"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." (Revelation 13:16-18, New Revised Standard
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The number 666 -- the "number of the beast,"
according to the Book of Revelation -- conjures devilish images for
many, so forecasts of evil, even doom, are rampant regarding dates
or places where the number occurs, including next Tuesday, June 6,
Fears of 666, long believed to be the dreaded mark of Satan, are
based on a "widespread misinterpretation" of the chapter in
Revelation -- appropriately, chapter 13 -- in which the number is
discussed, according to a University at Buffalo expert on the
origins, nature and meaning of cults, superstitions and cultural
Phillips Stevens, Jr., Ph.D., associate professor of
anthropology, explains that "like most superstitions, the avoidance
of the numbers 13 and 666 are examples of magical thinking.
"People everywhere believe that things associated with other
things, through actual contact or just some similarity, have causal
relationships, even over space and time," Stevens says. "Things
associated with good events or great people can bring good fortune;
things associated with failure, disastrous events or evil people
carry some of that negativity with them."
And, like many superstitions, the one regarding 666 is based on
incorrect data: the "beast" referred to in the chapter is not
Satan, but, in fact, several other entities.
"Revelation is a complex and confusing book, and is rarely read
closely by lay people. Biblical scholars have pointed out that
there are several 'beasts,' in Chapter 13 and elsewhere, and they
all refer variously to Rome, Roman emperors and Roman cults of god-
and emperor-worship," Stevens says.
"Revelation" author, John of Patmos, traditionally believed to
be St. John the Apostle, was writing to other persecuted Christians
in code, according to Stevens, so "many of the strange elements in
'Revelation' signify events, people or institutions familiar to
"The mark of the beast, 666, signifies those in thrall to the
emperor and thus opposed to Christianity, and is most probably the
numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters for Nero," Stevens
The First and Second Letters of John use the term "Antichrist"
to denote lapsed Christians. Over subsequent centuries, the legend
developed that the "end times" would be foreshadowed by the arrival
of the Antichrist, an evil figure commissioned by Satan to prepare
the world for his coming.
"Many perceived enemies of Christianity have been labeled the
Antichrist, and Nero was one of the first," Stevens says, adding
that there is an ever-growing, ever-changing list of persons
considered the Antichrist that features "a long string of mostly
historical figures -- Saladin was on the list, as was Hitler, and
Saddam Hussein. The list varies according to who compiles it.
Early Reformation-era Protestants had some popes on their
Chapter 13 in Revelation declares that the Antichrist was
empowered by Satan, who is described as a dragon.
"So, although 'the beast' is not Satan, in Christian tradition
'the mark of the beast' was authorized by Satan," Stevens says.
"And so, like that other Christian superstition, Friday the 13th --
from the Last Supper, where there were 13 people at the table, and
the Crucifixion occurred the next day, a Friday -- 666 has become a
strong taboo, avoided because of its negative association."
Generations have shunned the number to the point that it is
erased or changed if and when it appears, Stevens notes.
Authorities have re-numbered various U.S. highways previously
numbered 666, and the town of Bel Air, Calif., changed the 666
street number of the house that President Ronald Reagan purchased
upon leaving Washington, D.C.
Beyond mere superstition, many others believe conspiracy
theories that have cropped up regarding the number 666, Stevens
"They believe the sinister number 666 is encoded in our nation's
banking system, in our medical and governmental records, and in our
very identity, in personal documents and in UPC bar codes -- this
latter is evidence of the fulfillment of Revelation prophecy," he
No surprise, then, that someone has found a way to make money
off all these fears: coming soon is a remake of the 1976 horror
film, "The Omen," the story of a modern-day birth of an Antichrist
figure in the form of an evil boy named Damien (the original
starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick). Producers have scheduled the
movie's release date for -- when else? -- next Tuesday, June 6,
Perhaps tickets should be sold for $6.66?