In the Apocalypse four well known animal symbols or "beasts" (theria) are conspicuous dramatis personae. These four famous beasts are: (1) a Lamb, having seven horns and seven eyes, and who is identified as Iesous, who becomes "the Conqueror" (ho nikon); (2) a monster resembling a Leopard, possessing a bear's feet and a lion's mouth, and having seven heads and ten horns; (3) a red Dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and who is named "the Devil and Satan"; and finally (4) a beast having two horns like a Lamb but speaking like a Dragon, who is identified as the False Prophet (pseudo-prophetes). Of these four the Leopard is particularly referred to as "the Beast." 4

Concerning this specific animal symbol the author of the Apocalypse has much to say. In a key passage he presents us with a simple riddle as to the identity of the beast. In the riddle he issues a challenge to those who would attempt a solution, implying that only one who has attained wisdom will be able to figure it out. He says:

Here is cleverness [sophia]: he who has wisdom [nous], let him count the number of the Beast; for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. 5

As you may well imagine, solving this riddle as well as the correct interpretation of these four symbols is crucial to understanding the true meaning of the Apocalypse. So important is the solution of this particular riddle to understanding the Apocalypse as a whole, that the author even gives a clue to its meaning. That clue is the very number of the Beast, 666. Here and in two other places in the book the author offers the numerical solution to a riddle.

Another, less obvious clue to solving this riddle is the number of the Lamb, Iesous, which is 888. A third clue is simply that there are precisely four beasts, not three, not five or six, but four. And a final clue to solving this particular riddle is that most famous Christian symbol of them all, namely the cross (stauros), whose number is 777.

Lacking numerals, the classical Greek language (and the Hebrew as well) employed each of the letters of the alphabet to express numerical values. The "number" of a word then was simply the sum of the numerical values of its individual letters. Although this method of numbering was not very useful for even the simplest arithmetic, it made for interesting reading! It also made it relatively easy to encode secret messages.

Now if you are thinking that the sequence 666, 777, 888 and the words to which they correspond is a mere coincidence, think again. Jesus, the beast and the cross: the vital significance of these words in the symbology of Christianity can not be overemphasized. To argue that this is coincidence is to argue the absurd for these three numbers are not the end of the sequence by any means, but the clue to its true significance.

Many possible combinations of Greek letters will add up to the total of 666. Because the passage speaks of the number being that of a man, the literal minded have taken it to represent some specific historical figure. They have nominated many candidates from the orthodox gallery of rogues for the dubious distinction of being thus symbolically pilloried as the arch enemy of God.

Most notable of these was Caesar Nero, the despicable Roman emperor from A.D. 54 - 68 and notoriously cruel and vicious persecutor of the early Christians. Even the Romans themselves found Nero too offensive finally and murdered him.

Nero's name transliterated into Hebrew characters yields the required sum. Since Nero died less than a generation prior to the presumed date of the writing of the Apocalypse his vile memory was undoubtedly still quite fresh in the minds of most late first century Christians.

The orthodox in their efforts to identify the "man" fail to see the incongruity of their deduction. The author of the Apocalypse, writing in Greek, used the Hebrew transliteration of a Roman emperor's Latin name to render what is arguably the most famous and potentially important number in Christian history. To them, perhaps, no convolution of logic was too complex for the wily Greek mind to indulge. There are political factors to consider, as well, since the Roman Empire was in Nero's time and later the only serious obstacle to the institution of a universal theocracy by the fledgling Christian Church.

None the less efforts such as this simply reinforce the lack of real understanding exemplified by a simple literal reading of the text. For if we assume that the "man" is Nero or some other historical character, what then?

Where do we go? The answer is nowhere. All such efforts lead to a dead end. Why did not the author of the Apocalypse just say that Nero, or whoever he had in mind, was a skunk? Why disguise it? Certainly the manuscript was meant for Christian eyes only. Even if the Romans, or members of a rival faction, got their hands on it, the identity of its author could be concealed.

The literal minded think that the Apocalypse can only be comprehended against that historical background which hypothetically occasioned its writing. Like its apparent Old Testament counterparts Ezechiel, Zachariah and Daniel, as well as the apocryphal Enoch and other second century apocalypses, it appeared during an era of persecution.

The literalists like to point out that from 200 B.C. to A.D.200 such apocalyptic writing enjoyed a wide audience in both Jewish and early Christian circles. They claim that it represented a sort of resistance literature that was inspired by Roman oppression. This began first with the Jews, culminating finally in the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D.70. The destruction of the Jewish nation and the dispersion of the Jews followed. The Christians then had their share of persecution at the hands of the Romans well into the second century.

