Numbers are useful. They help us quantify, measure, and calculate. Numbers are necessary to our understanding of physics, chemistry, and time. Without numbers, we couldn’t build houses, keep calendars, or do much of anything.
But sometimes numbers are perceived and used in ways beyond their objective mathematical and scientific functions. Even the Bible uses certain numbers in detectible patterns. Throughout history, people have used numbers symbolically to convey meaning, interpret events, or predict the future. But is this practice, broadly known as numerology, a safe and permissible practice for Christians?
Christians are forbidden from practicing numerology, as it is a form of divination. The symbolic numbers found in the Bible are easily identified and plainly understood without relying on numerology.
The Practice of Numerology
The use of numbers as symbols leads to two related but distinct practices within numerology. The first is the symbolic use of numbers to interpret a text or recorded event. The second is the use of numbers as predictors of future events. We will examine each practice separately as we discern how each can lead a Christian down a path of sin and away from the truth of the Bible.
Interpreting Meaning through Numbers
When reading through the Bible, even a casual observer will note that certain numbers appear with more frequency than others. The observer might even notice that certain numbers appear in similar contexts across different sections of scripture. For example, one might observe that Israel was divided into twelve tribes, and Jesus chose twelve disciples.
Similarly, the number seven appears throughout the book of Revelation, where each seventh item (seven bowls, seven seals, seven trumpets) completes a series of related events, just as the seventh day capped the created week in Genesis. And the number 40 is used to measure trials, such as the Great Flood (40 days of rain), the Israelites’ time in the wilderness (40 years), and Jesus’ temptation (after 40 days of fasting).
It is important to note that while their patterned use might prompt a strictly symbolic reading of these numbers, we can and should first read them plainly and literally. The Bible says that the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness because that was the elapsed time between their departure from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land. The gospels record (and name) twelve disciples because that is the number of men that Jesus invited into his core group of followers.
When God Uses Patterns
God has given us His word in a manner that is plain and easy to understand because it is His desire that we understand it. So why then, would He use such obviously symbolic numbers, like seven or forty?
First, He uses them because they are obvious, and He wants us to see His character, His purpose, and His plan throughout the entire Biblical narrative.
Second, as the sovereign Lord, God uses such symbols to reveal His sovereignty over creation and over history. The repetition of seven, twelve, and forty, for example, is not a coincidence. It is evidence that God is in control. The fact that we can easily identify such numerical patterns is what makes them significant, and a wise reader of scripture will not dismiss their use.
The Quest for More Patterns
In one instance, scripture does instruct the reader to interpret a number strictly as a symbol. Revelation 13:8 says, “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.” Clearly, this instruction is unique to this particular number and context and does not apply to the rest of scripture.
However, numerology seeks patterns where they are not obvious, and even engineers patterns where none exist. Biblical numerologists have dissected and inferred symbols from census records, the ages of the patriarchs, and the reigns of Israel’s kings, to cite some examples. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the findings and conclusions of these numerologists.
But the point that must be made is that the use of numbers to reveal hidden or speculative meaning is akin to the heresy of Gnosticism, which originated in the late first century AD. The Gnostics sought to achieve salvation by discerning mystical knowledge (Greek gnosis) of divine things through the interpretation of symbols. Several early church fathers condemned the practice of numerology, which Irenaeus specifically linked to Gnosticism.
Diving the Future through Numbers
The second practice of numerology is in the use of divination, or predicting future events. Similar to astrology, the use of numbers as predictors has been practiced in multiple cultures both ancient and modern. Ancient Babylonians, Chinese, and Greek all maintained well-documented systems of numerology.
In modern practice in the West, numerologists trace their understanding of numbers back to the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras. In addition to his contributions to mathematics and geometry, Pythagoras believed that the physical world could be distilled to numbers, each of which provided a unique vibration, or energy to the universe.
Biblical Prohibition of Divination
Using an individual’s name and birth date, the numerologist divines the individual’s life path and destiny numbers. Similar to an astrological reading, these numbers represent the character traits, aptitudes, purpose, and goals of the subject.
To a Christian, such divination practices are strictly forbidden. Deuteronomy 18:10 cites divination, along with sorcery and interpreting omens, as a practice that is detestable to God. And the witness of the early Christians in Ephesus prompted people to repent of their sorcery and burn their divination materials, (Acts 19:18-19).
Divination, in all of its forms, enters into the spiritual realm through pathways not permitted. As Christians, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and through the Son, we have direct access to our Heavenly Father. There are no other means by which we can come to the Father and no other spirit through which we gain wisdom and insight.
Numerology, like all forms of divination, is a deceptive practice that directs our attention and our desires away from God and His truth. In numerology, we find nothing more than false comfort, unfounded hope, and misled spirits. As the prophet Zechariah warns:
The idols speak deceitfully,
diviners see visions that lie;
they tell dreams that are false,
they give comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wander like sheep
oppressed for lack of a shepherd. Zechariah 10:2