The Beast of Revelation
For the past 150 years or more, there has been increasing speculation on the identity of the "Beast" found in the book of the Revelation. I became a Christian in 1975 when the books dealing with subjects concerning the Second Coming of Christ were all the rage. Most, if not all, of those books proved to be the fanciful imaginative speculations of the authors. Very little real exegetical study accompanied these books. Many of us became disillusioned with this kind of Bible interpretative method that combined the current headlines with Bible passages.
It was out of this discontentment with the "prophecy fads" which changed frequently, that I began a quest to try and understand the apocalyptic literature from a more historical and proper hermeneutical perspective. This paper is a partial result of that study. What I share here is nothing new. It is what many down through the ages have believed. Bear in mind, it is in conflict with the current evangelical trend, and it may take some "digesting" to comprehend.
Most of us were taught many things that we accepted without truly being “Bereans” (Acts 17:11). We must be willing to examine what we have been taught in the light of the Scriptures. I would encourage you to be a “Berean” concerning what is contained in the following pages.
“Jumping to Conclusions”
Before we turn to the book of the Revelation we must first deal with some false assumptions concerning the Beast. People have often “jumped to conclusions," without Biblical support for their “jumping." We must not “leap” over the lack of Biblical evidence to support our conclusions.
A classic example of “jumping to conclusions” without having Biblical evidence to do so, is the assumption that the Beast of Revelation and the Antichrist are one and the same. Most books on Bible prophecy begin with this foundational assumption. In most instances, the terms are used interchangeably.
My question is “Where is your Biblical evidence to support this conclusion?”. There is a “missing link” between the Antichrist and the Beast. What is the Scriptural basis to assume that they are the same person? The Bible describes them in distinctively different ways.
Antichrist is a term used exclusively in two books of the New Testament: 1 John and 2 John. Contrary to popular assumption the word “antichrist” does not appear in the book of the Revelation; John only uses this term in his first two epistles, with a specific definition.
The term antichrist is used, by John, two ways: it identified a heresy which denied certain essential doctrines concerning Jesus, and it identified a person or persons holding that heretical view.
Concerning the “antichrist heresy," we are told that the spirit of the antichrist denied two basic truths about Jesus of Nazareth. One, that He had not come in the flesh, and secondly, that He was not from God (1 John 4:2-3). Antichrist is described in 1 John 4:1, as a spirit that is working through the false prophets that have gone out into the world. These false prophets teach that Jesus Christ has not come in the flesh. In this they deny the doctrine of the Incarnation (the belief that God became a man).
“Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22)
An antichrist denied that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah (Anointed One) prophesied in the Old Testament and anticipated by the Jewish people. In denying this truth about the Son, an antichrist denied the Father as well, because the Father had made His Son Jesus the Christ.
The people who followed this heresy were called “antichrists” (1 John 2:18, 2 John 7). How does John describe these people? They are characterized by four attributes.
First, we see that these antichrists were contemporaries of John who were at work in the first century. John clearly states that the spirit of the antichrist “is already in the world” (1 John 4:3).Those who would have us believe that the antichrist is still yet to come must explain why John was teaching the first century church how to recognize it. In 1 John 2:18, John called his own time “the last hour” because these false prophets had already come, just as Jesus had prophesied (Matt. 24:10-11).
Second, we know that the antichrists had been part of the church.
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they were not of us.” (1 John 2:19)
The antichrist heresy began with false teachers inside the church, and as such were the devil’s instrument to battle the church from within. The antichrists’ departure from the church was evidence that they did not truly belong to the church. Even so, they continued trying to lead believers astray (1 John 2:26). This same problem is addressed in John’s second epistle.
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you might not lose what we have accomplished, but that we may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” (2 John 7-11)
In this we see the third attribute: the antichrists worked by deception. They appeared to be spiritual teachers of truth, but were in reality “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15, 24:24).
Finally, we can see that the antichrists were recognizable. The discerning believer would be able to examine the teachings of the antichrists and distinguish truth from error. This was John’s purpose in writing about them: so that believers of his day could recognize these false teachers by his clear description of them, and avoid them.
The antichrist heresy was apparently an early form of gnosticism, which was a system of belief opposed to orthodox Christianity and prevalent in the second and third centuries. Gnosticism generally taught that matter was evil, that the Incarnation was an illusion, and that salvation was through knowledge.
There were various forms of gnosticism and many Gnostic heretics. Church history records that the arch-heretic of John’s day was a man by the name of Cerinthus. Church historian Philip Schaff relates a meeting between John and Cerinthus recorded by Irenaeus:
“On meeting in the public bath at Ephesus the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus, who denied the incarnation of our Lord, John refused to remain under the same roof, lest it might fall.”
