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More Symbolism in Revelation: 666, The Number of “The Beast”

In order to explain my views of the “Lake of Fire” in the book of Revelation – the destination for everyone who is not a believer in Jesus – I have started to point out that much of the book is to be taken symbolically, not literally (as the author himself suggests).  My eventual point is that the author is not giving a literal description of how most people who have ever lived will spend eternity swimming in a lake of fire.

In my last post I began my discussion of symbolism by focusing on the image of the “whore of Babylon” who sits on a horrible “beast” as described in chapter 17,   The careful reader of Revelation will recognize that this beast in chapter 17 has already appeared in chapter 13.  There we are told of a beast “rising out of the sea,” again with ten horns and seven heads.   Moreover, “the whole earth followed the beast,” worshiping it.  The beast in this earlier chapter is said to be haughty and blasphemous, and to have waged war on the saints (this is Rome, the embodiment of Satan, persecuting Christians).  At the end of the chapter comes the most famous cryptic statement of the entire book, as the author reveals the identity of the beast:  “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” (13:18).

It is interesting that in some manuscripts of Revelation we are told that the number of the beast is 616 rather than 666.  How are we to explain all this?

Brilliant and profligate explanations have ….

To unpack this mystery reliably — or at least to see how skilled interpreters have done so — you will either need to buy twenty books or join the blog.   Why not go the easier and cheaper route?  Join!!

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More on the Symbolism of Revelation
Symbolism in Revelation: The Whore of Babylon



  1. Avatar
    jhague  September 28, 2018

    “I have started to point out that much of the book is to be taken symbolically, not literally (as the author himself suggests).”

    1. Why does the author write in this symbolic way?
    2. Would his readers easily understand the symbolism?
    3. Why not just say “Rome” instead of “Whore of Babylon”, etc.?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      It’s all part of the intent of making the “revelation” seem so highly mysterious. It is not a matter of a prosaic description of future events. See today’s post.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  September 28, 2018

    Also, why did the author not just say Nero’s name?

  3. Avatar
    John Murphy  September 28, 2018


    Didn’t the writer of this book, by describing Rome in such derogatory terms, very much go against the trend of sucking up to Rome that is found in other gospels, canonical and non-canonical? Any idea why?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      Yup, unlike them he absolutely hated Rome.

      • Avatar
        John Murphy  September 30, 2018

        That’s pretty straightforward!
        Is it reasonable to speculate, therefore, that the writer or the community of which he was part had closer ties to Jerusalem than the other writers of the books of the NT had?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 1, 2018

          Not necessarily. Jerusalem could function simply be known to him as the holy city, the city of the Jews chosen by God, without, say, him ever having been there.

  4. Avatar
    spindrift  September 28, 2018

    “. . . in Hebrew letters they add up to 666.” not ‘Greek’?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      No, that’s part of the intrigue. It takes some “wisdom” to figure it all out.

  5. Avatar
    Eric  September 28, 2018


    You are carefully setting up a case of “accepted symbolics” versus “disputed literals” (whore, etc. vs. Lake of Fire, in particular).

    It might help some members (including me!) if you could outline the major elements of Revelation indicating which are taken, even by fundamentalists, as symbolic, and which they consider literal (in broad).

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      Ah, that would be helpful. But it would be a massive undertaking, requiring an exegesis chapter by chapter! Short story: Just about everything in the visions is symbolic. (The four horses; the seals; the trumpets; the bowls; and on and on)

  6. Avatar
    cmdenton47  September 28, 2018

    Ah, but the concept of eternal suffering is useful to those who seek to manipulate. You probably could not write a more useful tool for the unscrupulous preacher than the Book of Revelations.

  7. Avatar
    caesar  September 28, 2018

    Obviously a book can contain both figurative and literal sections.

    Undeniably, some things are symbolic–no one thinks the beast that comes out of the sea is a literal multi-headed animal. But, just because some things are clearly symbolic–does that force us to take all of the events in the visions, starting in chapter 4, symbolically?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      Just about everything in the visions is symbolic. (The four horses; the seals; the trumpets; the bowls; and on and on)

  8. tompicard
    tompicard  September 28, 2018

    if you think that the apocalyptic passages in the book of Revelation should be taken figuratively rather than literally, do you agree that Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings in Mark 24:29-30 should also be understood symbolically ?

    Immediately after the tribulation of those days: The SUN WILL BE DARKENED, and the MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT; the STARS WILL FALL FROM THE SKY, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN, with power and great glory.

    if not, why not?

    • tompicard
      tompicard  September 28, 2018

      For instance we know from Joseph’s dream in Genesis that
      ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ can be symbols of Mom and Dad – authority figures
      ‘stars’ can mean siblings
      . . . .

      could Jesus words mean that the teachings of the religious authorities become dull and many of our religious siblings fall away from a true faith ?

