|Today is a day to make people crazy; no doubt across the country Christian fundamentalists are anxiously worrying about world government, the U.N., UPC symbols tattooed or microchipped into our hands, and other impending signs of the Apocalypse, the Rapture, the Millenium of Christ's reign on earth, and the end of time. The number 666 is, of course, the number of the beast: "Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six" (Rev 13:18). Contemporary evangelicals differ on what exactly this "number of the beast" that is "the number of a man" means. How will his number be evidenced? I recall as a child learning that this really indicated Caesar somehow to the early Christians (through some sort of gamatrian numerology). I'm not sure how it manifests in the Left Behind series, because I haven't read them (yet--it's on my reading list). But I think most argue that "the mark or number of the beast will be a financial identification system that the Antichrist will establish during the tribulation. He will use the mark as a tool for controlling all aspects of society. The Antichrist will make it compulsory for everyone to have a tiny microchip implanted under the skin of the right hand or on the forehead."|
In the Renaissance, too, that number mattered, but in a different way. Contemporary evangelical Protestants tend to believe that we are living in the pretribulation period--that is, they believe the period of Antichrist's reign on earth has not yet arrived (though the signs of its impending arrival are everywhere)--and that the tribulation will be preceded (or in some versions, interrupted) by the Rapture, when all of the elect are swept up into heaven directly; the tribulation period will finally be ended by Christ's millenial reign on earth. You can learn all about it at the website Rapture Ready (yes, it's designed to help you be "Rapture ready"). So the number of the beast manifests itself at some point in the (not too distant) future, but fortunately for most evangelicals, they believe they won't be around to see it. The rest of us will have to implant that 666 number in our hands or forehands if we want to go to the local supermarket ("And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name" [Rev 13:16-17]).
Early modern English Protestants, on the other hand, tended to think they were living during the tribulation time itself, that the Beast/Antichrist had already begun his reign, and that they knew where he lived (hint: somewhere near the Tiber river). The number 666 had numerous interpretations; here's the address to the reader of George Abbot's A treatise of the perpetuall visibilitie, and succession of the true church in all ages (1624; STC 39):
Now, of all truth this day in controuersie, there is none more sought after by some, than the visibility of the true Church, which retained the purity of the Apostles doctrine, vnmixed with dregs of errour and superstition, especially in the gloomy and dark Ages before Luther. As for higher times, and neerer the Apostles, such was the clarity and splendour of the pure Church, that in a manner it obscured the Sun. But, in succeeding and degenerating times, after the number of the name of the Beast, 666, it began much to be obscured and clouded with ignorance and superstition: and in the thousandth yeer, in which, Satan was let loose, and much more after, euen till the happy reformation in these later Ages, it was so eclipsed, especially in the Western Parts of the world, that some confidently affirm, it was quite extinct. The Woman, clothed with the Sun, hauing the Moon vnder her feet, was now fled into the Wildernesse, and had but a fewe Stars to discouer her. By the conduct and lustre wherof, yet many Wise-men follow'd her obscure track, and found her. Among whom, the most reuerend, religious, learned, and painfull Authour of this enfuing Treatise, concerning The Visibility andSuccession of the true Church, deserueth to bee named in the first rank; who hath more particularly and perspicuously trauelled in this Argument, than any in our English Tongue.Abbot goes on to prove that the true church was always present in England--even if fled like the woman into the wilderness--by quoting Wycliffe, Chaucer, and others, to show that they always believed such tenets as:
that The Pope is Antichrist; that Nothing is to be beleeued, but what may bee confirmed out of the Scriptures; that The Pope is the Idoll of desolation, sitting in the Temple of God; that Antichrist is not to come of the Tribe of Dan, neither onely to raigne three yeeres and a halfe: that The Citie Apoc. 17, is Rome; that Our Iustification is freely by faith alone; that The doctrine of the Pope differeth from that of Christ; that Miracles are no assurance of truth; that Men are not rashly to bee reputed Saints; that The Pope hath not power beyond other Bishops, neither is the Head of the Church; that Papists mistake the keys of binding & loosing; that Infants dying before Baptisme, are not therefore damned; that Auricular Confession is not prescribed in the Scripture; that The Canon Lawe is ill grounded; that The Pope deceiueth men in his pardons; that Absolution is to be sought at the hands of God onely; that The Priests vse vaine prayers in the Masses; that Exorcismes and holy water are vnlawfull; that Priests doe sinne, who bargaine to sing for the soules of men departed; that Religious men and women are deuourers of widowes houses; that Selling of orders and dirges is naught; that The Pope is the beast with the two hornes like the Lamb, while he challengeth the double sword; that He seeketh to bee worshipped as God; that Dux Cleri ["leader of priests"] doth make vp the number 666; that Worshipping of Images is idolatry; that Temporall goods may be taken from the Clergie offending.(This comes [Abbot tells us] from the declarations of the Wycliffite Walter Brute, 1393.)
