When I last wrote on the COVID-19 vaccines and the mark of the beast, I focused on the purpose of the mark. In this article I will address the number itself. This has been called the number of the beast. So, why the number 666? What does it mean? Is it a person, and if so, is it important that we figure out their name? If 666 is the number of a name, then what is his name? It’s important to answer these questions before we start linking either the mark or the number of the beast with the present day.
Revelation is itself a book with a diverse range of interpretations and understandings. Yet within it certain passages stand out as being particularly difficult to interpret or agree on. Revelation 13:18 is one of these. John writes: “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.” Some have tried to identify the number 666 with an individual’s name, others with an institution or state. More recently, some Christians have identified the number of the beast with barcodes or patents, and, yes, the COVID-19 vaccine.
This verse is particularly difficult to interpret.
Gematria Provides Too Many Answers
Historically, the most common way that Christians have dealt with 666 has been to try and use a practice called “gematria” to decipher the name. Many ancient peoples, including the Greeks and Hebrews, assigned numerical values to the letters of their alphabet. Because of this, numbers were sometimes used to represent names as a kind of secret code. An example of this can be seen on a wall in Pompeii, which says: “I love her whose number is 545,” in Greek. In other words, the numerical values of the letters in her name add up to the number 545. It seems obvious then why many would try to use this practice to understand the number.
Unfortunately, gematria works a bit too well. There have been countless suggestions of names that can be spelled with letters that add up to 666. These range from Roman emperors like Nero, Vespasian, or Domitian, to more modern figures like Hitler and the Pope, even to entire groups like the Romans. There is a major problem with this. To paraphrase the theologian George Salmon: If a name doesn’t fit, add a title, if it still doesn’t fit, try switching from Greek to Hebrew, or even Latin, if it still doesn’t add up to 666, try spelling it differently.
Maybe Nero, Probably Not
Of all the names that can be reached using gematria, the strongest case could be made for the emperor Nero. He could fit the historical context of Revelation. Neron Caesar has a total of 666 in Hebrew, and the Latin spelling is 616, a long attested alternate reading to Revelation 13:18. Even this is unlikely however, as the number 666 requires it to be translated into Hebrew and then spelled incorrectly. We also see in other passages that John clarifies when he wants us to use Hebrew (for instance the name Abbadon and the place Armageddon).
John’s purpose is to be understood, suggesting that it can be discerned by the wise.
Moreover, this would be the only occurrence of gematria in John’s writing, and a departure from his apocalyptic style. It is unlikely to simply be a name represented by corresponding numbers. For John’s purpose is to be understood, suggesting that it can be discerned by the wise. Yet there are myriads of answers that can be made to fit.
How should we try to understand 666 then, if not through gematria?
The Call for Wisdom
When John calls for wisdom for his readers, it is easy to read intellectual calculation into it. Indeed, the myriads of gematria-produced names are evidence that many believers through the ages have done just that. But a closer look at the literary context suggests that the call for wisdom has more to do with moral and spiritual discernment than it has to do with math or word-puzzles. This wisdom will allow the believer to see through the false miracles of the beast. It will assist the church in guarding against the pressure to capitulate to idolatry.
It’s not the intellectually superior who stand through deception. It’s the devout.
Throughout Revelation it is not the intellectually superior who stand through the deception of the beast. It’s the devout. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that it is not the well educated who see through the beast’s deception. Rather, it is those who are spiritually discerning. Instead of driving us to endless possible calculations as we try to decipher a number given once in a book shrouded with symbolism, Revelation 13:18 should cause us to seek an ever deepening faithfulness to our true Lord. With this in mind, we should ask what John wants us to see in this number of the beast.
666 as an Apocalyptic Number
In Revelation we regularly see numbers with symbolic meanings being used. If John is calling us to exercise wisdom and insight, then we should ask what, if not an individual’s name, the number represents. If 7 is the number of completion, then 6 is a number that has fallen short of it. It is a number that represents the incompleteness of human effort. Irenaeus, whose reflections on this passage are some of the earliest we have, described it as a number that sums up the whole of our apostasy. It is repeated thrice to emphasis the totality of this insufficiency. A complete and utter incompleteness.
The beast sets out to deceive humanity, and usurp Christ’s rightful throne.
The beast sets out to deceive humanity, and usurp Christ’s rightful throne. The beast’s identity, its number, is irredeemably incomplete. God’s people are called to be wise and understanding. They must recognise that this beast falls short of the greatness of the one true God. If the mark of the beast cannot be thought of without a connotation of worship, then the number of the beast cannot be spoken without calling to mind how wholly undeserving the beast is of worship.
Watch Out for Distractions, and Idolatry
Like Irenaeus, we too must realise two things as we approach Revelation 13, and the particularly the number 666. Firstly, there are simply too many possibilities for us to approach it as a word-game or a mathematical puzzle. Secondly, while certainly not wrong, endless speculation over the name of the second beast will likely distract from John’s purpose. In fact, Irenaeus suggests that the Holy Spirit had hidden the name precisely so that we wouldn’t get distracted trying to find the beast.
Our goal is to see through the deception and resist the pressure and temptation to worship an imitation of true deity. Let us therefore not neglect our time listening to the Lord, learning to know and recognise his voice. While we exercise our intellectual abilities, are we honing our spiritual discernment? The deception of the beast calls for wisdom. But what good is wisdom if we are too distracted to apply it?
Our goal is to resist the temptation to worship an imitation of true deity.
Brothers and sisters, let us devote our time and our effort to knowing our God, so that when we are directed to worship something other than him, we may have the wisdom to see through the lies and remain faithful.