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. primatica

    If all holds true the Sun is our creator. The first monotheistic religion was founded on Sun worship.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  2. David Moscovitch

    The island of Patmos is NOT in Turkey, but in Greece. When the author gets that wrong, you have to worry.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  3. billem

    jesus has been coming for centuries, believers keep waiting ,the rest of us will move on

    April 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  4. Larry

    Science (man-made) has been wrong about so much and right about so little. Why do we criticize those who follow their faith but not those who blindly follow science?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • Ron

      Because true science accepts that it may be wrong but presents the best possible answer based on the extent of what is known at the time. Science does not demand perfection people demand it of science. Religion on the other hands presumes to know truth and seeks to explain away what is known that contradicts it.

      Any questions?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • reason

      Thank you Ron.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Larry


      Trying to sound smart doesn't make it so, and following up with a smug Questions? only helps in making you come off as an arrogant d-bag. Science changes as new discoveries are made.... religion does not? If that were the case then we'd still be burning witches at the stake, no?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • Ron

      Eventually religion must change when what is known becomes both widespread enough and accepted enough. If it fails to do so it is abandoned. The ancient Greek faith wasn't wiped out it was abandoned when it was noticed that following it didn't deliver on the promises it offered.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  5. Daph18

    A story

    April 1, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  6. Larry

    Until Science can explain where we came from and why we are here, it is no more a refutation of the belief in God than the belief in God is a refutation of science.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • JT

      Since you have such a disdain for science but revere a mythological sky god I assume you will never partake of medical science in the event of a medical emergency. You will offer burnt offerings to your sky god instead? Ironic that science gave you your PC and the Internet so you could attack science. You should go live in a cave or admit you're a hypocrite.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  7. BornAgain

    It is always rather shocking to me how Bible unbelievers are so vituperative and quick to mock and condemn born again Christians and Christianity. Doing so is, of course, your privilege but it does not change the truth that there will one day be judgment before the Lord creator God of this universe. I hope you are as secure when you stand before God to give an account of your life and intolerance as you feign to be now.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • billem

      if your god made this universe ,who made the other millions of universes out there?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Larry

      What other universes? There is only one.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • WachetAuf

      Born Again:

      Jesus used metaphors to describe much of what he tried to teach us. He was aware that the sheep were too simple minded and impulsive to understand his teachings if he used anything but the most simple metaphors. His disciples asked him about it. Isn't it possible that the entire story is purely metaphorical? So, when he invited us to be born again wasn't he merely asking us to cast aside our primitive instincts and to use our higher powers of reason? And, isn't that what his ministry was all about, trying to reason with the sheep? for example, telling us to examine the plank in our own eyes before we try to examine the spec in the eyes of others? Isn't that an invitation to reason, rather than an invitation to use our more primitive impulses, like blind faith which itself is infused with emotional elements which are tied to fear?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  8. Montogal

    Pagel is indeed a Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, has made it her career to study religions and is well qualified to speak on the subject of religions, from a scholar's perspective. While, I do not agree with her assessments and conclusions, but I certainly don't feel the need to make rude comments about Ms. Pagel or her beliefs. Nor do I understand all the energy and rudeness from folks who believe that all religion is a myth. What I consider a myth generally doesn't result in a total lack of civility.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • matt in saginaw

      Bless you Montogal, that is how to get the respect of someone who doesn't agree with your beliefs. It is refreshing finding someone in humankind who will stand for what they believe in without feeling that have to bash others to get a point across.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  9. Larry

    Why do atheists always seem to hateful? It's like their life goal is to go around and call everyone who believes in God a fool. Why? What do you get out of that? I hope you don't get any type of satisfaction out of it, because that would just make you a miserable human being. What is the point of trying to put people down?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • reason

      It is because you do not understand them. They are trying to help you and the rest of society.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • plucky

      Larry, I don't think you get it. Most athiests have nothing against the person. It is the idea they are debating.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Larry

      If it is the idea they are debating, what is the point of personal attacks?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • plucky

      Hey, in every population you get all kinds.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  10. Alex

    Isn"t the whole Bible a myth?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • The Dojo

      The bible is a bunch of texts that tell about the pseudo-history of a religion, how it came about, some people supposedly involved in the establishment of it in the early days, but most of the early stories are borrowed from other cultures and given a 'moral' slant instead of just being a story. Now were these stories from other cultures myths? My guess would be yes, to some extent. I also think that there might be some truths that have been mythicized in the same manner Robin Hood and King Arthur have been. There's a kernel of truth that the myth was built on.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Me

      No, but thanks for asking.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  11. Kathy

