There are lots of different ways to convert names to numbers, in order to get “the number of a man.”
It’s a bit tough, but occasionally, you’ll find that a person you don’t like has a name that “adds up” to 666 using one method or alphabet or another.
For example, if you’re a nutcase living in 1990, you might think that the Catholic Church is the “Whore of Babylon” and that Pope John Paul II is the “Beast of Revelation.”
Of course, Pope John Paul II is dead now. But, pretend it’s 1990.
Well, as it turns out, you can take the Latin name “IOANES PAVLVS SECVNDO,” add up the Roman numerals within, and the result is 666.
Coincidence? “Impossible! Pope John Paul II certainly will accompany the end of the world… perhaps a few years from now, in 1999!”
I guess the fact that he’s now dead, though, puts a damper on that theory.
But wait! Look at the Pope’s title, “VICARIUS FILII DEI”! That also adds up to 666! Hah! Pope Francis I must actually be “the Beast!”
But hold the phone!
It turns out that the founder of Seventh Day Adventism, “ELLEN GOULD WHITE,” also has a 666 name!
Back to Reality
Okay, maybe we need to demand more evidence than just name coincidences. After all, some guy named Dick X. Vale in Akron, Ohio would be “the Beast,” too.
For fun, let’s approach the situation with the premise that John actually intended for his readers — particularly “him who hath understanding” — to know who he was talking about. It would need to be a historical, villainous figure.
Second, let’s also employ the premise that John would have a reason to hide the person’s name using a number, like to avoid scandal or other socio-political problems.
Finally, let’s look at our source texts. There we actually find two numbers of the Beast. Some manuscripts have 666, others have 616. Let’s also have the premise that whoever the Beast is, his name must match both numbers depending on that name’s rendering. And, of course, that name would need to have multiple plausible and contemporaneous renderings in order to qualify.
That third premise is actually rather tough. It’s one thing to fit one number, but to fit both, that is, one or the other depending on the rendering? That’s a challenge.
These are some pretty big shoes to fill.
If we found a name that managed it, we’d have practical certainty that this name would be “the Beast.”
We Found a Name that Managed It
That name is Nero Caesar.
Is he a historical, villainous figure? Oh, you betcha.
Eusebius, a 4th century Christian historian in Rome, wrote:
“Publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero.”
He further wrote, quoting Tertullian a century earlier:
“Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.”
Not only were the Neronic persecutions of Christians a major atrocity, but Nero was the emperor who declared war against Jerusalem, a war which led to the prophetic destruction of the Temple.
2nd century St. Clement of Alexandria wrote of the abomination of the desolation as “the abomination of Nero.” Though he was dead by the time the Temple was destroyed, Clement wrote that, “[Nero] placed the abomination… in the holy city Jerusalem.”
Would John have had a reason to hide the person’s name using a number? Of course. Depending on the early historian we read, John wrote his Revelation either under Domitian with a retrospective in an apocalyptic literary mode, or under Nero himself.
Both emperors were notorious persecutors of Christians, and John was not about to provide new excuses for further abuse, like by overtly defaming present or past Roman emperors in his written material.
And finally, does Nero’s name, depending on the rendering, convert either to 666 or to 616 through the Hebrew Gematria? The answer is, astoundingly, “Yes.”
- By the Hebrew rendering, NRWN QSR, his “number of a man” is 666.
- By the Latin rendering, NRW QSR, his “number of a man” is 616.
In Revelation, the Beast, with the name of Nero Caesar, may have broadly represented the ancient power of imperial Rome, especially when set against God’s people, as Nero himself exemplified; “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
Partial preterism is the Christian eschatological view where a big chunk of Revelation has already occurred, describing first-century historical events through apocalyptic literature.
It has historically been the dominant eschatology among Christian theologians, although the 19th and 20th centuries saw revivals among “full futurist” groups.
One of the main reasons, and very good reasons, for its historical dominance is the fact that John addressed his Revelation to specific ancient, contemporaneous churches in and around what is modern-day Turkey. If John wrote a note beginning, “Dear Mother,” it would be silly and anachronistic to say that he meant it primarily for far-future audiences that were not his mom.
Where’s the “Split”?
If part of Revelation is about first century events and part is about events yet to occur, where’s the “split” between the two chunks?
The “split” that makes most sense for many partial preterists is the “millennium” of Revelation 20. Good early evidence for this “split” comes from St. Augustine’s City of God, where he found fault with those who thought the first resurrection of 20:5 was “yet to come.”
Since “thousand years” is taken figuratively, this form of partial preterism is “amillennial.”
