The Name of the Beast (Part 2) – Revelation 13:17-18

Leopard King?

In my last post I argued that the number of the beast was a hint at the name of the beast, but the clues to determining the meaning of the name are more or less lost to us. I said that it was best to conclude that John and his readers knew what the number meant and to whom it referred, but it is futile to try and determine who the future Anti-Christ might be.

But this does not really stop people from trying to “calculate the number” of political figures in order to determine if they are the beast or the Anti-Christ. Norman Cohn’s classic study Pursuit of the Millennium and Bernard McGinn’s AntiChrist provide ample evidence that Christians have been naming antichrists since the book of Revelation was first written. While the Pope (or the Roman Church in general) have been the most common targets, history has no lack of potential antichrists. Mohammed and Napoleon have been common picks, although Martin Luther and any number of Tsars have made the list as well.

A few year ago I read the fascinating book, Naming the Antichrist, by Robert Fuller. This is a history of what he calls “an American obsession” with determining who the Anti-Christ is (or will be). This is far from a recent phenomenon, no-budget YouTube videos are only the latest in a long string of conspiracy theories and failed predictions. During the American Revolution the Maryland Journal reported that the soldiers celebrated the declaration of independence from Britain by decapitating a statue of George the Third, labeling it “the image of the beast.” A tract appeared about the same time declaring that the Greek and Hebrew words “Royal Supremacy in Great Britain” could be calculated as 666. Fuller quotes Elijah Fish, a clergyman from Massachusetts, urging his fellow patriots to see the revolution through to the end. He said “although men or devils, earth or hell, Antichrist or the dragon rages, the people of God may still triumph in Christ, the captain of their salvation” (Fuller, 71-2).  The rhetoric sounds amazingly contemporary to me, swap the theater of war and it would go well on AM radio.

I suspect that the establishment of Israel in 1948 gave rise to a great deal of modern prophetic speculation. Hal Lindsey famously predicted the rapture for 1981 (or later, 1988) based on a generation from the return of Israel to the Land. If the Rapture / Tribulation is set to begin in 1981, then someone living in the 1970s has to be the antichrist. Some candidates were obvious: Ronald Wilson Reagan had three names of six letters and survived an assassination attempt. Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and was assassinated (maybe he will be resurrected?) Jimmy Carter was a Christian world leader who forged peace in the Middle East, perhaps he will break that covenant in the future and demand worship. Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the “bear to the north” and had a rather mysterious mark on his own head. In fact, if you were any sort of a political leader in the 70s, you were probably named as an antichrist by someone.

I suppose there is a psychological explanation for this over-fascination with the “end times” and the hope that we can name the leader of the great end-times rebellion before he appears. Since most of these calculations and predictions are the response of an oppressed minority (or at least they think of themselves that way), the tendency is to imagine that the world as rushing headlong to an explosion of evil of apocalyptic proportions. I do not see much difference between the Roman church and Luther vilifying each other in their Revelation commentaries and the sort of politically motivated preaching which declares the other party as led by the Anti-Christ himself.

In conclusion, despite John’s suggestion that we try and calculate the number of the name, “naming the antichrist”  does not seem to be possible nor is it particularly profitable.  Rather than draw people to the real Christ, the over-emphasis on declaring someone the personal agent of Satan drives people away from the gospel.

The Name of the Beast (Part 1) – Revelation 13:17-18

W is the 6th Hebrew Letter

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.