With the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis speculations abound not only among various Christian denominations but also among a number of Adventist church members. When elected, pope Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio adopted a new papal name that has not been used in the past. The last time this happened was with John Paul I, and even this was an exception after more than a millennium in which no new papal names had been taken on. The new pope will be called Francis, not Francis I. Only if a later pope would choose the same name, would he be renamed Francis I. The internet is full of articles and discussions about papal names. In addition, the new pope is the first Jesuit on the papal throne. Jesuits were instrumental in launching the counter-reformation and developed both preterism and futurism. Their relation to the papacy was of such a nature that at times they were the pope’s most faithful followers and elite army and at times they were suppressed. All this contributes to extensive speculations, fears, and certain expectations, including the claim that Christ’s second coming must happen during the reign of the present pope.
THEORIES ABOUT POPES AND THE NUMBER 666
Theories of individuals such as F. S. Fowler, Jr. and Ralph Myers have caused discomfort among Adventists in the past. They may continue to raise a number of questions.
Franklin S. Fowler Jr., a medical doctor who publishes the journal EndTime Issues . . . and maintains his own ministry, called “Prophecy Research Initiative,” suggested in 1999 that the seven heads of the beast in Revelation 17, on which the harlot Babylon sits, are not major political or religious-political powers from the past to the present but popes that have ruled since 1929. He proposed that the five heads that are fallen are Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I.1 In his opinion, the “one who is” represents John Paul II. The eighth is the papacy, but so is the beast.2 “The woman (the Catholic Church), the beast (the papacy, the Holy See, the Vatican state) and the heads (the popes, leaders of the Holy See) are all next to each other.”3 But Fowler suggests also that the eighth is Satan. Protestantism supposedly represents the ten horns consisting of “orthodox churches [!], Evangelicals (including Assemblies, Pentecostals, Four-Square), Episcopal/Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Christian Reform, Jehovah’s Witnesses [!], Church of the Nazarene [!].”4
Ralph Myers went further. He developed a specific interpretation of 666, while Pope John Paul II was still alive. For him the heads of the scarlet beast were names of popes. The number 666 is related to the seven heads of Revelation 17. Since 1798 seven papal names have been used, namely Pius, Leo, Gregory, Benedict, John, Paul, and John Paul. During the history of the church these papal names occurred as follows: Pius twelve times, Leo thirteen times, Gregory sixteen times, Benedict supposedly fourteen times,5 John supposedly twenty-one times,6 Paul six times, and John Paul twice. Myers had to make some adjustments and occasionally deviated from the official counting of the Catholic Church because at times more than one pope was reigning. The one who was not considered legitimately elected, even if he had a considerable following of cardinals, was an antipope. By adding the numbers he came up with the number 665. Therefore, he insisted that one more pope would come, the eighth, taking a completely new name so that 666 would be reached. Then the end would come. In case the new pope would choose a previously taken name, he would be an antipope that would be disposed soon. After Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict and Myers’ initial fulfillment of his prophecy failed, the exception provided by him kicked in. So later he wrote: “Joseph Ratzinger, AKA Benedict XVI (XV) will be deposed, and attacked by an angry mob in the Vatican courtyard and trampled to death. I have no idea when this will happen. It was in the vision.”7
This part of his prediction has not yet been fulfilled, and its fulfillment is more or less irrelevant because Benedict XVI has retired as reigning pope. However, interestingly enough the new pope, following Benedict XVI took on a new name, and people may believe that basically Myers is right, or they may develop their own system, similar to his. One website contains the following chart:
Head Name................. Number ....................... Count
1 Pius XII.......................... (12) ............................... 78
2 Leo XIII.......................... (13) ............................... 91
3 Gregory XVI .................. (16) ............................. 136
4 Benedict XIV ................. (14) ............................. 105
5 John XXI........................ (21) ............................. 231
6 Paul VI............................ (6)................................. 21
7 John Paul II..................... (2).................................. 3
Antipope..................... Benedict XVI.......................... 0
8 Antichrist.................. New Name..(1)...................... 1
Total ...................................................................... 666 8
Other websites already claim that with Pope Francis the number 666 has been fulfilled, following the same or a similar system of counting papal names.
ASSUMPTIONS AND THEIR EVALUATION
However, such a method of calculation rests on the following assumptions that have not been proven or even discussed in a reasonable way:
First Assumption: The sea beast and the scarlet beast are the same beast. R. Myers’ and his followers’ entire argument collapses if it cannot be shown that the two beasts are identical. That the two beasts are identical may be so or not. But at this point it is enough to point out that it is a mere assumption—far from being proven—that sea beast and scarlet beast describe the same power. Other proposals by Adventist scholars exist that would not equate the two beasts.9 In any case, Seventh-day Adventists have maintained that the sea beast of Revelation 13:1 is the same entity as the little horn power of Daniel 7 and represents papal Rome. It has been suggested that the scarlet beast, which does not come out of the sea but out of the abyss, may represent Satan, using political powers to support end time Babylon. When the Church has not made a definite decision and Scripture is being interpreted differently within Adventism, we have to be tentative with our conclusions.