The Nero Nail
The recent discoveries of the “616 manuscripts” confirm Nero’s “Beastship” and have supplied a nail in the coffin for much of the out-of-control conjecture and theory about Revelation that have cropped up over the last century or so, perpetuated by apocalyptic excitement and those who would profit by it.
As a Christian, I believe the Judgment has yet to occur. But the evidence to which we have access indicates that much of Revelation has already happened, way back in the tumultuous first century — where Christians were slain, the Temple was destroyed, and millions in the Holy Land perished — and was conveyed to John’s readers through apocalyptic literature.
This is the first in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.
The first part will be about the exploitation by media, and the second part will be about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.
Let’s take a look at event patterns in the world.
When we notice, through some study, that pattern A is correlated with pattern B, what does it tell us?
- Does it mean that A makes B more likely?
- Does it mean that B makes A more likely?
- Does it mean that a third pattern, C, makes both A and B more likely?
- Or, was the coincidence of A and B simply random noise?
The sad fact is that we don’t know which of these causal possibilities (and a non-causal possibility) is actually true. This is why we say, “Correlation does not equal causation.”
It turns out, though, that the brain is very eager — dopamine stimulated — to jump to causal conclusions. Furthermore, we’re most excited at the possibility — of the above four — that is most startling and weird.
It “feels” like new revelation.
And Commercial Media Knows This
Let’s say there’s a study that correlates non-married cohabitation with a higher incidence of physical abuse. What is the most sensible, boring explanatory possibility?
The most sensible, boring explanatory possibility is that there is a third factor C — likely something to do with socio-economic status, and population density, and the cultural byproducts therefrom — that makes non-married cohabitation and physical abuse rise in tandem, without being causally related to one another with any statistical significance.
But that’s “boring.” It doesn’t sell tabloid newspapers and doesn’t serve as social clickbait.
The more “exciting” possibility is that being non-married causes abuse.
This would have us conclude, “To lower partner abuse, those partners should get married.”
Which is, of course, precisely the opposite strategy one should employ.
The problem is, again, that we love counterintuitive revelations. There’s a measured “second opinion bias” that has us feel excited about having the “privilege” of being an honest devil’s advocate. As soon as we’re tricked into thinking that some bizarre claim is merely misunderstood, or deceived into thinking it has statistical backing, its “bizarreness” becomes extra fuel to fight on its side with conviction.
Whenever you read, or hear from a friend, about a study showing some A-to-B causation, do the following in your brain:
- Un-cause the causation. Separate the two parts into “A” and “B.”
- Run through the four explanatory possibilities mentioned before.
- Evaluate which possibility makes the most sense. Extra points if it’s also boring, which is a memetic weakness.
But Remember: Common Sense Isn’t Infallible
At the same time, remember that certain systems in the world really are very complex, and can yield causal relationships that are both counterintuitive and true. Common sense gets you past the exploitive headlines, but it’s no replacement for an actual, knee-deep understanding of complicated systems.
In other words, common sense isn’t “common,” but it also isn’t always “sense.”
And Remember: Studies Can Be Awesome or Crap
When I did product management for social games, one of my jobs was user experimentation and data analysis in order to make design decisions that optimized the interests of the customer and company.
The reality is this: Data is absolutely vital for getting a correlative, and ultimately causal, understanding of how the world works.
At the same time: There’s no shortage of ways to screw it up, and even maliciously fudge the data, and perhaps even get away with it. We’ve seen this happen with the “vaccines cause autism” fiasco, where an atrocious study catalyzed a tragic memetic bloom that, today, continues to threaten the health of our children.
I think, if we all get a healthy scrutiny against urban myths about causal claims, and fight hard for the “boring,” we’ll go a long way toward killing memetically strong falsehoods, which is necessary to optimize peace, wisdom, virtue, and charity in the world.
For more about memetics and how to avoid the value pitfalls therein, rewind to the four-part series we ran earlier this year.
Let’s play the Gift Game! It’s the hottest new game around.
The Gift Game tests your ability to extract the meaning of an unknown term by means of investigating the surrounding context.
But beware! The Gift Game can be sneaky, and if you’re not careful, you could end up practicing reckless hermeneutics.
– Round 1 –
So, can you do it? Are you able to discern the contents of those gifts?
The correct move in the Gift Game, at this juncture, is to say, “I don’t know yet. I don’t have enough information.”
Okay, that round was easy. Let’s try the next one.