    WOW, what a mess. First, you cannot understand Revealation without using the entire bible to pick up the meaning and nuances of the symbols. Second, All prophecy has layers of meaning. Third, allowing the Bible, including Revealation, to intrepret itself will solve much of the confusion. And last, and not least ('the first SHALL be last') if you do not understand it, don't worry about it. The gospel is all you really need to know, to live in the Love of Jesus Christ and share that Love with others. No judging, no fear, just Christ. kg

    April 1, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • bff

      If god can't make something that is clear and consistant to everyone who has ever lived, then I'll assume for now that he doesn't exist.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Pagels spends a large portion of her book examining the other biblical references to Revelation, and understands them better than most people.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  12. Pipe-Dreamer

    Charged particle physics tends to mutate those who rely on its' implications of atomic matter being just exactly what? Atoms are dimensional matter just the same way stellar nebulas are terminologically speaking. We are nothing more than Buildings and/or Kingdoms of atomic material as is all celestially based Life.

    1Cr 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  13. jhorell

    Yes, the Book of Revelation and the Book of Job – somewhat of a confusing read in comparsion to the rest of the Bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  14. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Larry

      Neither does completely rejecting faith and blindly following science. I'm no fool, but science is just as much man made as religion is, no?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • reason

      No. Science is simply the tool humans use to understand the world.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  15. John F.

    CNN sure likes to post controversial faith topics don't they? It's interesting how people including Pagels say that Church leaders "suppressed" certain books of the bible way back when. They did eventually, but for good reason. Yes, the gnostics wrote pseudo gospels and "christian" writings and they were never hidden. Some of them were read by christian communities. But much of the gnostic belief held salvation was gained by a secret knowledge and that physical matter was evil and created by the God of the hebrew bible who was evil. Well, orthodox christians believed as the Hebrew bible, stated that God created the physical world and everything else for that matter and that it was "Good." And Jesus took on a real physical body and the gospel that whoever believed in Jesus' message: " Jesus said: I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies,will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? (Gospel of John 11:26) would benefit greatly from it: Salvation. The message of salvation wasn't a secret message, it was to be shared openly throughout the whole world. And certainly Jesus didn't think the God of the old testament, whom He called father was evil. There were good reasons that Church fathers did not include the books of the gnostic sects. Those were a few examples.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  16. 1mommicked1

    The book of Revelation is prophecy. It is revealing Jesus Christ. Some books have 'about the author' on the back or on the dust cover, usually with a photograph and a short biography of the author. The Bible is different, the whole book is about the author. I honestly believe that if even the self-professed atheists were to read just one book of the Bible, they would enjoy it. Also, any honest atheist who take me up on this challange will realize they don't really have a beef with Jesus, just with most of the people who claim to know him as their Lord and savior, but still live like a heathen. Try this, read the book of Luke–you can read it for free on any one of thousands of websites. I recomment the King James Version. I guarantee you will not want to put it down. After Luke, try the book of James.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • reason

      I do not think most atheists have a beef with Jesus, they just do not think he was a god.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • Shayna

      You're right – I do LOVE fairy tales!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • 1mommicked1

      Your next president of the US doesn't believe that Jesus is God.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • mmaxum2002

      Most atheists I know have more knowledge of the bible than most christians, certainly most catholics

      April 1, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  17. jeef

    All of your complains about healthcare means nothing to the real saints

    April 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  18. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  19. Willis

    Tom Meyer memorizes whole books of the bible, Revelation: http://www.videos.com/play/M33620630-6/long_videos/revelation_spoken_from_memory_northglenn_co_tom_meyer.html

    April 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      So? Children in Afghanistan and many other Muslim countries memorize the entire Koran, and there are international contests amongst them to test who can recite it best – not most accurately, because that is simply a given.

      It's an enormous waste of otherwise useful brain.

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

      That is impressive, hundreds of children memorizing the whole quran. I would think that time invested might elevate ones faith and devotion to the subject matter, that is if the exercise their free will and are not compelled to. As far as it being a waiste of an other wise perfectly good brain, that kind of effort can only blaze new neurons to an otherwise waisted brain.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  20. Scott

    I love how people like Pagels can turn fiction into fact. Making perfectly good Christian symbolism onto Gnostic mysteries is Pagels MO who has been on a Gnostic anti-christian quest ever since she lost a Jewish friend who died. Tragedies certainly inspire manic behavior as she strips meaning out and reinserts her own. Sad hermeneutic.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • blue jean

      I call bulls–t, name calling in the place of easoned argument highlights ignorance!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Funny; her work has the support of the mainstream biblical research community. Did they also know her dead friend?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
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