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. roland

    She left out the obvious references to astrology that really make it false.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  2. Brian

    Lets see, the Biblical Scholar cited as the person this information comes from is Elaines Pagles, taking a quick look at her Wikipedia page tells you everything you need to know

    "Pagels is the main notable modern advocate for a connection between Buddhism and the 3rd and 4th Century Christian sects which were called "Gnostics" by early Christian heresiologists. Pagels views were published in 1979, including a call for a comparative study of the Nag Hammadi tractates and Buddhist sources. A response came in papers from The Eastern Buddhist Society (1981), but without any further development over the next 30 years."

    Her believes have as much relevance to Christianity as any none Christians believe.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • roland

      How do you explain God's throne standing in the middle of the 4 living creatures oh sorry Greek word Zodiac or the 4 axis points of the Zodiac.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • SixDegrees

      What does Gnosticism have to do with Christianity?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Debbie

      Wow thanks Brian. I hadn't thought of that! This lady really made me feel depressed.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  3. Camalla

    I am not a religious person and never have been. But when I was 14 living on our family farm in Minnesota, I was out in the pasture being amused by the Killdeer birds faking an injury to try and divert predators (which they must have thought of me as one) from finding their nests. Farm people know what I'm talking about. But then just like someone interrupting you, some kind of presence appeared and to this day I can't explain it. The voice said that my mother was going to depart from me, but I should not fear because I would be taken care of. That was all it said and it went away. On January 8th, 1976, six months after this, my mother passed away. Thirty six years later, I still do not have any answers to this. I can't explain it. All I am sure of is that "it" whatever it was, didn't seem to care whether I believed in anything or not. "It" just came to deliver a message and went away. I am still not a religious person. I don't read the Bible or attend church. But I leave open that it is possible there is a spiritual place somewhere. To me, I don't think this spiritual place seems to care very much if people believe in it or not.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Bill P

      Camalla – I can't vouch for your experience. I have not had a similar one as yours. But while I believe that God has a singular message of unfathomable love for us as demonstrated by the gift of His Son for our salvation, I believe that He does know us as individuals and approaches us in that way. Perhaps your experience demonstrates that. And despite that you have not approached the spiritual realm by seeking to understand God through His Word even since 1976, that does not mean that God is not knocking at the door of your heart. This whole blog is about the Book of Revelation. While I take great exception personally to the conclusions drawn by the source material, the Book of revelation has one verse that I believe is intended for you: Jesus said, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20) God is not an imposer. He provides a means of escape of eternal separation from Him, but leaves the decision to us. Interestingly, what the Book of Genesis tells us in the account of Adam and Eve is that the Garden of Eden represented the ideal of how God had intended for the relationship to be between Himself and His creation, man. Chapter three tells us that God "walked" with and "talked" to Adam and Eve – face-to-face, side-by-side, directly, in person. But because of our sin (eating of the forbidden fruit), they were cast out of God's presence. In a state of sinfulness starting with Adam, man is incapable of standing before God – on his own merits. Period. And God is incapable of changing His requirement for not being in the presence of any sin. But He created the solution by giving His Son to die on the cross so that He could re-establish the fellowship with man that He desired. The missing element is for us as individuals to accept that Jesus dies for us and was resurrected to have victory over sin (Romans 10:9,10). And, as Revelation 3:20 points out, we have to “open the door”. A simple small step for us.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  4. Just saying....

    I am just saying.....

    If Christianity is all a big lie...then at the end of our days,...we have nothing to lose....but if the Holy Bible is true...then where will you spend Eternity?...Why not live life, believing in the Bible...and trying to be the best you can be...and at the end of your life...you lived a great life and left a good legasy....and....spend eternity with a Loving GOD....instead of living life the way you want...and maybe being separated from GOD forever...in a place called Hell....what do you have to lose....besides your life..and where you spend eternity......

    April 1, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Just saying....