So in this book alone we have a couple different interpretations of the number of the Beast. In the address to the reader, apparently written by the book's publisher Robert Milbourne, the number refers to the year 666 A.D., when the Antichrist's reign began--in this year the Church of Rome became infected by the Antichrist, although his takeover was not complete until the year 1000.
In Abbot's approving quotation, he engages in a typical bit of gamatria to establish that the Pope's claim to be the leader of all clergy is the mark of the Beast. These numerological calculations were quite prevalent in the early modern period, just as in ours, so much so that a later writer, Nathaniel Stephens, who himself set out to understand 666 in his Plain and easie calculation of the name, mark, and number of the name of the beast (1656; Wing S5450), felt it necessary to debunk them: "if men will peruse the Greek and Hebrew Lexicons, they shall find many words, which either severally, or joyntly, will make 666, by the calculation of the Numeral Letters. Now, what certainty is in all this?"
Interestingly, Stephens disparages those who believe that "about the 666th year from the birth of the Lord, the Universal Headship of the Bishop of Rome was set up," because "though this be true in some latitude of speech, yet it cannot be the meaning of the Text. For what knowledge had the people that lived in the days of Iohn, and in the ages immediately following, of the account by the year of the Lord? Why should not the Christians that lived in Spain, finde out the Number by the Spanish Aera? The Christians in Aegypt and Africa, by the Aera of Dioclesian? And the Christians under the Emperors of Constantinople, by the Indictions? These, and many other ways of account, were anciently used." A rather surprising bit of humanist-style historical contextualization.
Instead, Stephens dates the coming of Antichrist to 666 years after the founding of Rome as the fourth monarchy mentioned in Daniel, to be followed only by the Fifth Monarchy or Christ's reign on earth:
if you reckon from the final Conclusion of all the four persecuting Empires, and from the beginning of the Roman, as that Nation did succeed in the Rule over the Church, there will be an exact period of 666 years to the setting up of the Name or Universal Headship of the Bishop of Rome.To work out this calculation, however, Stephens has to date the founding of the Roman "fourth monarchy" not to the mythical founding of Rome in 753 B.C., nor to "the time of Julius, or Augustus Caesar, or from any other vulgar Beginning; but precisely from that instant, when the Church of God came under the Dominion of the Romans, 60 years before the Birth of the Lord, and 666 before the going forth of the Decree, That the Bishop of Rome should be Head over all the Churches." Through this bit of dextrous dating, Stephens is able to make the coming of the Antichrist begin in the year 606 A.D., when "the Decree was Enacted, That the Bishop of Rome should be Head over all Churches; which Dignity the whole Succession have enjoyed now above this 1000 years."
One problem with this calculation is that if one believed that Christ's second coming would occur after 1000 years of the Antichrist's reign, then that time had already passed. An advantage for early moderns of dating the rise of the Beast to 666 A.D. is that the second coming might be nicely dated to 1666, still in the future.
What all of these early modern theories of 666 have in common, though, and what distinguishes them crucially from the versions of our contemporary evangelicals, is that the Antichrist has already begun his reign. While early moderns believed that they, too, were living in the End Times, they also believed, unlike all those readers of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, that they were contemporaneous with the Antichrist. This difference totally changes the vision of the Rapture, that crucial emergency-exit for contemporary evangelicals. James Durham, in his Commentarie upon the book of the Revelation (1658; Wing D2805), was very clear that the elect had already been taken up into heaven. For him, the "the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth" (Rev. 14:3) signified "the same hour when the witnesses are taken up to heaven immediately after Antichrists absolute domineering ... and so must contemporate with the breaking forth of Reformation and its establishment in the Empire." In other words, at the Reformation, the elect were saved from the Antichrist's reign, metaphorically "taken up to heaven," and this had already occurred, of course. Therefore, Durham concluded
that Antichrist is come and not to come, seing the sixth head is wounded, the woman hath fled and her children taken up to Heaven: which was after her freedom from Heathen persecution. Beside, either the Church hath been this long time, put under the Dragon, or floud, or this Antichrist; but not under the former two. Therefore this time past hath been antichristian, seing there is no intervall between these conditions of the Church. Again, if all these characters be fulfilled, Then Antichrist must be already come ...Our contemporaries who are "Rapture ready" turn to a verse not from Revelations for their understanding of the Rapture: "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:17). I haven't seen early modern English Protestants use this verse; instead, Durham uses the verses from Revelations 14 about the 144,000 who have the "Father's name written in their foreheads" (Rev 14:1) to show that some have already been saved. For contemporary evangelicals, these verses from Revelations 14 instead refer to those who can still be saved even after the Rapture and the beginning of the Great Tribulation. We have one last chance to give up the Antichrist and his number 666 (remember, it's microchipped into our hands and foreheads) and instead to write the Father's name on our foreheads.
I do think this makes a big difference. Are we already living under the Antichrist, and have the witnesses of Revelations already been saved and (metaphorically) taken up into heaven? Or will the elect be (quite literally) taken up into heaven in the Rapture, inaugurating the tribulation and the reign of Antichrist? Both early moderns and moderns believe they are living in the end times. But the early modern view led them to believe that they were right then, at that moment, playing a crucial role in the cosmic struggle between the Father and the Beast, and that they might well live to see Christ's second coming and his reign on earth. The modern view leads many evangelicals to believe that the end times are near, the signs are all around them, but that the only role they have to play is, as Milton said in another context, to stand and wait ... for the Rapture to sweep them up into the clouds and out of this (temporarily) God-forsaken world. Rapture narratives are filled with images of planes falling out of the sky as their pilots are swept up bodily to heaven; or buses careening out of control; or even (rather chillingly) of family members who have been left behind reading letters from their Raptured loved ones. In fact, an internet business called The Post-Rapture Post (sounds like something out of Harry Potter) will hand-deliver your letter to your family for a small fee of $4.99, though they do offer a deluxe package for $799.99 ("But you must be thinking to yourself, 'How can the letters be delivered after the Rapture?' The answer is simple. The creators of this site are Atheists. That's right, we don't believe in God. How else would we be able to deliver your correspondence after the Rapture?")
Both versions are profoundly scary to me, but I think I prefer the early modern one. At least people felt the need to do something, rather than just sitting around waiting with a smug look on their face and pitiful glances and heartfelt letters for the rest of us who will be left behind. Then again, what the early moderns felt compelled to do was go off and kill each other in the Thirty Years War and other conflicts, so maybe I should reconsider. But then again, again, our contemporary evangelicals aren't really just waiting--as their own eschatalogy should lead them to do; after all, what do they care what happens here since they'll be swept up on the Rapture Express? Instead, they are actively trying to bring about the Rapture, frantically searching through Revelations for prophecies they can help to fulfill, and trying to convince Republicans to implement these prophetic requirements into our domestic and foreign policy.
All in all, I prefer the view generally held by the Church of Rome in the early modern period, and of course by many in early modern England as well. When confronted with the opaque and florid language of Revelations, hold tight to Matthew 25:13:
"ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh."