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. stjdsj

    "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.
    "After that He appeared to more than FIVE HUNDRED brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep (died); then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me (Paul), also.
    "For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." (1 Corinthians 15:3-9 written by Paul to the church at Corinth, A.D. 55)

    April 1, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Haha

      wow i'm convinced!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  2. kentuckyscience.com

    If God created something from nothing, then both something and nothing would be apart of him. The problem is that something and nothing are total opposites. Like good and evil. Nothing is associated with no movement, something is associated with movement and to be both would be like saying that truth and lies are the same. If God created something from nothing, he would not be a jealous God because he could easily turn something back into nothing. The point here is that no scripture in the Bible specifically states that God created something from nothing.
    Finite Universe – zero and one are equal (matter can be infinitely divided into nothing – God is Nothing that created everything out of emptiness) "At the Planck distance and the Planck time all physics, as we know it today collapses. This is the reason we call the beginning of the big bang a singularity. You cannot apply ordinary reasoning there. Zero and one have no sense there.OK?" J-P Burri There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Big Bang views one and zero as being equal, since it states that zero appeared out of the absence of zero; then zero created something. Many scientists believe or have faith that light does not have mass, thus they believe the Universe is Finite. Religion promotes the most commonly accepted idea of the group. If light does not have mass, then it would be impossible to move an electron. Light described as a particle means nothing, if it has no mass since it would be impossible to distinguish from nothing because no mass means void of substance. If it has no substance, then nothing is present to distinguish the particle from other particles.
    The Big Bang theory prevents any condition where something has always been. Infinity is defined as the difference between one and zero. Once one and zero are the same according to the big bang, the definition of infinity as stated above is no longer valid. If the big bang occurred, all math's must deal with the proof of 0=1.

    Our God is a God of the living and not of the dead, thus he has no plan to create nothing or become it. (Luke 20:38) In our God the creator of our Lord Jesus Christ, time has no beginning or end. Whose Son is the Christ? David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son? (Luke 20:41-44) Jesus healed many people, so he had the power to speak to the body. If the spirit is weaker than the body, don’t expect the body to follow the commands of its own spirit. (John 18:6)

    April 1, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Dixon

      KentuckyScience... talk about an oxymoron.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  3. ...

    Question to Atheists: What if God exist?

    April 1, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      It would make little difference.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Dixon

      Then we know who to blame for all the children starving to death around the world.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Nathan

      If an all powerful all knowing being does exist I sort of doubt that he/she would use profession of faith as the determining factor of whether we are punished or not, even over actual behavior.

      If that is the determining factor than he/she isn't worthy of the faith he demands.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Henry

      If God exists I would assume he is rather irate about all the people using him as an excuse to impose their will on others.

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

      Then he has a hell of a lot to answer for.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • steve armstrong

      And what if he didn't? Does that mean all the TV preachers have to get real jobs. Think of the impact on the hair mousse industry.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • sam stone

      question to theists: what it god exists, but the one you have been worshipping?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • sam stone

      "not the one"

      April 1, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • wowt

      What if ? Makes no difference at all. A meaningless question.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  4. truek1ngdom

    who's Jesus??

    April 1, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Holy Chuck

      Please people. You can be a Christian and not believe everything in the Bible. I, as a Christian, do not beleive A LOT of what is in the Bible. It was written by MEN at the time of their understanding. No book in the Bible was written by God. They were all written by men, reviewed by men, and changed by men. This means the Bible may be written more in accordance to how church leaders wanted than what God had in mind. How can this be possible? God gave us free will. He does not control us, but allows us to make our own decisions.

      I think the book of Revelation is a stupid book written by a holy man stoned on mushrooms, which are common on that island. Oh, by the way, men also decided which books went into the bible and burned some they considered to be unfit. Free will.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  5. gerald

    As she deny that which is true...she will stand before the Great White Throne, and on that day "the books will be opened."
    One thing for sure...there will never come a time when a non-believer teach me the Word of God. I sure hope that every child of God reading this article know to "try every spirit, whether it be of God..." By the way, why is there conflict in the Middle East?
    Is this recorded in the book of Revelation? I wonder what she will say when this event occurs? Revelation 20:11-15

    April 1, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      Perhaps you will allow a non-believer to teach you subject-verb concord?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • sam stone

      ooooh, gerald. a book. impressive, i tell you

      April 1, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  6. GTA

    So, the article discusses myths about a book based on myths. Brilliant....

    April 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  7. George Pantazis

    Please note that Patmos is an island in Greece, not Turkey! It is part of the Dodecanese chain of islands in the Easter Aegean! Just to clarify this because CNN obviously is worthless in geography and research...

    April 1, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  8. thinquer

    News Flash: Elaine Pagel did not write this book! Our public-appeasing sources tell us it was written on a cruise ship last year by a crew member suffering from norovirus and experiencing delusions from the antiviral medication. Ignore all common sense that indicates otherwise.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  9. Kusin

    All Atheists will sooner or later convert... believe me! My grandpa was a fundamentalist Atheists in over 50 years until he converted a week before his death.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • sam stone

      Well, that's a convincing argument. To a 3rd grader

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      @Kusin, Great theory that totally falls apart when you consider the many atheists that have died that never converted. Just the kind of myopic logic you'd expect from a xtian.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Paul

      Is seems conversion bad for one's health.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • mandarax

      Oh dear me, Paul's right! If what Kusin says is correct that means that converting is correlated with death within weeks.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • wowt

      Keep dreaming kusin. Thouse thoughts are purely delusional.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  10. Roberto