      • Bart
        Bart  September 30, 2018

        You’d have to find hints in the text that he is not meaning any of this literally.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      It’s hard to say, and I used to think so. But on the other hand these are not obvious symbols of other things. They are explicit statements with no hints in the text that they are meant to be symbols of other things, unlike the book of revelation which, as an apocalypse, is because of its genre massively symbolic:(The four horses; the seals; the trumpets; the bowls; the whore, the 666; the beasts, and on and on are obviously not literal). Not so much Mark 13 (or Matthew 24)

  9. Avatar
    godspell  September 28, 2018

    Bart, I’m not sure you realize , but you’ve quite possibly solved a conundrum that once tortured a brilliant English poetess, who was devoted to the Anglican Church, confessed her love for God, but increasingly referred to herself as ‘A lapsed Atheist.’ Why?

    //Thoughts about the Christian Doctrine of Eternal Hell

    Is it not interesting to see
    How the Christians continually
    Try to separate themselves in vain
    From the doctrine of eternal pain?

    They cannot do it,
    They are vowed to it,
    The Lord said it,
    They must believe it.

    So the vulnerable body is stretched without pity
    On flames forever. Is this not pretty?

    The religion of Christianity
    Is mixed of sweetness and cruelty.
    Reject this Sweetness for she wears
    A smoky dress out of hell fires.

    Who makes a god, who pains him thus?
    It is the Christian religion does.

    Oh oh have none of it,
    Blow it away, have done with it.

    Stevie Smith//

    But as you’ve shown, it’s not necessarily in vain that modern Christianity tries to separate itself from Hell, while still clinging to Jesus. Jesus probably never believed in Hell, and neither did most of his early followers.

    This doesn’t wipe away centuries of teaching that eternal pain was the just reward not merely of the evil, but even of the insufficiently devout–or the unbaptized. Augustine was horrified at the thought that unbaptized infants went to hell, but having constructed his castle of reasoning (built on faulty foundations), he couldn’t find a way out of it. Luther split European Christianity down the middle over his certainty that Purgatory was a mere confidence trick, that you were either saved or damned, and that damnation was eternal. (An obsession he had from youth, living in constant fear of dying when he was not in a state of grace).

    Obviously you have not solved, nor are trying to, the question of what role, if any, Christianity is to play in humanity’s future (if any). But you have at the very least given the late Stevie Smith an escape hole from an ethical conundrum, and I’m sure she would thank you for it, were she still around.

    PS: She also much appreciated the Gospel of Mark.


  10. Avatar
    gavriel  September 28, 2018

    When do you think that the early Christian communities started to read the Revelation not as figurative description of the Roman empire, but as a prophecy of the some other future historical events. Sure readers of the second century would still recognize the veiled descriptions of Rome and Nero?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      Tha’ts a good question. I”m not sure. There were debates early on, already in the second century, about whether the 1000 year reign of Christ was to be taken literally or figuratively. One of my future projects will involve studying the development of the figurative interpretations of the book, but I haven’t started it yet!

  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  September 28, 2018

    Why would this author write about Nero after he was dead? Unless, the author was writing while Nero was still alive; otherwise, what is the reasoning that Nero would be coming back from the dead?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      There was a widespread tradition of Nero redivivus — that Nero had (or would) come back to life and wreak havoc on the earth. You find this e.g. in the Jewish Sibylline oracles.

      • Avatar
        BryanS  September 30, 2018

        Interesting. I had perhaps wrongly assumed it was because Nero was the first Roman emperor to “turn” on the Christians (i.e., scapegoating them for burning Rome), thereby establishing a precedent for persecuting the Jesus movement going forward.

  12. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  September 28, 2018

    Thanks for these posts. And now, absolutely off their point…can’t help myself. Referring to John 20:17, represented many many times in great and not so great art, the following from a terrific article about images of Peter and M Magdalene by artists of Baroque Italy:
    “We now know that the traditional Vulgate translation of Jesus’s words (“Noli me tangere,” Do not touch me) is incorrect; the original Greek in fact represents “a present imperative with a particular form of the negative . . . [that] indicates that an action already in progress is to be stopped. Hence, a
    precise and less perplexing translation would be “Cease from clinging to me” or “Stop holding onto me.” The second
    portion of the verse, “for I have not yet ascended to my Father,” remains puzzling as an explanation of this initial imperative; but this much is clear: Jesus was not really forbidding Mary from physically touching him (in fact, as we read in the Gospels [Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:39; John 20:27], others will touch or be invited by him to touch the resurrected Jesus): Jesus was simply announcing a new phase in their relationship.”

    No response necessary or solicited. For anyone’s interest.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      Thanks. I’m on board except for that last bit about a “new phase in their relationship.” The context suggests not that they used to be touching each other all the time. but that she grabbed hold of him when she saw him and he was asking her to stop.

  13. Avatar
    fishician  September 28, 2018

    Do non-canonical sources spend more time describing heaven? Outside of Revelation the NT books say surprisingly little about what our ultimate destiny is supposed to be like, and even Revelation is sketchy.

  14. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 28, 2018

    Did you explain the 10 horns? If so, I must have missed it. I do recall the 7 hills (upon which Rome sits).

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      They represent ten rulers of Rome, though there are long disputes about which the ten were (do they start with Julius Caesar? Caesar Augustus? Which others do they include? etc.)