In 1 John 2:18, John states that “the antichrist is coming” and “many antichrists have come." If John had one particular man in mind as the Antichrist, it is possible that that man was Cerinthus.
The Time of the Revelation
Now, let us turn our attention to the book of the Revelation and in particular, the one referred to as “the Beast."
But, before we can turn to those passages where the Beast is mentioned, we must deal with some basic issues of interpreting the Revelation. It seems that most people today have not read the first verse of this book, which would go along way in helping them interpret it. Take note of verse 1:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must shortly take place....”
Notice verse 3:
“.... and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near”
We cannot ignore John’s use of these words, because they supply us with important information to the interpretation of this book. Whereas, most believers are awaiting the events described in the book of the Revelation to find their fulfillment in the future, John clearly tells us that the prophecies of Revelation would begin to come to pass within a very short period of time of his writing. He dogmatically states that the events of Revelation were “shortly” to take place, and that the time is “near." Both of these words are significant.
The first is the Greek word tachos, translated “shortly”. The Arndt-Gingrich Greek lexicon lists the following meanings under the tachos entry: “speed," “at once," “without delay," “soon," “in a short time," “shortly."
If you look up Revelation 1:1 in any modern translation you will find that the idea clearly exhibited is that of the very near occurrence of the events of Revelation. This term also occurs in Revelation 2:16, 3:11, and 22:6,7,12,20. Even a cursory reading of these verses unavoidably leads to the conclusion that John expected these things to happen “shortly” or “soon."
The second Greek word is eggus, which is translated as “near” (Rev. 1:3, 22:10). This term literally means “at hand” (John 6:4, 7:2). According to Arndt-Gingrich, when used of temporal relationships it signifies “near” or “soon." Its importance in our context is clearly that of temporal nearness. The events bracketed by these statements were expected, by the apostle John, to begin taking place at any moment. They were near!
There is a final Greek word that John uses, which also speaks of time. The Greek word mello, which means “about to” (Rev. 1:19, 3:10) emphasizes John’s anticipation of the soon occurrence
of his prophecy. When found in both the verb forms appearing in Revelation 1:19 and 3:10, this term means “be on the point of, be about to." A number of Bible translations confuse the matter when they translate the word properly in Revelation 3:10 but improperly in Revelation 1:19. According to Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, Revelation 1:19 reads: “Write the things that thou hast seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to come [Greek word- mello] after these things." The leading interlinear versions of the New Testament concur.
John, with the use of these Greek words, clearly reveals that the events of Revelation would see their fulfillment in the first century. Therefore, the Beast of Revelation was a contemporary of John, rather than a political figure of the 20th century.
I will seek to properly lay out the evidence as to the identity of the Beast.
“And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and on his horns were ten diadems, and on his heads were blasphemous names." (Rev.13:1)
Most commentators agree that the imagery of the Beast shifts between what is called “generic” and “specific." Generically, the Beast represents a kingdom. In some passages the Beast has seven heads, which we are told represent seven kings (Rev. 17:10). In other passages the term is used specifically to refer to an individual, one of the heads. For example, John instructs his readers to “calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man” (Rev. 13:18). Most often when people speak of the Beast they are making specific reference to an individual.
In the first verse of Revelation 13, the Beast has ten horns with ten diadems, or crowns. He also has seven heads, which Revelation 17:9 tells us are “seven mountains." Most New Testament scholars recognize that the seven mountains represent the famous seven hills of Rome. The seven hills of Rome are mentioned in the writings of antiquity, both Christian and pagan. The ten horns, with the crowns, are in reference to the ten empirical provinces of Rome.
In the “generic” sense the Beast is an apocalyptic symbol of the Roman empire. The first century believer was more familiar with the Old Testament than most of us, and would have quickly recognized the similarities between the Beast of Revelation and the visions of Daniel. In Daniel, we find four beasts representing four kingdoms (Dan. 7:17). These four kingdoms are parallel to the four levels of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in Daniel 2, which represented the empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Thus, John’s readers would have recognized the Beast representing the kingdom ruling in that day.
But the Beast of Revelation can also have a specific identity as a man. Who is the individual that John calls the “Beast”? What clues has he left us to determine his identity?