Second Assumption: The interpretation of the number 666 depends on the understanding of the heads of the scarlet beast in Revelation 17 of which “five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come” (Rev 17:10), and then there is an eighth. The number 666 (Rev 13:18) needs to be interpreted in its immediate context of Revelation 13. Connecting it with the heads of the scarlet beast is not suggested by the text of Revelation. However, it is evident that the number 666 is the number of the sea beast (Rev 15:2).10 Beale states: “The discussion so far points to understanding the number of the beast collectively rather than as a reference to an individual Antichrist figure.”11 This is what Adventists have held and still maintain. From this perspective, the excitement about an individual pope is not very productive.
Third Assumption: The seven heads of Revelation 17 are related to popes and papal names. The seven heads should be found in history and not only in the end time because the beast does not only exist in the last time of earth’s history. Interestingly, the heads are not involved in the defeat of harlot Babylon. Those that have been in alliance with Babylon and will turn against her are the scarlet beast and its horns (Rev 17:12–14). The heads are also called mountains and kings (Rev 17:9, 10). In biblical prophecy, especially apocalyptic prophecy, mountains stand for kingdoms not for individual rulers or ecclesiastical leaders. The mountain in Daniel 2:35 represents the everlasting kingdom of God (Dan 2:44, 45). According to Jeremiah 51:25, the Neo-Babylon Empire of the 6th century B.C. was a “destroying mountain.” Likewise the kings have to be understood as kingdoms. The four kings mentioned in Daniel 7:17 are not individual rulers but kingdoms (Dan 7:23). Although in Daniel 2:37, 38 king Nebuchadnezzar is identified with the golden head, the next metal of the image is identified with a kingdom (Dan 2:39) which suggests that verses 37–39 do not refer to Nebuchadnezzar’s kingship only but to the Babylonian kingdom. Nothing indicates that the heads have to be understood as individual popes or even papal names. They rather stand for empires such as Egypt, Medo-Persia, Greece, etc.12 Even the description of 666 as a number of “man” in Revelation 13:18 does not necessarily refer to an individual. “An important parallel is Rev 21:17, . . . where ἀνθρώπου [a human person, humanity] is clearly used generically.”13
Fourth Assumption: The seven papal names have to be counted from 1798 onward. Although we find a reference to the activity of the sea beast until 1798 14 and in conjunction with the healing of the deadly wound (Rev 13:3),15 there is no indication that the number 666 will be fulfilled only during the last pope and does not already point to the beast during its existence over the centuries (Rev 13:18). The time period is neither mentioned in chapter 17 nor does it seem to be implied there.
Fifth Assumption: Although only those papal names are important that were used since 1798, nevertheless their usage has to be traced back through the centuries of church history to the first popes. This assumption sounds strange and lacks any rationale. If one would start counting papal names from A.D. 1798, why would one include the centuries before while eliminating other papal names used in these centuries? Such a method is not derived from Scripture but seems to be superimposed on it.
Sixth Assumption: The number of the usage of respective papal names through history has to be determined by addition (for Pius 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12=78 because so far there were 12 popes with the name Pius in church history16), and the numbers of all papal names have to be added again in order to reach 666. Nothing in the biblical text warrants such an approach. It seems completely arbitrary. There is not even a biblical precedent in Scripture for using such a method. To employ it would introduce a method that is foreign to Scripture and rests on pure speculation. If one would think—against what we have already spelled out above—that the twelve times that the name Pius appears are important, why not count just the number twelve without using such a strange way of addition? And why choose addition at all? Why not decide, for instance, to multiply the numbers?
Seventh Assumption: The completion of the number 666 points to the imminent return of Jesus. That would mean: Jesus will return during the lifetime of the present pope. Revelation 13:18 is not directly associated with Christ’s coming and not at all with date setting. Although individual church members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have set dates for the second advent, the Church itself has not accepted either hard, fixed dates or even soft (i.e. less precise) dates for Jesus’ second coming. While Adventists count on Jesus to come soon and hope that this generation will be the final generation, we avoid time setting in any form. Scripture is clearly opposed to time setting with regard to Christ’s second coming. (Matt 24:36, 42, 44). Some would argue that the Gospels are only opposed to calculating the day and hour but not larger periods but even this is mistaken. Blomberg states well: “‘Day’ and ‘hour’ are regularly used throughout Scripture for ‘time’ in general, not just twenty-four-hour or sixty-minute periods (Matt 10:19). ‘Day’ especially reflects the Old Testament ‘Day of the Lord’ (cf. esp. throughout Zephaniah) as a stock phrase for the end of the age (cf. Matthew’s ‘day of judgment’ in 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36; and cf. also Rom 10:21; 1 Cor 4:5; 2 Cor 3:14; Eph 6:13). Matthew 24:42–44 will use ‘day,’ ‘time of night’ (watch), and ‘hour’ interchangeably. ‘Day’ and ‘hour’ appear in synonymous parallelism in v. 50. Hence, Christians who claim they can narrow down the time of Christ’s return to a generation or a year or even a few days’ period, while still not knowing the literal day or hour, remain singularly ill-informed.”17 Christians/Adventists need to know that the time of the Second Coming is near and they need to watch. This is enough.