– Round 2 –
Unfortunately, as might be apparent to you, we still don’t have enough information. The gift might contain “perfect,” as we Christians say that our God is perfect. But it might also just contain, “great.”
If it contained “great,” that wouldn’t mean that God lacks something. It just means that he is great. And that’s great! Lots of things are great across various metrics of measurement, finite and infinite.
– Round 3 –
No, I suppose not.
We’re still lacking vital information. The gift still could contain just “great.” What a challenging game the Gift Game is!
– Round 4 –
WE KNOW It does not contain “perfect,” because my son makes mistakes occasionally.
HOWEVER… This admission does not mean that we’re saying God is imperfect. That would be a non sequitur from the above admission.
Let’s open the gift box and see if we were right:
Excellent. “Hermeneutical Hero” achievement unlocked!
Round 5 presents us with a new set of sentences.
– Round 5 –
Watch out now! Remember what we learned before. It might be tempting to rush into assuming that the gift box contains “forever,” but that’s a trick of the Gift Game. It included the third sentence so that you would jump to that conclusion.
If we’re to be prudent sleuths, we need to recognize how much we know and how much we don’t. The gift box could, for example, contain “a long time” or “the future.”
– Round 6 –
Look at that! We were right not to make our guess just yet. Now, with these new sentences, WE KNOW that the gift box does not entail “forever.” HOWEVER… we can say this even as we believe that God’s dominion will endure forever. This is because God’s dominion will also endure for a long time and into the future, two softer statements that are nonetheless true.
When we examine these sentences, it looks like each of the gift-boxes contains something that means “age-related” or “of an age” or “of ages.” We also notice that it has certain overtones of significance (as in the case of the age of Moses) and perhaps long domain (like Isaiah’s patient silence or God’s dominion).
Let’s open the box (containing a lexicographical proposal):
The Real Gift Box
The latter gift box corresponds to a real word family we find in Scripture.
- The Hebrew word is olam.
- The Greek words are aion, aionios, and aionion. In the Greek Septuagint, likely the Bible with which Jesus and the Apostles were familiar, these words are often used in verses where the Hebrew was olam.
The Hermeneutical Error
There are intelligent, rational scholars today — and indeed scholars in ancient Christendom — who when confronted with Round 5 of the Gift Game, proclaimed, “The gift box contains ‘forever.'”
This is because the Gift Game’s tricky way of telling them that the life was forever, and contrasting the “life” destination with the “punishment” destination in the very same sentence.
We’ve talked about this problem before, when we covered St. Augustine’s dispute with the theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa. If you remember, St. Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion:
“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end [of punishment] for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into [aionion] punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into [aionion] life.’”
In this case, St. Augustine — obviously an intimidating intellectual — nonetheless “lost the Gift Game.”
Here’s theologian Dr. Todd Miles, from his book, A God of Many Understandings? (emphasis mine):
“Since the biblical testimony is clear that the life granted by faith in Christ is eternal, the only possible interpretation of Matt 25:46 is that the punishment of the wicked is likewise eternal.”
Here’s pastors Dr. Francis Chan and Dr. Preston Sprinkle, from their book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (emphasis mine):
“While it is true that aionios doesn’t always mean ‘everlasting,’ when used here to describe things in the ‘age to come,’ it probably does have this meaning. Think about it: Because the life in this age will never end, given the parallel, it also seems that the punishment in this age will never end.”
As you’ve seen, each of these brilliant men were nonetheless caught off-guard when it came to the Gift Game.
WE KNOW olam (and aion/aionios/aionion) does not ever mean “everlasting,” just as “great” never means “perfect,” and “broad” never means “infinite in broadness.” (EDIT: Perhaps a better way to say this is, “These are not automatically limited, in their range of meaning, to ‘everlasting.'”)
HOWEVER… this fact does not imply that olam means “not-everlasting,” just as “great” doesn’t mean “not-perfect,” and “broad” doesn’t mean “limited in broadness.”
And the parallelism tells us literally nothing beyond this, just as “The great king Solomon owed his wisdom to his great God” would not imply that Solomon was perfect, or of equal greatness to God.
To win the Gift Game on olam (and the Biblical usage of aion/aionios/aionion), the answer is to stick to the only definition we can derive. If it leaves us with ambiguity, then so be it; theological quietude demands that we boldly embrace the boring ambiguity and not use it as a platform for reckless conjecture.
This is why I applaud Dr. Chan and Dr. Sprinkle for the following:
“What about the word aionios? Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here. It’s important to note that however we translate aionios, the passage still refers to punishment for the wicked… The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty. I encourage you to continue researching, but don’t get so caught up in this debate that you miss the point of what Jesus was trying to communicate…. I believe His intention was to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs.”
