The postmillennial preterist argues that John uses 666 as a reference to Nero Caesar, and not to some future Antichrist who reduces the world to terror. But dispensationalists often challenge this interpretation with the following question: “Since Irenaeus is one of the earliest sources to refer to the number 66, why did he not know the identity of the beast?”
In answering this objection the preterist could take recourse to Mark Twain’s experience. He once was asked a question in an interview, regarding which he reported later: “I was glad to be able to answer quickly! I answered: ‘I don’t know.’” When we stop to think about it, there are many questions that arise regarding the history of biblical interpretation. We sometimes are dumbfounded as to how things get lost or turned around. So we could reply to the question about Irenaeus failure to identify the beast as Nero by responding: “I don’t know.”
Ironically though, the question happens to reflect exactly what Irenaeus claims: John did not tell who the beast (Antichrist in Irenaeus’ view) was. Irenaeus writes:
“We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day.”
Here he says that John did not announce the name of the beast. And he doesn’t tell us why John did not inform his hearers. This would account for why we don’t have a clear indication of the identity of the beast in church tradition (which, as a matter of fact, we do not have).
Nevertheless, 666 must have meant something. John certainly emphasizes the number of the beast as indicating the identity of the beast. Whatever it originally meant to John, it somehow was lost early-on (much to our regret!). Irenaeus poses three possible options in the preceding context, but then gives the statement cited above. He doesn’t know — even though he claims John lived almost into his own lifetime and taught people whom he himself knew.
We know that teachings can be quickly scrambled or lost. Think of how often the Lord told the disciples he must die, only to have them confused and dismayed when he died — even doubting the women who saw him after the resurrection. Some even doubted the resurrection after they saw him with their own eyes (Mt 28:17). Think of how quickly the Galatians fell from the truth (Gal 1:8). We wouldn’t have so many denominations and doctrines if things were clearly understood once they had been taught.
We can imagine this problem being more apt to happen regarding a complex and symbolic book like Revelation. Apparently John wanted to tantalize his audience in his drama. After all, he could have written it in another form than symbolic drama (as he did in his Gospel). There is so much in Revelation that is confusing!
In addition, I suspect that a part of the problem with the loss of the meaning of the name of the beast lies in the circumstances of the church thereafter. As the church was being persecuted over the next couple of centuries, she began to apply the prophecies of Revelation to herself in making them “relevant.” This allowed the original meaning to slip away while offering “encouragement” to those who saw Revelation “being fulfilled” around them. Hal Lindsey is not unique to biblical interpretation; even long ago people thought of Revelation as applying directly to themselves and thought the end of all things was upon them.