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. Jespo

    I just realized how cool revelation would be as a Dungeon & Dragons game....dad god as the DM (how apprpos), sonny boy god as a palladin, his faithful casper like ghostspiritthing as a wizard....wow, all thats missing is cheetos and sunkist orange soda.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • John C.

      I am glad we live in a country where people are free to make fun of each other. We should treasure that right as part of free speech. But you know, if I made that crack about Muslims, wikka, tree huggers, gay folks, trans gender, or atheists, liberals would jump on me for "hate speech". A bit of a double standard, no? Though I am offended by the D&D comment, I defend your right to say it.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  2. Bob Boise

    This bigot is not a "scholar"; she is a hack. Revelation is a Christian book, not a vision of a "Jew". John was a disciple who received an inerrant, inspired message from God. Those who refuse to believe this are liars and pagans. It is not necessary to understand all the symbolism in the Book. The central message is...despite suffering and satanic evil in the World, God wins in the end. The faithful receive justice and eternal reward; the non-believers and tormentors receive their just punishment. The corrupt World and reality will be destroyed and a New Universe will be created. May those who take away from this message be "cut off from the Tree of Life" (damned)

    April 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Jespo

      You probably also believe that jesus was a tall white guy with long blonde hair and nice trimmed beard instead of being a short, dark skinned jew with curly hair who hung out all day with his friends without a job.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      The only Satanic evil that I see in the world is religious fundamentalism.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  3. Anon

    If Christians acted like cultural Shintoists I can assure that the majority of atheists would leave you alone.
    But that mandated great commission of spreading the gospel all around the world makes that an impossibility.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  4. Sheila - Revelations 101

    bff...blah is exactly how I feel today. Can you make me feel better ? Got some medicinal herbs ? Can your pray to God for me ?

    April 1, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • bff

      Show met the way Sheila and I will follow !!!!!!!!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  5. John Smith

    The whole Bible is myth.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Bob Boise

      Then history is a myth. In fact you are a myth. You are really just a period at the end of a sentence that aliens are reading now.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Anon

      Suppose that every memory, written word, and piece of technology on earth was destroyed all at once, leaving humanity to start completely from scratch. Everything we have come to know about science would eventually be discovered again. Given a few thousand years, people would figure out chemistry, and rediscover all of the same elements we know about now. People would once again understand biology, including its evolutionary origins. People would eventually see the motions of other galaxies in the sky, and work out the details of the big bang.

      This is the glorious part about science, it can and would all be replicated. I can assure you, however, that your story about a talking snake would be gone forever.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  6. J

    what a load of dung.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  7. Crad

    Intersting how many pages upon pages of people fighting over religion. And none of this has anything to do with god. Its such a shame. And athiests, i have news. Even if the concept of god was banished and forgotten, religion would still be here. Man might pray to other men,mor technology, etc. its within our nature to desire worship, and always has been since the dawn of time. So please dont be naive and link this madness to god. Religion has simply perverted and weaponized the concept of god. Prayer is not a vessel to get wishes granted. God is not a genie. Its simply a method of communication.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • reason

      You should watch his video:


      April 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • plucky

      Atheists (and in general scientists) are already responsible for turning millions of theists into rational thinking people. So even if we can get you all, we'll be happy with whatever we can get. Oh, and we are after your children even more than we are after you!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      There is nothing wrong with god.... it is his corporation that is the problem.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Crad

      Plucky. The foundation of reasoning when it comes to atheism is shaky and unsound. Especially when it comes to creation. Im sorry that you think people who believe in god are not rational. But from my perspective, and with the things that ive experienced in my life, to claim there is no higher power, or god, is borderline insanity. Atheism is the only religion that is actually un natural. If man is born alone with no external influence from people or religion he will gravitate to belief in higher power. It is almost impossible not to see that. One can close their eyes though and complain of darkness, even on a bright sunny day. That does not make it night time.mand no thanks for the bill maher video. He is perhaps one of the most arrogant people alive, and is pathological. He believes knowledge is wisdom. That makes him lost at best

