The Beast of Revelation

by Charles S. Meek

“The weight of scholarship placed behind the Neronian option for the dating of Revelation has been staggering. In our own day it has gained the support of such worthies as C.C. Torrey, J.A.T. Robinson, and F.F. Bruce and has been popularized by Jay Adams. In 1956 Torrey could write about the number 666, ‘It is now the accepted conclusion that the beast is the emperor Nero.'” —                                   Greg Bahnsen (1948 – 1995)

            Except for the millennium, probably no part of Revelation has garnered more speculation than the Beast of Revelation 13. But we suspect that many who throw around accusations as to who or what the beast is in our day (or who the antichrist is, or what 666 means), have probably never read or seriously studied the text. Here is what the Bible says about the beast:

Then I saw a beast rising up out of the sea. It had seven heads and ten horns, with ten crowns on its horns. And written on each head were names that blasphemed God. . . . And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And he was given authority to rule over every tribe and people and language and nation. And all the people who belong to this world worshiped the beast. They are the ones whose names were not written in the Book of Life before the world was made—the Book that belongs to the Lamb who was slaughtered. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. . . . He [the second beast] was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666. (Revelation 13:1, 7-9, 15-18)

            Actually, there are two beasts. The first beast came from the sea; the second beast came from the earth. The first beast is the primary actor, with the second beast appearing in a supporting role as a propagandist for the first beast. We doubt that anyone can establish an absolutely airtight interpretation of all of this. But one interpretation makes more sense to us than any other. The sea beast was probably Rome generally and Nero specifically. First note that Rome was northeast across the sea from Israel. Further, John was telling his readers that the beast was a man, and that they could figure out who the man was by calculating his number.

Since the book of Revelation was written to a first-century audience, probably around AD 64, we should expect the first-century readers to have been able to calculate the number. For the beast to be someone thousands of years in the future would have made no sense to the readers in the first century, and would have made the calculation of the number impossible for them. Remember, the Bible was written for us, but not to us. Audience relevance is critical to understanding the sacred text. The first-century context is reinforced by some thirty passages in Revelation that tie its fulfillment to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.

            As every school child knows, the Romans used letters to represent numerals. Similarly, the Greeks and Hebrews assigned numerical values to their letters. Since Revelation was written by a Jew in a Hebrew context, and with numerous allusions to the Old Testament, we should expect the solution to deciphering the meaning of 666 to be Hebraic. It turns out that when Nero’s name is translated numerically into Hebrew we find something very interesting. One first-century version of Nero’s name—Neron Caesar (Nrwn Qsr)—provides us with precisely the value of 666! While we will not go into detail here, you can check this out in various places. One book that goes into it is Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness.[1] Another one is R. C. Sproul’s The Last Days according to Jesus.[2] You can also find this discussed online in various places. (Do an Internet search for “beast and Nero.”)

            It is plausible that the Beast was Nero. Nero was ruler of Rome from AD 54-68, during the time when Revelation was written. The life of Nero perfectly fits the description; he was indeed a beastly man. He was a ruthless, insanely cruel murderer of many, including members of his own family—and the first Gentile persecutor of Christians. There were other ghastly tyrants in the ancient world, but nobody distinguished himself any more violence, brutality, and debauchery than Nero (though Caligula came close in AD 37-41). Period secular historian Apollonius of Tyana made note of the fact that Nero was indeed referred to as a “beast.” [3]

            Another interesting thing is found in Revelation 13:5-7 which reads, “And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. . . . Also, it was allowed to make war on the saints and to overcome them.” Nero’s persecution of Christians began in November AD 64 and lasted until his death in June AD 68―a period of forty-two months.

            Another aspect of Nero that fits the description in Revelation is that Nero insisted on being worshipped as a god, which was antithetical to Christians. So, Christians would have considered him a beast not only for his ruthless persecution of Christians and his murderous ways, but also for his insistence on being worshipped.

            There is an interesting twist on this story. Many ancient manuscripts of the Bible have the number 616 instead of 666! In fact, perhaps the oldest manuscript available uses 616.[4] This will surprise a lot of Christians who are wrapped up in 666 numerology speculation. The intriguing thing is that 616 spells Nero in Latin, the way 666 spells Nero in Hebrew! Some scholars believe that the change in the number was done purposely. Since Latin was the Roman language of the region that included Judea, the change was made so that Latin readers of the Bible would also have understood that the beast was Nero.

