by John Blake, CNN
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.
“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 hisown 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 in present-day Turkey.
“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 Satanwho 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.”
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.”
This is fairly consistent with the course on Revelation which I took as a Baptist seminary student and pastor in the 1970’s. Revelation is NOT a futuristic blueprint; and those who profit or peddle fear by saying that it is, are at best full of shit, and at worse just enriching themselves from such nonsense (Tim LaHaye included). -HFS
God Is Dead” – New York Times, Jan 9, 1966
The most common argument that Atheists are asked to defend is to provide proof that god does not exist. This is known as “Proving a Negative.” Technically, it is defined as an “Argument from Ignorance.” Essentially, it is a logical fallacy in that a claimed premise is deemed true only because it has not been proven false. This is one of the most common retorts I get when debating a believer and it is also one of the most difficult to explain to them because they just cannot grasp the utter ridiculousness of their request.
Do invisible pink unicorns exist simply because they have not been proven not to? The burden of proof always lies with the person who is making the claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. When someone tells me that god exists, I ask him or her to prove it with real, empirical evidence.
According to Christianity, their god exists and he is perfect. An imperfect god cannot exist, so if we can prove that god is not perfect, then, by default, we can prove that he does not exist and the entire house of cards that is Christianity collapses. We can know that god is not perfect, and therefore not exist because he screwed up so bad that even trying to hide his imperfection is impossible. Christianity teaches that creation was perfect because it was fashioned by a perfect god, and it remained so until the “fall of man” occurred in the garden of Eden.
This begs the question of why god felt the need to create anything in the first place. The need to create results from a perceived lack of balance between what is and what should be. So, what disturbed god’s perfection and compelled him to create? If god is presumably perfect, then he would have been complete and in need of nothing. Conventional Christian “wisdom” teaches that god created us because he desires our worship. Well, desire results from need, and need connotes lack, and lack connotes imperfection. This is where the existence of the Christian god becomes impossible, because perfection cannot exist as long as there is need, want or desire. A god who is perfect does nothing except exist and thus, a perfect god who creates anything is not perfect.
Of course, a favorite amongst Christians is the imbecilic answer of “his ways are higher,” which is not only the height of ignorance, but shows a lack of reason so profound that all you really can do is just shake your head in disbelief. What it comes down to is that an allegedly perfect god created a perfect universe which was rendered imperfect by his creation, humans. Thusly, the ultimate source of imperfection is god himself. An imperfect humanity could have only been created by an imperfect god and Christianity does not allow for an imperfect god, so thus, god does not exist. He is a logical fallacy unto himself.
This is, indeed, a paradox of monumental proportions for Christians, and has spawned a plethora of Christian colleges, universities and think tanks all for the purpose of trying to figure this all out. The best they can come up with is the concept of “free will,” which basically states that human imperfection is only a byproduct of our capacity as free moral agents. That’s all good and well, but the concept was doomed to fail from the start.
The characters portrayed in the bible as “Adam and Eve” used their free will to choose evil, which was a design flaw and if we are to believe in intelligent design, then creating something that is broken does not make god intelligent at all. It was this flaw in god’s design that was responsible for the introduction of imperfection into his previously perfect universe. Another proof of imperfection, thus another proof that god does not exist.
Abraham, I Need A Favor…
To make matters worse, god knew that Adam and Eve were going to totally fuck everything up for the rest of humanity and did nothing about it, in spite of hearing screams of the damned. No, this perfect, all-compassionate, all-loving god went ahead with his plan anyway, knowing that billions of humans would end up eternally damned to hell. Nothing screams compassion louder than eternal suffering for temporal sins…
Of course, eternal damnation is avoidable as long as one accepts Jesus as lord and savior. However, salvation is only necessary because the problem of sin was brought on by god in the first place. The need for salvation is incompatible with a perfect god because if god were perfectly just, he would not dole out infinite punishment for finite sins. The fact that the best god could do was offer up human sacrifice as a solution to his design flawed humanity is further proof that he is imperfect, and thus does not exist.
So It Is Written…
Another proof that god is not perfect is the venue that he chose to communicate with his imperfect creation – the Bible. Avoiding eternal punishment by knowing and believing in Christ is wonderful if you have access to a bible. However, there are billions of people in the past, present and future all over the planet in remote areas who have never heard of nor will likely never hear of Jesus Christ or his “gospel of salvation.”
According to Christian theology, all of these people are doomed to eternal punishment – regardless of their generosity, kindness, morality, ethics or disposition – because they have not accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Without access to the Bible, they are being punished for committing a crime they had no idea even existed. A god that would judge a man by his beliefs rather than his actions is imperfect, and thus does not exist.
So, how does god combat the problem of the shortage of bibles in every language known to humanity and the equal shortage of Christian bookstores in the Amazon jungle and other remote places where there isn’t even a Starbuck’s? Happy feet! Yes, happy are the feet that bring the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ to the world, right? And who do these feet belong to? None other than the most destructive groups of people ever to walk the face of the earth. Missionaries. They have destroyed whole cultures and have stolen entire countries from their indigenous inhabitants.
