So apparently some people think the world is ending tomorrow, based on an analysis of some numbers used in the Bible.
Here’s the tricky thing: numbers can be used with a more-than-literal meaning in the Bible. For example, Matthew 18:21-22:
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
It would be wonderfully cathertic if you had permission to let your enemy have it on the 491st offense, but, alas, it appears as if the numbers in this passage are not strictly literal.
(Digression on the topic of forgiveness: I heard this this morning and it made me cry.)
Seven seems to be a symbol for completeness, and that makes sense in this passage: Jesus is advocating really, really, really complete forgiveness. Other numbers that seem to have symbolic value are four (=the earth), twelve (=Israel), forty (=a period of trial, learning), and multiples of ten mean “a lot.” There may be others as well. A useful part of scripture study would be this: when you encounter a number, ask yourself how that number is used in other scriptures, and see if any patterns emerge.
The thing to note, though, is that these numbers are used symbolically, not predictively. That is, they refer to some other concept (seven = completeness), not to future events (May 21st, 2011 = end of the world). They do imply that sometimes the most literal reading of the Bible is not the one the author intended. But if you still have two eyes and two hands, you probably already knew that.