FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Will the world end today

June 6, 2006, or 6-6-06, yields the dreaded number 666, known in the Bible as the number of the Antichrist and a sure sign of the apocalypse. But are Americans and Bible scholars buying it?

Some people, maybe. They’ll be queuing up to read the next book in the phenomenally popular Left Behind series, out today. Or watching “The Omen,” about the Antichrist as a child, as it opens in theaters today. Or watching their bet with an offshore company that has touted the opportunity.

Most folks, though, seem a bit more skeptical. They say that terrible things may be on the horizon. But not because of a calendar date.

Superstition or not,, an offshore betting company, is taking wagers on whether today is the end.

Spokesman Matt Ross frankly said it’s just an attention grabber – like the company’s games on which Olson twin will marry first, or which country Osama bin Laden will be captured in.

More warily, Touch restaurant and lounge on South Beach canceled tonight’s sixth anniversary party when nearly two dozen customers voiced numeric jitters.

Sean Brasel, executive chef and co-owner, doesn’t see any meaning in the date himself. “But it’s hard to promote something as fun when some people think the number represents evil.” He said he’s looking forward to July 7 next year, when the restaurant can hold a “777 Party.”

Such fears make Warren Gage fume.

“It’s more than wrong; it’s a disgrace and it keeps people in fear,” said Gage, associate professor of Old Testament at Knox Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “There is no biblical basis for making a date the end of the world.”

But Bob Hodgson of the American Bible Society says apocalyptic thinking has a “rich history” in pop culture as well as religious circles.

“There’s a permanent home in the human heart for spiritual things,” Hodgson said. “I don’t look at apocalyptic thinking as an aberration.”

What does 666 have to do with, then? Bible scholars say it points to a ruthless dictator, or perhaps a dictatorial government. The idea is linked to an ancient numerology called gematria, which can be used to associate numbers with words.

“Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person,” says Revelation 13:18. “Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”

In ancient times, numeric values were assigned to letters, scholars explain. That’s how some people approach endtime Bible prophecies.

Various formulas over the centuries have marked the Antichrist as Machiavelli, Josef Stalin and Henry Kissinger. Some people have noted that Ronald Wilson Reagan had three names with six letters in each name. And whoever occupies the Vatican at the moment – including the current Pope Benedict XVI – some will always spot him as the endtime archvillain.

Some scholars say 666 most likely is code for Nero, the Roman emperor who persecuted Christians in the first century. When “Nero Caesar” is transliterated into Hebrew, they say, the letters add up to 666.But Gage of Knox Seminary cites other Bible verses, in I John and II John, that indicate an Antichrist as someone who denies that Jesus came. That would mean that many antichrists have come and gone throughout history.

Even the silly stuff has its place for many people, suggests the Bible Society’s Hodgson. “Just as they think about the beginning of things, like creation and evolution, they think about the end of things. And their place in it.”

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