What does 666 Mean?
One modern misinterpretation of Revelation 13:18 is that the number “666” is looking forward to a future bad guy (or girl) who will bring about the One World Government. Christians who hold this view may start to speculate about persons that they consider as evil or as possible persons to unite the governments of the world. I dealt with some of these ideas in my first two posts, One World Government and Who are the Anti-Christs. Today, I will deal explicitly with the number “666” and who it referred to in 96A.D.
How to get at the Meaning of “666”?
The best way to get at a meaning of any passage, is to ask questions about what the passage would have meant for the first audience. We are not the first audience. We are 19 centuries removed from the first audience and living in a place (The United States) that they did not know existed. Therefore, who was “666” to the people Revelation was written to?
The first audience was living in the Ancient East under the rule of a horrible emperor who was forcing those under his jurisdiction to worship him. This ‘emperor worship’ was even required by the various trade unions to gain good standing with the Emperor. Christians were forced out of work by the unions because they would not comply with the requirement to worship anyone else than God. These were horrible conditions, which makes most of our conditions in the West feel like smooth sailing.
When an ancient author assigned a number, such as 666 to a person, they were practicing the ancient art of Gematria. This is the practice of “assigning numerical values to letters of the alphabet” (Witherington p. 176). The number 666 is both symbolic and representative. Symbolically, it is the number just short of perfection in the Jewish mind. 7, or 777 would be perfection or completion. 666 however means in-completion or chaos (p. 177).
The human name this represented must have been known by the audience he was writing to. As one New Testament Scholar writes, “It was not the purpose of this material (Revelation) to create a conundrum that the church would puzzle over for 2,000 years” (p. 177). The number 666 is the sum of the letters in the name of Nero Caesar written in Hebrew letters. Therefore, we have a clear identification that the “Beast” and therefore an “Anti-Christ,” are pointing us to Nero Caesar.
The story does run deeper. Nero had died already by the time the book of Revelation was written. Around 25 years later, Emperor Domition rose to power. In many respects he was ‘just like Nero.’ Persecuting Christians, incorporating Emperor Worship throughout his domain, and more. The backdrop was even more interesting. There were plenty of stories during this time that Nero would rise again, and so he did (symbolically speaking) in the person of Domition.
This should solve the meaning of 666. We can say that 666 means, “One who is like Nero” and specifically was referring to the Emperor of their lifetime, Domition. Therefore, as Christians, we should avoid looking for a future “ant-Christ” to arise. The anti-Christ has already arisen, in the persons of Nero and Domition. There were also some who pointed to the earlier Emperor Caligula as fulfilling an Anti-Christ role. Paul himself, may have seen Caligula as the Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, because Caligula “wanted to be worshiped as a god, and demanded that his statue be set up in the temple at Jerusalem” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament, p. 51).
Key Takeaways on 666:
1. We should interpret Scripture in its own context, and not in our 21st century American context.
2. The number 666 symbolically refers to imperfection or chaos
3. The person 666 literally transliterates to the name Nero Caesar, and that ‘person’ was embodied in the Emperor Domition.
4. Domition went so far as to require people under his jurisdiction worship him
5. Domition persecuted Christians and other people groups.
Perhaps there is a further lesson for us. If we widen our lens and agree that Caligula, Nero, and Domition all embodied wickedness in very extreme ways, as the New Testament authors are pointing, perhaps we are allowed by extension, to find other very clearly wicked leaders, such as Hitler, as adequate representations of the 666 mentioned in Scripture. Despite my miniature allowance in this area, most of us, especially in the West, should not throw around “666” and “anti-Christ” very easily without clear evidence of persecution and forced worship.
What about a computer chip in your hand or forehead? Is that in the book of Revelation or not? We will get to that next week.
Sources cited above
Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments
“Revelation” by Ben Witherington III
Also in the Series: