The field of numerology goes back at least as far as the Greek mathematician and mystic, Pythagoras, who thought he saw whole numbers (also called integers) in every aspect of creation.
"Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen" [Gilbert and Sullivan, HMS Pinafore, Act II, finale.]
On Sunday, May 22, 2011, the day after the rapture predicted by Mr. Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, those of us who were aware of his claims may have woken up to a new day and thought, "Ah. Yet another end-of-the-world averted." Mr. Camping's presumption reminds me of Deut 18:19-22 (at last Sunday's Mass at Immaculate Conception, it also put me in mind of a computer, named Ziggy, and an assistant, named Al, in the science/fantasy comedy/adventure TV series "Quantum Leap," about time travel via the transmigration of souls — "Ziggy says there's at least a 95% probability that the world will not end yesterday.").
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name
which I have not commanded him to speak,
or who speaks in the name of other gods,
that same prophet shall die.
And if you say in your heart,
"How may we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?" --
when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD,
if the word does not come to pass or come true,
that is a word which the LORD has not spoken;
the prophet has spoken it presumptuously,
you need not be afraid of him.
These lines, attributed to Moses on behalf of God, predict that such a prophet will die. Mr. Camping, in the strictest sense, does not claim to be a prophet of God. His claims are based upon his understanding of scripture and what little facility he has with numbers and whatever authority he may have acquired as a numerologist.
Moses does not say when such a false prophet will die, and it's not clear whether the prediction is intended to be a threat of rapidly approaching doom or a reminder of ultimate mortality. Mr. Camping, who was born in 1921, is not expected to live well beyond the year 2021. Given his history, I suppose it's inevitable he'll continue to scare people with his numerologically based prognostications. It may even be he'll continue to grow rich by it. May the Lord have mercy on his poor benighted soul and on the souls of the people he manages to lead astray.
I don't blame him for finding the Book of Revelation a fascinating read. I even have a numerological theory of my own. It's only a theory, however, and need not be taken seriously by anyone. It's not about when the end of the world will come. It's about the number of the beast, 666. [As to that, some biblical scholars claim the actual number of the beast, as recorded in the ancient texts, is 616, not 666. Not being a scholar of ancient texts, I have no comment on this claim, other than to say it makes a mockery of my poor little theory.] See Revelation 13.
Here's my theory. The beast pretends to be the great anointed one, although, at most, he or she is anointed by Satan. John tells us "the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear's, and its mouth was like a lion's mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority." These characteristics are intended to be a mockery of Jesus. The reference to animal characteristics may be a reflection of cultural origins (like the fact that the Church springs from Judaic, Greek and Roman origins). The animals may also be reflections of attributes of the beast's authority. (Most people associate the lion and the bear with England and Russia, while one popular interpretation of the leopard or panther — depending on how you translate the Greek, here — is Nazi Germany. These interpretations, however, beg the question of their relevance.)
Jesus has three offices: priest, prophet and king. It seems to me that the number 666 says something about the pretensions of the beast to such offices. Instead of the divine 777, however, the number 666 is a commentary on how the beast's pretensions fall short of the divine. The comparison between 6 and 7 goes back to the story of creation in Genesis. According to that account, God took 6 days to create the material universe. On the 7th day, he rested. You could say, then, that the number 6 represents secular reality, while 7 represents divine reality. We live in secular reality most of the time and appeal to God for what we lack in this life. The beast makes no such appeal. On the contrary, the beast is satisfied to base his claims on his supposed mastery of material reality. You could say he's the ultimate secularist.
So what is a pretend priest, prophet and king in this secularist sense? A pretend priest is someone who leads others to worship scientific authority and to reject faith in God, and who does so with something like religious zeal. An example would be someone like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. A pretend prophet is someone who makes claims about the present or the future based upon what he or she says is scientific authority, while doing so with something approaching a religious sense of conviction. An example would be someone like former Vice President Al Gore, Jr. A pretend king can be someone who leads others to accept a regime like scientific socialism or other such collective or elitist schemes (or perhaps a pure cult of personality, like Jim Jones, though Mr. Jones doesn't fit the secularist profile) and who does so with something akin to a religious sense of calling. An example might be someone like Julian Huxley or George Soros. Al Gore could fit here, too.
The beast will be somebody who combines all three enthusiasms in one individual. Unfortunately, there are lots of such people. The beast will therefore have to be someone who reflects these enthusiasms in an unprecedented degree and who therefore manages to lead most of the world astray. Examples abound in literature and the fine arts. (Consider, for example, Startrek, the Wrath of Kahn, or the emperor in Star Wars.)
As for the animals, lion, bear and leopard, the following is one possible interpretation:
- The lion, connecting historically with England, is associated with the priestly office, since King Henry VIII put his authority above that of the Pope.
- The bear, connecting historically with Russia, is associated with the prophetic office, since Marxist/Leninism makes predictions about the march of history based on Hegel's theory of historical determinism.
- The leopard or panther, connecting historically with Nazi Germany, took the cult of the Fuhrer to a new, unprecedented level. As such, it corresponds to the kingly office.
The fact that the body of the beast is like a leopard suggests, according to this interpretation, that its essence is absolute, unquestioned authority and rule. The fact that its feet are those of a bear suggests that it gains traction through it predictions and also perhaps through the unstoppable character of its machinations. The fact that its mouth is that of a lion suggest that its mouthpieces, e.g. the world's news media, play up its authority and that this effort is dominated by the English-speaking media.
Now, we might ask "then what is the mark of the beast all about?" In this theory, accepting the mark of the beast means accepting the following:
- Scientific authority is supreme, and supersedes all religious authority. Scientists are the new priests.
- Every aspect of life must be optimized according to so-called scientific principles. This amounts to a combination of eugenics, euthanasia, artificial contraception and conception, embryo-destructive research, government mandated preventive health care and a host of other abominations that replace individual responsibility with government control according to a crass philosophy of scientific materialism. Thus, science is the last word — the alpha and the omega.
- All control, including economic, political, military, etc. is best left to a hierarchy of elites, with the beast at the pinnacle of control. All true scientists are government approved. All others are heretics.
Anybody who rejects one or more of these principles is regarded as an enemy of the beast and is cast out of its unholy communion, or worse.
As I said, this is a personal theory. It may or may not approximate the intention of the author of Revelation. It has no weight of authority behind it. At worst, it's a waste of time and an entirely unnecessary source of anxiety in an already anxiety-saturated world. At best, it's something to ponder as we meditate on the end of the world and/or where the world seems to be heading currently.
My hope is that it may help the reader to reflect on what he or she truly believes, and where his or her values come from. I believe that is the intent of Revelation, chapter 13.
I also think this view of the contest between Jesus and the beast may help us to interpret the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, where he prayed and fasted for 40 days and 40 nights following his baptism by John and the epiphany of Jesus' divine sonship. For reference, see Matthew 4:1-11, RSV.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.
And the tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, `He will give his angels charge of you,' and `On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, `You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! for it is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.
It should be obvious that the third temptation, a shortcut to universal kingship through "receiving" the "kingship" from Satan, is an attempt by Satan to undermine Jesus' own claim to being the King of Kings. It is precisely because of this that Jesus told Pilot "My kingdom is not of this world," by which he meant that his kingship cannot, must not and does not derive from the powers of this world.
Perhaps less obviously, the first temptation can be seen as an attack the basis of Jesus' claim to priesthood. The basis of Jesus' miracles consisted in his command, in his human nature, of the power of the Holy Spirit, and this, of course, derived from his being the Word of God Incarnate. The essence of priesthood can be seen as invoking the power of the Holy Spirit on behalf of sacramental duty, and changing stones into bread to satisfy hunger can be seen as making a mockery of the Eucharist.
The second temptation is to presume upon his relationship to the Father on the basis of what so many Protestants commonly do today, taking scripture, especially scriptural promises, out of context. This can be seen as an attempt by Satan to undermine Jesus' claim to being a prophet.
Thus, it seems clear that at the very beginning of Jesus' ministerial life, Satan was there attempting to undermine his priesthood, prophetic office and kingship. If, then, Satan saw these attacks as fundamental to undermining the redemption of Christ, then surely the beast, his final attempt at this work, is undoubtedly going to be yet another attack on the three-fold offices, the munus triplex, of Christ. In fact, the aim of Satan in raising the beast seems clear:
- To raise a "mock incarnation" of himself (a true incarnation being an impossibility for him; the most Satan could do is possess the soul of a willing human accomplice and endow such a human with his preternatural power). Although it is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, it is not so in this case. On the contrary, Satan wishes only to mock God and demean humanity.
- To further the charade, Satan endows the beast with secularized versions of the munus triplex of Jesus. This is an attempt at a three-fold mockery of God.
- John, I suspect, identifies the nature of this mockery with the unusually compact symbolism of the number 666, which he calls the mark of the beast.