If there is ever a number that triggers a variety of reactions, it is this one. It appears four times the Bible, two of which are in accounting documents of Solomon’s yearly income (1 Kgs 10:14; 2 Chr 9:13) and once in Ezra in the numbering of the 666 descendants of Adonikim (Ezra 2:13). Lastly, and most significantly for us, this number is in Revelation 13:18 as what is called the “Mark of the Beast.”
I have often been amused by the fear and loathing that this number engenders. When I was a young naval officer at one of my training sites, my locker number was 666. I had other equally young officers who said, “I wouldn’t want that locker.” I laughed at them.
Later, as a naval training officer, I taught about a serious radiological incident that occurred onboard the submarine USS Hawkbill whose hull number happened to be—you guessed it—666. Not surprisingly, the ship became known as the “devil boat.”
Incidentally, the sail of the Hawkbill, with the dreaded numbers emblazoned upon its side, is now on public display in Arco, Idaho, just a few miles from the location of my old locker with the same number. Equally strange is that this was the site of the only nuclear accident on US soil that resulted in direct fatalities. So the ship with the radiological incident and the dreaded number is now joined in location with the fatal nuclear accident in close proximity with my old 666 locker (if it is still there after 37 years). Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Historical anomalies aside, what should we as believers think about this number that is shrouded in mystery but yet has a seeming stranglehold on our interest? Christians who contemplate such things have a variety of responses, seeing the number somewhere in the spectrum between totally literal and totally symbolic.
I will look briefly at these two perspectives and attempt to provide a path forward for understanding how we should see this number.
The Literal View
Many, if not most, evangelical Christians have been taught (at least in some part of their lives) that the “mark” is quite literal. Well, not totally literal because no one really expects the actual number “666” to be imprinted on anyone’s hand or forehead (except in the movies) but they do see it as something that will actually be put onto the bodies of those who submit to the “beast” depicted in Revelation 13.
Among the literalists and up until our modern age, the mark was usually taken to be a symbol of loyalty to the Beast. However, as human life has increasingly become identified by numbers, the idea arose of the mark being an individual numerical identifier for a world economic system, much like a bank account number.
A story arose in the 1970s of a three-story computer in Belgium (named “the Beast”) that was programmed to number everyone on the earth with three-six digit numbers. That story, which was very convenient for the literal view of the mark, went viral (in a 1970s sense) in certain segments of society. There was only one problem; the story was fiction.
The “Beast” computer was the invention of Christian fiction author Joe Musser in his 1970 book, Behold a Pale Horse. This book became the basis for the 1972 movie, The Rapture. As a promotion for the movie, the producers seized upon the idea of producing a fictional newspaper as a souvenir for the moviegoers. In this fake newspaper was the story of the “Beast” computer in Brussels. A reporter for a Pennsylvania newspaper took the souvenir article to be real and wrote a story about it. The story later found its way into the August 1976 issue of Christian Life Magazine. 1
Fake news, 1970s style.
With the advent of microcircuit technology, it is increasingly common today to hear of the “mark” being a microchip inserted under the skin that will not only number each person but also keep track of their whereabouts. This supposedly “literal” interpretation has the advantage of closely adapting to modern times while straining a literal interpretation of a “mark.” However if you do an internet search, you will see people promoting their theories of how this will come about.
Without a doubt the technology now exists for such numbering and tracking but is the Bible predicting a world numbering system that will track us all through subcutaneous microchips?
Those who hold to a symbolic view of the mark would say no.
The Symbolic View
The Bible often speaks in symbolic language. God is said to “come down,” although He is everywhere. He is depicted as covering us with his feathers (the image of a mother hen) even though we know God is not a chicken. God’s anger (in the Hebrew) is called “the burning of His nostrils.”
All who read the Bible recognize that there are many symbolic representations in it but many Christians grow concerned when someone speaks of a passage being “symbolic” and not “literal.” To them, that sounds as if you are saying it is not true.
However, the literal approach runs into difficulty when you are dealing with the book of Revelation, the book with more symbolism than any other book in the Bible. Despite claims of “literal interpretation,” no one takes that book in a completely literal sense. That does not mean that they do not regard it as true.
For example, I know of no one who thinks that a creature with seven heads will crawl out of the Mediterranean Sea or that a dragon will sweep down a third of the stars in the sky with its tail. We all recognize that these images are depicting something else, though we may disagree on what they actually symbolize. Many believers though, while accepting many symbols in Revelation, blanch at the idea that the “mark of of the beast” might also be symbolic and not an actual mark that people will receive.
Calling something symbolic does not mean that it is not true. We realize that the seven-headed beast of Revelation 13 is a symbol but one of a frightening reality. Why can the “mark” also not be a symbol?
