Why wasn’t Nero considered an option in antiquity?

Dr. Gentry:

Why wasn’t Nero considered an option in antiquity. This seems to undermine your identification of 666. If you (and other moderns) could figure it out, why couldn’t the early Christians? After all, Revelation is the most frequently cited NT text in Christian writings of the 2nd century but, to my knowledge, none of these postulate Nero of as being signified by 666. Thank you, P.T., Las Vegas, NV

Dr. Gentry’s response:

It is true that Nero doesn’t arise much in the ancient documents we have. However we should note the following in this regard:

  • 666 must have meant something when John wrote it, but as we can see by the time of Irenaeus the meaning was already lost. Ireneaus offers three suggestions. Thus, all this problem does is tell us the meaning was lost, not that the Nero meaning is erroneous.
  • The very nature of apocalyptic is such that it baffles and challenges the reader. John himself had to have an interpreting angel explain some of the matters in his own vision (e.g., Rev 7:13-14; 17:9-10). We should not be surprised that without John present and apart from an interpreting angel the meaning could have been lost. And this is especially so in light of my next observation.
  • It is the tendency of human nature and the evident temptation of the early church for one’s own situation to serve as an interpretive lens. In light of the later Roman persecution of the church, the temptation to adapt Revelation to the church’s own predicament would have been great. The church’s circumstances and temptations could easily explain the arising of new interpretations for purposes of “relevance.”

We see this tendency even in the Historicist school of interpretation: this approach generally views Revelation’s events as beginning to unfold in the first century and leading up to the interpreter’s present time, almost invariably with the expectation that Revelation’s climax is being reached.

But as to whether there were any Christian beliefs about Nero being connected to 666. How about Victorinus commentary on Revelation? While he indicates the Apocalypse was written during the Domitian reign, he nevertheless states this;

“And one of the heads was slain to death, and his death-stroke was healed: speaks of Nero. For it is certain that when he was followed by the cavalry sent by the Senate, he cut through his own throat. This one raised, therefore, God is to send as a worthy king to those worthy, to the Jews and to the persecutors of Christ, a Christ of such a kind the persecutors and Jews have deserved. And because he will be bearing another name, and also beginning another life, so thus the same will be taken for Christ. For Daniel says: He will not be acquainted with the desire of women, in this he will be very impure, and with no God of their fathers will he be familiar. For he will not be able to seduce the people of the circumcision unless he becomes a defender of the Law. Finally he will compel the saints to no other thing except to receiving circumcision, if he will be able to seduce them. Thus, he will make the faith of the people to him, so that by them he will be called Christ. For he has risen up from hell, as we also spoke of above in the words of Isaiah: Water, he says, nourishes him, and the abyss enlarges him. He who must change his name and not change his name when he comes, the Holy Spirit says: His number is 666 (DCLXVI); this number is to be completed by Greek letters”.

I hope this helps resolve some of the problems you see in the Nero identification.

Advertisements

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.

Why do you object to the label “optimistic amillennialist”?

Dr. Gentry:

Good afternoon, sir. I recently read an article by you in which you referred to the label “optimistic amill.” as an oxymoron. Could you please tell me why you think that? I’d be very thankful. I am currently working through these eschatological issues and any help you could give me would be much appreciated. KC, Cleveland, OH

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thanks for your question. My comments are based on two factors:

  • Historically amillennialism has tended to be pessimistic in terms of the question of widespread, long-lasting cultural success for the Christian faith. That is, regarding these:
    • As a system of gospel proclamation it teaches that the gospel of Christ will not exercise any majority influence in the world before Christ’s return;
    • As a system of historical understanding it, in fact, holds the Bible teaches there are prophetically determined, irresistible trends downward toward chaos in the outworking and development of history; and therefore
    • As a system for the promotion of Christian discipleship it dissuades the Church from anticipating and laboring for wide-scale success in influencing the world for Christ during this age.

    My debates with Strimple (Three Views on the Millennium), Gaffin (formal debate in Elkton, MD), and Fowler (in West. Theol. Jrnl.) confirm this to me.

  • It seems to me that the verses an amill would want to use in order to underscore his optimism are those that endorse a postmillennial perspective. Unless, of course, he is optimistic on grounds other than direct biblical revelation.

Please understand that my comment is not meant to be pejorative (as some frequently take it). I am simply highlighting the key difference between amillennialism and postmillennialism.

Hope this is helpful. May the Lord bless your present studies in eschatology.

Infant Baptism or the New Covenant?

