This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on November 10, 2023, which can be found here.
Q. What is the mark of the beast that we read about in Revelation? Should Christians avoid using the number 666?
A. Many Christians and non-Christians alike have come to be generally familiar with the ominous number ‘666’ and its association with the devil (or, more broadly, with evil, demonic forces) through scary movies and other cultural lore.
Just as many may not realize that it finds its roots in the Bible, specifically, the book of Revelation, wherein a certain “dragon” and his two beasts wreak havoc on mankind before the consummation of all things. In the text, these beasts come to be recognized by the mark ‘666,’ thus the popular connection. Let’s unpack what this means and how we should approach the matter.
First, it’s helpful to recall that the book of Revelation, though it is an apocalypse , was also written to be a circular letter among the earliest Christian communities. As such, although it contains a timeless message regarding the eschaton (or ‘end things’), it also contained a timely message for its first-century audience. Revelation 13:18 tells us, “[L]et the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.”
Upon closer investigation, it appears that in his description of the famous ‘mark of the beast,’ the author is less concerned to focus on Satan than he is to describe a certain man who is known by this number. It is most probable that ‘666’ was actually a codeword (or code-number) used by these early Christians to refer to Caesar Nero—the emperor at that time, famous for his persecution of Christians (not a name to be publicly criticized, thus the letter’s discretion when writing of him).
How does ‘666’ come out to mean ‘Nero’? Letters in ancient languages, such as Biblical Hebrew and Greek, sometimes serve a dual purpose when each letter would also indicate a numerical value (e.g., think of how we use Roman characters to number Superbowl games). On one hand, 666 is the numerical value of the Greek word therion meaning “beast.” On the other, if you take the title ‘Caesar Nero’ in Greek and transliterate* it into Hebrew, the numerical value of that transliterated title is also 666. (*A translation seeks to render the meaning of a word in a different language, whereas a transliteration spells a word from one language using the letters of a different language without translating it. The word ‘therion’ from above is a transliteration of θηρίον, and “beast” would be its translation.) It can be a bit confusing, but it is a clever way to speak of an evil emperor discreetly. Therefore, to have the ‘mark of the beast’ is like saying ‘one who acts like Caesar Nero.’
Second, let’s address how this relates to us today. Though it may not seem like it on the surface, the entire book of Revelation is about the victory of the Cross. At its epicenter is the figure of the Lamb “as if it had been slain” (Rev 5:6), and all that follows depicts that cosmic battle for souls, with Jesus (the Lamb) battling against the forces of evil (Satan, the “dragon” and his beasts). In the end, we see Christ the Victor accomplishing not only the salvation of the just but the renewal of the entire created order.
Each day presents to us the opportunity to bear one of two signs: the victory sign of the Lamb or the mark of the beast. I can either be marked by the Cross—as one who joins my daily sacrifices to the sufferings of the Lamb, enduring through trials both great and small; or I can be marked by the sign of the beast—by resistance to suffering, inflating my own desires over and against the plans of God, or relishing in sinful ways.
Ultimately, it is not so much the number itself (‘666’) that Christians should be wary of, but the deeper reality the number signifies: the position that chooses to act in ways that oppose God and His plans for the salvation of the world. I would much rather find myself singing hymn #666, as I grow in a state of grace, than to avoid the number superstitiously and yet act like a modern-day Nero. As long as we are characterized by the Cross—that great victory sign of the Lamb—we have nothing to worry about.
Lastly, if the time should come when you feel overwhelmed by how frequently the mark of the enemy is showing itself in the world around you, take confidence in how God’s great story comes to its conclusion: the enemy is destroyed (Rev 20:10) and God reigns forever (22:5), making all things new (21:5), wiping away every tear (21:4), and dwelling in blissful communion with his saints forever (21:3). Amen!