Years ago I worked summers on a farm in Michigan, near a fundamentalist Christian community. I didn’t know much about them other than that you didn’t want to get behind one of their members in a checkout line, because if their total had the number six in it, they would keep buying things until the sixes disappeared. This behavior came from a fear of having anything to do with the number 666, which some Christians have connected to Satan and see as a symbol of evil.
The whole issue goes back to the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, particularly the verse which says, “One who understands can calculate the number of the beast, for it is a number that stands for a person. His number is six hundred and sixty-six” (Rev. 13:18).
One wonders where all the fear about the sinister 666 comes from, because the author provided some pretty good clues about its meaning right in the passage. First, the number is a definite product of a numerical process which an attentive reader—“one who understands”—could arrive at. Second, it stands for a real person, a specific historical figure.
In the biblical world, the number seven stood for wholeness and completeness, so to be called a “666” was an insult implying that you were short of being the real thing. Also, if you take the Greek form of the name of the Emperor Nero, the Roman emperor around the time of Revelation, and write it in Hebrew, the letters, which can also have numeric values, “add up” to—you guessed it—666.
For its original audience, the number symbolized the repressive Roman Empire personified in its “beastly” emperor, which, though it claimed divine authority and had seemingly absolute power, would always be a “six,” never a “seven,” and thus would not prevail in the long run.
Unfortunately some Christians have forgotten the original historical context of the number. Over the centuries many have come to see the numbers and other symbols in the Book of Revelation as a secret code by which they could predict the future or connect the dots between the Bible and the contemporary world to show how God’s apocalyptic plans are unfolding in current events.
This secret-code school of reading Revelation and other biblical prophetic books does get one thing right. The vivid images in the book are symbolic, but symbolic to a particular time and place, not shapeable to whatever someone wants them to mean. Like any passage of scripture, you first have to look at the original meaning. In the case of Revelation, the book was encouraging an embattled Christian community to remain faithful and be wary of conforming too closely to the ways of the hostile world. The number 666 has never had magical powers, good or bad. That’s superstition, not religion.
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 10, page 46).
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