The Number of the Beast

The Number of the Beast—Revelation 13: 11, 16–18

Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth;…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 who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 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. 
— Revelation 13: 11, 16-18 

When the film “The Omen” was released in 1976, it re-ignited interest in the book of Revelation. In an intense scene from the movie, a father cuts his son’s hair to reveal that a small “666” birthmark is on the boy’s scalp; thus indicating that his son (Damien) is the evil “beast” prophesied in Revelation. In fact, the film even ends with the words of Revelation 13: 18 splashed on the screen. Sadly, many biblically-illiterate folks who watched “The Omen” decided to accept a Hollywood-esque treatment of Revelation, rather than read and investigate the book for themselves.

Of all the books in the Bible, none is so intimidating and misunderstood as its final one.  John’s vision of a dragon, beasts, angels, plagues, and other bizarre images tends to frighten off many from even attempting to read and understand Revelation; so they just choose not to try. That’s unfortunate, for a couple of reasons. First, in avoiding Revelation, we miss out on a book that offers tremendous hope and joy. And second, our chosen ignorance of this scripture hasn’t always allowed for the best interpretations to surface for this truly wonderful book: i.e., we treat fiction (like “The Omen” and other forms of entertainment) almost as if they were factual.

But Revelation shouldn’t be feared and avoided. Its images, however strange and fantastic to us today, were understandable to John’s readers. Much like a political cartoon today might use odd or unusual imagery to comment on current events, John’s Revelation used beasts with multiple heads and horns to symbolize the events and leaders of his day; people and situations with which his readers would have been familiar. The same is true for the beast in his vision, which is given the number “666.” The practice of “gematria” was common in biblical times. Gematria was a numerical system in which phrases, words, and names were given numerical values (think of something like: a=1, b=2, c=3, etc.).  And when this gematria code is applied, the number “666” equals that of the most feared and hated Roman ruler of the first century: Nero. Under the reign of emperor Nero, Christians had been persecuted and killed.

People have been trying to “unlock the code” in Revelation for centuries, believing that John’s words are predictions of future events; that his bizarre creatures must symbolize modern-day leaders. But many Christians see this wonderful book differently — as simply a powerful word of encouragement and hope for 1st-century Christians experiencing difficult times. While many of us may not interpret every detail of Revelation as “future prediction,” it’s certainly true that there are “beasts” to deal with in every generation.  And one thing we can most assuredly agree upon is that Revelation reveals that God will ultimately triumph over all worldly powers.

[Editor’s note: originally published November 9, 2010.]

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