There can be no denying that this period was undoubtedly both cruel and savage. The brutal Roman crucifix was a common and dreadful sight. Slow and painful death became a spectacle staged for the sadistic entertainment of the Roman emperor and the equally barbarous crowds of Rome and other cities of the empire.

Christians justifiably viewed the Roman emperor and the power of Rome that he wielded as their enemies. By logical extension, in Christian minds they also became the enemies of God.

In this vein, the orthodox see the pagan Rome, situated atop its seven hills, as the harlot Babylon seated upon the seven headed scarlet beast of the Apocalypse. The beast's blasphemous names refer to the divine titles assumed by the Roman emperors. The tribulations are the wrath of God unleashed upon the unrepentant pagans, or the Christians' other rival Jewish factions.

For extreme fundamentalists the beast becomes a symbol for an AntiChrist, who at some future date will restore the pagan kingdoms of old which oppressed the ancient and God fearing Hebrews. And, in the person of Nero, persecuted the Christians themselves.

These profane kingdoms, which will flourish for a time, will in turn be destroyed at the second and triumphant coming of Christ. Then the faithful and righteous shall stand aside to watch those with the mark of the beast go to their death and damnation. The "mark of the beast" to them being lack of adherence to Christian faith. Then the "millennium" shall commence, during which the Christian faithful will live upon this earth as though in heaven itself as reward for their faithfulness in the face of pagan opposition.

The Apocalypse then, as a period piece, becomes an exhortation for Christians to stand firm in their faith against persecution first at the hands of the Romans and finally at the hands of the AntiChrist. They are encouraged to await patiently for the fulfilment of God's promises to them. These are, of course, to reward the faithful with entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem and to punish the wicked as severely as their cruelty deserves.

The literalists thus understand the book as simply the product of an era of severe persecution. It was written in symbolic and allegorical format merely to protect its author from Roman retribution. Why this might have been necessary is not clear. Presumably the author of an unsigned manuscript was safe from prosecution. Probably few Christians at the time could identify "John", even if he had signed a manuscript.

The literalists also read into the book continuing validity for Christians of all times. For although they say its symbols and metaphors had very specific application at the time of the book's writing, they also have universal relevance and are readily and simply interpreted.

The repulsive symbols, the vile and vindictive language and repugnant images supposedly now inspire all the Christian faithful to face evils from within and without with courage. Thus the diatribe of an age of repression attains universal worth. It inspires Christians to trust in God's promise to remain with the church and his flock of faithful forever. Despite the trials and tribulations of life, even to the point of physical torture and murder, the invisible God remains present to bolster his followers.

Superficially, the perspective of the Apocalypse is the end times. This period refers to ultimate salvation and victory over evil. It supposedly takes place at the end of the present era with the second coming of Christ.

Yet the book presents the decisive struggle of Christ and his followers against Satan and his demonic allies as having already been successfully concluded. Christ's total defeat of the kingdom of Satan has ushered in the everlasting reign of God.

Still, the forces of evil run amok in the apocalyptic world, apparently somehow and even unwittingly fulfilling a mysterious and secret divine plan! Just what the secret divine plan may be is never explained.

The speculation includes such stuff as the restoration of the kingdom of the Jews, which many see in the form of the state of Israel. Some see this as an example of evil, and some as good. Then there are those who predict that the United States will be recognized as the ten lost tribes. Just what significance that recognition might have for Christians in the end times remains unclear.

Others see Communism as the modern incarnation of the beast. But few, I suspect, would worship Mikhail Gorbachev as the conqueror of the beast! Some see the European Common Market as the beast. Or Great Britain.

All such interpretations, however convincing any or all may seem to the literalist, completely miss the mark. The Apocalypse is unique. Its images and symbols while similar to those used by the Hebrew prophets are not the same in meaning. Most references to the Old Testament and to the Hebrew tradition in general are misleading and meant to mislead.

While the author of the Apocalypse apparently borrows many symbols and images from earlier Hebrew writings and from contemporary messianic politics, he almost invariably employs them simply to cloak his real meaning. He endows them with a different or a variant significance that is readily determined.

All those who attempt to follow seeming Old Testament and first century parallels will generally be misled and confused. The author doubtless intended that they should be. And he succeeded markedly. For the religious and political zealots from the first century to our own have been misled by these simple subterfuges for two thousand years already!

It is the contention of some scholars that the Gospel and Apocalypse of John were originally composed in Greek and not translated from earlier Aramaic sources. This is a singularly significant fact, if indeed true. For the parallels between the Apocalypse and the writings of Plato and Greek philosophy in general are numerous and striking. They are also far more fruitful than the deceptive ones to be found in the Hebrew scriptures. They are in fact the sole basis for accurately deciphering the real meaning of the Apocalypse.

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