Wednesday, October 7, 2015

666 and the End of the World

If you are reading this, the world hasn’t ended—yet. As you may know, a group called the eBibleFellowship based in Sharon Hill, Pa., predicted the world would be annihilated on Oct. 7. They based this on the appearance of the “blood moon” in September, and on the earlier claims of radio preacher Harold Camping that the world would end May 21. 2011. (When that prediction failed to materialize, Camping retired from public life and died in 2013.) This reminded me of another time the world was predicted to end—June 6, 2006 (sixth day of the sixth month of 2006: 666)—and what I wrote about it back then, including how people misunderstand the purpose of the book of Revelations.

If you’re reading this, it means the world didn’t end on Tuesday.

Not that there was any danger it would happen. But a few people were a little anxious as June 6, 2006 drew closer. For them, it was an ominous date—or would that be omenous?—the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year of this century. 666, in other words.

Some people claimed it could be a day of satanic power, perhaps marked by a comet hitting the Earth.

Others believed it could signal the start of Armageddon, or maybe The Rapture—the moment millions of Christians disappear from the earth, leaving non-believers behind. 

Indeed, The Rapture Index, found at, calculates the likelihood that Christ will come back as the highest it's ever been, right into “fasten your seatbelts” territory.

But if it wasn’t the day the world ended, it was still a great marketing opportunity.

20th Century Fox chose that date to release its remake of The Omen, the classic 1970s horror film about a woman who gives birth the child of Satan. 

The heavy metal rock group Slayer used it to launch its Unholy Alliance tour, while the death metal group Deicide, which calls itself “Satan’s favourite band,” released its newest album on what it called “that most unholy of days.”

Not to be outdone, best-selling evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins also selected June 6 as a good day to launch their new book, called the The Rapture, the latest instalment in their Left Behind series.

Some Christian retailers reportedly got into the spirit of things by selling paperback editions of earlier Left Behind books for $6.66.

So what’s up with that number, anyway?

It comes from the book of Revelation, where John writes that the name of the beast is 666. Over the centuries, that has led to widespread speculation about the beast’s identity.

For some Protestants, it has been almost any pope although, in the sixteenth century, some Catholics thought it was Martin Luther). More recently, Ronald Wilson Reagan was a candidate, as is the current U.S. president, George Walker Bush Jr.—their names add up to 666.

In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger was the beast of choice, and prior to that people thought it was Hitler or Mussolini. Also in the running are the ubiquitous UPC bar codes on everything we buy, while some have suggested it’s the World Wide Web.

But most biblical scholars say that John didn’t have any of these people or things in mind when he wrote the book of Revelation—he was referring to the Roman Emperor Nero, who led a terrible persecution of the early church.

They base this on the Hebrew language, where each letter has a numerical value; in Hebrew, Nero’s name equals 666—a bit of code that John’s first century readers would have figured out very quickly.

But not only that, scholars say—John wasn’t writing about the end times at all.

According to Michael Gilmour, who teaches New Testament at Providence College in Otterburne, the book of Revelation isn’t about prophecy or the end of the world. It’s a pastoral book, he says, written for Christians at that time who were experiencing terrible persecution during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.

“Many people assume that the book of Revelation is about the future, but John is writing to first century churches,” Gilmour says. “He’s writing to a marginalized and persecuted church, trying to comfort and encourage them.”

Brian Froese, who teaches history at Canadian Mennonite University, agrees. “John was writing to Christians in dark and perilous times, pointing to a future of peace and prosperity,” he says.

But if that’s the case, why do so many people today see Revelation as a blueprint for the end times?

Gilmour and Froese say it can be traced back to John Nelson Darby, a 19th century British minister who used verses in the Old and New Testaments to come up with the idea that history is divided into specific periods of time, or dispensations, and that we are now living in the last period of time before Christ returns.

Over the past 35 years, Darby’s ideas have been widely promoted by people like Hal Lindsey, author of the Late Great Planet Earth, and the authors of the Left Behind series.

The main problem with this view, Gilmour says, is that it does “violence to the text,” and those who subscribe to it have to practice “hermeneutical acrobatics” to make all the different verses from the Old and New Testaments fit into their system.

“It pieces disparate things together to make a coherent structure,” adds Froese, but notes that  proponents have to take verses “out of context” to make them fit.

Both Gilmour and Froese hasten to add that this doesn’t mean that Christians can’t apply lessons from the book of Revelation today.

We just have to be careful not to view it as “some mysterious Da Vinci Code-like puzzle,” says Froese.

Adds Gilmour: “All we know is that Christ will return, and we should live in this moment, being faithful and ready.”

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