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. yesmaam

    everything religious contradicts itself.

    virtually every war or conflict throughout all lands and all history should tell any sane person that religion is full of it. turning land against land, family against family. bring peace to the world with blood dripping off every finger...

    April 2, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • err

      A more truthfull statement would be anything mankind contradicts itself. Mankind has been killing eachother long before any of the organized religions were even around.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:28 am |
  2. Beware!

    The "un"Aware.. are "un" Aware...They are "un"Aware!

    Your Faith will be Your ARK! If YOU believe in Nothing... Well let's see how far it carries YOU!

    If YOU believe in a god made out of wood & stone... Pray YOU don't hve to save "it" from the "Something Major" that is coming ManKind's way.. Picking up your god to carry him.. Why do u ecen havr to make him?? Besides The materials used comes from The CREATOR!

    No matter your opinions On this blog... In Time.. & On Time He is using Time.. He willdoAll He haspromised todo! "Let God's WillBe Done!"

    April 2, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  3. ytavou

    Someone doesn't know that the island of Patmos is in Greece not Turkey. Maybe that someone doesn't know what they are talking about?r. "It’s about the end of the world" , Last par :"island of Patmos in present-day Turkey."

    April 2, 2012 at 4:04 am |
    • STOP

      ytavou, lightsabre, Jess, Sam, etc.

      That Patmos error has been covered at least 50 times already.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:10 am |
  4. lightsabre

    Here's a Revelation Mr Blake: the island of Patmos is not "in present-day Turkey" but in Greece!

    April 2, 2012 at 4:01 am |
  5. Jess

    I see lots of mistakes in this article, the writer expresses his own view on Revelation and not based on facts, he looks mad on christianity and tries to mix up lies with truth to deceive people, he doesnt even know that Batmus is a Greek island and not Turkish as mentioned.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:58 am |
  6. Sam Garp

    PATMOS is in Greece!!!! Sad to see such a good article get its Geography wrong...

    April 2, 2012 at 3:55 am |
  7. truthfulster

    It's all human Lie's and exaggerations, don't take that statement the wrong way. I'm a firm believer but what you read is not what the writers wrote. Just look at humanity today, what a bunch of liar's, wait 50 years and read about something that happened in your lifetime. The story is 25% different then what actually happened and that's just 50 years. Think how a story changes 2400 years after the time of occurrence, it's at least 50% different and that's not the same story, if you should read the revelation you must immerse yourself into the fact about when this was written and how many people read it after SO MANY YEARS and how whats written can be adapted to any part of our history that ends in catastrophe.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:55 am |
  8. Michael

    Does this person actually believe this nonsense? The beginning of the book specifically says that John was to "write down the things which are past, present, and future". How convenient it would be for this book to only be written in the present tense. How convenient it is for scholars to believe that all of this already happened. Who wants to believe that judgment is coming? Who wants to believe in a God that has strict morals? If we believe in a God that has strict morals, we then must abide by those and face judgment. However, if we come at the Scriptures with a mindset of wanting to do whatever we want, then it would be most convenient if the Bible did not ring true. For if it rings true, we are all in danger of Hellfire if we are not in line with what it says. By inventing the fact that there are multiple interpretations of the Bible, it promotes self-gratification. Again it becomes convenient for the "Burger King Philosophy: Have it Your way!"

    April 2, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • SixDegrees

      So you're basically rejecting the rational abilities given to you by your creator and embracing mindless dogma in their place.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:53 am |
    • Prix fixe

      Michael, "Burger King Philosophy"

      Sounds like you have bought yourself a Whopper!

      April 2, 2012 at 4:03 am |
    • sam stone

      Michael: The bible only holds validity to those who accept it. For the rest, all this blah blah f-ing blah, is just empty proxy threats. I am in the latter group. Your god is impotent. And you are a coward for hiding behind "him".

