The last book of the Bible is called The Revelation by Protestants and The Apocalypse by Catholics. It is a poetic description of the battle between good and evil, using numerous symbols and creatures to illustrate its message.

Parts of the book deal specifically with the period near the end of history, when Jesus Christ is supposed to return to earth and fight a great battle with evil, commonly known as The Battle of Armageddon.

Over the centuries, millions of people have been intrigued by The Revelation, particularly as they have tried to use it to decipher exact dates for when these events will take place. Whole denominations have been formed on the basis of a particular interpretation, most notably Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christadelphians. Such denominations have generally been regarded as cults, outside the mainstream of Christianity; and their predictions have almost all proven to be incorrect.

As a consequence, The Apocalypse itself has fallen into disrepute. Some priests and ministers openly admonish their congregations not to even read it. Amongst Protestants, doctrines about health and prosperity have replaced talk about the world ending or Jesus literally returning to earth. On the whole, the institutional church is heading into the Twenty-first Century with more concern about the here and now of religious experience than with promises of divine intervention which have been almost 2,000 years in coming.

Yet interest in The Revelation continues, sometimes in the strangest places. Passages which once required faith in a particular theologian's interpretation to be of interest now only require a little knowledge of world events, particularly in the area of computer technology.

The Omen trilogy, released in the late 1980's, spawned a number of other films dealing with the subject of a coming world ruler who would be the Son of Satan in much the same way as Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In this decade, rock groups like Iron Maiden have had such hits as The Number of the Beast. The title refers to the number 666, or the "mark" of this world ruler, mentioned in the 13th chapter of The Revelation. And Stephen King regularly plays with apocalyptic themes in such books as The Stand.

Like the cults that preceded them, the new gurus of The Revelation continue to exploit fear and to promote superstition. Real answers to the questions that they raise continue to be scarce or non-existent.

Many passages in The Apocalypse require comparisons with similar passages in the writings of the Hebrew prophet Daniel before they can be understood. An exception is the one relating to the "mark" mentioned above.

The Revelation talks of a Beast being "given authority over every tribe, nation, language, and race. All people living on earth will worship it except those whose names were written before the creation of the world in the book of the living." (Revelation 13:7-8, TEV)

The passage goes on to say, "The beast forced all the people, small and great, rich and poor, slave and free, to have a mark placed on their right hands or on their foreheads. No one could buy or sell unless he had this mark, that is, the beast's name or the number that stands for the name. This calls for wisdom. Whoever is intelligent can work out the meaning of the number of the beast, because the number stands for a man's name. Its number is 666." (Revelation 13:16-18, TEV)

During the Protestant Reformation it became popular to refer to the Pope as the Beast, or Antichrist. The Pope had, at times, been referred to as the Vicar of God, which, in Latin ("Vicarivs Filii Dei") contains a number of letters which are also used as Roman numerals (V, I, C, L, D). If these are all added up, they total 666.

In recent years people have used far more contrived systems for naming any number of world leaders as the Antichrist. Someone devised a system for ascribing numerical values to every letter of the English alphabet and came up with a sum of 666 for Henry Kissinger's name. An even more contrived system was used to make Mikhail Gorbachev the Beast, using the Russian alphabet. Ronald Wilson Reagan was called the Beast just because his first, last, and middle names all had six letters in them!

But while attempts to name the Antichrist using the dreaded number 666 have not proven convincing, in recent years attention has turned to the predicted use of the number 666. The Expositor's Bible Commentary, published by Zondervan Publishing House, dismisses attempts to name the Antichrist and emphasises that the number 666 relates to socio-economic control in general and is somehow connected with "idolatry and blasphemy".

Working on this approach, a number of people have been led to question the growing use of the number 666 in relation to banks and computers.

Press reports relating to Smartcards and the coming cashless economy often sound like they were taken directly from The Revelation. Through the use of a tiny microchip the size of a grain of rice on Smartcards issued to every citizen on earth, and a huge central computer base, every business transaction on earth could be monitored and recorded. No one would be able to buy or sell without the microchip. And when people have been sufficiently educated in the use of Smartcards, it would be only a short step to remove the microchip from the Smartcard and implant it under the skin of the right hand (or on the forehead if the recipient is missing a right hand). The implant could be achieved almost painlessly and invisibly, and it would eliminate the problems of lost or stolen credit cards.

This week in Sydney, two Christians walked into a branch of the ANZ Bank with barcodes emblazoned on their bald heads. Just their presence so infuriated bank staff that police were called and the men were physically removed from the premises. When they returned a short while later they were arrested and charged with trespassing. They were subsequently banned for life from opening a bank account with the ANZ.

Out on the street other bald accomplices were distributing a short leaflet warning people against moves toward such an economy. Here is what it said:

A growing number of individuals and groups around the world are predicting that the present trend toward the cashless society is an evil conspiracy, aimed at controlling the entire human race.

Their explanations, motivations, and solutions vary considerably. But they all agree that what we see happening in the banking world today was predicted in the 13th chapter of The Revelation (the last book of the Bible) nearly 2,000 years ago, and that it is going to lead to disaster.

On the whole, these groups represent the lunatic fringe of Christianity. They include groups that are predicting dates for the second coming of Christ as well as groups that are stockpiling weapons in anticipation of a global holocaust.

But their basic message (that the cashless society and a one-world government were predicted in the Bible) is gaining acceptance in a wider cross-section of both the church and the secular world. Many individuals are recognising that there is a ring of truth in it even if they do not subscribe to the other beliefs of the groups concerned.

