REV 17 AND THE BEAST THAT “WAS, IS, AND IS NOT”

PMW 2018-007 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In previous studies I presented evidence that the sixth head of the seven-headed beast of Revelation was Nero Caesar, the sixth emperor of Rome. Thus, in Revelation the sixth head of the beast represents the then reigning sixth head/king of Rome. But now we must deal with a passage that seems to contradict this identification. In Revelation 17 the interpreting angel states that:

“The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. . . . The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.” (Rev. 17:8, 11)

As we focus on these statements, two important questions arise: (1) What is the significance of the beast being the one who “was and is not, and is about to come”? Is this one of the many instances of the beast’s divine pretensions, wherein he parodies divine eternality, which is the view of most commentators? And (2) does this description undercut the early-date position and preterist approach by declaring the beast (Nero) is already dead when John writes? After all, the angel states that he “was and is not [ouk estin].”

I will deal with these two matters in three consecutive articles. So first we will consider his divine pretensions as indicated in the designation that he “was and is not, and is about to come.” This is an example of the recurring tendency of divine parody in Revelation.

Divine Parody

Regarding the potential parody of God’s eternality, the Roman beast exhibits blasphemous divine pretensions that lead to his worship (Rev 13:8, 12, 15). Revelation probably even alludes to this in our passage in that he is “full of blasphemous names” (Rev 17:3b). The phrase “was and is not, and is about to come” is widely held to present a “devilish antithesis” to the eternality of God as presented in Revelation 1:8; 4:8; 11:16; and 16:5.[1] For instance, in Revelation 1:8 we read that God is the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” This divine pretension would certainly fit the preterist argument regarding the role of emperor worship in the first century and in Revelation. [2]

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I have no theoretical problem with this description providing an ironic reversal of the true God in the pretentious beast; after all, John does delight in parody and irony in his drama. Nevertheless, I do not believe the evidence here allows it. This is not mocking “the threefold description of God found already in Rev 1:8; 4:8; 11:16; and 16:5,” the “threefold formula for divine eternity.” [3] Rather it mocks the threefold historical experience of Christ emphasized in his initial appearance in Revelation at 1:18 (cp. Rev 2:8): he is “the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (cf. Php 2:8–9). The dramatic irony, though, is that despite his pretensions the beast does not live forevermore, but goes “to destruction” (Rev 17:8a). I will summarily list my objections to this representing a mockery of God’s eternality, then flesh them out.

Argumentative Evidence

(1) The ideas do not really match. Revelation’s references to God expressly state his eternality, whereas the phrase here in Revelation 17:8 does not suggest the beast’s eternality. Rather than “was, is, is to come” the beast “was, is not, and is coming.” It would be very easy for John to declare the beast “was, is, and is to come” did he so desire. But he does not. And he would most certainly never refer to God as “is not” — for God lives “forever and ever” (Rev 4:9–10; 10:6).

(2) The basic element that is repeated and invariable in each of the idea’s three appearances is: “was and is not” (en kai ouk estin) (Rev 17:8a, 8d, 11). This core phrase has nothing to do with parodying eternality; in fact, for someone to be “is not” is the opposite of eternal existence. In Genesis 42:36 we find the deceased Joseph and Simeon spoken of as “is not” (ouk esti). In antiquity ouk esti is a statement declaring one’s death: “I was not, I became, I am not” (hostis ouk emēn, kai egenomēn, ouk eimi).

(3) In each of the phrase’s three appearances, the third element varies both lexically and grammatically, despite being in close proximity syntactically:
The beast “is about to come up [mellei anabanein, pres. act. indic.] out of the abyss” (Rev 17:8a)
The beast “will come [parestai, fut. mid. indic.]” (Rev 17:8d)
The beast “is himself also an eighth [autos ogdoos estin]” (Rev 17:11a)
Again, John could easily lock in the phrasing did he so desire. But something else is going on here, as we shall see.

(4) The point John is emphasizing in this imagery is death. The beast’s inevitable death is in view, for the beast does now exist. Despite the phraseology before us, John sees a woman currently sitting [katoikountes, pres. act. ptcp.] on the (apparently living) beast (Rev 17:3) and the angel expressly declares that the beast is now carrying [bastazontos, pres. act. ptcp.] the woman (Rev 17:7).


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(5) The fact that the beast “is about to come up out of the abyss” fits the idea of his resurrection from death, not eternality. It shows a mockery of Christ’s experience, not God’s existence.

(6) The reference to the “book of life” alludes to the resurrection, for the book of life is consulted at the eschatological resurrection (Rev 20:12).

(7) The third reference seems peculiar on the surface, but provides a vital clue to the intended meaning: the beast “is himself also an eighth,” which signifies resurrection.

As most commentators agree, the words of Revelation 17:8ff “are in the main reproductive of the imagery of ch. xiii. 1–4.” [4] That being so, we must note that Revelation 13 mimics the historical death and resurrection of Christ (Rev 1:18; 2:8; 5:12; 11:17) rather than the eternal existence of God. This is significant for many dramatic reasons, not the least of which is Christ’s dying at the hands of the Romans under pressure from the Jews (Mt 27:17–26; Lk 23:13–25; Ac 3:13) who manipulate Rome’s power (Jn 19:12, 15): “this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by [dia] the hands of godless men and [“you” implied, aneilate, 2d pers. pl., aor. act. ind.] put Him to death” (Ac 2:23). [5]

All of this comports with John’s overarching theme of the Jewish culpability in Christ’s death (Rev 1:7) in a book which has as its main figure the slain Lamb (Rev 5:6, 12; 12:11; 13:8; Cp. Rev 5:8, 13; 6:1; 7:9, 14, 17; 14:1, 4, 10; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22; 22:1, 3.). The beast imagery here in 17:8 is not mimicking God but Christ; it is mimicking existing, dying, and living again, not eternality. Lazarus certainly does that without any divine pretension (Jn 11:21, 44; 12:1)!

The message which John’s audience needs to hear during their trials is terribly important. True, the beast has great power (he is a carnivore with seven heads and ten horns, Rev 17:7c; cf. Rev 13:2) and remarkable resilience (he was, but is “about to come up,” Rev 17:7a). Yes, he receives his great power from below, the “abyss” (Rev 17:8a; cf. Rev 9:1, 11; 13:1–2), that is, from Satan (Rev 13:2b) the destroyer (Rev 9:11). [6] Nevertheless, John’s driving point is: he is going to “destruction [apoleian]” (Rev 17:8a, 11; cf. the Danielic backdrop, Da 7:11 LXX, therion . . . . apoleto). He is doomed to hell (Rev 19:20; 20:10) — his dreaded power and resilience notwithstanding.

But now what about Rev. 17:11: “And the beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction”? I will deal with that in my next article.


Notes

1. Martin G. Kiddle, The Revelation of St. John (New York: Harper, 1940), 345.

2. In my The Beast of Revelation I show this to be a particularly significant demonstration of Nero’s megalomania.

3. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (NIGTC) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 864.

4. Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary (5th ed: Cambridge: University Press, 1875; Grand Rapids: Guardian, 1976), 4:709.

5. Acts 2:23 literally reads: “this man by the fixed counsel and foreknowledge of God given up through the hand of lawless men fastening you killed [prospexantes aneilate].”

6. Regarding the abyss: “the author’s use throughout” Revelation shows that it “is the place of demons.” Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John: Studies in Introduction with a Critical and Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, rep. 1979 [1919]), 697.

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