            We again call on Kenneth Gentry to shed even more light as to the identification of the beast:[5]

John wrote to be understood: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Revelation 1:3). In fact, he specifically points out here that the wise one will understand: “And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth” (Revelation 17:9). The referent is beyond doubt: Rome is alluded to in this vision of the seven-headed Beast. The original recipients of Revelation lived under the rule of Rome, which was universally distinguished by its seven hills. How could the recipients, living in the seven historical churches of Asia Minor and under Roman imperial rule, understand John’s vision as anything other than this geographical feature?

. . . We learn further that the seven heads also have a political referent: “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space” (Revelation 17:10). . . . Of the seven kings “five have fallen.” These emperors are dead, when John writes. But the verse goes on to say “one is.” That is, the sixth one is then reigning even as John wrote. That would be Nero Caesar, who assumed imperial power upon the death of the fifth emperor, Claudius, in October, A.D. 54. Nero remained emperor until his suicide in A.D. 68, a period of over thirteen years.

John continues: “The other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” As the Roman Civil Wars broke out in rebellion against Nero, Nero committed suicide on June 8, A.D. 68. John informs us that the seventh king was “not yet come.” That would be Galba, who assumed power upon Nero’s death in June, A.D. 68. But he was only to continue a “short space.” As a matter of historical fact, his reign lasted but six months—until January 15, A.D. 69. He was one of the quick succession of emperors in the famous era called by historians: “the year of the four emperors.”

Gary DeMar sums it up:

“Nero Caesar fits three essential criteria in determining the identity of the sea beast who will ‘make war with the saints’ (13:7): the time of his reign (AD 54-68), the numerical value of his official name and title, and his character as a persecutor of ‘the saints.” [6] So we see how everything ties together. Revelation is speaking of the events of the first century—the same eschatological events as the rest of the Bible. It all fits.

            Many Christians believe that the beast and the antichrist of John’s epistles are the same. To figure out one is to figure out the other. This connection may or may not be correct as the antichrist is not even mentioned in Revelation, nor is the beast mentioned outside of Revelation. Here is what we know about the antichrist:

Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. . . . Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.  (1 John 2:18, 4:1-4)

            John refers to multiple antichrists which had already come. This reference may mean anyone who had opposed Christ. But the antichrist—or at least his spirit—was already in the world. This too fits the time frame of a first-century fulfillment. Since John insisted that they were in the last hour, the imminency of the message precludes a yet-future fulfillment. To say that a bogeyman antichrist is still in our future is simply not biblical. John’s epistles are the only place in the Bible that the antichrist is mentioned. It is best to simply rely on John’s description of the antichrist, which is altogether different from the modern image. John’s antichrist is:

  1. false believers who went out from the church (1 John 2:19)
    1. anyone who “denies Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22)
    1. anyone who “denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:23)
    1. “every spirit that does not confess Jesus” (1 John 4:3)
    1. “deceivers who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ came in the flesh” (2 John 7)

So, who was the second beast (the “land beast”)? It seems probable that this was apostate Judaism, who had become subservient to the Roman state. This beast is described as “exercising the authority of the first beast” (Revelation 13:12) and “deceiving those who dwell on earth” (Revelation 13:14).


(This is an excerpt from my book CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FULFILLED PROPHECY: Is Your Church Teaching Error about the Last Days and Second Coming? An Exposition of Evangelical Preterism)

See my related articles on the Dating of Revelation, the Babylon of Revelation, the Day of the Lord, etc.:

You are invited to see reviews and details of my book at



[1] Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, Fourth Revised Edition 1999).

[2] R. C. Sproul, The Last Days according to Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998).

[3] See endnote 21 at this source:–Identity%20of%20the%20Beast%20of%20Revelation.htm.

[4] There is quite a bit of discussion about this on the Internet, which the reader could check if so inclined


[6] Gary DeMar, End Times Fiction: a Biblical Consideration of the Left Behind Theology (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers), page 143.

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