When we talk about hell, there’s a very important question we must ask:
“Hell” is an English word, from the proto-Germanic haljo (“underworld” or “cave”). Its theorized Proto-Indo-European root also gave birth to “cell,” “cellar,” “hole,” “conceal,” the “-calypse” part of “apocalypse,” and much more.
As “underworld,” it can describe two very distinct concepts in Scripture. Neither are literal caverns, of course, but that’s the folk imagery conveyed to best illustrate these spiritual states.
The first is that which most of us immediately think when we hear “hell”: The agonizing torment due the unsaved at the Final Judgment. This “underworld” is described by means of several figures in Scripture:
- “Gehenna,” the notorious valley of flaming garbage in which human sacrifices once took place.
- “Outer darkness,” an area of cutting-off or exclusion.
Note: It is unclear, from passage to passage, whether this refers to the Final Judgment, or merely being excluded from the Kingdom of God under the New Covenant.
- “Lake of Fire.”
- “Second Death.”
But there’s another “underworld” in Scripture. This “underworld” precedes the Final Judgment, and swallows up all who die. The degree to which souls therein are conscious or unconscious is unknown, since the stories thereabout are steeped in figure.
It is “the pit.” It is feared, as “going into it” is equivalent to the first death, i.e., physical death. And yet, one might look forward to ending up near the fallen patriarchs and heroes of old, in the corner nicknamed “Abraham’s Side” or “Abraham’s Bosom.”
The Hebrew word for this “underworld” is Sheol. It is the mysterious “grave” of Hebrew eschatology. The Greek-speaking Jews co-opted the name of the pagan god Hades, likely meaning “the invisible one,” to talk of Sheol when writing and speaking Greek.
So, we have two “underworlds”:
- The First Death. The Pit. Sheol. Hades. Both righteous (Abraham’s Side) and unrighteous.
- The Second Death. God’s wrathful judgment. Gehenna. The Lake of Fire. Only the unrighteous.
And here’s one way of looking at the difference, to borrow some imagery from Minecraft:
Here’s the problem:
The English word “hell,” depending on your Bible translation, might be used interchangeably for both concepts, leaving us completely unaware of which of the two the author was writing.
And the biggest hermeneutical fallout of this conflation is a disastrous misinterpretation of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
This takes a moment to set up, so be patient. It’s worth it!
Jesus’s “Welcome” Discourse
Luke 15 and 16 are a single story, which I’m calling “Jesus’s ‘Welcome’ Discourse,” because it tragically lacks a formal or accepted name. Furthermore, it contains such powerful parables that it is often torn apart across several and disconnected sermons and homilies, which ruins the ability to see the forest for the trees.
The scene at the beginning of Luke 15 is that, as Jesus was teaching with his disciples, “the tax collectors [known at the time as skimmers/thieves] and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” Finding fault with this, “the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
In response, Jesus uses 5 parables to:
- Justify seeking the lost.
- Indict those who would be jealous, demanding charity for the lost.
- Indict the teachers as lost themselves, in need of the Kingdom Gospel.
The first 3 parables are very familiar to most of us Christians:
- Jesus likens the sinners to lost sheep, who need to be rescued and brought back to the fold.
- Jesus likens the sinners to lost coins, who are sought and warrant rejoicing when found.
- Jesus likens the sinners to a prodigal son, who are welcomed back home. Furthermore, a new element is introduced, likening the grumbling teachers to the loyal, but jealous son. Likewise, an element is introduced analogous to the New Covenant Kingdom: a welcoming party for the reconciled son.
That’s when Luke 15 ends, but the story doesn’t end there.
Luke 16 is simply a continuation of the exact same scene: Jesus teaching the group of disciples, sinners, teachers, etc., in response to the teachers’ complaints.
It’s important to recognize this “bad chapter break” because, without it, the next parable makes no sense at all.
The Shrewd Manager
“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
This parable is completely laughable as a morality lesson. Is Jesus really suggesting that the master would commend his manager for stealing from him?
The solution is to recognize that we’re still talking about the same scene as in Luke 15, and thus should be looking for the same elements as in the previous parables:
- The lost sinners
- The teachers
- The New Covenant Kingdom of God.
And we find these elements.
- The master represents God.
- The master’s debtors represent those sinners and tax collectors.
- The money manager represents those grumbling Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who had been enjoying the blessings and favor of God but who had been “wasting” it, and would soon be “out of a job.”
