(This is the seventh our your favorite blogger’s series exploring the weirdness of the Bible’s weirdly fascinating Book of 666.)
Let’s take a break from the pastoral aspects of Revelation today and cut right to some sensational fun by breaking down the infamous “sign of the beast”–the number (Eeek!) 666, a number that for some reason seems to have a twisted, sexy appeal to a lot of American Bible readers.
And we can’t unpack that ominous number without considering Revelation’s famous
antiChrist, who I figure at this point is whatever demon is buzzing in Donald Trump’s brain.
Revelation 13:18 says:
“Here is wisdom, let him that hath understanding, count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man and his number is 666.”
This is the scripture that inspired one of the best supernatural dramas–The Omen–ever put to film. I remember seeing it on the day of its release in 1976 and staying puckered up with the willies for about two hours.
For those who may not be familiar with it, the original Omen film was about a very creepy child named Damien. Damien was adopted at birth by an American Ambassador, Robert Thorn, unbeknownst to his wife, after their own son was stillborn.
The man (played by the great Gregory Peck) and his wife (the always mighty fine Lee Remick) are mystified and scared out of their wits by a series of mysterious and ominous deaths, unaware that their little Damien is the antiChrist on a tricycle.
Naturally, in fine Hollywood fashion, the cast includes three characters who are priests, trying to make sense of Damien’s brain.
(Three priests–was this some kind of subliminal sign Hollywood planted in our unsuspecting minds?)
* * *
Unfortunately, in spite of it being a million miles off the theological mark as far as being anything to be taken seriously, The Omen had as much power as the god-awful Left Behind books and movies to make people think a lot of stupid stuff about Revelation.
Look at the message in the film’s poster above:
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
IF SOMETHING FRIGHTENING HAPPENS TO YOU TODAY
THINK ABOUT IT
IT MAY BE
Now, seriously, think about the words below–an excerpt from what my friend the Rev’d Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt had to say about 666 and the beast, and how we go wrong in interpreting Revelation with a “road map approach,” in a recent sermon (see here for more).
When we read a book of the Bible we typically begin by asking, “What was happening at the time?” “What were the challenges the original readers were facing in being true to their faith?” And “What did the writer mean to communicate?” Once we figure that out, then we ask, “How does that apply to our day and time?”
That’s not what happens when we use the roadmap approach.
The roadmap approach tries to decode the Book of Revelation as if it were written in invisible ink or needed a secret decoder ring.
Who is 666 or the beast? One of the Popes? A former President? Decoders have made all of those guesses and, when each one fails, they try another.
The difficulty with that approach is that the number 666 isn’t a secret sign. 666 is meant to tell us something about Roman emperors when the book was written. They often took advantage of the cultural assumption that they were deities and, as such, they laid claim to Roman worship, as well as obedience.
So, why refer to him as 666? Because the number 7 is a perfect number representing completion (as in the 7 days of creation) and applies in biblical literature to God alone. The emperor is a 6, meaning he pretends to be God, but he falls short, and he doesn’t just fall short: 6. He falls really, 66, really 666 short.
In her 202 book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Princeton religious professor Elaine Pagels noted that 666 and the beast may refer to the famously evil, Christian hating Emperor Nero.
Nero was the sweetheart who executed his own mother. Nero’s madness was the kind of madness the early Christians feared.
All the American obsession with the numbers and supposedly “invisible ink” codes in Revelation miss the real sign that John the author of Revelation was holding up for his readers around the year 90.
That sign said to those persecuted Christians, in so many strange words: the forces of evil, the “antiChrists” who think they are divine, have already lost the game against the one true God, who, in the end, will re-create the world where the evil powers will have disappeared and all will dwell in the beauty and peace and order of the Creation as God originally created it.
So the takeaway from Day 7 is:
7. Let go of whatever notions or even fears you may have about Revelation and its meaning based on movies, “Rapture” novels and other fictions that have nothing to do with John’s vision of heaven on earth coming to fruition. You’re not going to be swept up to some distant heaven while your spouse or children get “left behind” to suffer a bloody hell of tribulation. If you have those books in your home or church trash them and get yourself focused on this fact:
God is too good for such bloody behavior.