Unraveling the Symbol
My intent is not a complete explanation of this passage in this short article. I would feel quite inadequate for that. However, I would be remiss in not dealing with some more obvious facets of this symbol. Let’s look at the passage:
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. (Rev. 13:16-17)
The mark is said to be the “name of the beast or the number of his name.” This gives us a strong clue about the symbolism. The mark, the number, represents the “beast” and his authority. Of course, this raises the question of who or what is the “beast.” Interpretations of this have filled books and have ranged from a man to an evil organization to a wicked government or even a timeless symbol of rebellion against God. I will avoid that subject for the present.
A few things we can see about this symbol:
(1) Man Falling Short of God
The number seven is used in the Bible in general and Revelation in particular as a number of completeness or perfection. In such a context, God would be represented as 777, a totality of perfection. “666” then shows man attempting to be like God but falling short. The threefold repetition of the number of incompleteness would represent, as Bruce Metzger wrote, “the greatest imperfection.” 2 This is certainly spoken about the man called the “Antichrist,” but really it is true about mankind in general. Man replaces the worship of God with the worship of created things, specifically himself.
As Paul wrote:
because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Rom. 1:25)
Man’s attempts to deify himself always fail. The Caesars desired to be called “lord” as a symbol of their personal power and that of the empire but the men died and the empire collapsed while God’s reign continues unimpeded.
As the psalmist wrote:
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens. (Psalm 96:5)
(2) The Symbol of a Prototypical Man of Evil
Another view of the mark of Revelation 13 sees the number as representing the name of a man. John invites the reader to decipher the number.
This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Rev. 13:18)
The reader is called upon to “calculate the number of the beast,” which he previously wrote was the “number of its name.” This is a strong hint that not only is the practice of gematria in use but that the name is one that John’s readers could determine for themselves.
Gematria was common in the time of the New Testament. It is the assigning of a numerical value to letters in a word or name and the summation of those values to arrive at a number that represents the word.
Here is an example of that with the common English word, cat: A=1, C=3, T=20; C-a-t= 24.
This seems awkward and unnecessary to us because we already have a numbering system but not so for those who spoke Greek, Latin, or even Hebrew in the first century. Their letters were their numbers because the Arabic numbering system that we employ had not yet come into use by them.
If it was John’s intention that his readers calculate a name from the numbers, what would that name be? As Metzger notes, Nero Caesar is the best option although not without problems. 3 When “Neron Kaisar” (the Greek form of his name) is transliterated into Hebrew, the number is 666. If the ‘n’ is dropped, as in Latin, the result is 616, which is a textual variant that appears in the manuscripts. 4, 5
Why would John use Nero, or any other Roman ruler (Domitian has been suggested)? Nero represented the worst of a false godless system that glorified power and man-worship. You could even say that Nero was the pinnacle of that depravity. Though he desired to be remembered for greatness, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote that his rule (as well as that of his predecessors Tiberius and Caligula) was characterized by the “most abominable lust, the most extravagant luxury, the most shameful rapaciousness, and the most inhuman cruelty.” 6
Thus to those first century Christians to whom John originally wrote, Nero represented the ultimate folly of men exalting themselves against their creator yet demonstrating the sinful depravity that was their undoing. It is a self-replicating pattern among mankind and serves as a timeless example.
The flawed 666 of Nero falls far short of the perfect man, Jesus Christ, whose name by the same method of computation is 888.
Christians often get distracted by the wrong things. One of those is fear and loathing of the number 666 and the things that modern commentators have proposed that it represents, holding the Bible in one hand and the latest news in the other. We would do well to remember that the message of the book of Revelation is not to give us a detailed prediction of future events to satisfy our curiosity. Rather, we are shown that, regardless of what we may be experiencing or suffering at the present time, we are promised the ultimate victory over all evil forces, evil systems, and evil people in Christ. We do not have a fearful foreboding of the future but a joyous anticipation of being a part of Christ’s glorious triumph.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
1. McCue, Andy, (2003, July 24). IT Myths: Does the ‘Beast of Brussels’ know everything about us?. Retrieved on August 19, 2020, from https://www.zdnet.com/article/it-myths-does-the-beast-of-brussels-know-everything-about-us/.
2. Metzger, Bruce M. (1993), Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (pp. 76-77), Nashville, TN, Abingdon
3. ibid., 77.
4. Osborne, Grant R. (2002), Revelation (pp. 520-21), Grand Rapids, MI, Baker.
5. Beale, G. K. (1999), The Book of Revelation (pp. 718-728), Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans.
6. Suetonius, C. Tranquillus (2007), The Twelve Caesars (p. 268), Translated by Alexander Thomson, Stilwell, KS, Digireads.com Publishing.
Scriptures are from the English Standard Version
SUBSCRIBE TO MY BLOG