      April 1, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Crad

      By the way, ive never experienced such pleasure from athiests when it comes to pushing their religion down peoples throats and its very confusing. I would think atheism is a freedom from the chains of religion, yet most are bound right back into those chains.mflying banners, advertising on benches and buses, spending thousands of dollars on "marches" to instigate other people. If i was an athiest i would probably just go about my way and not care about any of it. If you dont believe in god, why would you spend all your time trying to convince other people. It doesnt make sense.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Crad you say first of Atheism is a religion which it is not, secondly you say it is unnatural when in fact it is the only natural belief system there is. Everything else needs to be subscribed to, but in the absence of that bible man is left to make his own decisions is he not? Either way the decision needs to come from a complete blank slate which is the absence of religion.

      If you walked into a library right now and you had never once heard a single religious idea and picked up the bible what are the chances you would get past the talking snake and burning bush and giant whale and pillars of sand and virgin births and dead rising and ascensions and water into wine and you would say "hey this makes perfect sense to me"? I'm guessing not, so in the absence of being indoctrinated, most rational humans would look at the bible as complete nonsense.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Crad

      Jemz. Whatch out, you just called atheism a "belief system".. And when i say its natural to believe in god, im not talking about the bible. People dont pray to bibles or believe in bibles. Its a book with some words about god. A birthday card from my mom isnt my mother.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  8. Wholly Mary

    Fairy tales, can come true, it can happen to you, if you're deluded enough!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  9. jemzinthekop

    Leviticus 25:44-45

    Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Jespo

      I guess the slaves were not made in his image...

      April 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      A really nice guy though that deity of the bible is. This is the part where theists come in and say that verse isn't what it means and that the bible was written for the people 2000 years ago to relate to blah blah blah and whatever else fits the idea the person wishes to make of the almighty.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Leo

      Old Testament Laws were tough, but Christianity is not based on the Law, but on Grace.

      If you want to run looking backwards you are going to stumble and continue to be filled with hate, but if you run looking forward in the hope and promise of eternal life you can rejoice for our redemption from this evil world is nearing the end!!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  10. Ola

    First, other books similar to Revelations are Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Also, John calls Jesus 'the Lamb of God that was slain before the foundation of the world" If that is not a reference to Jesus dying for sins, I don't know what is. This woman can deceive people who have not studied the Bible but if you are a true student of the Bible, a lot of this is just nonsense. What people don't recognize is that current prophecy always harkens to future prophecy and though it may seem he was referring to current events, God uses these things to speak about larger events. He may have been referring to Nero with the 666, doesn't rule out there is a multiple level of meaning. God uses men to accomplish His will, even the most unlikely of people. God doesn't work by magic; He has to inspire people to do what He wants. You have to look at the Big Picture of things and examine scripture in its entirety and make the connections.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • awasis

      This woman can deceive people who have not studied the Bible but if you are a true student of the Bible,"

      Really? Since when is thinking rationally deceiving people?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Bob

      So, again, why does your omnipotent "god" need to sacrifice anything, to do any "saving", and why bother with all the son-nailed-to-sticks hoopla anyway? Such "sacrifice" of a son is actually meaningless for a god, when a god could just pop up a new son with less than a snap of its fingers anyway. Crazy, irrational stuff, what you believe. No need for any of it, and it's all rubbish.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement. Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  11. anon

    This woman is absolutely clueless about the bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • just saying

      And you are absolutely clueless about reasoned argument.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Jespo


      April 1, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Anon

      Comparative religion can make you realize that Christianity is just another myth based religion.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • awasis

      According to who. You? Who the hell are you? What are your credentials? And sorry, blind faith doesn't count.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  12. Dan

    I'm willing to bet my life savings that the end of the world does not happen on Dec 21 2012. Takers?

    April 1, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Sheila - Revelations 101

      The Holy Bible never said it did.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Jespo

      SSHHHHH.....going to be a slow shopping time for 'the season of giving more than we can afford'....lots of great buys though...

