“This calls for wisdom. Anyone with a good head on their shoulders should work out the monster’s number, because it’s the number of a human being. Its number is Six Hundred and Sixty-Six.”
Revelation 13:18 – The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation
(Photo – Nero. Credit: History.com)
For 1900 years, the number 666 has spooked Dooms-Day prognosticators. It has been much used in horror movies, fantasy, and science-fiction. We find it in religious sensationalism and prophetic predictions. It is strewn across centuries of literature and dire warnings of the coming of the Final Judgment.[i]
It is the Apocalyptic Number of “the Great Beast”. For those who first heard it used two millennia ago, it was code for the mad Roman Emperor Nero. Then he died. Then he was rumored to have come back to life, like the head wounded unto death but returned to life in the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, also called “the Apocalypse of St. John”.
To many and perhaps most readers who try to fathom that mysterious scroll, it comes across as a fantastic sounding and seemingly confusing set of visions (confusing to us two thousand years later) full of sevens within sevens, wheels within wheels, conspiracies within conspiracies, and mysteries within mysteries. Six Hundred and Sixty-Six was also the “Mark of the Beast” stamped on the hand or the forehead, or both, of those who would give in and become the servants and slaves of the Beast. This last book of the Bible has given limitless scope to fertile and fervent imaginations, both for those who revere the Bible and those who see it simply as a fascinating source of imagery and fantasy.
There is no doubt that the Apocalypse (a Greek word that means “unveiling” or “revealing” – thus the translation “Revelation”) is a fascinating book, even to those who do not adhere to Christianity or the Bible. It is actually an especially powerful example of a certain genre of ancient literature known as the “apocalyptic”. The ancient Jews were especially prone to produce such works in the Second and First Centuries BCE, with some carryover into the First Century CE. There were even some non-Jewish apocalyptic works.
John, the author of Revelation, is firmly anchored in the apocalyptic tradition, although quite unique within it as well. Unlike most other apocalyptic writers, John (usually believed to have been Jesus’ “beloved Disciple”, the Apostle John) is actually crystal clear in the central message of his story (and yes, he does tell a story – a very powerful one). Many other such works are rife with mysterious obscurities and veiled meanings only the special initiates (Gnostics) can fathom. John’s basic purpose and story are totally transparent when you get past a few primary keys that open the locks to the combinations of sevens and other numbers – such as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”, references to three and a half “times”, and the use of triple six.
The book and its story are obviously not a literal history of the times and culture of the late First Century CE, but they are full of recognizable allusions to that time and its major cultural features, just as other Biblical books are the products of their time and set within the culture of their periods. Revelation is set in the form of an extended letter to seven particular late First Century Christian congregations in the Roman Province of Asia (now west-Central Turkey). That is an important contextual point.
This series will not rehash and reinterpret all the Book’s very complex structure and imagery. The intention is to set out a few major points which will provide us with a basis to deal with some of our own time’s and culture’s critical issues. Despite the temporal difference of almost two thousand years, there are remarkable parallels which we may do well to consider as we work our way through the turmoil of our own years of great and rapid change.
First, a point about numbers and numerology. There are many numbers in Revelation. They almost never mean an empirical, scientific, mathematical quantity. They are representative of other notions and ideas which bridge the visible, sensory Cosmos in which we mostly, consciously experience reality and the spiritual but just as real side of reality.
Two numbers in Revelation stand out above all others – 666 and various groups of seven. In ancient Biblical numerology (the study of the symbolic use and meaning of numbers), six is the number of humans, “Man”, the human race (see opening citation). Why? Humanity was the apex of all creation, created last on the sixth and last day of creation. In contrast, seven is God’s number, as well as the number of completion, wholeness, finality. God rested after the creation on the Seventh Day, consecrating and declaring it holy – set apart for Him. There are not seven days of creation, but six, for seven is the “Sabbath” – the Day set aside for rest, renewal, regeneration. “And God rested on the seventh day.” (Book of Genesis 1) It is the number of completion, maturation, perfect work. God named it His own day. On it humans were to turn to their Creator and be renewed, stopping all their work and striving.