      No Joke.....even if it is April 1st....Hehehe

      April 1, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Why would I want to spend all eternity with a being who punishes those who disagree with him for all eternity? That doesn't sound loving or compassionate to me; it sounds more like a playground bully with the emotional maturity of an 8 year old. I'd rather take my chances elsewhere.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • CaliDude

      1) – the Bible is an "english" interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. So, unless you have read the scriptures in Hebrew, then you are reading something – for all youknow - is condensed, or verbiage may have been omitted or even altered. Why? Orgainzed Religion is a just a way to "control" people. And lastly...if you believe in the Bible that much...then you MUST abide by the 10 Commandments.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • CM

      Any God that easily fooled is too stupid to deserve my respect. Religion should not be like diversifying your stock portfolio. Why stop there? Why not also buy a Koran and learn some Buddhist chants so that I cover ALL my bases?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • CJMack

      Six degrees,

      God does not punish unbelievers by sending them to hell. Unbelievers choose not to be with him in this life and in eternity. Only two ways out of this world, Heaven or hell. You make the choice not God.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  5. JC

    "Four big myths about Revelation" – that seems more than a little redundant

    April 1, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  6. Name*vewashin31

    The devil is a lie.....

    April 1, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • maverick

      My imigainary friend says kill all Jews and let God sort them out.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  7. Zach

    "Religion is considered by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful"
    enough religious propaganda CNN, this is childish!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:06 am |
  8. JB

    CNN did such a fine job trying Zimmerman in the media that they've decided that they're experts on the bible now.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • 1812Overture

      It's obvious, you love handguns more than you love Skittles.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  9. tuskay

    complete heresy...

    April 1, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  10. Steven Hartung

    The two ideas most interesting in this article for me are, one, that Christains of this time period are different from Christians of today. When we look at what is considered "human nature," are the basic building blocks of human character changed from what they were two thousand years ago? Consider such concepts such as flattery, discipline, integrity, sloth and wisdom, to grab just a few blocks from the bucket of human choice. Sure, people are socially, morally, intellectually, and spiritually much different in some ways as those living centuries before us, just as there are wide ranges of differences within our human family living at present. I wonder how the building block of faith has changed and how it has remained constant, and also how faith as a Christian has changed and remained constant, and what exactly are the differences in faith from one decade to the next and one century to the next in all it's (faith's) faceted glory? As this post has gone longer than intended, I must for present stop here, but a good article because it got me thinking this early Sunday morning!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  11. NClaw441

    Most people agree that Revelation is a difficult book to interpret. It is highly symbolic and it does speak of the persecution of the early Church, as personally known by the author, whichever John it is. It is written to 7 churches in Asia, but the themes and warnings to those churches still apply to churches and individuals today. For me, the central theme is very straightforward: Hard times ahead, but God wins!

    All of this said, I acknowledge that what I believe, I believe by faith. I understand that others do not believe as I do. Noting has changed in that regard since the life and times of Christ. I may be wrong, they may be wrong. I don't hate those who don't believe; I simply disagree. Rather than call names on either side, we all ought to recognize the right of others to disagree, even as we attempt to convince them of our position.

    As Christians enter Holy Week, and Jews enter Passover, I have to say that an article by CNN attempting to undermine the Bible, or portions of it, is untimely. Pagels' book ought to be presented, but I question its presentation at this time. I also am concerned about a news organization that did not thoroughly look at differing viewpoints from Pagels'. That is not fair journalism, to my mind.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • RB

      Very well stated...

      April 1, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • dweidlich

      I agree. It seems irresponsible to provide this article as though Pagels speaks for New Testament scholars. At least a response is in order from one who believes the Bible is God's Word.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  12. chrisdah

    Just another heretic being published by a heretic news organization on the most foolish of days

    April 1, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • primatica

      A day is just the same as any other day, only we but any credence to a point in time.So the date of this article is irrelevant and a cop out. I believe religion is heresy against mankind It divides us at a time when we should be working together. A system long needing removal.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  13. NoOne


    April 1, 2012 at 7:03 am |
  14. Mike Franklin

    The web... and the world even, is rife with those who endow themselves as experts on any of a million subjects. But when it comes to the bible, even most clergy will admit that there is so much of it that it just left to the individual to interpret and find meaning from. So, while I appreciate CNN finding this 'desk'pert on the holy book, I hope they (and she) won't mind if I make up my own mind.

    Thank you. Have a nice day.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • primatica

      She's taking about real life motivation for a writer which any writer can tell you is essential in forming a text. He was writing anti-roman?pro -Jewish propaganda wishing Jahweh would bring an end to the Romans Exodus style using his angels. Jesus is never mentioned and ancient propaganda that has no bases in current reality should hold no sway in the public square.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  15. James

    Ms Pagel, should I say is an agnostic...She is an atheist even though most of you think she's highly educated...She can't understand Bible in the way the Holy Spirit deals with some of us as a true Christian does...She only interprets Bible at the peak of her thought notwithstanding that it is the true Word of God, HER CREATOR and REDEEMER.....

    April 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • SixDegrees

      So you're saying she can only interpret the Bible as fact, elucidated by its historical context.

      Works for me.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  16. FredH

    "She read Revelation as a teenager, then again when she wrote the book" – wow, read it twice did she? Yup, she is an expert! "There is no other book like Revelation in the Bible" – Revelation is an echo of several prophetic books in the Old Testament that mention the end times and the hardships and destruction. Old Testament books in the Bible don't count I guess?

    Where does CNN find these authors? I know, hey they are bashing or questioning the Bible, let's do an article on them!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • roland

      How do you explain the woman in revelation being described as the astrological godess virgo. Become a student of the bible and not a student of religious beliefs.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Yes, and Pagels covers the echos of Ezekial and Isaiah in excruciating detail in her book. Your post is a pointless rant against a scholar whom you know nothing at all about, and who has spent more time examining these works and related texts than you and several evangelical congregations put together would in 10 lifetimes.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  17. ian

    read the book of revelations together with that of Daniel, then you will understand it clearly.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  18. Bill P

    This is a rubbish article, written by a non-believer. From the WIKI: "Pagels ceased attending church after the death of a Jewish friend." Not that attending church is itself the definer of belief but it is the bell-weather of it. So, here is a religion embittered person teaching religion in college and attempting to destroy the understanding and belief in one of the most profound books of the Bible that may see its fulfillment in her lifetime. She is doing the work and bidding of Satan whether she knows it or not.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • George Bush

      You really use Wiki as a source to discredit something?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • Bill P

      George – Pagels work discredits itself. The WIKI is a source of information that can shed light on the author's (Pagels) motivation. As it did.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • SixDegrees

      It's astonishing that you're able to make such a judgment without actually reading Pagel's book or becoming familiar with her work. Did the voices in your head inform your?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • CaliDude

      Bill–1) the Wiki statement states very clearly that "it needs clarification" re: that she ceased going to church. Also...she went to Stanford, Harvard and is a professor at Princeton. So, Bill...I would check your "reality" before calling something "rubbish".

      April 1, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Bill P

      SixDegrees – Have you read the book? Unless we are willing to do so, we go by what John Blake includes in his summary of what her book says. The premise of her book is that Revelation was written about the writer's own death. ("Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation was actually describing the way his own world ended.") Ridiculous.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Actually, I have read it. Just finished it a week ago. I've also read Pagels' other books – "The Gnostic Gospels" and "The Origin of Satan". She is an excellent scholar and historian, and you are missing much by simply rejecting her out of ignorance.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Bill P

      Cali – I am quite familiar with the Book of Revelation. Knowing what it says, how it ties into other books of the Bible, and the events of 79 AD in no way could have fulfilled it, I can rightfully say that her book is rubbish. Even if the WIKI statement is incorrect, it does not diminish the fact of her erroneous conclusions.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  19. OldMo

    Yep, John was a looney mystic that wrote of myths. The Bible is just full of nonsense that can be interpreted in any old way. Israel was not regathered from the four corners of the world to reform as a nation in one day. Didn't happen. They weren't immediately surrounded by enemies. Ugh ugh. The wasteland they entered didn't begin to flourish once they returned. Nope. Certainly there isn't wars or even rumors of wars or famines and earthquakes in diverse places. There hasn't been a plan for a one world government that we can see coming to fruition. That's nonsense. If you wish take the time to look into other Bible prophecies, you'll find them just as easy to dismiss. I highly recommend it.

    So all you nations and powerful men who think you're going to line up and wipe Israel off the map once and for all go right ahead with your masterful plans. You're many and mighty and they are few, who can stop you? Just forget those silly myths in the book of fairy tales called the Bible that suggest things aren't going to turn out very well for you. I mean, it's all nonsense and no prophecies have ever come true. . .right? Are you willing to bet your life and your eternal souls on your mocking dismissals about the Bible (God's word)? You'd better be.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  20. I Believe everything I am told

    John Patmos. or John Apostle?

    Gospel according to John, Revelations written by the same guy?
    Happy Baby John, Old bitter psycho John, same guy?

    April 1, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Two different authors, as has been noted since around 260 AD.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • n2dacid

      Actually it was Hobo John. Dudes still around and still trippin'

      April 1, 2012 at 7:23 am |
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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.