- So what did the commendable manager do? He began to forgive the master’s debts, using his job to gain friends, since he would soon be among them – no longer “elite” and “privileged,” but a fellow debtor.
Jesus then explained exactly what was happening, and why those grumbling teachers needed to be concerned (Luke 16:16-18):
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Jesus spells it out:
- The Law would forever stand, and indict those under it – even those self-righteous teachers whose behavior had made them adulturers under Jesus’s demanding interpretation.
- But the Law is no longer being preached. It stopped with the arrival of John the Baptist.
- Rather, the Gospel is being preached: The Kingdom of God under the New Covenant.
- With this new Good News, the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, etc. are all “rushing in” – and those self-righteous ministers would be wise to do the same!
Jesus says much the same thing in Matthew 21:31-32:
“[Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders,] ‘Which of the two did what his father wanted? [The son who refused to work but changed his mind, or the one who promised to work but changed his mind?]’
‘The first,’ they answered.
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.'”
Notice the very same themes are being repeated. The religious elite “made promises, but changed their minds.” As a result, they’ve squandered their blessings and will soon be “out of a job.” John the Baptist came to introduce the coming Kingdom, and the sinners are all rushing in.
The reason why it’s so important to recognize this context is because the next parable is Lazarus and the Rich Man.
A Visit to Sheol
The Rich Man, dressed in fine cloths and linens, is enjoying a bounteous feast. Meanwhile, Lazarus must eat of the scraps falling off the edge of the Rich Man’s table.
Then, suddenly, both Lazarus and the Rich Man simultaneously die and go to Sheol (Gr. Hades) the Hebrew “Grave Zone.” We know that they die simultaneously, and that the Last Judgment has not yet occurred, because the Rich Man still has “living brethren” (v. 28).
In Sheol, it is Lazarus who is blessed: He winds up in the “Abraham’s Bosom” area of Sheol, alongside the patriarchs, while the Rich Man is separated by a “chasm” within Sheol, and in agony.
If we apply the context of the scene – Jesus is still talking to the Pharisees here, still in response to their sneering and grumbling – then the symbols fall into place here as well.
- The Rich Man represents the grumbling teachers, who were enjoying the bounteous blessings.
- Lazarus represents the sinners, surviving on the scraps of that table.
- Then, suddenly, the New Covenant erupts. Lazarus is the “first brother” of Matthew 21, who now enjoys the company of the patriarchs (v. 29). The Rich Man is like the “second brother” of Matthew 21, the one who now suffers separation from the true, but restructured lineage of God and his people.
- Lazarus means “he whom God helps,” a powerful indication of the means by which all sinners might become reconciled: Grace (God-help).(Is it odd that a parable would have a proper identifier? Not if there’s a meaningful reason behind its use, like with Christ’s use of ‘Samaritan’ earlier in Luke.)
In other words, the situation has now flipped. Before the New Covenant, the grumblers were sitting pretty. Now, their own self-righteousness and lack of repentance and submission to Grace has found them on the wrong side of the Covenantal chasm.
This interpretation, which is in full conformity to the Luke 15-16 narrative and context, is only possible when we recognize that this isn’t about the Last Judgment and any punishments therefrom. Rather, it’s a parable that uses the Hebrew idea of Sheol to vividly illustrate the imminent Covenental “paradigm shift.”
Getting “Quiet” on Hell
If we look in a King James Version and some other versions of the Bible, we’ll see “hell” instead of Gr. Hades or Heb. Sheol in Luke 16. This will give us the distinct and erroneous impression that only the Rich Man went there, and not that both figures went there (Lazarus to the “Abraham’s Bosom” beachfront property of Sheol).
This will in turn give us the distinct and erroneous impression that Lazarus must have gone to heaven, and the agonizing heat of the underworld the Rich Man suffers will be misunderstood as the agony of the post-Judgment hell.
You see how disastrous mere semantic and linguistic confusion can be?
The goal of theological quietude is to embrace the “boring” language problems that underpin debates ongoing for centuries. It’s about getting “excited” about the “boring,” since the “boring” isn’t very exciting on its own — which makes it become neglected. Then, over time, natural selection of thought, debate, and written word will more and more neglect it, concretizing and enshrining old blunders.
As you can see, there’s a big fallout to this neglect. It can make the difference between reading a parable how Jesus intended – using Hebrew folk eschatology to paint a picture of the New Covenant Kingdom – versus mistakenly reading it as a literal account of the Christian kolasin aionion (i.e., the hell of Judgment) and wrongly using it to glean details thereabout.