By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: Does 666 in Revelation 13:18 refer to a future pope? Is “Babylon the Great” a clear, direct prophecy of the Roman Catholic Church?
Reply:. As to the identity of the number 666 in Revelation 13:18, many interpretations have been given. It has been identified with about every known sinister character in history, from Nero to Mussolini. Futurists see the number 666 as some wicked ruler who will appear just before the final return of Christ and the end of the world.
A method of solving the identity of the number 666 was used by later Jews and early Christians known as Gematria. It is described as “the use of letters of a word so as by means of their combined numerical value to express a name, or a witty association of ideas” (ISBE, Vol. IV, p. 2162). Men have been deciphering the name of the beast for centuries. One theory reduces “Nero Caesar” to the Hebrew consonant equivalent “Nron Ksr.” The Hebrew numerical equivalent is N = 50, R = 200, 0 = 6, N = 50, K = 100, S = 60, R = 200. The total is 666. So, many interpreters believe that the number 666 is Nero. It has been pointed out that “the recent discovery of an Aramaic illustration of Nero Caesar, spelled so as to equal 666 at Qumram gives credence to this as a solution” (J.W. Roberts, The Revelation to John, p. 116).
Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) introduced the view that the first Roman ruler was named Latinus (spelled Lateinos in Greek). Using the Greek evaluation method, L = 30, A = 1, T = 300, E = 5, 1 = 10, N = 50, 0 = 70, S = 200. The total is 666. So, the number of the beast came to be identified later with the Roman Catholic Church because of its association with Rome and its use of Latin. This has been a very popular view, especially among older expositors. Alexander Campbell, in his debate with bishop Purcell (held in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1837), identified the number with papal Rome. (See Campbell-Purcell Debate, p. 287.) He affirmed that the Roman Catholic Church “is the Babylon of John, the Man of Sin of Paul, and the Empire of the Youngest Horn of Daniel’s Sea Monster” in the third proposition of the debate (Ibid., p. 281).
Systems have been worked out to identify the code 666 with Hitler, by giving numerical equivalents to the letters of our English alphabet. Many names in different languages have been deciphered to solve the code 666. These are but a few examples of these efforts.
We must bear in mind that the book of Revelation is an apocalypse; thus such writings is characterized by imagery, symbols and signs. For this reason, modern readers are in a more difficult position to positively identify codes which were most probably understood by the Christians who lived at that time. They were in peril, their lives being in jeopardy because of persecution; so most likely codes or symbols were used for their protection. The number “6” (Rev. 4:8) and “666” (Rev. 13:18) had significance. In oriental numerology the number “6” indicated doom when by itself. The number “666” denoted greater evil; it was evil intensified (see Pieters, Milligan, et al).
In chapter thirteen, John saw two beasts (one coming up out of the sea, v. 1, and the other coming up out of the earth, v. 11); both are allies of Satan. In harmony with the symbolic use of numbers in the book of Revelation, “six” represents that which is evil. Tripled it would be intensified evil, as we have seen. Being short of the number seven (a symbol of perfection), the number 666 also emphasizes failure or doom. It should be noted here that there is no definite article before man. Therefore, the idea is the number of man, not some specific man. Homer Hailey comments: “the number of the beast stands for the complete and total failure of all human systems and efforts antagonistic to God and His Christ” (Commentary on Revelation, p. 299). This is a reasonable conclusion in view of the context.
To suppose that the number 666 refers to some future pope would be of no significance to those Christians living in John’s day. The purpose of the Apocalypse was to comfort Christians. Portrayed for them is the defeat of their enemies and the ultimate victory of Christ (Rev. 17:14). Neither would “Babylon the Great,” being identified as the Roman Catholic Church, be of any significance or consolation to the saints at the time the book of Revelation was written.
It seems more in harmony with the context to conclude that human devices and systems which oppose Christ and His cause are symbolized by the cryptogram 666, rather than some specific man. “Babylon the Great” more logically refers to Jerusalem, if the Revelation was written before 70 A.D.; or to Rome, if the book was written at a later date, c. 96 A.D. In either case, “Babylon” symbolizes lust and seduction (17:3,4) rather than some specific institution such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 10, p. 293
May 21, 1987