    So...all those out there who are lambasting 'liberals' as unbelievers, as heretics, as pagans, as devil-worshippers, I have one thing to say to you: Read things that you may not believe in, i.e., educate yourselves. Those of you who believe that the Bible is the unadulterated word of God have just as stilted a view of the world and humanity as those whom you accuse of the same. Or, you can just continue to "roll in them chicken fried steaks". 'Nuf said.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      i just finished The Year Of Living Biblically. Good read, and a look at biblical literalism

      April 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  11. EJG

    John was exiled from Ephesus, in today's Turkey, to Patmos, an island in Greece. Visitors to Patmos today can enter the cave in which John dictated the Revelation, John was as Christian as Peter and the members of the Church of Jerusalem, all of whom did not agree with Paul's teaching to the gentiles.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  12. Quebecois

    "Prove to me that God exist"

    I can prove to you God exist if you jump off from the bridge and you will meet him. Go & try!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • sam stone

      depends on how high the bridge is, and whether there is traffic underneath it

      April 1, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      God hangs out under bridges? Kinda low class, even for a murderous lowlife like Jehovah.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  13. just sayin

    lmao atheists comfort themselves thru Internet 😀

    April 1, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Paul

      And what are you doing?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      If you think dealing with religious people on a forum is a comfort, then you should put yourself in our shoes. It's more like dealing with school kids who refuse to learn. There's very little comfort in that.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • just saying

      Why did you take over my nome de gurre and sully it? Use your imagination and get your own name.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • just saying

      I have been part of the intelligent conversation on this thread this morning already and would not like to be mistaken for what passes in your mind as thought.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  14. Swedish Atheist

    Why are American Atheists so extremists compared to other countries Atheists? Religious and nonreligious people here in Sweden are friends and don't care. Why not me the same?!

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

      T it for tat. Evangelicals are a hateful lot.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Other countries likely aren't in danger of having their schools taken over and this nonsense taught as "science".

      April 1, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • mandarax

      I would argue that the religious in Sweden do not expect their beliefs to be reflected in the government. I think ultimately that is what atheists are fighting for, and to not be treated as second class citizens. In Sweden, the majority are atheists, here they are a minority and have been treated like pariahs.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Swedish Atheist

      But if you guys ignore the religious people and let them do whatever they want maybe they will treat you better?
      It's better to be quite, laugh and ignore.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      You've obviously never tried to reason with an evangelical.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Swedish Atheist

      We do have some evangelical here too. The thing is us Atheists in Sweden (most of us) still go to church on holidays for cultural reason, baptize our children, not against having any Christian national holidays etc. that's why they respect us.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • mandarax

      I don't know if you follow American politics, but ignoring the religious has become impossible. They want creationism taught in public schools, the ten commandments as part of our judicial system, and to restrict reproductive healthcare, among other things.

      The frightening thing is that they have the political power to do it, if we don't stand up and make a fuss.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      Atheists who baptize their children are about the last people on earth I'd choose to emulate.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • mandarax

      Many of us are familiar with the ironic reality that many European countries actually have an official state church, yet most people consider the ceremonies social niceties without necessarily believing. Over here the churchgoers really BELIEVE and they think you should too. As a matter of fact many of them (including a former president) insist that if you don't believe then you should not be allowed to be a citizen.

      It's a different world over here.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      @Swedish Atheist, Your government seems to want to deal with religious extremist differently than you. Next time one of these extremist has control in the government and starts trying to dictate by law how people should live, come back on here and tell us how we should just ignore them. Then your statements would be a little more credible. I also live in a secular country, but moved here from America. Religion is a real problem in America and cannot be ignored.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Nii

      Ok Atheists this is a typical example of the
      If God did evil, The devil did good.
      If God did good, the Devil did evil
      Forgetting that Genesis 3 clearly states that Man can do good on his own and evil on his own.
      Evil people whom we wud put behind bars shud be spared?

      April 1, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  15. jen

    If all this crap is real, then America is clearly doing Satan's work


    April 1, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • john swinder

      that's all.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  16. Robinhood

    Quite funny how her last name is "pagels"....freakin pagan

    April 1, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • mandarax

      freakin' pagan and bagel mixed! I knew it, she's one of those boiled bread worshipers. Infidel.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  17. Robinhood

    Goodness gracious... i would ask this wonderful writer to actually go to an Orthodox monastery...and inquire about some of the figures she has mentioned...It is very true that the Book of Revelations is mysterious and captivating for many...But this writer...primarily used her logic about one book of Revelations to discredit the merits of the Bible...The "political agenda of the church"...lol...typical liberal attack...on Holy and revered days in Christian calendars...

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

      I'm not seeing much in the way of refutation.

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

      I know! When we did that you weren't around. We are having fun now.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Robinhood

      Why do you need me to validate my statement...Give you a reason to say something else...Oh thats right...just so you can find another excuse or another reason to support something you may know nothing of...You can either believe or you can chose not to...its really up to you...want to know more about what people actually believe...go do your own research...become a scholar in the field and find out what early Church fathers tought and what their intentions were

      April 1, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  18. Nii


    April 1, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Never again! We have remained silent for TOO LONG!

      April 1, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  19. Joshua Thuma

    Wow. This is heresy...but I knew it had to be if CNN printed it! Nero, Hitler, these leaders are all foreshadows of the anti-Christ, the anti-Christ spirit....doesn't mean this writer was speaking only of his day. The writer of Revelation was speaking to this generation, this last day generation. To think this woman is making any money off these lies! That money will be cursed, as will her book.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Haha

      lol you're stupid lol

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

      "That money will be cursed, as will her book."

      You wish. Pathetic magical thinking.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Chris

      Her book is nothing but another opinion. It doesn't sway my beliefs in the least.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:31 pm |


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

      Troll.... Hit 'Report Abuse'

      April 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.