  15. Rick
    Rick  September 28, 2018

    Professor, is it interesting that the gematria of the beast is based on the Hebrew spelling rather than the koine Greek in which I believe the Revelation was composed?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      It’s all part of the mystery of the revelation that needs to be figure out by “a person of wisdom”

  16. Avatar
    AGarrow  September 28, 2018

    Why is at that, having identified the Beast as Nero, you then (in the next paragraph) identify it as all Roman rulers? Rev 17 states that one of the heads of the beast ‘is living’ even while the beast ‘is not’ (while it ‘was’ and ‘is to come’). Do you think this might suggest that the emperors between Nero’s first and second reign are not the focus of John’s interest? This would then mean that there is only one head that John cares about: the one/first head that was mortally wounded and then expected to revive – which again points specifically and uniquely to Nero, rather than to all Roman emperors in general.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      It’s hard to say, since it’s not straightforward prose. The whole passage is much debated — which ruler is which, and how does Nero redivivus figure into the sequence. It’s hard to know if the tenth is the climax, and if so, how the return of Nero figures into it.

  17. Avatar
    ask21771  September 28, 2018

    Is the word slaves in the original Greek text of revelation 18:13

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      Well, no, not really. It’s not hte normal word for slave, DOULOS, but a very strange word (REDWN) that the Roman orator Quintilian claimed was of Celtic origin, and so far as I know it occurs only here in Christian literature (might be wrong about that). It literally refers to a four-wheeled carriage. But that makes no sense in the context, and since it stands in opposition to “the souls of humans” some translators make a guess that it is referring to slaves.

      • Avatar
        Bwana  September 30, 2018

        I think ask21771 is referring to the word SOMA, which sometimes gets translated as “bodies” and sometimes as “slaves”. The “carriages” makes perfect sense in the context since it stands in opposition to “horses”.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 1, 2018

          Ah, my mistake. Boy, I really botched that one. I was going in a hurry and missed it. Yes, the question was indeed about SOMATA. How embarassing. It’s a common word for “body” (or even “corpse”) but so far as I know never unambiguously means “slave.” But since these SOMATA are being “bought” the inference is that they are bodies for sale, i.e. slaves.

  18. Avatar
    donaldswenson1943  September 28, 2018

    I like the book of Daniel as an overview of history. The statute of Neb. reveals all of history until the millennium IMO. A rock at the feet of the statute may mean that the coming Messiah will ‘throw’ this rock and crash the statute. But my interpretation is subjective as only Yahweh knows what and when events will happen. The End times do seem to be arriving, however. This, to me, is obvious. D

  19. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 29, 2018

    …. My thesis is that the lake of fire is a symbolic description not of eternal torment awaiting sinners but of their ultimate annihilation, for all time, with no hope of life ever after…
    What then do you make of this verses.. ◄ Matthew 5:29 ►
    If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell
    Revelation 21:8, Mathew 25:46, 2theselonian 1:9, Mathew 13:50,mathew 13:42, 2peter 2:4… Are they all symbolic?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      I don’t think Matthew has the same view as the book of Revelation on these things. Matthew actually does not refer to “”hell, but to Gehenna, the valley outside of Jerusalem that had been desecrated by child sacrifice. Revelation does not speak of Gehenna.

  20. John4
    John4  September 29, 2018

    I can easily grant, Bart, that much of Revelation is to be taken symbolically. Clearly the beast rising out of the sea and the whore of Babylon refer, interchangeably, to the city and empire of Rome and its rulers. Clearly, the New Jerusalem refers to the unimaginable utopian existence the followers of Jesus will receive in the life to come. It is not, however, clear to me that the lake of fire is a symbolic description the ultimate annihilation of sinners for all time with no hope of life ever after. Rather, it seems to me at least as plausible that the lake of fire is a symbolic description of the eternal torment awaiting sinners.

    In fact, given the parallel to the symbolic description of the unimaginable utopian existence the followers of Jesus will receive in the life to come and given the description of the lake of fire in Revelation 20:10, I’d say that eternal torment for sinners would be the more plausible interpretation.

    True, Revelation 20:14 (“the second death”) might be taken as mitigating against the eternal torment interpretation. Other than Revelation 20:14, Bart, why do you prefer ultimate annihilation to eternal torment as an interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the lake of fire?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      I’ll be explaining in the next couple of posts.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 30, 2018

      It’s possible — maybe even likely — that the author of Revelation thinks the Lake of Fire is a real place, not just a symbol; however, the context of not only the rest of Revelation but of the historical milieu of that time and place suggests that such a Lake of Fire was not a place of eternal torment but of annihilation. That’s what the phrase “second death” refers to. All of those people who are already dead will be resurrected (the dead symbolically rising up from the sea) and those who are judged to be wicked and unrighteous are then thrown into said Lake of Fire for a “second death”. That is, they are resurrected from death and then, as punishment, killed again.

      I think that’s where Bart is going with this. Would I be correct in that assumption, Dr. Ehrman?

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