Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



666 Is Not What You Think

A quirky and sad story has emerged out of Kentucky this week.

In one of the strangest cases of purported religious beliefs intersecting with athletic performance, a Kentucky junior cross country runner voluntarily walked away from a chance to qualify for the state meet to avoid running with the bib number “666”, which she said conflicted with her Christian beliefs.

As somebody who competed in state wide competitions back in the day, I can imagine how difficult this situation was for that young lady.  As somebody who learned how to read the Bible that same way, I understand her reluctance to associate with that number. Dark-Clouds

I am a big fan of the Book of Revelation. The last book in the Christian testament is a favorite of mine. I love it!  I love it almost as much as a I hate what the majority of N. Americans have been led to believe it is about.

I thought I would take this opportunity to point out three simple ways that this odd and sad story could have been avoided in Kentucky:

  1. We don’t have 13th floors in buildings and maybe we could just remove this number from rotations – since we know that it rubs the sensitivities of many people the wrong way. That seems like the easiest solution…
  2. The race official could have just given the young woman a new number offender her religious sensibilities. That seems like an easy solution …
  3. Someone could have just explained that the number 666 doesn’t have any actual power … and that even the Bible passage that it comes from tells you that. That seems like the best solution…

See, the actual passage says:

Revelation 13:17-18   New International Version (NIV)

17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[a] That number is 666.

Never-mind that the earliest manuscripts have the number as 616 (a whole other discussion about Roman emperor’s names and the genre called captivity literature within the apocalyptic tradition). What is important here is the world ‘calculate’.

The number – even if it is 666 – isn’t what it seems. It needs to be ‘calculated’, even according the actual verse. It’s right there in the Bible. The number has to be examined – or said another way – you have to do something with the number. It is not the actual number 666.

The clearest explanation is that it is a stand-in for a deeper meaning. Six is the number of humanity (created on the sixth day) and things that are represented in threes (holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come) are complete. The number 666 simply means the completion, or culmination, of the human system.

The number itself is nothing to be afraid of. It is what that number represents that is of great concern. That is why the author of the Book of Revelation wrote in this poetic/symbolic language and imagery. This kind of apocalyptic literature was a political critique of its day – not a predictive work for our day. 

Pointing this out to Christian young people would accomplish at least two things:

  • It would relieve them of this superstitious ‘left-behind’ fear that is created by a misunderstanding of Biblical genres and interpretation.
  • It would serve as a challenge/inspiration to do in our day what the author of Revelation was doing in that day and use their creativity to critique the systems and structures of oppression that we are all caught up in.

The number 666 holds no special power – especially today. What it represents however is very much still in power and needs to be examined and engaged as ‘the Powers That Be’.

Reading Revelation Better (part 2)

Three things up front:

  • I love the apocalyptic elements in the Old and New Testament. I think they are both fascinating and helpful – or should I say instructive.
  • Apocalyptic literature is a very unique genre and in the modern mind, if it is unacquainted with apocalyptic, can really get mucked up fast.
  • I no longer believe that the book of Revelation or passages like Matthew 24 or 1 Thessalonians 4:16 are about the, 20th, 21st, or even 22nd century.

That last point is going to be held loosely. I am totally open to the idea of a Symbolic reading (from the last post) that sees the book of Revelation about all oppression and injustice – in every place in every time. I get the appeal of that and have listened to my friends who hold that position and why they think that it is so important. I get it and I am open to it.

The danger with the Preterist reading (all in the past) is that people immediately jump to “then it has no relevance to the modern reader” argument. I do not see that one directly leads to the other – but I will cover that in part 4.

Having said that I am not sympathetic toward the Futurist or Historicist views, I hope to clarify why in this next post and the next.

A couple of things that pre-modern hearers (readers) would have been familiar with that late-modern (enlightenment) folks may not is the imagery embedded in numbers and symbols. While these show up in other places in the Bible (40 days of rain for Noah, the spies spent 40 scouting the promised land, 40 years in the wilderness for Israel, Jonah warned Ninevah of impending doom in 40 days, Jesus being tempted for 40 days, Jesus was seen on earth for 40 days after the resurrection, etc.)  they are really evident in apocalyptic.

Simply stated
one = unity
two = witness
three = completeness (heaven)
four = earth
five = intensity
six = man
seven = heaven (3) and earth (4) in unity
eight = newness
ten = intensity (double)

If we don’t understand the way numbers were embedded with meaning, then we are going to be confused, lost, or just wrong about what a passage means or has come to mean.

Numbers like 666 Continue reading “Reading Revelation Better (part 2)”

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