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. Happy Fools day to everyone that got fooled by Bagel
    April 1, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  2. Mia

    How foolish to think you know what the Book of Revelation reveals when it is very apparent you have not prayerfully read the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit. It was a spirit, but it wasn't holy. The Bible interprets itself and there are great books out there that explain it much better than the lies you expound. The best book out right now is by Pastor Kenneth Cox called "Revelation, Pure and Simple." If you read the Bible without the Holy Spirit, you don't have God's answer, you have your own faulty perspective.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • forestForTheTrees

      Does the holy spirit somehow cuddle up with you at night so that you can read the bible together? tell me, how does this happen?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • AGuest9


      April 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Tony

      What does revelations reveal?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      I think the holy spirit has a wet nose and a little, wagging tail. 😉

      April 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  3. redwine9991



    April 1, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  4. Fairfax

    This article isn't fact – it's one persons opinion – but CNN display it as fact. Christianity is a belief - If we had all the answers we wouldn't need God – we would be the same as God; we aren't. I believe what I believe because it is who I am – a Christian. There are a few phrases in this article that I believe are good. The fact that different parts of Revelation refer to different empires including the Roman and Greek Empires – and Europe. Also the Left Behind story line is not traditional Christian thinking and is a new invention that is also opinion. There will be an Apocalypse – it's just be 7 years of as described in the left behind series.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  5. Libin

    SMH to this article..but this is probably the first religious article I have seen on CNN where the first page of comments aren't athiest/agnostics bashing religion.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  6. Sheila - Revelations 101

    Elaine Pagel's confusion is exactly why she needs Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. But she must first put away her hard heart, open her ears, and open her eyes to see. We learn by hearing the word of God. Elaine I will pray for you.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Blue Jean

      I notice there is name calling in this post rather than reasoning. The article is about a scholarly work on the history of a religion. None of that is apparent from this post. Is that a disconnect from reality? I pray it is not true.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  7. redwine9991

    Are you kidding me? Only 4 myths? The whole religion s...is a myth.

    No, No guys, you just don’t get it. THERE IS ONLY ONE BIG MYTH!!!!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    For the better

    April 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • paul.cos

      Tell that to the millions who prayed they wouldnt be killed by the nazis..worked for them didnt it...you damn fool!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • just sayin

      Could you detail the specifics of one of those prayers please? I suspect you are talking what if rather than what is so that it coincides with your preconceived ideas.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Right...gawd made a covenant with the Jews and nothing bad ever happened to them again. Tell us, what was the difference between the prayers of the survivors and the prayers of those that did not survive?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  9. marie

    as far as I see its like this, The Bible is Gods word and I will continue to take the Bible as the true and inspired Word of God and this includes the last book REVALATION.

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

      "Then I heard the LORD say to the other men, "Follow him through the city and ki-ll everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kil-l them all – old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin your task right here at the Temple." So they began by ki-lling the seventy leaders. "Defile the Temple!" the LORD commanded. "Fill its courtyards with the bodies of those you ki-ll! Go!" So they went throughout the city and did as they were told." (Ezekiel 9:5-7 NLT)

      very inspiring book you have....

      April 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • plucky

      ...but don't send your kids to college. You might have to disown them when they come home.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • paul.cos

      Then go to heaven now,leave the sane to carry on with life

      April 1, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      That's because you've successfully been brainwashed, Marie.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  10. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • just sayin

      How original ! Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things will be taking a crap later, you'll want to do that as well.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

      I bet you'll be taking a crap the same time Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things is.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  11. Spinner49

    I think the bible is much more facinating when viewed in historical context than when used as a how-to manual for present-day life.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Stup1d Athe1sts

      Listen atheists, stop telling people that god(s) don't exist.

      The fact that people believe in them gives us an upper hand in life.

      So stop it!!!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Jespo


      April 1, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      By upper hand, are you referring to the contest of which group of believers is more delusional that all the rest?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  12. raggedhand

    At long last, an article guaranteed to tick off everybody!

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

      I found the article informative.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  13. Bagel bestows April 1st blessing on the Atheists

    with this on CNN belief blog 😉

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

      Not only the atheists but other tools who think this joke by prankster Pagel is hilarious.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  14. Phosphorus

    Personally, I don't see any problems with any media outlet attacking religion. Religion has attacked everything that has not agreed with it for centuries (crusades, inquisitions, conquering empires, etc.), so should we have a problem with religion being attacked now that a muzzle has been placed on the wild dog? Absolutely not. We should be relieved that not only has the venom slowly been neutralized from these psychopathic religions, but their teeth has been eroded to such a degree that here in America their bark is far worse than their bite.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Wholly Mary

      S-O-S, anything new? I guess not.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • paul.cos

      pray to rid the world off atheists tonight.make them vanish i dont feel like working tomorrow

      April 1, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  16. Paul Gray

    The greatest gift God gave us was "free will". We all have the "free will" to accept Revelation or not – that does not make truth null and void, it only says that you "choose" not to believe it. When it does come to pass and you are staring it right in the face and are held accountable to it, please remember that Our awesome, just God does not accept excuses such as "well I chose not to believe it".... if millions of others choose to believe the facts, it doesn't make your choosing not to believe it make it not a truth held accountable to. God Bless – may God help you in all ways possible to overcome your unbelief!

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

      Right...believe in unsubstantiated fairy tales that have no good reason to be believed other than the justification that if you don't, then some tantrum throwing whelp of a sky-deity will condemn you to pain and suffering for eternity. That kind of dark age thinking kept mankind from progressing for centuries. Please excuse those of us who are able to think clearly and rationally if we don't lick up the regurgitated spiritual food of bronze-aged shepherds who were barely more advanced than the hunter and gatherer societies that existed before them.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Carol

      Amen, Paul!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Randy Kiel

      In his book, "The Great Divorce," C.S. Lewis presents the idea that the doorway to hell is "locked from the inside." That is, he suggests that hell may be occupied by people who, after death, are given the opportunity to stay in heaven, yielding to God's will, but due to their own pride/self-will they choose to live in hell. "There are only two kinds of people in the end," Lewis says, "those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'thy will be done.'"
      Really makes one think.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  17. LaVonne Chung Author of "The Sign"

    Jesus was asked a question by his disciples, "What is the sign of your coming and the end of age?" His complete answer is recorded in Matthew cpt 24. Sounds. like Revelation (which I also have studied in depth.) to me. I don't know all the answers, but my teacher does. His name is Holy Spirit. Yes, He also inspired the books of the Bible. Don't be decieved Church!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  18. JoeP

    The Bible has a verse that says, "Professing to be wise, they became fools". Fits this women author well! How can you study for years and completely miss the meaning? Easy, when you don't know the author, you don't understand His words. First know the author,, then He will guide you>

    April 1, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  19. Andrew Apostle

    Check your facts!!!!!!!! "...on the island of Patmos in present-day Turkey..."

    Patmos is a Greek island! Yes, the Greek economy has suffered but certainly the island is Greek! I have been there.

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

      spot on.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Carol

      Exactly....so what else is she wrong about? (a lot)

      April 1, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  20. J

    what a load of dung this article is.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:46 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.