      April 2, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  9. abel


    April 2, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  10. Easy way Out

    What!! Has this John even read the book of Revelations. Yes, there are similarities to the rebellion against Rome but to say they are one and the same is to ignore 90% of what is not similar. The writer makes obviously false statements. He says that the was not a traditional Christian because he was against woman leadeds in the church. Well the NT clearly says that as well but to fit with popular culture the modern Church tries to ignore that. He says that he doesnt believe that Jesus died for our sins yet the book refers to him over and over again as the lamb that was slain. Articles like this are so infuriating. CNN goes and finds some random scholar who who's only skill is controversy. Any simpleton who has taken the time to read the book of revelations knows the events John was describing could not be satisfied at all by the events of his time.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • SixDegrees

      You would need to know how to read before making such a statement as yours.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  11. Reality

    Why does anyone take any of this silly garbage seriously anymore?

    April 2, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • dk

      The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree...makes sense to me 😉

      April 2, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • Sleep Walking n Real-Ity

      The Reality is... Ur Spritually asleep... U hve no idea how to come out The dark into The Light... & The Opportunity is Knocking @ Ur Door! For many it will take The DAY to come like in Noahs time before u can actually SEE... But u keep bumping into Truth.. It knocks u out everytime Its Simply Undisputed! Dont waste UR TIME.. If it is garbage... Mr Trashman! Clean up The Lies with Truth .. Ooops! U dont hve a Clue do u??.. 🙂

      April 2, 2012 at 3:48 am |
    • Michael

      Nothing started spinning and exploded. After the nothingness exploded, it violated the second law of thermodynamics and randomly beat Dr. Morowitz's odds of 10 to the 340 millionth power for life to randomly exist by ash raining down on rocks for millions of years. After all of this, somehow the earth inexplicably gained a moon. And at some point the grand canyon was formed by the Colorado river, even though it would have had to have been at least a mile higher, and would have had to flow completely opposite from its current direction. Do you really want to play this game? Maybe you should use some actually science.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:59 am |
    • Gaunt

      Michael: the difference, of course, is that everything you just said is utterly absurd, disproven and flagrantly dishonest lies. Not only that, but easily proven as lies.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • Prix fixe


      Whopper, anyone?

      April 2, 2012 at 4:12 am |
    • sam stone

      michael: how does a creator imply a judge?

      April 2, 2012 at 5:45 am |
    • Michael

      A creator does not imply a judge. The Bible implies a judge. If you can find a way to disprove the Bible, then you become your own judge, which is what the authors have attempted to do. Who wants some omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God that will judge their sins at some point, using the most terrible means thought of? Nobody wants that. Therefore, they misrepresent what the Bible says, and the rational arguments given for the accuracy of the Bible, and the rationale for the Bible in general. At the end of the day it comes down to what you really want to believe. If you want to believe that the Bible is not true, you risk judgment, unless the Bible is not true, in which case you risk nothing. If it is true, and you take that risk, you are in some deep trouble. If the Bible is not true and I have lived according to it, who cares? I still helped thousands of people who were underprivileged like the Bible says to. I still disregard money, and regard the lives of my fellow humans as more important than any amount of possessions this world could offer. I seriously believe in Christ, and His power because I have seen my life change like the Bible said it would. I have seen the power of the words of that book. I currently am involved in humanitarian efforts to make the poor have a little bit better of a life with the limited resources I currently possess.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  12. seanmom

    Elaine Pagels is not "one of the world's leading Biblical scholars." That's just hysterically uninformed. She is a popular writer on the so-called Gnostic gospels, and a feminist theologian of paganism.

    These claims are disproven by actual scholarship on the Bible.

    Moreover, this comment: "The Bible has been clearly demonstrated to be an unreliable doc-ument from a historical perspective" is BS. There is an entire field of archaeology dedicated to the correspondence between ancient artifacts and Biblical writings. It is flourishing. Nothing ever discovered by archaeologists has ever contradicted the Bible. In fact, many Biblical stories long suspected to be myth have been proven in the 20th and 21st centuries to be true.

