Simply Beastly: The Search for 666

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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No numerological puzzle in history has absorbed so many people as the one in Revelation 13:18, describing the Antichrist: "It is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six (King James Version)". At various times the number has been applied to the Roman Emperor, the Pope, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, and any number of kings and dictators. The nearly universal interpretation of the passage is that 666 is some numerological derivation of a person's name, found by assigning numerical values to letters and taking the sum, often with ingenious spelling variations to make the sum come out right. Often the result is reminiscent of Ignatius Donnelly's Shakespearean ciphers.

Modern devotees of this topic have added some new twists. Because the Book of Revelation speaks of a mark without which nobody can buy or sell (Revelation 13:17-18), many writers have linked the Antichrist to the popular theme of global economic conspiracies and suggested that the mark will be some sort of entry in a computer data bank.

Typical of the many books dealing with the number 666, in both content and logical quality, is When Your Money Fails by Mary Stewart Relfe, PhD. The book starts out with a long list of products and business forms that use the number 666. Some of the examples are just a bit strained. For example, the credit card "VISA" supposedly represents 666. In Relfe's words, "Vi, Roman numeral, is 6; the 'zz' sound, zeta, the sixth character in the Greek alphabet, is 6; a, English, is 6". How does a equal six? Apparently it is part of a numerological system in which b stands for 12 and so on. It would be much harder to reach a sum of 666 if we let a=1, b=2, and so on, and it improves the odds considerably if all the numbers are multiples of six!

A friend of mine once asked me about a similar system in which a=9, b=18, and so on, and told me about some interesting 666's that turned up. I quickly discovered that, using this system, the letters in "baloney" totaled 666. Rather more damaging to its credibility among fundamentalists, so did the letters in "Jesus."

Some of Relfe's other findings include a number issued by NCR Model 304 Supermarket Computers, 6 60 6 ("Six sixty six"), the fact that some U.S. school systems employ a 6-6-6 System (six subjects, six-week grading periods, six grading periods a year), the use of 66 (two thirds of 666) on some MasterCard statements, a VISA payment statement with the number 699 (upside-down sixes), and a picture of a U.S. Treasury Department badge with the number 666 on it. Someone, of course, is bound to get badge 666, but unfortunately the illustration in Relfe's book looks more like 866 instead.

Granted, Relfe finds a great many genuine cases of the use of the number 666. Any randomly-selected three-digit number will come up 666 one time in a thousand. One one-thousandth of all the numbers in use in the United States adds up to a lot of 666's. In a longer string of numbers the chances of getting 666 increases -- to nearly four chances in a thousand for a six-digit number. Of course, the number 666 is often deliberately selected as a code number. If someone must fit a predetermined numerical format, but can choose the actual digits, it makes sense to select sequences that are easily remembered. Exact hundreds or thousands are one favorite way of making the number easily remembered; repeating digits are another. Directory assistance in most areas now is 555-1212. In my local phone book, the listing for Parents Anonymous is 432-8444, the general information number for the school district is 497-4000, a cannery is 468-5000, a motor freight company 494-7222, a lumber company 498-1333, and a commuter airline 739-9111. The News Hot Line numbers for two local TV stations (guess which channels) are 437-2222 and 437-5555. A sugar carton advises dissatisfied purchasers to write to Department 2222. A major office building in New York City has the number 666 emblazoned in huge numbers across its roofline -- its address is 666 Sixth Avenue (or Avenue of the Americas to use the official street name). Certain Social Security numbers, such as those issued to aliens, start with the prefix 999. Given this preference for repeating numbers, we should not be surprised to see 666 crop up more often than one time in a thousand. Actually, 666 probably crops up less often than other repeating numbers because so many people are aware of the theological significance of 666, or are rapidly made aware if they use the number anyway. Recently the Social Security Administration cancelled plans to use the prefix 666 for certain classes of accounts after protests from the public.

Relfe is also fascinated by the "six-ness" of the Apollo 8 flight to the Moon, and repeats a bit of 666 folklore that has been widely circulated in fundamentalist circles. The round trip to the Moon took six days, the rocket had six sections, escape velocity was six miles per second (a lot closer to seven, for those who like to quibble), the trip to the Moon took 66 hours, the Moon's gravity is one sixth that of the Earth, and so on. The astronauts' names, Lovell, Anders, and Borman, each have six letters. (So do Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, a numerological curiosity that seems somehow never to get into books of this sort. Lest anyone think my Catholicism is showing, this example is put in solely to show how easy it can be to "prove" a preconceived notion from numerological coincidences. Actually, Relfe's method is an exact analog of the claim by Pyramidologists that there are a great many coincidences involving the number five in the Pyramids. It is also curious that no one has proposed that the number 666 symbolizes "end time" writers like Relfe or Hal Lindsey who are so obsessed with the number 666. Surely if 666 is the number of any persons today it would be theirs.)

Relfe's book would not be complete without a nominee for the role of Antichrist. Based on Revelation and on prophecies in the Book of Daniel, Relfe claims he must come from the territory of the ancient Roman Empire, must be from the Arab world, and must be a Moslem. The last point is based on Daniel 11:37, "He will have no regard for the gods of his fathers, nor for the god beloved of women." Says Relfe of her nominee: "His ancestors worshiped many gods, plural! They were polytheistic! Egyptians once worshiped many gods, but now are Moslems." Well, actually, Egypt was Christian for several centuries before being conquered by the Moslems, but who quibbles over details?

Relfe equates "the god beloved of women" with the Mesopotamian phallus god Tammuz. How Tammuz relates to Islam is not exactly clear. In Moslem calendars, the month of July is Tammuz, but that fact has no more relevance to most Moslems than the fact that Wednesday is "Wodin's Day" or March is "the month of Mars" have to most Christians.

Finally, based on Daniel 11:21, "He shall enter peacably", the Antichrist must be a peacemaker. Relfe's candidate: Anwar Sadat. Sadat had the ill grace to get assassinated before he could fulfill the rest of Relfe's plans for him, but the failure of this prediction will in no way deter future prophecy interpreters. In fact, current end-time prophecy interpretations, which run generally along the lines of Relfe's but avoid the fatal flaw of committing themselves to anything testable, have the curious effect of making any leader who advances the cause of peace in the Middle East a prime candidate for the Antichrist. The words of Christ, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God", have been completely reversed by the modern end-time writers; war is encouraging because it means the Second Coming is closer, and peace is a sign of the Antichrist. One could not look for a more literal fulfillment of the slogan in Orwell's 1984 -- War is Peace.

6/6/06 and Biblical Illiterates

As June 6, 2006, approached, many pregnant women asked to have their deliveries early, presumably so they wouldn't give birth to the Antichrist. A few years earlier the Federal Highway Administration renumbered U.S. Highway 666 under pressure from Biblical literalists.

One of the frustrating things about many people who style themselves Biblical literalists is that so many of them are Biblical illiterates. Return to the verse from Revelation:

It is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six

It is the number of a man. Not a highway, not a Zip Code, not a telephone number or an area code or a license plate or a calendar date. And the number is 666. Not 6/6/06, not three digits from a larger number, not something that juxtaposes three sextets like the Apollo 8 astronaut names. Yet people who insist that "day" in Genesis means a literal 24 hour day will ignore the literal meaning of the Bible when it comes to 666.

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Created 3 February 1998, Last Update 30 Aug 2011

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