If seven first of all refers to God’s finished, perfect, good work of creation, what is it with all the sevens of judgment and destruction in Revelation? That is complicated. It has to do with all the wickedness and rebellion and destruction of the Creation against the Creator – most especially by humans, egged on and bamboozled by the “Great Serpent” – the beguiler and deceiver, the “Great Dragon” we meet in the twelfth chapter of the book. Judgment is primarily the failure to enter the Sabbath rest of the Creator, to take the extended hand of God and draw closer to the Creator. That rejection entails abusing and exploiting the creation for our own purposes rather than what we and they have been created for. The creation then becomes broken, twisted, contorted and full of pain and thrashing about in futility. The sevens of judgment are all about what that looks like in various guises. Over the millennia, this brokenness has accumulated and become an exponentially inflated mountain to the point that we have become capable of physically wiping out the great gift of life God made to us on Planet Earth. Revelation talks about the filling up of the vials and cups of “the wrath of God”. When the cup is overflowing, there is nowhere for all the putrid corruption to go but out, flowing down over the Earth and polluting everything.
In the Bible, several examples are given to illustrate this outcome. The two most terrible are: first, Noah’s Flood, and second, Sodom and Gomorrah. Yeshua-Jesus refers to both in his comments about “the last days” – the days of coming judgment. This makes these examples worth paying attention to as severe warnings to us in our time.
There is something of a conspiracy craze afoot these days, especially here in the West. Conspiracy is a fascinating term. If you’ve never noticed, it shares the same root meaning as “piracy”. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “Conspire – [to] Combine privily [secretly] for unlawful purpose, esp. treason, murder, sedition; [to] plot, devise [to ruin, attack].” A conspiracy is the act of conspiring. Piracy is the continual action of conspiracy to seize and take and even destroy whatever the pirate conspires to take for himself.
From the Biblical perspective, conspiring has been going on since the beginning of human history. Most criminal activity is born of conspiracy. Humans have been plotting and planning in all kinds of ways and at all times to undercut, usurp, and exploit the creation for their own goals and purposes rather than bringing it into its most perfect expression as God’s wonderful work and gift to us and all its participant creatures.
In the Bible, there is a rebel counter-force named as “the Satan” – the adversary and accuser. This power is portrayed as “the Serpent”. The Serpent is a particular serpentine being, not a characterization of all snakes. He/it is so subtle and deceptive that he is able to fool the most intelligent humans, hiding in plain sight. Yeshua once described the goal of this anti-God force thus: “The Satan [usually identified as an actual personal being(s)] comes only to kill, steal, and destroy” and “is the father [inventor, originator] of lies.”
But humans are also “serpentine” on their own, not requiring the “Accuser’s” assistance to conceive and execute malignant schemes and behaviours. The Serpent is only too glad to stimulate and spur those innate human tendencies into full activation.
The coming together of the Cosmic “evil one” and the human propensity to seek our own aggrandizement at the expense of everyone and everything else typically and periodically produce especially monstrous eruptions that leave the whole world reeling and the human race lying in a shambles. Shifting the blame, we point the finger at God as if the Deity is responsible for allowing us to behave demonically rather than exercising His omnipotence to prevent such horrors. The Accuser laughs all the while from behind the Oz-Curtain, and we fool ourselves that we are justified because God doesn’t just cut evil out of our hearts and kill the most monstrous perpetrators.
This series will follow some of the threads that emerge from this perspective and compare them to various episodes of history as well as aspects of our conspiracy-mad current global and Western culture.
I invite readers to consider their own ideas about these phenomena and to comment with their own observations. I also invite interested readers to read chapters 12 and 13 of the New Testament Book of Revelation as a reference point. Of course the more complete context is the whole Book of Revelation or Apocalypse, and not only two chapters.
[i] Belief in judgment of life by the gods or some supernatural beings (ancestors) after death has existed for many millennia. The Final Judgment is not just a Christian doctrine about the Creator coming to judge everyone who has ever lived and assign them to Heaven or Hell, salvation or perdition. In some version, It has existed from time immemorial in earlier religious teachings, including polytheistic systems and other major World Religions, such as Judaism (which gave it to Christianity) and Islam. Hinduism has its twist on it, and the notion that wickedness will ultimately be dealt with by the supernatural forces of good extends far into the remotest reaches of antiquity.