If there is a single element of the book of Revelation which is universally known in contemporary culture it is the mark of the Beast, 666. Virtually everyone in western culture thinks that 666 is the “devil’s number” or that the triple-six is a pernicious sign to be avoided. Several times I have bought something and the price came up $6.66, and the clerk wanted to know if I wanted to buy a pack of gum so I could avoid that particular price. I used to buy a particular combination of coffee and snack at one of my favorite coffee shops which always rang up to $6.66. (I referred to it as the “Devil’s breakfast” and tasty it was!)
But there is nothing in Revelation that says this number is the devil’s number, or Satan’s address in Hell. It is not an unlucky number nor is someone cursed if they somehow accidentally ring up $6.66 at the local Taco Bell. (Actually, you might be cursed if you eat the food at Taco Bell, but that is another issue altogether!) The number does not refer to Satan at all, verse 18 says that 6 is the “number of man,” presumably because man was created on the sixth day. 666 refers to the name of the beast, either a person (the anti-Christ) or the kingdom of the beast described in the rest chapter 13.
What does is mean to “calculate the name”? There are no numbers in many ancient languages, so letters sometimes substituted as numbers. A=1, B=2, etc. There is a bit of graffiti found in Pompeii that reads “I love her whose number is 545.” Potentially one might convert their name to numbers in Greek, Hebrew or Latin and come up with a number. That number could be used as a cipher, or perhaps one might have a “lucky” number for a name. For example, my “number” in Latin is 152 (using just the letters which have values in Roman numerals). In Greek, I get 908. Neither is particularly interesting, but I suppose if I paid money to a numerologist, they could come up with something profound.
John invites the reader to figure this out, in fact, he almost baits us into trying to figure it out! Knowing that the name adds up to 666, to what might the name refer? In the early church there were several suggested names, including a Greek word meaning “to deny”, meaning that the name of the Beast was denial of the Lord. It is possible to use the initials of the Roman emperors from Julius to Vespasian one gets 666, but you have to skip the minor emperors to make this work. The full Latin title used on coins of Domitian, the emperor at the time of John, allegedly adds up to 666. The most common suggestion is that the number 666 refers to Nero Caesar, but in a the Hebrew spelling of the name. Some writers see the number more generally, showing that it is one short of the perfect number, three times. “Failure upon failure upon failure.”
It may be best to conclude that John and his readers knew the clue that unlocked the mystery of the number and who it referred to, and that we are unable to figure it out with any certainty today. Despite this, people are still fascinated with the name of the beast and try to figure out who he might be. I will have more to say about this in part two of this post.
What does the number prophesy? Whatever the mark is, it represents a final declaration of loyalty, whether for God or against him. By accepting this name, you are declaring your loyalty to the beast and the empire of the beast.