Questions & Answers

Why didn't Irenaeus know the name hidden in 666?

Dr. Gentry:

As I study your argument for 666 as a reference to Nero Caesar, these two questions arise. Could you please explain your understanding of these objections?
  • If Irenaeus's statement refers to John rather than the apocalypse, the statement seems to suggest that John wasn't telling people who the beast was during his lifetime. That seems odd if those things had already occurred.
  • If John did reveal to his contemporaries the identity of the beast why wouldn't it have been common knowledge amongst the Christians and therefore Irenaeus?
Thank you, S.F., OH

Dr. Gentry's response:

Thanks for your questions. In answering both of these questions, I 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 to the questions you pose, we could respond simply: "I don't know."

Ironically though, your first question happens to be 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 -- whenever it was that John lived. And he doesn't tell us why John did not inform his hearers. If Irenaeus' report were true, it 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).

Regarding your second question I usually point out that 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 (for instance, consider his Gospel). There is so much in Revelation that is confusing!

Furthermore, it may well be (and I think is the case) that John died not long after his release from imprisonment on Patmos. In my view, Irenaeus' statement that indicates John lived almost into Irenaeus' own lifetime could very well be mistaken. Like his claim (on the same grounds: tradition) that Jesus ministered for 15 years and died when approaching age 50. In other words, he simply was mistaken.

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.

I hope this is helpful. You have asked an interesting question that frustrates us.