Perhaps no part of the book of Revelation is as well-known as the allusion to the mark of the beast, identified with the number 666. In fact, some people who do not even know this is a biblical allusion have some vague idea that 666 is evil, ominous, or of the devil. But what exactly does it mean?
Lets start with the text. The end of Revelation chapter 13 describes an unholy trinity of evil (dragon, first beast, second beast, or, as it is sometimes called, Satan, the Anti-Christ and the False Prophet). We are told that the second beast (the false prophet) causes the majority of humanity to be marked with some sort of sign denoting allegiance to the first beast (the anti-christ). Here is the passage in the ESV:
16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
Here is the same passage in the NIV
16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[e] That number is 666.
Let us first make a couple notes about the verses, then lay out some options, and then, finally, offer some conclusions.
The English versions reflect the ambiguity of the Greek on whether the “mark” is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
We are told that we can “calculate” the number of the beast, but warned it will take wisdom and insight. That is, it will require spiritual perception.
The early church did not have a standard interpretation of what the number of the beast represented.
The footnote [e] in verse 18 of the NIV denotes a note in the newer editions of the NIV which states, “Or is humanity’s number”.
A. Numeric understandings of 666 (Gematria)
Gematria is the practice of biblical numerology, based on the fact that the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew assign numeric value to letters. That is, the ancient languages did not have dedicated number symbols (such as 1, 2, etc…). Think Roman numerals here.
In regards to this passage, then, gematria means finding a name whose numeric value equals 666.
The most common ancient name produced by this method is that of the emperor Nero. If you take the name, “Nero Caesar”, put it into Hebrew letters, you can come up with 666. Since Nero was a great persecutor of the Christians, had the power of an empire, and fits some other characteristics of the first beast, this is a common interpretation.
Nonetheless, there are a few problems with this interpretation. In the first place, to get 666 from Nero Caesar you have to use, not Greek letters or Latin letters, but Hebrew letters. This is possible (especially if John wanted to really hide the meaning from the persecuting Roman authorities) but may have been too obscure for his mostly gentile audience in Asia Minor. Second, the name Nero Caesar written in Hebrew in the usual way does not add up to 666. You can only arrive at that number by using a variant way of spelling that name (dropping the yod). While we do have evidence that his name was written that way in at least one document, it is definitely not the norm. Further, most scholars feel Revelation was written around 95 AD, while Nero committed suicide in 68 AD. There were rumors that his death was faked and he would return, but these rumors were certainly waning almost 30 years later. Also, the early church did not seem to make this identification of Nero as the beast. Finally, while Nero has some likeness to the beast of Revelation 13, one must strain the interpretation of that passage to make it fit him.
Other examples of Gematria are a little more subtle. One scholar (Giet) finds that the initials of Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Vespasian add up to 666 (but he has to omit Otho and Vitellius to make it work). Another scholar (Stauffer) suggests John was counting up an abbreviated form in Greek of the full Latin title of the emperor Domitian.
Others have tried to get the names of modern people (Hitler, Kissinger, etc…) to add up to 666. History obviously has not proved kind to these interpretations.
Another interpretation begins by noting that the beast is described as the 8th king in Revelation 17:11. It then notes that 666 is the triangular number of 36 (1 plus 2 plus 3 etc. up to 360) and 36 is the triangular number of 8.
B. Theological understandings of 666
These views do not try to add up anyone’s name, but seek to understand what 666 could mean theologically.
Many have noted that 7 is often used as the number of perfection or completeness in apocalyptic writings like Revelation. Also, while this is less obvious, 3 seems to be a number of intensification. For instance, the majestic beings of Revelation 4:8 worship God with the repeated phrase, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Thus, it could be argued that the “number of perfection” is 777. In a similar way, if 7 is the number of perfection or fullness, 777 could be “the number” of the trinity. Thus 666 would be Satan’s attempt to ape the trinity, but also describe his utter failure to do so.
Related to the above, some have noted the possible way of translating “It is the number of a man” to mean something like, “It is the number of man” or “it is mankind’s number” (see NIV text note above). Thus, 666 would be a way of describing mankind as always trying to elevate itself to God (in rebellion) , while consistently failing to do so. (Some see here an allusion to Genesis 1, where the realm of man or creation is described in six days, while God’s days are seven).
Finally, one other item is worth noting here. It is the numerology of Jesus’ name. The name Jesus in Greek is Ἰησοῦς (English transliteration: iesous, with the “I” making the “y” sound as in “year”). For those interested in how this became “Jesus” in English, please see this chart:
Anyway, the numeric value of the name Jesus in Greek is this:
iesous = I (10) + e (8) + s (200) + o (70) + u (400) + s (200) = 888.
Thus, one way to interpret the numerology is to view 777 as the number of complete perfection, with 666 falling tragically (and sinfully) short of this, while 888 would speak hyperbolically of something like the exceeding fullness of Jesus’ perfection.
You may have noted that not all of these options are mutually exclusive. Careful readers of Biblical prophecy know that many, if not most, Bible prophecies are fulfilled on more than one level. For example, Psalm 16 is considered a Messianic Psalm (a psalm pointing to the Messiah in the future) because Peter could apply the words to Jesus (see Acts 2:25-28). In other words, the words applied on one level to David, even as a fuller and deeper meaning of the words would only be fulfilled a thousand years later in the resurrection of Jesus. In a similar way, Psalm 8 applies first to David, then to Jesus in his perfect humanity during the incarnation, and most fully to Jesus in His future role as visible head over all creation (see this three-fold fulfillment in Hebrews 2:5-9). And in a further sense, Psalm 8 is fulfilled in the lives of mankind most fully because they apply to Jesus, the one who not only fulfills mankind’s role but shares it with those who have place their faith in Him. In other words, many prophecies work on more than one level, and we should not quickly assume that the prophecy about the mark of the beast has only one way of being fulfilled.
My own understanding, then, is this. First, I believe John used the figure of Nero as a way to give shape to the idea of the future anti-christ, and point out some features of his reign. Nero, then, was a template, or a foreshadowing, of one who will come. John did not expect Nero to come back, but used the popular motif of a Nero returning from death as a symbol of the false resurrection of the anti-christ (see Revelation 13: 3, 12). Part of the reason Nero is appropriate is because of his persecution of God’s people, his desire to be worshipped as a god, and his violent end. Furthermore, as emperor he also symbolized something likely to be true of the anti-christ: He embodies a world-wide and very powerful kingdom.
I think it likely that some sort of theological interpretation of the symbolism is also likely in play. That is, I think it likely that 666 not only looked back to Nero as a symbol, but looks theologically to the meaning and nature of the anti-christ and his kingdom. In particular, the last paragraph of the theological discussion (before the conclusion) seems especially intriguing and helpful to me. I don’t think one can be too dogmatic about this, however.
Does the meaning of 666 look not only backwards (to Nero), but does it also look forward to the anti-christ? That is, will the anti-christ have a name whose numerical value is 666? I would say this is possible, but by no means necessary. It is just as likely we are to understand 666 as giving us the symbol and meaning of the anti-christ, rather than a numeric clue to his identity.