    Good luck following Elaine Pagels. You'll get bad scholarship AND false religion!

    April 2, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • dk

      all religion is false

      April 2, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Actually, wrong. Pagels has spent a lifetime in the field of biblical research, and has countless peer-reviewed papers backing her work, along with the admiration of her peers in the community. As usual, we're treated to a baseless ad hominem attack instead of any actual refutation of her work or a presentation of rationally argued alternatives. Nice try, though, to brazen your way through by simply lying about her credentials.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  13. Childhood Schizophrenia Reveals Revelations

    Schizophrenia anthropomorphises or personifies the gender minds into people and animals:


    A lion, for instance, is the gay gender mind. A pig is lesbian. A sheep is female. The Chinese zodiac shows the gender of the numbers. Number 10 is a bird, which is gay. Number 8 is the sheep, which is the tame side of the female (Jesus is 888). Number 6 is the snake or the bi side of the female. In other words, Jesus and the 666 Beast are two sides of the same coin.

    Thus, what John saw was the usual trouble makers of society, which is also present in everyone's mind. In Buddhism, it is called Trivisa or the "Three Poisons"-gay, lesbian and bi or Fire, Earth and Metal.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:32 am |
  14. Reveal-ation

    Revelation was not last book written! John the writer of the Last Books written: 1st2nd &3rd John...But Revelation was written BEFORE these books! To begin to understand anything from the Bible ONE will need Wisdom & Understanding which Are Spiritual Relatives (Proverbs 7:7) from Above. U can gain them & Insight Into The Scriptures by praying For them! Understanding u r not related to The Most High (Psalms 83:18) Due to Adam & Eve ... Is all the more reason why u shld become reconciled with HIM!

    2Roads–One Choice! Thats it! No in between! Dont let The Spiritual Sniper take you down! Get off The fence!! Pick a road... Understanding... The Road to Life is narrow & cramped...And FEW Are finding it!

    The Road to Life is: TRUTH! Seek it & You shall Find it & when you do May The Truth Set You Free!

    April 2, 2012 at 3:30 am |
    • Reality

      Waste of time better spent doing anything else.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:35 am |
  15. Phares Bono

    I believe everything the bible says regardless of my full understanding...that's faith at work.If the writer of this article is right then I have absolutely nothing to lose or worry about.On the other hand,if the bible is true to its word then he and all who believe him are in deep trouble.Either way,a true christian who believes in the Revelation of Jesus Christ as The One and only God,....WINS!!!!God bless

    April 2, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Your post makes no sense, because these aren't mutually contradictory views.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • dk

      this is called blind faith and it leads to ignorance and inquisitions where millions and murdered and tortured.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:34 am |
  16. Red

    The Bible has been clearly demonstrated to be an unreliable doc-ument from a historical perspective. It would do many people good to learn more about the Bible's origins. The book "Misquoting Jesus" by Bible scholar Bart Ehrman is a good place to start. No need to remain ignorant.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  17. Shane

    Update: It's ALL a myth.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  18. mapake

    Update: It's ALL a myth.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • Phares Bono

      and what if its not????ever asked yourself that?

      April 2, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • Gaunt

      Phares: have you ever asked yourself, what if the hundreds of other holy books from the tens of thousands of other human religions past and present are not myths? How dare you dismiss these other religions and creation storys as myths, and then glibly and blindly accept your particular version of your particular divinity as absolute truth? What kind of empty-headed hypocricy is that?

      April 2, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  19. Dimis

    Patmos is a Greek island and there is a big castle and monastery there

    April 2, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Discussed ad nauseum.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  20. TIm Rigney

    Anybody who pays anything even barely approaching close attention to religion knows that the Book of Revelation is now considered to be about Rome, and beyond that at most a metaphor for the end of the world.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:08 am |
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