Who’s afraid of 666?


Driving during a snowstorm on April 9, 2016, I lost control of my car and ended up in a ditch. I was not injured and the car was undamaged, but ever since then I have felt anxiety in certain driving situations. This kind of fear has been called “vehophobia.”

There are names for numerous sources of fear, even some rather exotic ones. For instance, fear of the number 13 is triskaidekaphobia, and fear of the number 666 is hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.

Mathematically speaking, 666 is an interesting number. It is the sum of the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc. up to 36. It is represented in Roman numerals by DCLXVI, with each of the symbols D,C,L,X,V,I showing up exactly once.

But these are not reasons for fear. The scary thing about 666 is its appearance in the Bible’s book of Revelation—-and in chapter 13, no less—-as the “number of the beast.”

John, the author of Revelation, wrote to Christians in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the late first century. Asia Minor was part of the powerful Roman Empire, which kept the peace and provided many benefits to its subjects, while imposing certain requirements. Among those requirements was participation in worship of the emperor.

For Christians, whose first loyalty was to the God of Israel and his Son, Jesus the Messiah, emperor worship was unacceptable. But by refusing to participate, they faced public disapproval, exclusion from mainstream social and economic circles, and sometimes even death. (For more on the pressures faced by these Christians, I recommend David deSilva’s historical novel, A Week in the Life of Ephesus, published by IVP Academic.)

In Revelation 13 John described a vision he had seen in which the political and religious authority of Rome appeared as two beasts who wielded great power and demanded universal submission. Followers of Rome were marked with “the name of the beast or the number of its name.” This number was 666, the “number of a man” (verse 18).

Numbers play a symbolic role in Revelation. In particular, 7 is featured as a symbol of completion or perfection. The number 6, which is just less than 7, hints at the idea that human beings, created on the sixth day, on their own fall short of perfection. The number 666 implies that Rome, as impressive and powerful as it seems to be, is a mere human empire that wields authority only because God allows it.

John wrote Revelation to encourage Christians not to be frightened by the Roman beast and its number. If they would remain faithful to the one true God, he said, they would be rewarded with eternal life on a renewed earth. He transmitted the following message from God in Revelation 2:7: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” For almost 2000 years, Christians have clung to this promise.

Doug Ward is an elder at Church of the Messiah in Xenia and an avid reader.

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