If you don’t believe me, just ask any Native American. Missionaries believe that their job is to bring the “word of god” to the savage masses, savage meaning anyone who does not believe like they do.
The problem is that like the imperfect Christian god, the bible is also imperfect. It is indecipherable fusion of books that contain so many errors, contradictions, misinformation and ignorance beyond any standards of logic and reason that it boggles the mind that it’s even taken seriously. It is a poor excuse for the supposedly perfect word of god. The fact that no two individuals will ever agree on what the bible says in its entirety makes it suspect. An imperfect god who reveals his imperfect will in an imperfect book is another proof that god does not exist.
I Second That Emotion…
Another interesting point to note is that according to Christianity, god experiences all of the emotions of a human being. What they fail to understand is that emotion is a response to something previously unknown. A perfect god who is omniscient god would be ignorant of nothing. Nothing would be hidden from him and nothing can be revealed, thus there would be no need to act emotionally. Thus, he is not all knowing. Another point to ponder as to why god cannot exist.
Yet, two billion people still stubbornly insist that there is a god and he is watching us all the time, which should make them uncomfortable, to say the least. Is he casting his watchful eye over us as we take a dump? Does he watch us have sex? Masturbate? Pick our noses? Scratch our butts? Does he listen into our phone conversations? Read our email? God is everywhere? Is he up our behind? Please, when will people realize just how illogical and unreasonable the whole god thing is and come to the place in their lives when they finally realize that there is no god?
Deities were invented at the dawn of time and persisted throughout our history to explain what was unexplainable in the early years of our development. The culmination of human knowledge and intelligence has answered many questions with certainty that were unknown even up until very recently. We no longer need to rely on ancient superstitions to explain weather patterns, genetics, biology and other life sciences. We no longer need to make sacrifices or live a life if credulous servility to appease an angry god so he allows our crops to grow or to keep sickness at bay or any one of a plethora of other superstitions.
The concept of god is one that is passed and no longer needed. Humans are more than capable of moral behavior, altruistic actions, inner peace and happiness on our own. We have a choice to make. We can choose to do what is right regardless of what religion tells us, or we can do what religion tells us, regardless if it is right. The former is the choice that will allow our species to evolve. The latter can only result in our annihilation.
Think about it…
Excerpted from my book, “A Voice Of Reason In An Unreasonable World – The Rise Of Atheism On Planet Earth“
- I Could Never Be a Christian (dangeroustalk.net)
- Justice, condemnation, scapegoating and a disturbing lack of reason. (onefuriousllama.com)
- Stephen Fry and God (str.typepad.com)
“Progressives love to point out the hypocrisy of social conservatives who righteously rail against (and demand legal sanction for) the very same sexually sinful behavior in which they enthusiastically engage — and rightly so. But what about a society that continues to imprison millions of human beings for using substances that vast numbers of people in the nation have secretly used and enjoyed, or which empowers people with the Oval Office, or reveres people like Steve Jobs, who have done the same? The DOJ claims dispensaries are now masking non-medical marijuana sales, leading to this question: even leaving aside the rather significant (and shameful) fact that drug laws are enforced with overwhelming disproportion against racial minorities, what possible justification is there for putting someone in a cage for using a substance they choose to use without any evidence that they’ve harmed anyone else or even risked harm to anyone else?
All of this becomes even more incomprehensible when one considers the never-ending preaching about the need for “austerity,” which means: depriving poor and middle class citizens of services and financial security. In this environment, how can it possibly be justified to expend substantial sums of money investigating, arresting, prosecuting and then imprisoning large numbers of people for doing nothing more than consuming marijuana or selling it in states where it is legal to sell it to other consenting adults? That makes about as much sense as deploying a State Department army of 16,000 for a permanent presence in Iraq at the same time political and financial elites plot cuts to Social Security and Medicare. I genuinely don’t understand why a policy that single-handedly sustains America’s status as World’s Largest Jailer — and that consigns huge numbers of minorities and America’s poor to prison and permanent criminal status for no good reason, in the process breaking up families at astonishing rates (to say nothing of the inexorable erosion of civil liberties) — isn’t a higher priority for progressives.
But just like the senseless and monumentally wasteful Endless military War, America’s Drug War feeds the pockets of a powerful private industry: the growing privatized prison industry, which needs more and more prisoners for profits, gets many from drug convictions, and thus vehemently opposes and lobbies against any reform to the nation’s drug laws as well as reform of harsh criminal sentencing. That, combined with self-righteous, deeply hypocritical anti-drug moralizing and complete obliviousness to evidence, has ensured not only that the Drug War and its prison obsession endures, but that it remains outside the scope of what can even be discussed in mainstream political circles. And as the Obama DOJ’s newly intensified attacks on marijuana demonstrate, the problem is, in many respects, getting worse, even as most of the world moves toward a much more restrained and health-based (rather than crime-based) approach to dealing with drug usage.”
— Glenn Greenwald – Steve Jobs and drug policy | Salon