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. Hey!

    Atheists: Prove to me God does not exist and I will happily convert to your religion 🙂

    April 1, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • jen

      Prove to me that God exists and I will happily convert to your religion 🙂

      April 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • adrifter

      Atheism is not a religion. I have no religion. Zero. Feels pretty good.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • ruggles

      Prove to me that you don't collect stamps and I will happily join you in your hobby of unstamp collecting.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Rob

      Atheism is the absence of religion, you don't convert to it. You merely grow out of your childish beliefs about the world and realize that god and the devil are no more real then santa claus and the easter bunny.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Ed

      It's called burden of proof, and those proclaiming the thing exists have it.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • alright

      atheists: go kill yourself..literally..you will see god and then go to hell..you have nothing to worry about if you strongly bleve that there is no god.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      @alright, As an atheist we value life. As it's likely that we only get one, it is precious to us. As a xtian, you should be looking forward to eternity with god, bowing and scraping in supplication to your glorious overlord. Isn't it a better idea for xtians to kill themselves or each other to hasten that glorious day?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Ashrakay, I could never understand that as a child. Why were old people so afraid to die if they were going to heaven? Must have been that pesky Pascal, again.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  2. jen


    April 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  3. adrifter

    Anyone who believes anything in Revelation – written by some crazed, hallucinating mystic – is just as crazy as he was. I agree with the early church leaders who believed Revelation should never be included in the Bible. It's nonsense. Simple as that.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  4. LouAZ

    It is very clear by these comments that many christians would burn Pagel at the stake !

    April 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  5. shana

    These myths are ridiculous. Why would only half the bible be true and the other half not. Or even part of it. God said do not add or take away. And that is what is being done. People are adding their own reason instead of what God said. We should be careful what we say is myth and what is not

    April 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • just saying

      Shana, If you educated yourself about world history you would know that the books of the bible were picked over and assembled by Constantine in 325 bce, the books themselves have been changed with every rewriting and translation from their original languages–this discussion is merely a continuing process of changing the never static status quo.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  6. WATCH!


    April 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  7. Norway

    Seriously Atheists.... aren't you afraid of hell?!

    April 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Sane One

      Hell is life on earth.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • AR

      how can you fear what's not there? you don't know that hell exists, you haven't died.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      I'd be a lot more afraid of a god who threatened to send anyone who disagreed with him even a little bit to burn for all of eternity, while claiming to be loving and compassionate. Sounds like a classic wife beater.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • falcon

      Nope. The author of Revelations seems to have smoked too many peyote buttons. Science fiction is better.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Fear is not a reason to convince yourself of truth in insanity. It is the same motivator to get Santa to come to your house and give you gifts.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • ruggles

      Aren't you afraid of Tartarus?

      April 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Nope! Way more afraid of christians, all believers actually, on earth than some place no one can prove exists.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Atheists

      Why are we afraid where we came from?

      April 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      @Norway, Thank you. You just summed up the weakness of every christian. Fear. Fear of death. Fear of Hell. Fear of rejection. Fear of being alone.

      As an atheist, I can tell you that I do not fear hell even if it were real. I'm smart enough to be able to accept whatever comes my way and find the good in it. Acceptance always overrides fear. True love, always overrides fear. You should try it sometime and break yourself free of your bondage.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • adrifter

      As an atheist, I don't fear hell. I don't believe it exists. If you are a Christian, aren't you the one who should fear hell? After all, Jesus said only a few people would actually make it to heaven. The camel through the eye of a needle thing.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Ed

      How can one fear that which does not exist?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  8. AR

    the biggest myth mentioned here is the bible itself.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  9. Corpus Christi, TX

    I feel bad for nonbelievers... all I want to say :/

    April 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • adrifter

      Don't feel bad for me, friend. I'm just doing fine.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • jerry

      I feel sorry for people that will blindly follow others into oblivion. I like a song line that goes "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints". People of faith tend to judge others, atheists do not. There have been many people die over religion, atheist tend to be docile. I would venture to say that atheists are more even tempered. So why would you feel sorry for me, I don't understand.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  10. Matthew

    I feel bad for nonbelievers... all I want to say :/

    April 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  11. Devon

    Hilarious....they ask a Liberal like Pagels about the book of Revelation...CNN...you are so predictable.....how about actually asking a Christian about Revelations instead CNN??? Of course that wouldn't suit your agenda now would it.....Ha ha...Elaine Pagels.....that is like asking Himmler on a unbias view on Nazism!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • fred

      Many Christians would agree with her that the book of revelations was not meant to be taken literally. Read those silly left behind books to see how ridiculous a literal translation of the book of revelations really is.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Morbus

      The point isn't that she's a "liberal" - it's that she's a scholar. And I really have to ask why Christians wouldn't be EAGER to learn as much as they possibly could about the writings they consider sacred. How can you claim to believe something when you don't even know what it means and where it came from?