So what, exactly, is the prophecy?

It is found in The Revelation 13:16-17. The context of the prophecy is that an alliance of nations will eventually rule the world. One leader will gain control of that body. He will have widespread support, and his policies will result in peace and prosperity for much of the human race.

He will succeed in getting the whole world to take a mark in their right hand or on their forehead, without which they will not be able to buy or sell. When he has total control of the world economy, he will elevate himself to the status of a god, and he will begin a massive slaughter of anyone who refuses to worship him. More people will be killed in this purge than at any previous time in earth's history. (Matthew 24:21-22)

This ruler is called The Beast. He is no mere human. He is the Son of the Devil in much the same way that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The Bible warns that anyone who takes the "mark" of the Beast will receive the full strength of God's wrath. (Revelation 14:9-11)

It is tempting when writing about the Mark of the Beast, to make predictions with regard to the present worldwide move toward the cashless society. There is almost certainly a connection between the two.

But we are not really "prophesying" when we do that, so much as we are "interpreting" prophecy in the light of the daily newspaper. And when we make a mistake or exaggerate, or assume things are going to move along more rapidly than they actually do, it all gets used against us, and the result is that the original prophecy loses credibility.

If a prophecy is genuine, it should become overwhelmingly clear as it actually comes to pass. Prior to that time, there may be a great many clues or "signs of the times". But none of these clues is conclusive in itself.

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The computer barcode, for example, which now appears on almost everything that you buy at the shop, features three pairs of lines (at each end and in the middle) which are slightly longer than the other lines. These three pairs of lines are the same on all products which use that particular system, and the most popular system uses the line symbols for the number six in each of these three places, giving rise to the suggestion that this is the notorious "666" mentioned in Revelation 13:18 as the "number of the Beast". But if the 666 pattern was dropped from the barcode system, it would not make the prophecy false. It would only make that interpretation incorrect.

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The original bankcard symbol [in Australia] was three sixes (one red, one orange, and one yellow) inside each other. But that has given way to other cards which do not appear to use sixes.

I personally suffered embarrassment several years ago when I printed an article based on a report in the March, 1984, Australian Bank Employees News Bulletin, which said that an experiment had begun in Sweden involving special marks on the hand or forehead of 6,000 people. The report said that the mark would be used for all business transactions made by those people.

When I contacted the Bank Employees Union about it after my article came out, I was told that the article in their newsletter had been an April Fool's joke.

Yet the nagging question under all of this is why the banks (or the bank employees) feel it is necessary to pull such pranks or to keep using the forbidden number 666. Is it all part of a plan to mix ridicule with schemes to test the public's reaction to such an idea?

What sounded like a joke in 1984 is being treated much more seriously by the banks, the media, and the public in 1996; yet those who predicted it are still being depicted as deluded fanatics with wild imaginations. This does not seem fair.

The world has made a big fuss over prophecies of people like Nostradamus and Jeanne Dixon, who have been wrong in their predictions far more often than they have been correct. But here is a very clear and objective prophecy which has been understood and anticipated for almost 2,000 years. It is very close to coming true in our own lifetime. It carries with it some powerful warnings for the entire human race. So why shouldn't we be doing some serious talking about what it could mean for us as a race and as individuals if we overlook the warnings associated with the prophecy. That is all that I ask.

Antichrist: "The diabolical being opposed to the true Messiah. The End of the World will be heralded by his last desperate attempt to bring about the victory of the powers of evil, but he will be finally vanquished by Christ at the Second Coming. There was a strong belief in the Middle Ages that the Antichrist would arise in Rome. This led the mystic Joachim of Fiore (c. 1130/5-1201/2) to equate him with the Pope." p. 29, Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend, J.C.J. Metford, Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Footnotes:

Antichrist: "The prince of Christ's enemies... Many see him in the strange beasts of Revelation, sometimes thought to represent Rome, and 'the man of sin' of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10, who will appear after a great apostasy before 'the day of the Lord' and sit in God's sanctuary, claiming to be God... Others have connected Antichrist not with a person but with an evil principle... Yet others have seen in Antichrist a reference to... Caligula. The attempt of Caligula to set up his statue in the Temple at Jerusalem, and the deification of the Emperor and Emperor-worship, suggested strongly that Antichrist would come from imperial Rome... Cyril of Jerusalem states that he will be a magician who will take control of the Roman Empire, claim to be Christ, deceive the Jews by pretending to be the Son of David and rebuilding the Temple, and who, after persecuting the Christians, will be slain at the Second Advent by the Son of God. Since the Reformation, the identification of the Pope with Antichrist has been frequently made, especially in the less educated circles of Protestantism. pp. 63-64, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press, 1978.

Beast of the Apocalypse: "One of two beasts... which symbolise the arch-enemies of the Early Christians. This one 'bears the number 666, which has given rise to many interpretations."

The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, page 533, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984. Revelation 13:18: "The Jews used Hebrew alphabetical numbers to indicate concealed names and mysterious connections with other words of the same numerical value... Thus... most commentators have understood John's words 'Let him calculate the number... His number is 666' to be an invitation to the reader... to discover the identity of the beast... Irenaeus (second century)... [believed] the name would be secret till the time of [The Beast's] future appearance in the world." "In Revelation 15:2 the victors have triumphed over... the number of his name, which suggests a symbolic significance connected with idolatry and blasphemy rather than victory over a mere puzzle solution of correctly identifying someone's name."