Naturalism and the 666

I recently had to search and add some instruction to the little I knew about the book of Revelation, thanks to a Protestant who was trying to convert me. I thanked him by trying to convert him in my turn. When the subject of Apocalypse arose, I shared my personal theory about the 666. Unfortunately, I checked it only after our conversation, and it proved a complete anachronism. I feel fairly ridiculous about this, now that I have learned a much better, and real Catholic, interpretation.

My enlightenment came from Naji Mouawad, a Maronite (Lebanese rite) Catholic, interviewed by Father Mitch Pacwa on EWTN (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osODD9qeRLo). Both the guest and the host are remarkable scholars and theologians, and I learned many things in this brief overview.

Mr Mouawad’s biblical lectures, developed over 15 years, are available for purchase on his website, named “Qorbono” (https://www.qorbono.com/). He advises to respect the specific order and begin at the beginning of his 200 talks. The first group of talks, titled “Catholic Foundation” are a pre-requisite to the study of the book of Revelation.

My failed attempt at the interpretation of the 666 symbolism is proof that it is fruitless to examine a detail of the puzzle without referring again and again to the big picture – the “Catholic foundation” – to discover where and how the little piece fits. In the case, I did it the Protestant way, following my own dim light.

Naji Mouawad uses the well-known allusion to the number 666 as the numerical value of letters in the name of Caesar Neron (the count is 666 with the final “n”, without the “n” it equals 616). However, the key to the symbol is to combine the allusion to Nero with a clear biblical passage about another king, Salomon, who collected taxes in disobedience, and raised 666 talents of gold in the year.

Nero is clearly the extreme – though not exactly rare – example of the wicked ungodly ruler, while Salomon’s whole story is a serious warning that the best can fall from grace when they stop listening to God, and oppose their will to the Lord’s commandments. Both followed what the New Testament calls the spirit of the world, and what philosophy and theology call naturalism, to its logical consequences.

Naturalism

Naturalism derives its name from its own definition of nature. It claims the total independence of the natural physical world and the so-called “natural” man from the supernatural. This line of thought is at least implicitly present in all philosophies or worldviews that (1) deny the existence of a supernatural element in human life and the cosmos (atheism), or (2) declare that the supernatural may exist but is unknowable (agnosticism), or (3) consider that the supernatural, faith or Revelation should have no bearing in human affairs, including moral affairs. Naturalistic ideas are usually advanced in the name of “humanism” and liberty.

Ironically, naturalism is contradictory to real “natural” philosophy, religion and morality, since it does not acknowledge human nature and the order of the universe in their entirety. Openness to the supernatural, and the desire for it, are ingrained in man’s immortal soul, necessarily giving him some grasping of the existence of the One God, and a definite conscience of the absolute moral obligation: “do good and avoid evil”. Naturalism is then a reductionist worldview, a deformed humanism.

Naturalism does not always immediately entail moral subjectivism and relativism, and a sinful life, but it certainly opens the door to self-indulgence and a fading notion of moral obligation and retribution. Over time, it brought the originally monotheistic ancient religions toward idolatry and immoral practices such as cult prostitution and human sacrifice. Modern idolatries, religious or not, follow the same course.

Pagan and non-Christian religions, quasi-religions (e.g. militant socialism), agnostic and atheist worldviews, Enlightenment notably, are fundamentally naturalistic. Indifferent nominal Catholics, as well as those who are superstitious or heretical, are naturalistic: they ignore or will not conform their life to many important doctrines and morals. Jewish and Christian heretic worldviews, except for the very serious and morally upright practicing believers, also fall largely under the category of naturalism, because their understanding of Revelation is truncated. Americanism is another example of naturalism, a mix of Protestantism and Enlightenment.

Naturalism in Apocalypse

Mr Mouawad remarks that, in Genesis, the 6th day is the representation of the natural world, the creation. The 7th day represents our relationship with the supernatural reality, through the worship we owe to God. We owe love and obedience to God not only on the Lord’s day and on occasion, but in all our life: we are called to holiness. People who rebel against this obligation live by a naturalistic view of existence. Symbolically, they cling to the 6th day and refuse to step in the 7th day. Or worse, if they were once pious people, they fall back in the 6th day when they willfully fail to obey God and do what is right.

Repeating the number 6 three times is the usual way of expressing the superlative in the Old Testament, because Hebrew does not have comparative or superlative forms or words. For example, God is said to be Holy, Holy, Holy, meaning Holiest; the “better” is referred to as “good, good”; and the “best” is “good, good, good”. The 666, applying a reference to the “spirit of the world” in the Old Testament, thus represents people utterly dedicated to the fallen world.

In their life, such people may remain for a time vague believers with some conscience of the good. However, experience tells us the final consequence is the rejection of God to the point of hating Christians, especially the children of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, the Beast – the leaders sold to the spirit of this world – and its servants lend hands to the great Dragon to persecute and try to “swallow” the faithful, that is, to make them fall on their side or to wipe them out.

Sacramental action

The opposite of naturalism is the sacramental understanding of the world. The whole vision of Apocalypse is sacramental. It takes place on a Sunday, the day of worship, and all the action is tied to the eternal Eucharistic liturgy in heaven, the source of all grace.

Grace comes to us exclusively through the real sacrifice, and the real flesh and blood of the Lamb of God. The “memorial” is not indeed a mere memory, a merely symbolic action, because Christ’s sacrifice, accomplished once and for all in time by an eternal being, is an eternal event. Thus the heavenly liturgy is always present whenever the Eucharist is celebrated. The Eucharist does not however bring the heavenly liturgy to us, but rather takes us out of the natural time (chronos) and places us in the sacred time (kairos),1 in order to make us present to the heavenly liturgy. This is the real meaning of “memorial” (anamnesis in Greek), understood in the light of its Old Testament origin, the Hebrew word “zikkaron”, the memorial of the Passover.

Events of the natural world are fully understandable only through the sacramental economy and the Church’s teachings. In the book of Apocalypse, the task of explaining present events and warning the Christian community of things to come is given to the Apostle John, an appointed patriarch and bishop. The bishop, episkopos in Greek, is literally an appointed (=ordained) overseer, a man “sacramentally” responsible to keep the faith pure in the churches under his authority. “Sacramentally” also means acting in the person of Christ.

The liturgical action, since it takes place in eternity, encompasses the whole world and all times. Then, as is usually the case for the number seven, the seven churches represent the totality of the Church, and the message addressed to them is destined to the universal Church for all times. This also explains why bishops are logically required to appoint official successors to hand on Revelation and give the Body and Blood of Christ to the visible Church, so that Christ will remain present in her till the end of times.

A book of hope

A friend once told me that she understood next to nothing to the book of Revelation, like almost everybody, but that each time she read from it, it gave her a surge of cheerful hope.

The final purpose of the whole history of salvation, rounded up in the final book of the Bible, is indeed a joyous thing. The announced chastisements and trials are not meant to cause fear and anguish, they are meant to bring Christians to wake up and convert, and cease to be lukewarm like Laodiceans. We already know how the story ends, and that our personal outcome in eternity is of our own choosing.

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  1. Natural time (chronos), sacred time (kairos): cf. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane.
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