      April 1, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • AGuest9

      I find it ironic that people get so worked up over something that they don't even know the correct name of.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  12. PaleRider

    Elaine Pagels is a left wing flake and is not taken seriously by mainstream denominations. It's typical of CNN to quote these heretics – especially on Palm Sunday – and try to give them credibility. The left wing crowd usually sucks it right up because they've never done in-depth studies on the Bible. But you won't see CNN doing an article using a conservative Biblical scholar because they don't want any moral guidelines to cramp their liberal parade. So instead they try to make the Bible out to be a book of myths. Snakes.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Hate to pop your little insulative bubble, but Pagels is considered quite mainstream in the realm of biblical scholarship.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Morbus

      She's a scholar, not a preacher. One wouldn't expect most churches to "take her seriously" because she's not writing for the churches. The issue is whether her colleagues in academia take her seriously.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • RonOr

      Great to see you are still at it, SixDegrees.
      If only 10% of these responses were as intelligently formulated as yours.
      And wasn't Jesus a left wing liberal..?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • steve armstrong

      I have read Revelations a number of times. No sane person could possibly say he/she understands it. You're misleading yourself if you think you can relate the gibberish to any other biblical passages.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  13. Dale

    So we can even the playing field of religion, this reporter should do a paper on the myths of the Qur'an or the Book of Mormon?

    April 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  14. ruggles

    The author forgot one myth: that anything in the Bible should be taken seriously.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  15. Teresa from Mississippi

    Elaine Pagels is a voice of reason among so many voices of fantasy and selfishness. I love her writings. She is absolutely right, of course. So many Christians today have perverted Jesus' teachings turning them into the opposite of his message. The Book of Revelation has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus' teachings. Jesus taught love, turning the other cheek, and compassion for the poor. Modern day "Christianity" teaches the opposite of this, ie, hatred, revenge, and extreme selfishness. Thank you, Elaine Pagels!!

    April 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Devon

      Jesus also taught that he is the only truth way and life...John 14.6....you liberals always present a truncated Jesus ....not the True Jesus Christ of the Bible and History!

      April 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Reply

      lol Devon, Teresa never said anything about other ways to heaven.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • steve armstrong

      This is in reply to Devon. Why don't you get together your band of believers who are, in fact, living their lives exactly as Jesus recommended. I would like to meet this group of saints. I'm saying your group doesn't exist, and Christianity, as a group, is the second largest group of hypocrites in the world.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  16. David

    Maybe Ms. Pagels should inquire of Perry Stone concerning the book of Revelation. She might have a better understanding of it.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      The guy who sells pre-packaged, ready-to-eat meals he calls "The Lord's Supper"? The creator of "Manna-Fest"? The Perry Stone who claimed that the US would be utterly annihilated in a nuclear attack led by the anti-christ – in 1997? That Perry Stone? A shining beacon of clarity and rational thought he is not.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  17. mike m

    The Human race was created by a highly advanced alien species. They created humans to do their mining work, because they were too lazy and did not want to get their hands dirty. After the mining was completed, the aliens left and the human species continued to develop. Many odd ball religions were created such as "catholic", and "mormon", and other non-sense such as Baptist, etc. The human brain has connection flaws which cause problems understanding true logic. There are a few "gifted", humans that understand true logic. Earth is a planet of slaves, created long ago.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • fred

      You're even dumb-er than the fundamentalists.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • nittany89

      Dude, I hope that's an April Fool's joke. And if not, I hope you don't make fun of Christians, cause that's the most ludicrous thing I've ever read.

      April 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      I think mike m's view is only a slightly twisted view of The Babble – how is it hugely different from it?

      April 1, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  18. fred

    Here is a simple truth for people to understand: the bible was not meant to be taken literally. It was divinely inspired, not divinely written. It's meant to convey a very powerful message, but not to be used as a literal road map. God is not that easy to understand.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  19. Matthew

    It does not matter whether the bible is real or fake – most important thing is to love God and Jesus Christ!

    April 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  20. Lydie54

    The anti Christ IS here and his name is Obama.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Antichrist

      Funny that you think the Antichrist is only one man. We are many and we are coming for you. We are the girl at the checkout line of your grocery store. We are the teacher at your school. We are the police. We are everywhere. You cannot escape us. "Boo"

      April 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Back away from the keyboard and take your meds.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
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