Several weeks ago, a high school cross country runner was assigned 666 as her bib number for a regional race. As a traditional Christian, she didn’t want to be associated with that number by wearing it. The young woman and her coach requested a number change but were refused. The young woman chose not to run at all because, “I didn’t want to risk my relationship with God.” Race officials now claim they didn’t realize the issue revolved around her religion or they would have accommodated her (although I’m not sure why else she would have refused that number).
The whole event got me thinking about 666 and its meaning. I’m pretty sure I was told about this number during my years in a Lutheran elementary school. I remember an all-school assembly during which the presenters admonished us never to use – or even touch – a Ouija board or a Magic 8 Ball® because they were instruments of the devil. In my case, it was a classic example of ecclesiastical overreach; until that moment, I had never even heard of these items. Associating with 666 was on that list as well.
I strongly suspect that this young runner also heard about the evils of number 666 through her church. After all, the number is mentioned, rather clearly, in the Book of Revelation. Since my daughter is a young teenager, I was curious about her thoughts on the number. When I asked what it meant to her, she quickly replied, “It’s the devil’s favorite number.” When I asked where she got that idea, she replied, “From television.” (She really enjoys shows about the supernatural.) One of her friends also noted that 666 is “a number that means ‘the devil’,” but for several other friends, the number meant nothing at all. Perhaps this is unsurprising. My daughter’s friends, if they step foot in a church at all, almost certainly attend churches that spend very little time on Revelation. Even if their Sunday schools discussed the passage in question, they would probably present a slightly different interpretation.
Despite all that, 666 strikes fear in the hearts of many. So what does Revelation actually say about it? The number is found in the second section of chapter 13, subtitled The Second Beast. In general, the Book of Revelation is thought to describe the apocalyptic vision of its author, John. Many scholars believe the author was none other than John the Apostle, who also authored the gospel of the same name, but other Johns have also been proposed. Either way, it’s quite a vision.
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of the earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived….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, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. (Most of Revelation 13:11-18)
After being warned of God’s wrath (Revelation 14:9-10), the beast, and its image, and the number of its name are conquered by the forces and followers of God (Revelation 15:2). In addition, “those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image” are afflicted with painful sores (Revelation 16:2). I don’t take the Bible literally, but if you do, it seems rather straight-forward to me: you probably shouldn’t be wearing the number 666, even if it’s on your torso and not on your hands or forehead.
The number 666 itself stems from the Greek alphabet, which was used both to construct words and to depict numbers. In Greek, alpha was the letter “a” and the number 1, beta was the letter “b” and the number 2, iota was the letter “i” and the number 10, rho was the letter “r” and the number 100. You can therefore calculate a numerical value, called the isopseph, for every word in Greek. Since the beast represents the anti-Christ, then somehow, the isopseph of the antichrist was/is/will be 666. A similar system, called gematria, was used with the Hebrew alphabet.
You might think it would be easy to work backwards from 666 to get the name of the beast, but this is not the case for various reasons. It’s not clear if the numbers should be added or simply listed next to one another. Does 1 and 4 and 7 equal 147 or 12? In some ancient manuscripts, the number appears as 666; in others, the number is 616. Those differing versions could be due to scribal errors, or they could be due to different transliterations. Many people have suggested that 666 refers to the Roman Emperor Nero (see above image). Nero’s Greek name, transliterated into Hebrew, has a value of 666. Nero’s Latin name, transliterated into Hebrew, has a value of 616, so maybe both numbers are “correct”. It’s all complicated by the fact that the Greek alphabet, at the time, had 26 letters while the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. Two letters from the Greek alphabet became obsolete and are no longer included. Ironically, one of those two letters was stigma, which represented the number 6! Some have even questioned the translation of the word “number” since the original Greek word “arithmon” has other meanings. You get the picture.
All these issues disappear if you simply take the Bible literally, which brings me back to the young woman who chose not to run the race. The story strikes me as a typical example of robust viewpoints colliding in mid-air. The young woman took a firm stance on not wearing her assigned bib number, and the race organizers took a firm stance on not issuing a new one. From an outsider’s perspective, both parties seem unnecessarily entrenched, and as a result, somewhat unreasonable. And now, no one can quite remember who said what to whom or when it was said. That’s why these sorts of events make the news.
Staying connected with the divine is difficult. Daily hassles, busy schedules, work deadlines, and everyday physical discomforts all yank us away from the sacred. All of us, including our kids, need to find ways to recognize all that is holy in all that life offers. I hope my kids think long and hard before engaging in activities that might “risk their relationship with God.” I also hope they will stand up for their principles, whatever they may be. Sometimes, rightly or wrongly, that will come across as extreme. I don’t generally promote extremism in my household, but let’s face it, there are certainly worse things a teenager could be extreme about.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Articles on the original news story
Some sites that explain isopsephy/gematria