Recently TV3 screened The Omen. This classic horror is a about a boy called Damian who is the predicted anti-Christ and appropriately has the number 666 on his head. This film epitomises how the book of Revelation is understood in contemporary culture; apparently it predicts a future person, the beast or the anti-Christ who will take over the world. Associated with this is the number 666 which is literally inscribed into people’s heads or hands. I think this pop-theology is mistaken.
The relevant section in Revelation says:
And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority… The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?” (Rev 13:1-2, 3b-4)
The text proceeds:
Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast … 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. (Rev 13:11,16-18)
Most English translations mention the number 666, this is an accurate translation of the number contained in many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Lesser known, is that some manuscripts contain the number 616 (the significance of this will be explored later). What is noteworthy, is that the passages quoted above contain imagery, no one, to my knowledge, understands them to refer to an actual seven-headed monster.
In this type of genre, the ancient style of writing called Apocalyptic has imagery that is well known and can be fairly easy to interpret. The first beast is said to  get its authority from the dragon,  resemble a leopard, a bear and a lion,  have 7 heads and 10 horns; we know also that  everyone will worship this beast and no one can defeat it in battle.
Understanding  is fairly straightforward. The dragon is identified as “the ancient serpent” an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis; there the serpent is a crafty creature that tempts Adam and Eve to try to be like God and encourages them to disobey God’s commands.
The imagery in  is drawn from the book of Daniel:
Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. “The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it.” “And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’ “After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.” After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast–terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. (Dan 7:3-7)
What this imagery means is explicitly explained in the text:
I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. (Dan 7:16-17) [Emphasis added]
The lion, leopard and bear in Daniel symbolise kingdoms and are probably a reference to the Babylonian, Medio-Persian and Macedonian empires respectively. The first beast in Revelation 13 is a composite of these beasts and is therefore a world empire.
The symbolism in  is explained in the text:
This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction. The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. (Rev 17:9-14)
The seven heads have two meanings. First, they “are seven hills on which the woman sits,” the women in context symbolises a city. An ancient reader would have immediately got the point; in the first century Rome was famous for being a city built on seven hills. The world empire then is Rome.
Second, the seven heads symbolise “seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while.” If one follows the order of Suetonius and other apocalyptic writings, the first king of Rome was Julius Caesar, the second was Augustus, the third Tiberius, the fourth Caligula, the fifth was Claudius, the sixth who “now is” would then be Nero Caesar, the seventh who “has not yet come” but who will “remain for a little while” would be Galba who reigned for seven months. Nero a brutal maniacal dictator had among other things established the emperor cult in Rome setting up a statute of himself; the emperor and empire was worshipped as a god.  Tells us the empire is being worshipped and which no one can defeat in battle.
Now we get to the number 666. In Greek and Latin the letters and numbers are interchangeable; for this reason one can add up the letters of peoples names to get numerical figures that stand for their name. In Hebrew writings a system of Gematria developed (though it is also found in Greek and Roman writings) whereby a person would assign a numerical value to a word or phrase. Interestingly, when the Greek word Nero Caesar is translated into Hebrew, the system of Gematria yields the number 666. If one transliterates the Latin instead of the Greek one gets 616; Identifying the beast with Nero also explains why some manuscripts have 666 and others 616. In the first century, Greek was the international language of the Roman Empire and was native to much of the eastern empire. Latin, however, was the language of the Romans. If the beast was Nero, some Christian communities would cite his name in Greek and others would use Latin.
The second beast has “two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon.” The lamb in Revelation refers to Christ; this is an institution that appears Christian but in fact tempts people into doing wrong. It exercises “all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast” suggesting it was in fact acting on behalf of the Roman Empire advocating that people worship the Emperor. The reference to a mark on one’s hand and forehead is used in the Old Testament frequently as an idiom for devotion and appears to be used in this way in Revelation 14:1, the very next verse. Consequently, the text warns against false prophets who – claiming to speak on behalf of God – command people to worship the state.
Revelation is about statism; it warns that when a state makes itself into an empire, dominates the world by military power and demands absolute allegiance and devotion from human beings, it has then become satanic. Religious organisations that advocate this sort of statism may appear Christian but are, in fact, a dangerous temptation. Fidelity to God means refusing to give absolute obedience to human rulers. This message may not be popular on TV3 but it is an important message, one that should not be clouded or distorted by fantastical movies about a psycho child with an odd birth mark.
I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the Dec 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to:
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament
Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro
Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus