A Numbers Game

One afternoon I was visited by a man who was troubled and wanted to talk with a pastor. I didn’t know him, but welcomed him into my office and he sat down. I asked how I might help and he explained that he had been seeing the number 666 everywhere he went, and because of the connotation of the number from the Book of Revelation was concerned. 


Most Christians (and many movie goers) are familiar with the number 666 and it’s reference to the Antichrist described in Revelation. The Antichrist is supposed to be a sign that the Apocalypse or “end times” is near. 


I first asked what he did for a living, hoping that might help me understand him a little better. He replied he was an accountant. I pointed out that working constantly with numbers might have an impact on how many times he might see the sequence 666 and he agreed, but I knew he was still worried.


I explained to him that the book has always been somewhat controversial in the various interpretations taken from it over the centuries. For example, during the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther, along with John Calvin, believed the Pope was the Antichrist! 


I also told him a distinctive change in interpreting Revelation took place at the beginning of the 20th Century when Anglican priest John Nelson Darby posited the notion that Revelation was unfulfilled prophesy. Hal Lindsey published Late Great Planet Earth in 1971, which took Revelation as a literal modern day prophesy and predicted the end of the world in our lifetimes, an end ushered in by nuclear war in the Middle East.


I went on to say I wasn’t convinced this was the best way to interpret Revelation. In fact, I think the book is more of a critique of the Roman Empire and a coming persecution of Christians in the early 2nd Century. So what did I tell him about the number 666?


Some manuscripts of Revelation do not contain the number 666, but, rather, have the number 616. It is interesting to note that Jews in antiquity liked to play a numbers game with the alphabet called gemartia. In Hebrew the number 666 spells out Nero Caesar. If applied to the number 616 it spells out Neron Caesar which is the Greek form of the name in Latin. Either way it is plausible that this “code” number refers more to the horrible persecution of Christians under Nero that prompted association with him as the Antichrist, and was applied to the current Caesar who was engaging in his own persecution of Christians in the early 2nd Century.


My visitor seemed to relax a little. We talked some more, but not about the number. Feeling more confident, he left. It was the only encounter I had with the man. From time to time I think about him and how many others, like him, are struggling with what they think the Bible might be saying. I wonder.