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. Chris

    Revelation is the only book in all of scriptures that claims the reader will be blessed for reading it: Revelation 1:3.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  2. Gop

    Only people with limited amount of intelligence would believe anything in the bible. I agree it is a good book of fantasy but that is all it is.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  3. ronaldo

    Any thoughts about revelation's predictions of the melt down in the middle-east being a myth?

    April 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  4. † In God We Trust †

    Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things...

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you stupid, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here are posted by closet Atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
    **Only 2-3% of the U.S. are Atheists/Agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**

    †† Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator ††

    April 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • AGuest9

      More lies and bad statistics.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Yes, we saw this the first time. It was funny once. After that, it's spam.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Religion

      Atheists are mentally ill, but people who believe in imaginary men who live in the sky are perfectly normal.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Gop

      Atheists believe in reality and not the fantasy of any religion. Because of this fact, you people of religion try your best to ram your beliefs down every ones throat. We Atheist do not try to make any one else become like us. You people on the other hand not only try to force your religion onto others but believe it is right to even kill none believers. People like you are truly mentally ill.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Jesus

      Why do you just keep ignoring me? Almost like I don't exist.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  5. PatRedstone

    Can't wait to read Pagel's book. Not all fundamentalists believe Revelations deserves a place in the NT cannon. I'm a protestant from a southern fundamentalist church and I – like all of our members – have an amillennial perspective much like the Catholics. It's a conceit particular to the boomer generation to put ourselves in the center of things. That's what happened with the book of revelations during the Jesus Movement (I was there) – the book most American protestants respected for it's mystery and imagery was suddenly internalized to mean "meMeME!" and created a widespread case of Jerusalem Sydrome – a psychotic disorder where people believe that their life will have an effect on what happens in the middle east and the effect of this mental disorder has prevailed over more sensible solutions in our US foreign policy. It is also interesting that the rapid rise of the fringe premillinialism is contemporaneous with fundamentalist Islam and their own brand of religious dystopia. Thank you CNN for this review.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Religion

      So you believe some fictional books, and not others? You lack "faith". Isn't that what you religious wackos always bleat about?

      April 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  6. heresy

    a book is written by man. therefore it has faults. and why base your life off the writings of men centuries ago?

    April 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • kerry

      jesus would not be for obamas health care reform, jesus wouild just heal the sick raise the dead. jesus is the way, the truth and the light. the bible is the inspired word of god, jesus is the only way to heaven, revelation. has to be read thruogh the spiriual eyes the god opens, cnn and people who work for cnn, have no clue, and when the rapture happens,you will know the truth and weep like a child left alone, the spirit of god will leave this world for seven years then cnn and the people who work for cnn will cry for death to come. unless you accept jesus christ as savoir, and not the jesus of islam.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Pat

      Heresy, you said the absolute truth. Man is NOTperfect, so I believe there are alot of flaws in the Bible. I completely believe many things are simply parables. I don't go for the Noah's Ark story, the parting of the sea story or Adam and Eve.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  7. trayvonmartin

    I think all U.S. and U.N. soldiers should dip their bullets in swine blood before exterminating these muslim lowlifes. You know what muslims and apples both have in common? They both look good hanging from a tree 🙂

    April 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • kerry

      musuilms art not low life they are just mislead by a satanic cult, islam comes from satan. i pray for them and their leaders, but i pray for isreal 1 st they are gods chosen people. god bless isreal and the usa

      April 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  8. WOT

    When the earth turns up side down, please keep your same beliefs!

    April 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Bacon

      That does not make sense. Down is a relative directional that describes inward toward the earth's core. How could the earth turn upside down? Unless, of course, you are suggesting that the world is flat. In that case, I withdraw my reply and will sit here with my mouth agape.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  9. † In God We Trust †

    CNN is Jewish owned... of course Jews are Anti-Christ as you see in this article

    April 1, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Jesus

      I'm having an existential crisis! DAD told me I'd have days like this.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  10. b4bigbang

    SixDegrees: "The gnostic texts weren't excluded because they held a different view of Christ, but because they were untrue. " – Circular reasoning. Not compelling.

    Your attempt to demonstrate logic fallacy by the poster's comment doesn't add up. My reasoning is that the poster said what he did because the gnostic gospels were determined to be untrue by the official panel of experts in the Christian religion, therefore are you suggesting that each new generation is required to repeat the process, repeated proving them untrue?
    Does secular science require scientists to repeatedly disprove discarded theories? Of course not!
    Not unless new solid evidence takes them back in that direction – and this has definitely NOT occurred regarding the gnostic tales.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  11. Denise

    Please update yourself on your geography. Patmos is part of present day Greece, not Turkey.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  12. Bacon

    The responses to this article show that a lot of people who call themselves Christians are far out of touch with academic theology and really do not understand their own religion.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • 1mommicked1

      When given a choice between believing an author trying to sell a book, or believing the word of God as it is written, believe the word of God 100% of the time.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • AGuest9

      I'd believe neither. However, the living human being, is not imaginary.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Bacon

      Author trying to sell a book, or renown theologian from a prestigious university who writes academic, peer reviewed monographs? She is contributing to CNN as an authority on new testament theology, not doing a guest spot on Oprah to plug her book. Listen, nobody is saying you have to fundamentally change your beliefs because Pagels wrote a book on the topic. However, she does deserve some credit for the countless months she no doubt spent in archives and in reading rooms, mastering the historiography of the topic, translating manuscripts, and completing more research on the topic than anybody in the modern world. She is not discarding your precious bible and calling it false. She is providing an academic understanding of its origins and the intent of its writers.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Find me something that is DEMONSTRABLY the word of God, and I'll consider it. You do know, of course, that there are hundreds of books making that claim, and they all disagree with each other?

