Numbers are a big deal in the Bible.
Over the centuries, scholars have paid considerable attention to numbers like 3 (which seems to signify growth), 4 (often a shorthand for creation, as in the “four corners” of the earth), 7 (which traditionally denotes completeness), 10 (perfection, as exemplified by the Ten Commandments), 12 (the number connected with God’s chosen people, as represented by the 12 tribes of Israel and Jesus’ 12 disciples), and 40 (a time of trials and testing).
But all would agree that the most famous, or infamous, number on the pages of scripture is 666.
In the apocalyptic imagery of the Bible’s last book, 666 is the number associated with the Beast – a fearsome creature with seven heads and ten horns that according to Revelation 13:17-18 will emerge from the sea. The Beast is typically identified as the Antichrist, a superhuman embodiment of evil who will appear during the Last Times.
It’s safe to say there has never been scholarly consensus as to how to interpret the fantastical images of the book of Revelation. But that hasn’t stopped generations of eager Bible students from trying to identify the significance of 666.
In his book When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in American Culture, Paul Boyer has a field day reporting some of their most outrageous efforts.
For instance, if the letter A is 100, B is 101, C is 102 and so forth, then “Hitler” adds up to 666. Napoleon turns out to be the Antichrist if you spell and number his name with the Arabic alphabet. British historian Thomas Macaulay noted that Parliament might be the Antichrist, since its membership (including clerks and doorkeepers) is 666. Henry Kissinger’s name in Hebrew also adds up to the beastly number.
John F. Kennedy received 666 votes at the 1956 Democratic Convention (where, incidentally, he did not receive the presidential nomination). But after later being elected and felled by an assassin, myriads of conspiracy theorists became convinced he was indeed the Beast, since the book of Revelation reports that the Antichrist will miraculously recover from a fatal head wound. This seems to have fueled the QAnon movement that led hundreds of true believers to Dealey Plaza in Dallas last November 22, where they expected that at 12:30 pm (the time JFK was shot) either he or his son (who died in a plane crash in 1999) would rise from the dead and declare Donald Trump to be the true president.
Some have conjectured that VISA, when reduced to Roman numerals (along with a generous amount of imagination) can be transformed into 666. Not to be outdone, another sleuth has noted that if A is 6, B is 12, C is 18 and so forth, then C (18) + O (90) + M (78) + P (96) + U (126) + T (120) + E (30) + R (108) equals 666. And you thought your laptop was on the side of righteousness.
On the lighter side, Backsliders Tractor Pull, a 1990 pop-music parody, presents a ranting fundamentalist preacher who declares that in high school cafeterias the average number of vegetables served is six, and the average age of the employees is sixty-six – and you know what you get if you put those two numbers together. Thus, according to the preacher, in this “devil’s dining room of damnation” the youth of America are being served “family-sized portions of the apocalypse.”
For some people, anxiety about the Antichrist is all too real. They suffer from a condition called hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia – the fear of the number 666. We can truthfully say that if that word shows up in the National Spelling Bee this year, at least one unlucky contestant will experience fear.
And what might Jesus say if he were to venture an opinion about all of these speculations?
We already know what he would say: Please stop it. That’s enough. You know quite well that you’re never going to guess the details of the end of history.
That’s because Jesus revealed that even he didn’t know such details (Mark 13:32).
We may have the impression that unless we’re “in the know” about events in the book of Revelation, we’re really not part of the flow of God’s story in the world.
How wrong we are.
May God open our eyes to the fact that every person we encounter today is someone deeply treasured by God, and for whom Jesus gave his life.
And the way we choose to love and honor each of those persons has the capacity to change the very course of spiritual history.
That very thought should be far more thrilling than hearing the latest theory about the Antichrist.