Identifying the Beast
John has left us with two major “clues” as to the identity of the one he calls, “The Beast." Both of these clues point irrefutably to the same person, not someone who would be born in the 20th century (which would be of no relevance to his intended audience), but to none other than Lucius Domtius Ahenobarbus, better known as, Nero Claudius Caesar. Nero, and Nero alone, matches the specific expression of the Beast. This diabolical character meets the criteria laid down by the book of the Revelation itself.
The first “clue” for us to examine is Revelation 13:18, which says:
“Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.”
Let us remember that John is writing from the isle of Patmos, where he has been imprisoned. This letter would have been, in all likelihood, carried off the island by Roman soldiers. John had to send his message in “code” lest his captors understand his reference to the emperor. Instead of openly stating who the “Beast” was, he left them a clue that every Hebrew could easily discern.
In ancient times, alphabets served a two-fold purpose. Letters functioned not only as phonetic symbols, but as numerals, as well. The Arabic numeral system, which we use today, was a later development. As a consequence, names had a numerical value. Throughout the ancient world, we find the practice of using the numerical value of a name, as a sort of cryptogram.
The Hebrew spelling of the name Nero Caesar was NRWN QSR (represented here by English letters). The sum of these numbers, which match each Hebrew letter, add up precisely to 666 as follows:
N = 50 R = 200 W = 6 N =50 Q = 100 S = 60 R = 200
Is this a coincidence? Or was John sending a message to his readers, which they could have calculated with relative ease?
Another interesting factor to consider is what is called the “textual variant." If you consult a Bible with marginal references you will find something quite intriguing. Regarding Revelation 13:18, your reference may say something to the effect: “Some manuscripts read 616." The fact is that the number 666 in some ancient manuscripts is actually changed to 616. But why? Was it changed by accident or intentionally?
The difference surely is no accident of sight made by an early copyist. The numbers 666 and 616 are not even similar in appearance -- whether spelled out in words or written in numerals. As textual scholars agree, it must be intentional.
A strong case has been made for the following probability. John, a Jew, used a Hebrew spelling of Nero’s name in order to arrive at the number 666. But when Revelation began circulating among those less acquainted with Hebrew, a well meaning copyist who knew the meaning of 666 might have intended to make its deciphering easier by altering it to read 616. It is certainly no mere coincidence that 616 is the numerical value of “Nero Caesar," when spelled in Hebrew by transliterating it from its more widely familiar Latin spelling. Such a conjecture would explain the rationale for the deviation: so that the non-Hebrew mind might more readily discern the identity of the Beast.
The second major “clue” John gives us is found in Revelation 17:9-10, which declares:
“Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.”
As we stated earlier, the seven mountains represent the seven hills of Rome. But John also tells us that they represent seven kings. Of these seven kings, he tells us five have already fallen. The sixth king is the one, who John says, is now reigning.
Who was this “sixth king”? Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of that period, clearly points out that Julius Caesar was the first emperor of Rome and that he was followed in succession by Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. The sixth was none other than Nero (see Antiquities, books 18 & 19). This is also confirmed by Roman historians, Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars) and Dio Cassius (Roman History V).
In addition, John states, “the other has not yet come” (the seventh), “and when he comes, he must remain a little while." Following Nero came Galba, who reigned less than seven months.
“And it was given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them....”
Nero was not only the sixth emperor of Rome, he was the first to persecute Christians. That persecution began in the middle of November 64 A.D. and continued until June 8, 68 A.D. when Nero committed suicide, a period of 42 months. Take note how this fits with Revelation 13:5, which says:
“And there was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies; and authority to act for forty-two months was given him."
Is this just another coincidence, or is it more evidence from Scripture as to the identity of the Beast?
Furthermore, John prophesied the death that the Beast would die. The Beast not only slays by the sword, but ultimately is to die of a sword wound. Revelation 13:10 tells us:
“If anyone leads into captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed.”
The fact that Nero killed by the sword is well documented. Paul, for example, is said to have died under Nero by decapitation with a sword. Tertullian credits “Nero’s cruel sword” as providing the martyr’s blood as seed for the Church. He urges his readers to “Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect."
Likewise, history records that Nero took his own life with the sword. Roman historian Suetonius describes Nero’s death: “Then with the help of his secretary, Epaphroditus, he stabbed himself in the throat."
It is interesting, from a historical perspective, that Nero was actually referred to as a “beast”
by his contemporaries. For instance, the pagan writer Apollinius of Tyana, who lived at the time of Nero, states: “In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs.... And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mother, but Nero gorged himself on this diet."