      April 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • 1mommicked1

      To RichardSRussell– a King James Bible.

      April 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • AGuest9

      I think RichardSRussell was looking for something DEMONSTRABLE. You replied with the t.itle of a book. A book of dubious sources at the level that it is heresay at best, and historical fiction at the very least.

      April 1, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • 1mommicked1

      To be fair about it, I don't need to see Pagels' original texts or have it proven to me by archeology that she wrote the book. I beleive she wrote it just because it says so on CNN. I have no reason to doubt or question it. Why would I adhere to a different standard to believe that the bible is God's word.

      April 1, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  13. Bruce

    Religions are dangerous since they only require observance with no proof ever required. Because of this tennant, religion has been used throughout the ages to control populations. The Roman Catholic Church literally controlled the know "civilized" world for hundreds of years. The concept of hell is a great way to scare your followers into submission.

    Islam uses similar methods and has been mis-used for about the same amount of time as catholicism and christianity.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  14. Boiseguy44

    Voodoo. Just s ary stories to keep people in line. I much prefer to be a "sinner."

    April 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • thegadfly

      I like sin, too. I liked the conversation between Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Teague. Can you live with yourself?

      April 1, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  15. thegadfly

    This article is awesome! You can tell by the 64 pages of comments. My deepest concern about Revelations is that those who believe its supposed meaning so deeply are so bent on self-fulfilling it now. Other than that, I think Revelations is evidence that hallucinogens and entheogens existed long before Dr. Hoffman. And one other thing: Jesus was a radical liberal. Jews didn't kill him, conservatives did. Peace, y'all.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  16. Mark Hudson

    Another attack on Christianity supported and condoned by CNN. This particular attack is timed to coincide with Palm Sunday. Believers in Christ will not be persuaded, and non-believers will cling to the report to validate their position. What purpose does this serve? If you wanted to offer a book report on the author, you should always present opposing assessments. Shame on CNN.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Dana

      So anyone who disagrees with you is making war on your religion? Is seems Christianity has taught you intolerance, hyperbole and hate. Think you got the message right, eh?

      April 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      There was a time when people were only allowed to say approved things about Christianity, or be burned alive if they didn't. We call it the Dark Ages.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  17. Walter Harold Marlin

    The Book of Revelation/s is like any other relation, it is something that is not immediately understood and then, EUREKA!.

    The Book of Revelation/s are coded messages to be understood when the prophecy com to pass not to be interpreted literally.


    April 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      ...and they've been rabidly decoded for centuries, with each new interpretation ultimately proven wrong, over and over and over again.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  18. isolate

    "... As far as all the Atheists saying Christianity and the Bible are myths..Science explains alot of what the Bible talks about."

    Science can prove only that which exists or has existed; that's what science is. Science can be used to separate fact from myth. The science of archaeology has verified many of the locations mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but as yet has found no trace of Solomon's temple or the man himself.

    The sciences of physics and geology have found no shred of evidence that there was ever a world-drowning flood. The science of paleography has shown that the Genesis flood story was written down by other cultures a thousand years before the Hebrew Bible was composed, and that the Bible story uses quite a bit of the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, in some cases word for word, and that the Gilgamesh epic was itself based on an even older flood myth, the Epic of Atrahasis.

    So your sentence might better be arranged to say that science explains a lot of what the Bible talks about when the Bible is talking about verifiable facts. It cannot, however, support the miracles and the mythology, which are based on faith, not evidence. And of faith the most accurate comment I've ever found is in the Epistle to the Hebrews 11:1– "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." It's the essential difference between belief systems and scientific systems.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Gregory Pierce

      Good post

      April 1, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Jack

      Incorrect: "The sciences of physics and geology have found no shred of evidence that there was ever a world-drowning flood." Read from people with PHD's who are not trapped in the world view and can open their eyes to real evidence. If you care to be a 'learning' and know a "already know it" type of person, read up. Start here: http://www.icr.org/geological-strata/ The truth is out there. But, you need to look and dig. God will lead you to truth, if you want it.

      April 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  19. palintwit

    Jesus is probably sitting back in his Barca Lounger right now, sipping out of a bottle of Everclear, watching nascar and laughing at all the @ssholes on this blog.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Not Everclear. Pabst. Are you some kind of heretic?

      April 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Jesus

      But –

      April 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  20. Bob Lewis

    My critical and theological analysis has determined that the contents of this scripture are exactly equivalent in meaning to the droppings of a large, male bovine.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
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