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A Date With Destiny or Just Another Day?

Times Staff Writer

Today is the sixth day of the sixth month, six years into the second millennium, and for some people that adds up to Apocalypse.

For others, 666 -- the mark of the beast in the New Testament -- is a marketing opportunity. Hollywood today is releasing a remake of “The Omen,” a 1976 thriller about a family raising a child, born on June 6, 1966, who is destined to become the antichrist.

The publisher of the popular “Left Behind” series, Christian novels about the End Times that have sold tens of millions of copies, is issuing yet another book, “The Rapture.” And www.BetUS.com, an online gaming site, posted 10-1 odds that there will be an apocalypse today.

The Church of Satan was scheduled to hold a high satanic Mass today in Hollywood, and some heavy metal bands are releasing compact disks.

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So what’s the meaning of the dreaded 666?

“It is a great conundrum,” said David M. Scholer, professor of the New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and an authority on the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. “Scholars have debated this throughout the history of the church.”

The number comes from Revelation 13:18, credited to John:

This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.

In “The Omen,” the image is literal, a birthmark of three sixes on the boy’s head.

Scholer says the current theory held by most scholars is that 666 is a cryptogram for Nero, the Roman emperor who persecuted Christians with unspeakable cruelty.

Though Revelation is written in Greek, the cryptogram relates to Caesar Nero in Hebrew, pronounced KEser NEron. Hebrew did not have signs for numbers and instead assigned numerical values to letters in the alphabet.

Scholer said that adding up the value of the Hebrew letters in Nero’s name -- 100, 60, 200, 50, 200, 6 and 50 -- one gets 666.

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Revelation -- apocalypse in Greek -- was probably written between AD 81 and 96, during a time when many believed that Nero might come back to life.

In AD 68, Nero killed himself by slitting his throat. That wound, and the fear of Nero’s return, apparently accounts for Revelation 13:3: One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.

This hasn’t stopped some interpreters from identifying various people as the beast of Revelation -- various popes, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Saddam Hussein and Prince Charles.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was also suggested because each of his names had six letters. (After the president and Nancy Reagan moved into their new home in Bel-Air, she had the address changed from 666 to 668.)

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John P. Crossley Jr., director of USC’s School of Religion, says adding to the confusion is that some manuscripts use 616.

Revelation, a letter circulated to seven churches in what is today Turkey, is like no other book in the Bible because it is in the genre of Jewish apocalyptic literature, full of symbolism.

This genre, Scholer said, sought to confront deep and disturbing questions, including: Why do God’s faithful people suffer at the hands of the wicked oppressors? Will there ever be vindication for the faithful?

Even for regular Bible readers, Revelation is considered difficult to understand because the symbolism is sometimes violent and dramatic, with references to angels and strange beasts.

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After spending this quarter studying Revelation under Scholer, his students -- who turned in papers rolled up like scrolls and sealed with wax -- said that they’ve gained a better understanding of the book.

“There is a lot of weird stuff in there,” said Jessica Handy from Holland, Mich., “but that makes sense to me now.”

To her, having Scholer explain the main themes -- including Jesus is the Lord and God wins in the end--was helpful. “To see those themes moving throughout makes the rest of it seem less strange,” Handy said.

As for associating Satan with 666 and the antichrist, that’s the result of Christian authors writing about Satan so much, said J. Gordon Melton, a Methodist minister based in Santa Barbara and author of the “Encyclopedia of American Religions.”

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“Satanism is itself largely a product of Christian paranoia,” Melton said.

Similarly, Crossley believes the secular interest in 666 has partly to do with the fundamentalists’ interpretation of the Bible, that there will be a literal end time when a beast will rise out of the sea with the number emblazoned on his forehead.

“When he appears, that’s the signal for the battle of Armageddon to start,” he said.

But theologians do agree on one thing: Revelation offers a message of hope and encouragement to God’s people because it promises that Christ will defeat evil in the ultimate cosmic battle.

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“We are looking forward to the physical, literal return of Christ in which he will defeat his enemies, the beast and antichrist, and he will establish an intermediate 1,000-year kingdom on Earth, followed by an eternal kingdom,” said D. Jeffrey Bingham, chairman and professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.

The hoopla over 666 could serve a “useful purpose,” he said, by reminding people that the Bible does say an evil one will rise and ultimately be defeated by Christ.

But there are others who can’t resist marking this day with humor. The Michigan hamlet of Hell (pop. 266) is throwing a party complete with a costume contest (flame-decorated accessories encouraged).

John Colone, owner of the Screams Ice Cream and Halloween Shop, said his “phone’s been ringing off the hook, and there were hundreds of people from out of town waiting outside my shop door this morning.”

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The most popular item for sale: A deed to one-square-inch of land in Hell. Price tag: $6.66.

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Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this report.


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