Eighth Assumption: Antipopes should not be counted. This last point has to do with logic and definition. Myers leaves out certain popes that are considered to be antipopes. That may be acceptable. But if antipopes are understood as popes that have not been duly elected and a tempted to reign when there was another pope in office, then this is not true for Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. He was not a rival to another pope but is considered a legitimate pope. Thus already here the system collapses.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
The approach used by R. Myers and others is exegetically not justifiable because it introduces elements not found in the biblical text and uses a methodology that is not acceptable because it is not derived from Scripture itself.18 Even if features of his prediction, such as a pope taking on a new papal name, look like an intriguing fulfillment, they have nothing to do with the tenor and interpretation of Revelation. We do not deny that we may have to face interesting and surprising developments with the new pope. We do not deny that the Lord may come during his lifetime. What we question is that Jesus’ second coming can be directly linked to Pope Francis or another pope.
When in 1948 the modern State of Israel was established, a number of Christians considered this a fulfillment of certain Old Testament prophecies. Although the events were impressive, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has not seen light in such a suggestion, nor in the suggestion that Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled in modern Israel. Many of the Old Testament prophecies are conditional and, as the New Testament indicates, will only be fulfilled on a larger and universal scale. In a similar vein, surprising events should not be used to legitimize an otherwise unsubstantiated interpretation of biblical texts.
When it comes to cryptic Bible texts as the one referring to 666, which still awaits its complete fulfillment in connection with the mark of the beast, we should avoid dogmatic or fanciful claims and remain considerate, trusting the Lord that He will guide His church to greater insight when it is needed and not merely to satisfy our curiosity about future events.
While we desire and pray for the Lord to come soon and as we prepare ourselves and others for His coming, we must not in any way set a date for His Coming. This may not only be disastrous but, if not fulfilled, turn secular people away from the most important message for our time, the everlasting gospel of Revelation 14.
Ekkehardt Mueller is deputy director of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute.
Note: The use of the emblem shown on page 20 represents the coat of arms and motto of Pope Francis. It is not authorized by, endorsed by, sponsored by, or associated with the Elder’s Digest magazine.
1 Franklin S. Fowler Jr., The Final Years of the Papacy: Revelation 17 (Granite Falls, WA: Christian Heritage Foundation, 1999), 9.
2 Fowler, 12.
3 Fowler, 13.
4 Fowler, 13–15.
5 The Catholic Church counted fifteen up to John Paul II but Benedict X was an antipope.
6 The Catholic Church has twenty-three popes with the name “John.” Two were antipopes.
7 http://english.sdaglobal.org/research/666beast.htm, accessed October 25, 2009.
8 http://www.666beast.net, accessed March 15, 2013.
9 See Edwin Reynolds, “The Seven-Headed Beast of Revelation 17,” Asia Adventist Seminary Studies 6 (2003): 103; Ekkehardt Mueller, “The Beast of Revelation 17–A Suggestion,” Reflections: A BRI Newsletter January, (2005): 2–8. Here is a more extensive and scholarly version: Ekkehardt Mueller, “The Beast of Revelation 17—A Suggestion (Part 1),” Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary 10/1 (2007): 27–50; and ibid., “The Beast of Revelation 17—A Suggestion (Part 2),” Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary 10/2 (2007): 153–176.
10 See also G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 718.
11 Beale, 723.
12 Cf. Beale, 875; Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002), 619; and Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, revised edition, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 317. Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids Baker Book House, 2001), 471, holds that “the seven hills point to world powers that have their place in history.”
13 David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 52B (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 769.
14 See the 42 months of Rev 13:5 that should be understood according to the year-day-principle. On the year-day-principle see Gerhard Pfandl, “The Year-Day Principle,” Reflections–A BRI Newsletter, Number 18, April 2007, 1–3.
15 Rev 13:1–4 and Rev 13:5–8 must be understood as parallel passages.
16 According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pius Pope Pius I, saint, Pope 140/142 to 155, Pope Pius II, Pope 1458 to 1474, Pope Pius III, Pope in 1503, Pope Pius IV, Pope 1559 to 1565, Pope Pius V, saint, Pope 1566 to 1572, Pope Pius VI, Pope 1775 to 1799, Pope Pius VII, Pope 1800 to 1823, Pope Pius VIII, Pope 1829 to 1830, Pope Pius IX, Pope 1846 to 1878, Pope Pius X, saint, Pope 1903 to 1914, Pope Pius XI, Pope 1922 to 1939, Pope Pius XII, Pope 1939 to 1958 (accessed March 14, 2013).
17 Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 365.
18 Adventists maintain the Reformation principles of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) and scriptura sui ipsius interpres (Scripture is its own interpreter) without falling into proof-texting that does not consider the context and analyze carefully the text/passage under investigation. Further, see Frank Hasel, “Presuppositions in the Interpretation of Scripture,” in Understanding Scripture (ed. George W. Reid; Biblical Research Institute Studies 1; Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2006), 27–46 and, in the same volume, Ekkehardt Müller, “Guidelines for the Interpretation of Scripture,” 111–134.