Irenaeus has only uncertain guesses to offer, and he thinks the Apocalyptist intended the name to remain hidden till Antichrist should come. The language, however, implies that it is discoverable by those who have the requisite wisdom; and the command, ‘let him that hath understanding calculate the number,’ shows that the author expects some to solve the enigma.2Irenaeus understood Antichrist to be a future figure and interprets numerous passages much like futurist interpreters of our own time:
And again, speaking of Antichrist, [Paul] says, “who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped [2Th. 2:4].” He points out here those who are called gods, by such as know not God, that is, idols. For the Father of all is called God, and is so; and Antichrist shall be lifted up, not above Him, but above those which are indeed called gods, but are not.—Irenaeus, Against Heresies, iii.vi [emphasis added]3Concerning men who suggested the number of the beast was 616, Irenaeus wrote in support of the value 666 and indicated that he expected the Antichrist to be a figure future to his day:4
These men, therefore, ought to learn [what really is the state of the case], and go back to the true number of the name, that they be not reckoned among false prophets. But, knowing the sure number declared by Scripture, that is, six hundred sixty and six, let them await, in the first place, the division of the kingdom into ten; then, in the next place, when these kings are reigning, and beginning to set their affairs in order, and advance their kingdom, [let them learn] to acknowledge that he who shall come claiming the kingdom for himself, and shall terrify those men of whom we have been speaking, having a name containing the aforesaid number, is truly the abomination of desolation. . . . It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfilment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned. . . . But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the rest, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance, in which kingdom the Lord declared, that “many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”—Irenaeus, Against Heresies, v.xxx [emphasis added]5
For when he (Antichrist) is come, and of his own accord concentrates in his own person the apostasy, and accomplishes whatever he shall do according to his own will and choice, sitting also in the temple of God, so that his dupes may adore him as the Christ; wherefore also shall he deservedly “be cast into the lake of fire: ” [this will happen according to divine appointment], God by His prescience foreseeing all this, and at the proper time sending such a man, “that they may believe a lie, that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but consented to unrighteousness;” whose coming John has thus described in the Apocalypse: “And the beast which I had seen was like unto a leopard, and his feet as of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion; and the dragon conferred his own power upon him, and his throne, and great might. And one of his heads was as it were slain unto death; and his deadly wound was healed, and all the world wondered after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon because he gave power to the beast; and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto this beast, and who is able to make war with him?”—Irenaeus, Against Heresies, v.xxviii.2 [emphasis added]6Justin Martyr did not believe Nero to be the Antichrist, but expected a future figure who would be destroyed at the second advent of Christ. In his Dialogue of Justin, Justin Martyr cites Daniel 7:9-28+ as a Second Coming passage which describes the destruction of the beast at the future arrival of Jesus.7 The “Teaching of the Twelve” (The Didache) written in approximately 70 A.D.8 knows nothing of Nero as the Beast, instead, in concert with Irenaeus, reflecting the futurist interpretation.
For as lawlessness increases, they will hate and persecute and betray one another. And then the deceiver of the world will appear as a son of God and ‘will perform signs and wonders,’ and the earth will be delivered into his hands, and he will commit abominations the likes of which have never happened before. (5) Then all humankind will come to the fiery test, and “many will fall away” and perish.9The unfortunate reality of taking Nero as the Beast is that no believer of his time proved wise enough to benefit from the clues given by God, even those who lived during the persecution of the Beast. Thus, God’s Word failed to aid the church until it became obvious to the Church some 1800 years after the threat the passage was meant to identify had come and gone.
The Neronic gematric calculation was not even suggested as a solution until Fritzsche first proposed it in 1831. If the preterist interpretation of Revelation 13:18+ is accurate, then the discovery of 666 as a prophecy concerning Nero was made roughly 1,800 years too late to assist John’s original audience. Smith summarizes the issue well by noting, “If John’s purpose was concealment, certainly he succeeded admirably, for his meaning was hidden not only from the enemies of the church, but from the church itself, for 1800 years. It is simply incredible that if this solution is so simple, and if it was ever known to the church, it should have been absolutely forgotten until our time.”10
But, as already stated in the text, there are serious objections to the Nero-hypothesis: (1) The language and readers of the Apocalypse suggest a Greek rather than a Hebrew explanation of the numerical riddle. (2) The seer clearly distinguishes the beast, as a collective name for the Roman empire (so used also by Daniel), from the seven heads, i.e., kings (βασιλεῖς [basileis] or emperors. Nero is one of the five heads who ruled before the date of the Apocalypse. (3) It is difficult to conceive of a reasonable motive for concealing the detested name of Nero after his death. (4) A radical error, such as the belief in the absurd heathen fable of the return of Nero, is altogether incompatible with the lofty character and profound wisdom of the Apocalypse, and would destroy all confidence in its prophecy. If John, as these writers maintain, composed it in 68, he lived long enough to be undeceived, and would have corrected the fatal blunder or withheld the book from circulation. (5) It seems incredible that such an easy solution of the problem should have remained unknown for eighteen centuries and been reserved for the wits of half a dozen rival rationalists in Germany. Truth is truth, and must be thankfully accepted from any quarter and at any time; yet as the Apocalypse was written for the benefit of contemporaries of Nero, one should think that such a solution would not altogether have escaped them. Irenaeus makes no mention of it.11
1 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 265.
2 Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 403.
3 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), s.v. “ECF 126.96.36.199.3.7.”
4 Contrast the passages of Irenaeus below with the bold misrepresentation of his position by F.W. Farrar cited in Chilton: “It is significant that ‘all the earliest Christian writers on the Apocalypse, from Irenaeus down . . . connect Nero, or some Roman emperor, with the Apocalyptic Beast.’ There should be no reasonable doubt about this identification.” [emphasis added]—David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 351. Let the reader beware: go to the source yourself!
5 Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I, s.v. “ECF 188.8.131.52.5.31.”
6 Ibid., s.v. “ECF 184.108.40.206.5.29.”
7 “But if so great a power is shown to have followed and to be still following the dispensation of His suffering, how great shall that be which shall follow His glorious advent! For He shall come on the clouds as the Son of man, so Daniel foretold, and His angels shall come with Him. These are the words: ‘I beheld till the thrones were set; and the Ancient of days did sit. . .’—Justin Martyr, Dialogue, xxx”—Ibid., s.v. “ECF 220.127.116.11.0.31.”
8 J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 146.
9 Ibid., 158.
10 Andy Woods, “Revelation 13 and the First Beast,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 247.
11 Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997, 1916), 1.xii.101.