Dr. Gentry:

By conviction I am a paedobaptist. But I have been studying the arguments that support a Reformed Baptist perspective. Much of their case seems to rest upon a particular interpretation of Jer. 31:31-34. They conclude that since this prophecy indicates that all members of the new covenant will know the Lord there is therefore no basis for baptizing infants (who are incapable of faith) and including them within the new covenant community. The point seems to be that a primary distinction between the new and old covenants is that under the new covenant there would be no members bearing the covenant sign unaccompanied by faith as there were under the old covenant. How would you respond to this objection to infant baptism? E.G., Pennsylvania

Dr. Gentry’s response:

This is an excellent question. Let us consider it.

Just briefly I would point out that the focus in Jer 31 is on the nation’s disobedience to God despite God’s goodness to them (Jer 31:31-32). In contrast to their previous disobedience, God declares that the coming new covenant will have a spiritual power that the old covenant did not have. That is, through the new covenant God will write the law on the heart’s of men (Jer 31:33).

This is his point: the promise of spiritual strength for insuring covenantal obedience. His point is not to define (or redefine) covenantal membership, but to promise strength for covenantal obedience through the internalizing of his law (by the Spirit, cf. Rom 8:1-4).

When he states that “they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Jer 31:34), this must be understood as over against their former disobedience. God reminds them of their past when he speaks of “the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke” (Jer 31:32). Thus, we must stick to his point: Israel of old disobeyed God, therefore God will correct the problem by internalizing his law.

Consequently, we must understand that in this new prophetic scenario he is setting future (mature) obedience over against the past (mature) disobedience. I doubt if v 32 would imply that the infants broke the covenant when they came out of Egypt, any more than 1 Cor 10:7 implies that infants “sat down to eat and drink and stood up to play” which involved acting “immorally” (1 Cor 10:8), testing the Lord (1 Cor 10:9), and grumbling (1 Cor 10:10). Likewise, here in Jer 31 God does not have in mind the infants when he speaks of the spiritual internalization of the law in the future new covenant. To bring in infants in this context is to mix apples and oranges — against the express context of comparison of adult actions.

The reference “from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Jer 31:34), then, does not mean that the entire covenant membership in the new covenant era will have faith and knowledge of God (in an mature sense), so that we may surmise that by definition God no longer includes those incapable of mature faith. Rather, it means that all of the people in consideration who are involved in the particular problem in view (that problem being overt covenantal disobedience, such as not capable by an infant), will have the spiritual power for obedience under the new covenant. This is his point, and nothing more.

That he is speaking of adult problems (and therefore does not even consider the question of covenantal membership) is also indicated in the context: it also focuses on faithlessness and intentional behavior such as is incapable for infants to commit: “Set up for yourself roadmarks, / Place for yourself guideposts; / Direct your mind to the highway, / The way by which you went. / Return, O virgin of Israel, / Return to these your cities” (Jer 31:21). This is not a call to eight day old members of the covenant, but their representatives. Likewise the new covenant promise does not deal with the question of membership but of conduct.

Ezekiel’s Temple Measuring

Dr. Gentry:

You argue that John must be measuring an actual, historical temple in Rev 11:1-2. Yet Ezekiel measures a temple, even though it does not exist in history. This suggests that the temple does not need to exist for John to measure it. How do you explain this problem for your view? R.L.T, Nashville, TN

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thanks for your perceptive question. Please consider the following response.

Ezekiel’s prophecy expressly tells us that Israel has been attacked and destroyed. He opens with this statement: “Now it came about in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was by the river Chebar among the exiles, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” (Ezekiel 1:1.) He is among the exiles because Jerusalem has been attacked and destroyed. Everyone knows that the temple was destroyed in these events.

Furthermore in Eze 40 where Ezekiel begins the measuring, he opens this vision with: “In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was taken, on that same day the hand of the Lord was upon me and He brought me there” (Ezekiel 40:1). Thus, he introduces the temple vision with words that show the historical temple no longer exists.

Just before this prophecy of the measuring, Ezekiel is promised by God: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, “‘Now I shall restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I shall be jealous for My holy name'” (Ezekiel 39:25).

After he measures the temple, he writes:

“Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing toward the east; and behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the way of the east. And His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory. And it was like the appearance of the vision which I saw, like the vision which I saw when He came to destroy the city. And the visions were like the vision which I saw by the river Chebar; and I fell on my face. Ezekiel 43:1-3

And He said to me, “Son of man, this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will [future tense] dwell among the sons of Israel forever.” (Ezekiel 43:7a).

