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WHY WASN’T NERO KNOWN AS “THE BEAST”?

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  February 20, 2012 — 3 Comments

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.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 80 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

3 responses to WHY WASN’T NERO KNOWN AS “THE BEAST”?

  1. Revelation 19:20 says, “Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone.”

    Presuming Nero is the beast, could you explain to me who the false prophet was and why you believe that?

    Thanks

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. March 22, 2012 at 6:30

      J. S. Green:
      Wow! You ask a lot for a brief reply. But thanks for your question. I will post a full article on this before long. However, just quickly: I believe the false prophet represents the high priest of Israel, and that in the events surrounding AD 70, not only did Nero die but the Jewish temple was destroyed and the high priestly system vanished away.

      Because of the detail needed to flesh this out, I will have to hold off for an article or two. However, if you are interested in some details on this, you can find it in my book: Navigating the Book of Revelation.
      http://www.kennethgentry.com/products/Navigating-Revelation-%28pb-book%29-30%25-off%21.html

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