Recently on the Rush Message Board, a frequent and long-time contributor who I will describe as an “end-of-times fundamentalist” has started making a lot of comments about prophecies in Revelation, and particularly the so-called “Mark of the Beast” – 666. This number has turned up randomly in his life several times recently, most notably on several trips to fast food restaurants. Most recently, his total at Long John Silver’s was $6.66. He stated that he does not believe these are coincidences, and said that he believes God is trying to tell him something. He has been warning us not to take the mark, and implying that the current world situation is evidence of the end of times. How someone could be a rabid fan of Rush – a band whose lyrics are consistently anti-religion and even atheistic sometimes – is a different topic all together.
In an effort to put some aspects of the book of Revelation into better historical and contextual perspective, I would like for my readers to consider the following points. I will quote some verses, then make commentary. Before doing that however, let me make a brief comment about the number 666.
In our oldest and most reliable early sources, “666” is not the number of the beast. Instead, the number is 616. It appears that a scribe, sometime during the early Dark Ages, simply made a mistake in copying, and that mistake was passed on to future copies, and eventually came down to us as “666.” Church fathers as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries even addressed the mistake in their own writings. One of these church fathers, Iraneaus – who was a prolific early Christian writer, heresy-hunter, and the Bishop of Lyon in the late 2nd century – believed “666” was the correct number. Textual scholars, however, have known for a very long time that the number was almost certainly 616 in the original manuscript. Today’s scholars have far more early manuscripts at their disposal than Iraneaus had.
Now, with that established, let us move on to some passages from Revelation.
Revelation 1:1 and 3 – (1)The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. (3) Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Revelation 22:7a, 10, and 12a – (7) Behold, I am coming soon! (10) Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.” (12a) Behold, I am coming soon!
1 John 4:3b – This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
Revelation and 1 John are said by the Church to have been written by the same person, and they believe that person was the disciple John (scholars almost universally agree that this is not correct, but that is for a different topic – the point is, traditionalists, including end-of-times evangelicals, believe 1 John and Revelation were produced by the same writer).
Thus, it is could not be more clear from these texts that the writer(s) believed the end was coming soon, within their own lifetimes. In 1 John, it says clearly that the antichrist is already in the world.
Therefore, anything prophesied in Revelation was clearly believed by the writer to be events that were going to happen very soon. To assume that the writer was simply mistaken, or that by “soon” and “the time is near” the writer was speaking metaphorically, is to read meaning and words into the text that are not actually there. This is a problem in and of itself, but it becomes an even bigger problem when taken in context with another passage in Revelation:
Revelation 22:18-19 – I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
Thus, by the warning given by the very same writer who promised all this was to happen soon, anyone who supposes that the writer was writing metaphorically, or was mistaken, is going to be one of the victims of the horrifying prophecies predicted in the book itself.
Taken together with the fact that we know 666 is a scribal error, and 616 was the original number, to believe that these predicted events are still in the future, and to believe that 666 is a significant number accompanying those events, is to put yourself in danger of eternal suffering in the lake of fire.
If I were a fundamentalist and end-of-times believer, I would immediately cease with any suggestion that 666 has any significance whatsoever, or that God is trying to tell me something in the Long John Silver’s drive thru. Furthermore, I would not put much stock in Revelation, because it is clear that if the prophecies were accurate, the events must already have taken place. To suggest anything else is to commit the damnable sin the writer warns about. An end-of-times fundamentalist must assume the events in Revelation are in the past, and we are now living in the period preceding the coming kingdom of God. This, of course, puts a major wrench in fundamentalist theology. A whole new essay could be written just based on that alone.
As for 666 and the antichrist, let us first look at the relevant passage in sections:
Revelation 13:5-6 – The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.
Caligula was a Roman emperor who ruled from the middle part of 37 C.E. until the first month of January, 41 C.E. It was a period of roughly 46 months. He was a tyrant and regarded by most people to be certifiably insane. Shortly after he came to power, he fell deathly ill and most believed he was going to die. Somehow, however, he recovered. He later endured several assassination attempts. He proclaimed himself a god and forced people to worship him – something that was quite unprecedented in the Roman empire. He put a statue in the Temple at Jerusalem – the dwelling place of the Jewish and Christian God – thereby severely offending Jews and Christians alike.
