught from a book about the makings of the Bible. 33 authors people and a whole other group of men who pre-selected those. Let's suppose there is a big daddy type God, wonder what he thinks of all this crap about a bunch of journals and letters this old. What if, what if, he likes some new books, some other books? After all he created everything. What's the prooooooooooooblem?

      April 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • reason

      Next they will have scientists refuting the claims of the Flat Earth Society, shame!

      April 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Right, because only people who are already horribly biased have anything worthwhile to say on the subject.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • wbrown49

      The author of The Book of Revelations was not the apostle John? Where on Earth did she get that piece of misinformation. This author obviously has taken some obscure accounts, and unsubstantiated "letters" and solved the answers that thousands of scholars could not answer in thousands of years. Somebody has a very high opinion of herself. She needs to pray to God for guidance, and wisdom instead of counting on her own intellect.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  10. Branch Isole

    Apparently, the more we might know about the Bible, the less we know. After 2000 years of study and interpretation many scholars seem to be as intent on 'commenting and expounding' in order to sell books, as in revelation of truth.
    The totality of Christianity and its Christ-like emulation for we mere mortal laymen may be found simply enough as Jesus the Christ stated in Matthew 22:37-40. This, in conjunction with the moral and ethical directives found in Exodus 20:1-17 is spiritually adequate for some of us.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Turth7

      It shows you how many people think they have the Holy Spirit and don't.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Boast Busters


      Sounds like you THINK that YOU do have it, though, eh?

      April 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Sheila

      God is not hard. In fact, early Christians could learn to understand the scripture in just 2 years of weekly study.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  11. Pipe-Dreamer

    The mountainous regions of religion and governinment will ever harbor humanisms' disputing onslaughts. Stay safely within one's vaulted embodiments of your soul. Keep the fragrencies of your Life emberred and lit. Everyone's light are as libations to God and His Godly Beings.

    1Cr 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Boast Busters

      Wanna know who wrote Revelation? ^^^^ someone just like that guy.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  12. BLOCKthisCOMMENT from Satan's right hand man

    Morals are not taught in the bible, obedience is.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Toad

      Wisdom from an atheist fortune cookie writer.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  13. Arisk59

    Other than that the US is a secular country-nation...lol! !!! And the island of Patmos is in present Turkey...lol !!! The authors of such stupidity should deep their fingers in their brains (if they have any),start studying basic geography and then think twice before touching religious topics...My summer home is on Patmos and being Greek i know the history of my homeland.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  14. rh

    This should be front page news. Someone interpreting the Bible, supposedly the direct word of God, differently than someone else?

    Next you'll tell us that evolution is real!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You cannot be serious, right?

      April 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Voice of Reason, I believe you have successfully detected irony.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  15. GauisCaesar

    The author of this article is known for his ridiculous stance on Christianity, just clink on his name in blue at the bottom of the article. His job, via CNN, is to undermine Christianity and cause Christians to become confused. Check out his other articles!

    April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Turth7

      You just described a false prophet. And yes, the author is one of them.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  16. Rip Rapp

    Patmos is in Greece not Turkey.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  17. steve Lopez

    you know i used to like CNN but lately the last two years all i see is blacks, anti GOD articles and Muslim sympathizers, you
    guy do not represent America or its beliefs or views, basically your more trash than treasure!.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  18. jdunning

    Pagels claim that the evil enemy of the book of Revelation is Rome is pure garbage (a historian she is not). Like Dan Brown her conjectures do sound interesting and sell a lot of books.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Pagels has the nasty scholarly habit, however, of backing up her assertions with facts and references. Something I've yet to see offered here by any of those who take issue with her. So far, not a single poster opposed to her positions has actually read her book or even knows what her positions are.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • GauisCaesar

      Funny thing is, the book actually makes continuous reference to who is the enemy, which she ignores. She also guesses that 666 refers to Nero, who had died long before, and that John didn't believe Jesus died for sins...that he was human, yet the whole book shows Jesus as the Son of God. Anyone that has read it or listened to an commentary could disprove her whole argument in minutes!

      April 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  19. 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 1:52 pm |
    • Turth7

      You should just simply ask God with an honest heart if He is there. Stop listening and promoting evil's lies. Only God can reveal the Truth to you.

      Don't ask "religion" to teach you.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • preacherman

      Truth7 – many of us did that for years before knowing any better. It was the years and years of getting no answer that made it such an epiphany to realize – Wait, maybe it's just not true!

      April 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Boast Busters


      And you should ask The Leprechaun King if he is really there!

      April 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  20. BLOCKthisCOMMENT from Satan's right hand man

    I love and I hate because I am a non-believer. Believers, on the other hand, love and pretend not to hate.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • steve Lopez

      Im a sinner, i hate and pitty non believers, really its a choice. you probably believe in yourself how mundane.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Of course I believe in myself, Steve. I have plenty of evidence that I'm right here. Now you do, too.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Boast Busters

      steve Lopez,

      You probably believe that YOU ARE WISE to have made the decision to be a believer, eh?

      April 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
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