Nero ruthlessly murdered his parents, his brother, his pregnant wife (whom he kicked to death) and other family members. He was a homosexual, who found sexual gratification in watching torture. He enjoyed dressing up as a wild beast and raping male and female prisoners. He illuminated his garden parties with the bodies of Christians, covered with pitch and set aflame.
Roman historian Tacitus (56-117 A.D.) spoke of Nero’s “cruel nature” that “put to death so many innocent men." Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) described Nero as “the destroyer of the human race” and “the poison of the world." Roman satirist Juvenal (60-140 A.D.) speaks of “Nero’s cruel and bloody tyranny." Suetonius (70-160 A.D.), speaks of Nero’s “cruelty of disposition” evidencing itself at an early age. He documents Nero’s evil and states: “neither discrimination or moderation [were employed] in putting to death whosoever he pleased on any pretext whatever."
The Beast Arising from the Dead
“And I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast.”
As we examine this verse and how it relates to the Beast, it is necessary to remember that John’s use of the term “Beast” is both specific and generic. Generically, the Beast represents the Roman Empire, while specifically, the Beast represents Caesar Nero.
Understanding the matters we have examined up to this point take us along way toward resolving the interpretive issue before us. The mortal wound to one of the heads is a wound which should have been fatal to the Beast i.e.; Roman Empire. This explains why that after the wound was healed and the Beast continued to live that “the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast." The seven-headed beast seems indestructible, for the cry goes up:
“Who is like the beast and who is able to wage war with him?”
How does all this imagery apply to Rome and Nero?
At this point we need to examine a significant series of events surrounding the death of Nero. A perfectly reasonable and historical explanation of the “revived” Beast can be found. This is were may interpretations “stumble," they forget the original audience for whom the book was intended and, consequently, overlook the history of the era.
When Nero committed suicide on June 8, 68 A.D., two major inter-related historical situations faced the world. Both carried with them catastrophic consequences.
First, with the death of Nero, the Julian-Claudian line of emperors came to an end. In other words, the blood line which had received worship from the Roman Empire had been cut off forever. To the superstitious, pagan world this was most significant. This was no small matter to the subjects of the Roman Empire.
Second, catastrophe upon catastrophe followed the death of Nero and the extinction of the Roman Empire’s founding family. The empire found itself engulfed in civil wars, to the extent that “eternal Rome” was endanger of being reduced to rubble.
Josephus writes concerning these civil wars: “I have omitted to give an exact account of them, because they are well known by all, and they are described by a great number of Greek and Roman authors."
Tacitus writes: “The history on which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace. Four emperors failed by the sword; there were three civil wars, more foreign wars and often both at the same time.... In Rome there was more awful cruelty.... Besides the manifold misfortunes that befell mankind, there were prodigies in the sky and on the earth, warnings given by thunderbolts, and prophecies of the future, both joyful and gloomy, uncertain and clear. For never was it more fully proved by awful disasters
of the Roman people or by indubitable signs that gods care not for our safety, but for our punishment.”
Suetonius wrote, concerning the long months following Nero’s death, that the empire “for a longtime had been unsettled, and as it were, drifting, through the usurpation and violent death of the three emperors, was at last taken in hand and given stability by the Flavian family.”
Titus Flavius Vespasianus restored political stability and established a new dynasty of the Roman Empire. Under the rule of Vespasian the empire was revived and the Beast lived once more.
The relevant verses in Revelation regarding the death and revivification of the Beast are most readily understood as prophesying the earth-shaking historical events after the suicide of Nero in 68 A.D. Rome died, as it were, but returned to life once again.
The view I have espoused here may, in all likelihood, run contrary to what you have been previously taught. My encouragement to you, would be to examine this teaching in light of the Scriptures. Bearing in mind John’s original audience (Rev. 1:4,11), his call for their careful consideration (Rev. 1:3; 13:9), and his contemporary expectation (Rev. 1:1, 3).
David Chilton in his book, Days of Vengeance, makes this comment:
“It is significant that ‘all the earliest Christian writers on the Apocalypse, from Irenaeus down to Victorinus of Pettau and Commodian in the fourth, and Andreas in the fifth, and St. Beatus in the eighth century, connect Nero, or some Roman emperor, with the Apocalyptic Beast’. There should be no reasonable doubt about this identification. St. John was writing to first-century Christians, warning them of things that were “shortly” to take place. They were engaged in the most crucial battle of history, against the Dragon and the evil Empire which he possessed. The purpose of the Revelation was to comfort the Church with the assurance that God was in control, so that even the awesome might of the Dragon and the Beast would not stand before the armies of Jesus Christ.”
Originally written in 1998