Consequently, even a surface reading of Ezekiel repeatedly reminds the reader that the city (and thus the temple) is destroyed and the people exiled. But in Revelation there is no indication that he is having a vision of a future rebuilt temple. The clear implication is that the temple is standing but is in danger.

Revelation, Nearness and John

Dr. Gentry:

If Revelation was written in AD 65-66 about events in AD 70, how could John have expected it to be widely circulated in so short a period of time? It seems the book’s grandiose vision would be largely wasted because of the time frame involved. It couldn’t do much good, especially since the bulk of its actions (on your view) occur in Palestine. S. F., Los Angeles, CA

Dr. Gentry’s response:

This is a good question that many folks have. However, this concern tends to evaporate on closer consideration.

  • First, we do not believe John knew the exact date the events would play out. It is not like he thought: “Well, it is now AD 66. I had better get to work on this book because these events are going to start up in earnest in AD 68 and will be over in AD 70.” Remember, he said the dates were “at hand” and “soon.” He did not say: “They will begin on March 15, A.D. 68.”
  • Second, nevertheless, Revelation is directed specifically to seven particular churches who could have easily gotten it quickly enough. These were the ones John was directly addressing and specifically concerned with. In fact, according to the majority of commentators, including dispensationalists Robert L. Thomas and John F. Walvoord (at Rev 1:11 in their commentaries), the order of appearance of those churches shows that they were arranged according to a Roman postal road. They would fairly quickly receive Revelation since they were on this know postal road.
  • Third, Revelation’s usefulness does not evaporate with the occurrence of the events of the Jewish War. Consider Isaiah 7 or Micah 5: they do not cease to be useful when Christ is finally born of a virgin in Bethlehem. Does Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about their particular problems (divisions among followers of Paul, Cephas, and Apollos; a man marrying his father’s wife; and so forth) have no meaning for us today? Most of the NT epistles are “occasional letters.” That is, they were written to address specific issues on certain occasions. Yet their authority and applicability still remain for us today as we apply the principles embodied therein.

    Regarding Revelation, even after Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed, Christians would need to know what happened and why — since God had worked for so many centuries through Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple. Revelation presents these events in dramatic fashion to underscore the vitally important redemptive historical truths involved of the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant. The destruction of Jerusalem was no accident of history; it plays into the plan of the Lamb who had been slain as he avenges himself and his people against his assailants.

  • Fourth, we can (and should! and must!) draw lessons from Revelation for all times. For example:
    1. Like Paul warns in Rom 11, God judges his people and we should not boast against the branches because we might be broken off. Wasn’t Israel God’s special people for so long? But look at what he did to them when they became unfaithful and rejected and slew their own Messiah!
    2. Revelation shows that Jerusalem’s destruction was no accident of history. It shows that behind the historical scenes, spiritual forces are at work as God works his plan in history.
    3. Revelation shows very clearly that God in the NT era also exercises wrath. He is not the liberal God-of-love that we hear so much about. Liberals often try to distinguish the OT conception of God from the NT conception. Revelation clearly undercuts that attempt.
    4. Revelation shows that God upholds his people in their trials. He answers their prayers — in his time and according to his plan. Though the Jews and Rome were persecuting our first century fathers, God upheld them. He will uphold you as well. After all, in each of the seven letters he urges upon the broader church: “He that has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
    5. Revelation shows that despite the might of Nero and Rome, when God opposes them, they are doomed. His people should not fear earthly forces arrayed against them.
    6. Revelation shows that God’s redemptive forces have been established (the redemptive new creation, cp. Rev 21:1-2 with 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15-16) in time and on earth, and that they will gloriously impact the outcome of history. This occurs as the new creation forces gradually (like a mustard seed!) flow out into the world. God is at work in history and moving it toward its goal, which is already unfolding around us.
    7. Etc., etc.!

Historicism and Reformed Theology

Dr. Gentry:

You are committed to the Reformed faith, yet you don’t take the historicist approach to eschatology which was widely held among the Reformers. Why do you not follow the Reformers in this part of their theology. G.K., Minneapolis, Minn.

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thank you for your inquiry. You are correct that I am committed to Reformed theology. However, I differ from the Reformers in that I take a preterist approach to Revelation rather than an historicist approach. I do so for the following reasons:

  • First, we should remember that Revelation was not well received among some of the Reformers. Martin Luther, the famed reformer and untiring interpreter of Scripture, originally rejected Revelation as non-canonical, complaining, “My Spirit cannot adapt itself to the book.” In his German translation of the Bible, he complained in the preface to Revelation that the book was “neither apostolic nor prophetic.”

    Fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) refused to take a doctrinal proof-text from Revelation. Calvin himself wrote no commentary on it, despite his writing a very thorough series of commentary on almost all of the Bible.

  • Second, the Reformers were locked in a literal life-and-death struggle with Romanism. Consequently, they tended to view many judgment passages through the lens of their opposition to Rome. They let application override interpretation in some situations.

    Such an exposition is known as an “actualizing interpretation.” “Actualizing interpretations take two forms. In one form the imagery of the Apocalypse is juxtaposed with the interpreter’s own circumstances, whether personal or social, so as to allow the images to inform understanding of contemporary persons and events and to serve as a guide for action” (J. Kovacs and C. R. Rowland, “Revelation: Apocalypse of Jesus Christ” [Oxford: Blackwell, 2004], 9).

    For instance, we see this in the original Westminster Confession of Faith (25:6) where the Pope is called the Antichrist and the “man of lawlessness.” This not only gives too much credit to Romanism, but clearly misinterprets Scripture. If the Pope were Antichrist, then the papacy existed in the first century, for John confronts the antichrist in the first century (1Jn 2:18-22). But the Pope cannot be the Antichrist, for John defines the Antichrist as “one who denies the Father and the Son” (1Jn 2:22), as those who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2Jn 7). This is clearly not referring to Roman Catholic teaching.

  • Third, historicist expositions of Revelation from that era, the 1500-1600s are impossible today. If you can find an historicist exposition of Revelation from you will quickly observe that they believed Revelation outlined church history up to their own time, when they believed its final prophecies were coming to fulfillment. Just reading an earlier historicist exposition today refutes it.

    Kovacs and Rowland note this problem: “Altogether more contentious and daring is the way certain interpreters saw these figures appearing in their own day. For some this reflects a conviction that the last days have come” (Kovacs, 128; referenced above). M. E. Boring seems to be correct when he notes that “although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view” (M. Eugene Boring, “Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” [Louisville: John Knox, 1989], 49).

  • Fourth, by the very nature of the case historicism suffers from a need of constant revision. The historicist school, also called the “continuous historical,” sees the prophetic drama in Revelation as providing a panorama of Church history from the apostolic era to the return of Christ. Historical continuity is the main focus of this approach which forecasts future history. Historicists deem Revelation an “almanac of church history.” Historicists apply the numerous judgment scenes to various wars, revolutions, and socio-political and religious movements (e.g., the rising of Roman Catholicism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, World Wars I and II), as well as important historical /persons (e.g., various Popes, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Mussolini).

    According to Alan Johnson, Joachim of Floris (d. 1202) popularized this view, though traces of it are found earlier in the Ante-Nicene fathers (Johnson, “Revelation” in EBC, 12:409). As noted above, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers greatly employed it against the Roman Catholic Church.

    The weaknesses, though, are manifold. The position almost always assumes that present interpreters live at the conclusion to history so that all in Revelation leads up to their time just before the end. For instance Mede noted in his commentary: “While I write news is brought of a Prince from the North (meaning Gustavus Adolphus) gaining victories over the Emperor in defence of the German afflicted Protestants.”

    Commenting on recurring problems in eschatological debate in general, Brethren historian F. Roy Coad well states: “Almost invariably interpretation has been vitiated by the reluctance or incapacity of commentators to visualise their own age as other than the end time” (F. Roy Coad, “Prophetic Developments: A Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Occasional Paper” [Pinner, England: 1966], 10).

    As a consequence, beliefs are in a constant state of revision, especially for Revelation commentators in this school. Consequently, as history has grown longer, older varieties of this interpretive school have experienced a great number of failed expectations. This view long remained “strangely attractive in spite of the recurrent anguish and disappointment it causes” (John Court, “Myth and History in the Book of Revelation” [Atlanta: John Knox, 1979], 7).

    Thus, this approach is continually in revision as it proposes more and more constructions based on the supposed prophetic allusions to historic events. For instance, this view was prominent in the Middle Ages when millennialism began to flourish once again. The system was used to show that “the millennium was about to dawn” (Carson, Moo, Morris, “Introduction to the New Testament,” [Zondervan] 482).

  • Furthermore, its relevance is confined to the Western world, with the progress of history traced only in a western direction (apparently where book sales are most profitable!).

    In addition, it tends to lose its relevance for its original persecuted audience.

    Its major problem, though, is that harmony among its proponents is almost wholly lacking due to its subjectivity.