      April 1, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • James

      The world does not end on that day, but it is changed forever:
      A nuclear WW3.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  13. Anon

    As an atheist, I fully support the the Mythicist Position, even if other politically correct minded atheists and agnostics don't.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  14. andrew


    April 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • bff

      Troll. blah blah blah and another blah!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • just saying

      Poor Andrew, someone bring him a glass of whater so he can take his pills.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Wholly Mary


      April 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Waiting

      I am with you – Jesus would not put up with any poor people or the sick or crippled. He would do what the conservatives are doing. Let them starve!!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • SSampson

      Stop picking on the silly religious person.... If it wasn't for them, we'd have fewer laughs

      With any luck, they'll just get around to killing each other... then the rational people can read the historical record and be amazed at how far we've really come.... 'tish.... imaginary superbeings.... what were our ancestors thinking.....

      April 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  15. reason

    The Easter Bunny is a more compelling story.

    At least he poops chocolate eggs we can eat, and does not damn billions to eternal brimstone for picking the wrong religion or being born in the wrong place in the world.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Sheila - Revelations 101

      No one is born in the "wrong place". The Bible teaches that where and when we are born is determined by God. He has a purpose. Your choice as to accepting truth and who or what you worship is up to you. If you must worship what is true secretly than do so. If you are forced to go to a pagan ceremony against your will, then pray for forgiveness as God will not hold it against you if you see what is false and refuse it in your heart, mind, and soul.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • bff

      blah blah blah. You get the treatment too!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • reason

      If Islam turns out to be true, then Sheila you were born in the wong place. Hope you don't mind burning for eternity.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Anon

      Calvinist theology is cruel and twisted.
      An Inuit hunter asked the local missionary priest: ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Inuit earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’ — Annie Dillard

      April 1, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  16. Roger

    The book is the easiest to interpret when all scripture is taken into account, to say that it represents only the beginning of the end of the flegdling church in Jerusalam is a falsehood that erroniously deflects it's true meaning that acculminates in the final last of days of civilization as we know it, thereby ushering in the 1000 year milinial reign of Christ on Earth as irrevelant. It's purpose is to prepare those called out to finish the exploits they were assigned at this crucial time in history.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • bff

      blah blah blah....

      April 1, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • just saying

      What if the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce was the end of the world and the last 1000 years since then was that milenium and we are just merely facing those end times. Interpretation is everything.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Matt


      I see Mom and Dad are letting you stay up late tonight. Spring break this week?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  17. Elle

    The book of Revelation is a literal description of soon-coming events that are about to happen in our lifetime. Jesus really is physically returning to earth very soon, and He will reign as King from Jerusalem.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Apologist

      ... so please give me your money now since it will be of no use to you.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • reason

      Now that is blind faith. People have been saying it for ages. Has never happened and never will.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • AGuest9

      That's what they were saying 2000 years ago, too.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  18. Matthew

    I love how the author of this article talks like they know everything about the Bible and author of Revelation. Does she have proof for any of her assertions. I have heard that the book was against the Romans all along (666 being Nero) but that is just a theory. Basically I like what one teacher said about Revelation. The theme is pretty much Christians win. Read Revelations 21-22. That is one of the most beautiful pieces of the Bible and was totally ignored by the author of this article.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Sheila - Revelations 101

      God wins is correct. Jesus Christ will reign from Jerusalem. Great Kingdom. God's Kingdom will be a Kingdom of peace, love, and joy. Now who wouldn't want something that good ?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Ravensun

      The Theme is that "Christians" win? But whose definition of Christian? I follow the teachings of Christ, but I don't go to church. Going to church makes you a Christian the same way going to a garage makes you a car. So you tell me. Whose version of Christianity "wins?" Yours, I'd expect, right? Because your version of Christianity is the same as John of Patmos's version a couple thousand years ago, right? Wow.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  19. Richard A. Menees

    How could Athanasius have argued in favor of including Revelation 360 years after Jesus was crucified if he himself died c. 373 AD?

    April 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • just saying

      because the convocation was in Nicea in 325 ad

      April 1, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • John C.

      Another thought. I thought the bulk of the canon of the bible, including new testament was more or less set by mid second century, and the Bible, as we know it now, was set by Council of Nicea in 324 AD. Would that precede this dude?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  20. Anon

    Just do research on comparative religion to realize that the bible is just a big book of Jewish fairy tales, nothing more.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
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