“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?” . . . His number is 666.
Released within weeks of the controversial Da Vinci Code, The Omen, opened in cinemas throughout the world on the 6th day of the 6th month of the 6th year of the 21st century (6.6.06). Apart from its disturbing images, the film has intensified interest in the general interpretation of apocalyptic literature and, more specifically, with symbolism and codes found in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Adopted from an earlier 1976 box-office hit film, The Omen may be the first movie made because of its association with its opening date.
In the opening scene of the film, Italian scholars incorrectly interpret prophecies in the Book of Revelation as specific tragedies ranging from 9/11 and the Challenger disaster to the 2004 tsunami in Malaysia. They are unable to foresee the appearance of the Antichrist who is born on June 6 in Rome and in a Catholic hospital! Meanwhile, priests and nuns working the maternity ward in an Italian hospital convince a U.S. official to trick his wife into accepting another mother’s child. The Diplomat can’t bear to tell his wife that the child she just bore didn’t survive. A duplicitous Catholic priest suggests that they take home a boy whose mother died in childbirth the very same hour. Accepting the child as their own, the couple names the baby Damien. For the next five years, the couple unwittingly raises the spawn of Satan in place of their own son, who died at birth. Apart from compelling viewers to believe that Damien is the Antichrist because he has the mark (666) of the beast on his body, the movie subtly makes a number of negative statements about Christianity. “There is no devil,” a character states, “there is no God. There is only here and now and life.”
How should the Book of Revelation be interpreted? Who is the beast that is described in the 13th Chapter and what does the number “666” symbolize? This is the $666 dollar question. Ever since the Book of the Revelation was included in the Canon of Holy Scripture there has been speculation about the identity of the Antichrist and the number associated with the beast. The Book of Revelation, or more correctly, the Revelation of Jesus Christ Unto His Servant John, is commonly referred to as the Apocalypse of John. The book’s name (Apocalypse) is derived from the two Greek words that literally mean, “to pull the cover away from.” It is the last canonical text of the New Testament in the Bible and is the only biblical book that is entirely composed of prophetic or symbolic visions, especially of the imminent destruction of the world and the salvation of the righteous.
The Apocalypse of John is considered to be one of the most controversial and difficult books of the Bible, and as such, the source of various exotic interpretations. The first-century writer, Papias (c. 60-120), for example, believed that Christ’s resurrection had already inaugurated the new millennium. Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165), on the other hand, believed that the church would reign with Christ after his second coming (a view typically referred to as pre-millennialism). As Roman authorities increased their persecution of the church, Christians, like third-century Hippolytus, expected Christ to establish his millennial reign in 496. Still other Christian theologians, like Origen, preferred to interpret Revelation allegorically, rejecting detailed schemas altogether.
It is interesting to note that St. John Chrysostom and other 4th Century bishops argued against including this book in the New Testament canon, chiefly because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the danger for abuse. It should not come as a surprise therefore that, although it was included in the official Canon of Scripture, it remains the only book of the New Testament that is not read within the Divine Liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church. How should the Book of Revelation be interpreted? Who is the beast that is described in the 13th Chapter and what does the number “666” symbolize?
Six exegetical methods may be used to interpret the Apocalypse of John as biblical prophecy. The first method that may be used is called the Preterist approach. Preterists believe that the contents of Revelation constitute a prophecy of events that were fulfilled in the 1st century. The Preterist approach generally identifies Jerusalem as the persecutor of the Church. Consequently, Armageddon, the scene of a final battle between the forces of good and evil, prophesied to occur at the end of the world, is interpreted as God’s judgment on the Jews, carried out by the Roman army, which is identified as “the beast.” The second half of the Apocalypse focuses attention on the persecution of Christians and the fall of the Roman Empire. Preterists assert that the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled in AD 70, thereby inaugurating God’s Kingdom on earth.
The second method used to interpret the Apocalypse of John is referred to as the Futurist approach. Unlike Preterists, Futurists assign the prophecies found in Revelation to some future time, shortly before the second coming. Futurist interpretations generally predict a Great Tribulation, a seven year period of time when believers will experience worldwide persecution and be purified and strengthened by it, and a Rapture, whereby all true Christians are taken from the earth to be spared the “time of wrath” before finally returning to Earth for God’s Kingdom.
Originally banned by the Catholic Church, the Futurist approach was first proposed by two Catholic writers, Lacunza and Ribera. Hal Lindsey’s books about the “rapture” and the more recent Left Behind novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye have done much to popularize this school of thought.
The third method used to interpret the Book of Revelation is called the Historicist approach. The historicist view regards apocalyptic prophecy as spanning the time from the end of the first century until the second coming of Christ. Historicists generally apply the symbols of Revelation to the gradual division and collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of a divided Europe in the West and a Muslim empire in the East, and the collapse of the Eastern Empire. Historicist interpretations insist that the Church will expand until it has encompassed the whole world. In the process, however, the church will gradually evolve into an apostate system within which true Christians would be a persecuted minority. The apostate Church, on the other hand, is associated with the symbols of the “Mother of Harlots” and with “Babylon.” Unlike Futurists who expect the Antichrist to appear in the last days, Historicists describe an Antichrist political system that will exist for much of history. Consequently, Historicist interpretations tend to be millenarian, emphasizing the literal reign of Christ on earth. Millennialism (or chiliasm), from millennium, which literally means “thousand years”, is primarily a belief expressed in some Christian denominations, and literature, that there will be a Golden Age or Paradise on Earth where Christ will reign prior to the final judgment and future eternal state (Revelation 20:1-6).
The fourth method used to interpret the Apocalypse of John is called the Spiritual or Esoteric approach. The Spiritual view does not see the Book of Revelation as predicting specific historical events but, rather, visions that describe eternal spiritual truths that find expression throughout history. Spirituals insist that specific and predictive eschatological issues are only found in the last few chapters of the Book of Revelation.
The fifth method used to interpret the text of the Apocalypse is the Anglican approach. Anglicans assert that the Book of Revelation is primarily concerned with providing hope to Christians who were and still are being persecuted for their beliefs. The book assures the persecuted that their suffering is not in vain, warning non-Christians of impending judgment. Typical of other Jewish Apocalyptic literature, the Apocalypse uses symbolic imagery to communicate hope to those in the midst of persecution. Consequently, the Anglican method asserts that the events described in Revelation are ordered according to literary, rather than strictly chronological, patterns.
The sixth and final method used to interpret the Book of Revelation is the Orthodox approach.
Orthodoxy treats the text of Revelation as simultaneously describing contemporaneous and future events. Since Orthodox interpreters of the Apocalypse view contemporaneous events as foreshadowing future occurrences, they reject attempts to predetermine present-day events. Orthodox scholars understand the Book of Revelation as a warning for spiritual and moral preparedness.
Months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, a Time/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies in Revelation will come true. Nearly 25 percent believe the Bible predicted the terrorist attacks specifically. While detailed interpretations of its symbols and vision have been applied to historical personalities and events such as the Trade Center bombing, tsunamis, the World Wide Web, the Pope, Adolf Hitler, feminism, or Osama Bin Laden, the Orthodox approach considers the Book of Revelation as an integral component of the Bible, and consequently, not to be used as a mystical cipher for super-historical analysis. The Orthodox approach guards against fundamentalist approaches that misuse the Book of Revelation because it divorces the book from its original context.
The Book of Revelation is a circular pastoral letter addressed to the seven churches in the province of Asia at the end of the first century AD. The book or letter was not for private communication but was to be read in public in the midst of the worshipping community. The Book of Revelation is primarily concerned with encouraging the courage and perseverance of the early Christians who were threatened by Roman persecution in what was then perceived to be the end times.
How, then, do we answer the $666 question that is posed in the movie, The Omen? Who or what does the number 666 signify? The Hebrew and Greek alphabets do not have separate characters to designate numbers and letters. Since letters are also used as numbers, each letter receives a numerical value. For example, the Hebrew equivalent of the English letter “w” is “vav” or “waw.” The numerical value of “vav” is six. This is the reason why some have speculated that the World Wide Web (www) is indeed the “Mark of the Beast” as it may be transliterated into Hebrew as “vav vav vav”, or numerically represented as 666.
As we have briefly seen, there are methods for interpreting the Book of Revelation. There are also various theories that attempt to decipher the identity of the Antichrist by relating his name to the number 666. One interpretation is simply that 666 represents humankind in general because of the special significance that the number has in the Bible. Six is known as an imperfect number because it is less than seven, the perfect number. The Bible speaks of seven days in the week, seven tongues of flame, seven spiritual gifts. Therefore, the number 666 represents imperfect man, while 777 represents God. In the final analysis, the derogatory statement against Christianity made in The Omen is false and spiritually dangerous. There is a God, there is a devil and, there is more to life than the here and now! In the end, the Orthodox approach would suggest that the number 666 signifies any offense against the name of Jesus Christ. Our eternal destiny relies on the knowledge of this truth!
Rev. Dr. Frank Marangos
Executive Director of Communications
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Religious Education and Homiletics
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology