Book of Revelation; Put in Scriptures By Mistake

Written by:  Charles Lewis Apr 27, 2012 – 7:26 PM ET | Last Updated: Apr 27, 2012 

The Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible and therefore the final word to the followers of Jesus, is like a cinematic explosion of blood, violence and redemption.  It may be the scariest book ever written that has a really happy ending.  There is a reason why so many creators of literature, film, and popular music — from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now to Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast — have plumbed the book’s depths for artistic inspiration.

Whereas most of the rest of the New Testament is as gentle as a lamb, with its talk of faith, hope and love, the Book of Revelation has been read for nearly 1,700 years as a nightmarish warning to sinners, heretics and non-believers about the reign of terror to come for those who reject Christ.


1. The 16 novels of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.  Partly based on Revelation, it tells the story of the End Times, in which true believers of Christ are raptured into heaven and everyone else is screwed

2. Failed end-of-the-world predictor Harold Camping relied on the book of Revelation for his prophecy

3. The conclusion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “Read the signs of the times … Who may abide the day of His appearing?

“For that day shall burn like an oven.”

4. The Battle Hymn of the Republic famously sums up the messianic vision of the Civil War era: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on

5. Such films as On The Beach (1959), Fail Safe (1964), Dr. Strangelove (1964) and even the Mad Max movies all are inspired by the Book of Revelation.

6. Marilyn Manson’s 1996 album Antichrist Superstar, Iron Maiden’s 1982 album The Number of the Beast, and any number of other rock albums.

It has been used as a threat by all manner of fundamentalists to damn sinners into the “Lake of Fire” — as was recently done by an Alberta preacher and political candidate who warned that gays would burn for their ways.  It has been an inspiration to modern-day Satanic worshipers who use “666,” the number assigned to the beast in Revelation — “it had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon” — to evoke the Antichrist.  Christian authors have plumbed its dark images to warn those who do not believe that they will be left out of the new heavenly Jerusalem.

The world’s two billion Christians read it as a holy book — laying out the trials and tribulations they will face as they wait for the Second Coming of Jesus.

Even for those who take it as more of a metaphor than a literal final battle between good and evil, few dispute that it belongs as the capstone to the New Testament.

But Elaine Pagels, a well-known author of biblical history, as well as a professor of religion at Princeton University, says putting the Revelation in the New Testament was a mistake, the result of a misunderstanding.  In her latest book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation,” she says the Book of Revelation was not a Christian book, but a warning issued 90 years after the death of Jesus, from a refugee of war-torn Jerusalem named John of Patmos, that Jewish followers of Jesus better not form a new religion, let alone consort with pagan followers of Christ who dare to eat non-kosher food.

“He was fighting a war on two fronts,” explained Prof. Pagels in an interview. “There’s the Roman Empire, which he can’t stand because it destroyed Jerusalem and committed the abomination of leveling the Temple.  But I also believe he is writing against those Jewish followers of Jesus who are trying to accommodate the pagan followers of Christ.

“The language used is right out of the Exodus [in the Old Testament].  He wants God’s people of Israel, to be holy and pure.  He doesn’t want them eating non-kosher food.  He is saying, ‘We have to go back to the original covenant God made with Moses on Mt. Sinai.’ ”

Her contention is that those who pushed for its inclusion in the New Testament, when the New Testament was finally settled in the fourth century, also wanted a way to warn even faithful Christians that those who did not toe the line of orthodoxy would also face an eternity of unimaginable horrors.

The composition of the New Testament came about after long debate, and was settled over many years during Church councils.  The Book of Revelation attracted more debate than most, not because some Church fathers thought it was too Jewish, but because, as a piece of writing, it was just too weird.

“In the decades after he wrote it some people said, This is crazy.  A heretic wrote this.  But others thought it had to be a prophet.” Prof. Pagels said.

It was Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, Prof. Pagels said, that saw the book as a powerful tool to warn faithful Christians not to stray from orthodoxy.  In the end, Athanasius got his wish.

No doubt the language of Revelation would scare any would-be dissenter straight:  “[From a bottomless pit] … came locusts on the earth … They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone.  And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.”

Or this: “[The heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.  By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths.  For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.”]

Prof. Pagels’ thesis that Revelation was a Jewish book meant for Jews, undermines the very idea of a separate Christian religion.  If the Church fathers had understood the book properly, says Prof. Pagels, they would have had to admit that the entire Christian enterprise was flawed.

It is a notion many Christian scholars will find hard to accept.

“I’d be surprised too at the idea of the Book of Revelation being a Jewish document calling for a rejection of Christianity as a separate movement,” said Jesuit priest Brian Daley, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

“It seems to me so central to Christian theology.  It does borrow from the Old Testament and this whole notion of a secret revelation made known to a seer and with images of dramatic events taking place in heaven that reveal the future.  I always say Walt Disney would do the best job of presenting it.  It’s like an opera.  “But it seems to me what the Book of Revelation is presenting is the person of the risen Jesus as majestic, and the final solution to history’s problems in gathering around him both Israel and new converts.”

Prof. Pagels said it is hard to fully grasp why the book was taken so seriously given that so little is known about John of Patmos and that it even survived more than 250 years to be considered for the last book of the Bible. (Many Christians believe it was written by St. John, one of Christ’s disciples and author of the Gospel of John — but on this point debates about the authorship goes right back to the early Church.)

Ultimately, she said, it is not hard to imagine why Revelation eventually gained wide acceptance — even if the author’s intent was lost over the years.

“I started to read and think about that when I started this book.  John the only writer that we know included in the New Testament claims of dictation from Jesus; that he is writing true prophecy and no one can alter the words without altering God’s words.”

Prof. Pagels is not a great fan of the Book of Revelation, saying there is too much heartache that has been left in its wake.  It has been used by all sides in hundreds of bloody wars to justify all manner of causes, no matter how perverted.

“Maybe if I were somebody who lived in wartime, like the Civil War, I might think the book spoke very powerfully to me.  But I didn’t and so I tend not to love it.”

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