Revelation 13:11-18 – Then I saw another beast...he exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men...he ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived...he also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666 .
Emperor Nero was the nephew of Caligula, and ruled during the 50’s and 60’s C.E. He kept with the tradition of forcing people to worship past emperors, including Caligula. He was associated with the great fire of Rome, and was believed by many to have actually orchestrated it. He was obsessed with his own reputation, and frequently found himself at odds with the Senate and the nobles because he routinely enacted legislation to make the masses happy, frequently at the expense of the rich and powerful. He put through a number of economic packages designed to ease the tax burden of the people and to ensure that they remained loyal to him. He was widely regarded as the first Roman emperor to persecute Christians. In ancient Jewish numerology, his name equals the number 616, which is the number contained in the original text. This number is arrived at by taken Nero’s name in Aramaic, and coming up with a “sum” of his name.
It is very obvious, from a comparison of the text to the historical record, that the writer was talking about Caligula and Nero – Caligula being the “first” beast with the “wound” that had healed, and Nero being the second, who followed in the footsteps of the first. Added to that is the known fact that many Christians in the 2nd century and thereafter believed Nero was the antichrist who would return to earth to battle the Christ in the final showdown. This is stated explicitly in a number of 2nd century Christian texts, including the “Ascension of Isaiah” and the “Syballine Oracles.” The book of Revelation, too, was written in the 2nd century. Even the great St. Augustine, writing as late as the 5th century, referred to the widespread belief among Christians that Nero was the antichrist, going so far as to agree that many of Nero’s actions mirrored those of the supposed antichrist.
The fact that the writer was writing in code is pretty obvious from the text. “This calls for wisdom,” and “If anyone has insight...” are sort of like a “Wink, wink. Hint, hint,” phrase in the text. The writer was clearly hinting to his readers that he was speaking in code. The code was used to ensure that if the text fell into the wrong hands, no one could discover any treasonous material in it – the writer knew his Jewish-Christian readers would understand, but knew Roman pagans would not. Furthermore, as mentioned above, Nero enacted a number of economic programs to keep the masses loyal to him. Thus, only those with the “sign of the beast” – that is, only those willing to bow to Nero – could “buy or sell.”
It is also important to point out that the text tells us “everyone” was “forced” to take the sign. It was not something they had a choice in. Thus, the idea that people today need to reject the sign of the beast does not add up with what it says in the text. Later in the text, of course, the writer suggests that only those who did not take the sign would get to enter paradise, but the fact that the writer himself seems to have made contradictory statements is irrelevant. Remember, the Christians of the early 2nd century were subjects of the Roman empire. The point the author of Revelation was making was that only those people who refused to subject themselves to Roman laws and religions would have their names written down in the Book of Life.
It is a virtual certainty that the writer of Revelation pictured Nero as the antichrist, following in the footsteps of Caligula, who was the precursor to the antichrist. The writer clearly believed Nero was due to return to earth and battle Jesus. And of course, 2nd century Christians would not have had Roman histories available to them on every street corner or on the Internet, and their knowledge of the history of the Roman emperors would have been based primarily on oral tradition. It is possible the writer of Revelation pictured Caligula and Nero – as well as all the powerful leaders of the Roman empire – as more or less one and the same, with the actions of each sort of overlapping. The seat of the Roman emperor was a precarious one in the 1st century – no less than eleven men were emperor of Rome from 37 C.E. to 98 C.E. In the year 69 alone, four emperors ruled in a period of twelve months. Of the eleven rulers from 37-98 C.E., seven of them either were assassinated or committed suicide. Someone writing in the early 2nd century would not have had all the facts straight – knowledge and information would have overlapped. What is obvious, however, is that the writer of Revelation pictured the antichrist as a composite of a Roman emperor, who was, to the author and the communities he was writing to, the embodiment of earthly evil.
With this in mind, unless you suppose that a 1st century Roman emperor is going to return to earth in a breastplate and carrying a short-sword, and attempt to take control of humanity, I think we can safely say that these prophecies belong in the ancient, pre-Enlightenment era. They certainly have no relation to the modern world, and the writer made it clear that he believed the final battle was going to happen during his 2nd century life, not 2,000 years later.