always been debates about it. Some people said a heretic wrote it. Some said a
disciple. There have always been people who loved and championed it.” Biblical
scholar Elaine Pagels tells the real story behind the Book of Revelation.
4 Big Myths of the Book of Revelation
(CNN) – The anti-Christ. The Battle of Armageddon. The dreaded Four Horsemen of
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.”
In her book, Pagels returns The Book of Revelation to its historical origin. The
author of Revelation, John of Patmos, took aim at the Roman Empire after what is
now known as the
"Jewish War", in 66 CE. Militant Jews in Jerusalem, filled with religious
fervor, waged an all-out war against Rome's occupation of Judea and their defeat
resulted in the desecration of Jerusalem and its Great Temple.
Pagels persuasively interprets Revelation as a scathing attack on the decadence
of Rome. Soon after, however, a new sect known as "Christians" seized on John's
text as a weapon against heresy and infidels of all kinds - Jews, even
Christians who dissented from their increasingly rigid doctrines and
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.
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.
“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.
Four big myths about Revelation:
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.
“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
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.
The Dangers of Fundamentalist
What does it mean to be a
fundamentalist Christian? It
means that you take the Bible as
the 100% literal truth and your
life is centered around this
belief. A rational person would ask the question, "Why do you believe what you believe?" The answer you'll most often
get is, "because it's the
truth." Your response, "How do
you know? This is when you'll
be bombarded with circular
arguments, ignorance fallacies,
cherry-picking, and the coup de
gras, "God of the Gaps" argument
(the latter argument uses
religion, or God, to fill in any
and all gaps without providing
any proof whatsoever).
Pay close attention to what the
fundamentalist says from this
point forward because this will
give you an idea of the type of
mentality you're dealing with.
Their mind has been conditioned
to the point they are terrified
of the unknown, they are
spiritually incomplete and
confused, and consistently deny
reality. Terrified of the
unknown, the believer usually
can't deal with the uncertainty
of life. He has a compulsive
need to be certain, which feeds
his beliefs in myriad unproven,
unfathomable, and unrealistic
The moral and intellectual
dishonesty that spawns from
their beliefs, more often than
not, will be a lifelong
companion. The fundamentalist
reality is custom fitted in the
religious box it has resided in
since birth. Fundamentalism is
the antithesis of critical
thinking. Facts must fit or they
are ignored completely.
The Book of Revelation is what
ultimately drives the
fundamentalist believer. Their
leaders (pastors, ministers,
bishops, cardinals, etc) claim
to have been given "revelations"
from God, that they pass on to
their parishioners; revelations
that come straight from the
Bible. Most religious people
today will quickly inform you
that his church is
"non-denominational." It may
claim to be
non-denominational, but the text
you study, your thoughts, ideas,
and beliefs are definitely
biased toward one particular
denomination; one distinctive
Followers who are easily
mislead, fundamentalists believe
the interpretations of the Book
of Revelations, as they are laid
out by their religious leaders.
Like most books in the Bible,
Revelations is incredibly vague,
but this does not alter the
blind faith of the
fundamentalist. This is the
primary reason why
like her brother, Islam
Extremism, is extremely
dangerous. Christian and Muslim
leaders have taken, medieval,
vague predictions from the Bible
and the Qur'an, and applied them
to modern times. The Qur'an, is
believed by Muslims to be the
"flawless final revelation of
God to humanity, valid until the
The literal belief is that
Christ will return (the Rapture)
and save his believers before
the final battle. The book
Behind", written by Tim
LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
explains Armageddon in great
detail. "Left Behind",
chronicles the events that take
place in the apocalypse as
described in the Bible. There
are a plethora of people who
believe as LaHaye and Jenkins
does and if they are ever in
positions of power, will take
whatever actions necessary to
stop the apocryphal
"Anti-Christ" and fulfill
Fundamentalist believe that
Israel is God's chose nation.
Not once do they consider that
if a loving Deity does exist,
such an entity would not play
favorites, just as any loving
parent does not favor one child
over the other.
According to believers, the New
World Order will make us all
slaves to the Anti-Christ. If
this whole Anti-Christ hooey
were true, you could look no
further than the Federal
Reserve, Central Banks, and the
International Banking Cartels as
the collective global culprit.
Religion is the tool being used
to keep us divided; to keep us
fighting against one another,
based on something as trite as
religious beliefs. This allows
those very few in power to
continue to pull the wool over
It's past time to wake up and
stop believing 2600-year-old
archaic rhetoric. Study the
universe for two months, with an
objective mind, and you'll
clearly see you have been DUPED.
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
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.”
The numerals 666 stand for the
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,
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
“…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.”
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,
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
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
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.”
There is only one Book of
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
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. It is 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.”