Nature of Christian Persecution

We discussed previously the bearing which emperor worship might have as internal evidence on the question at hand. There, we were dealing with a specific form of persecution related to the requirement to worship the Roman Emperor. We treated this as internal evidence because the connection between emperor worship and the description of the Beast and persecution of believers is tentative.

Here we look at persecution in general during the time of Nero and Domitian. The connection between generic persecution and the churches of Asia, especially Smyrna, is more definite than that of emperor worship. The letters to the seven churches are clearly written to reflect actual conditions experienced by those churches at the time of writing. Although they say nothing explicit in relation to emperor worship, the fact of Christian martyrdom is undeniable (Rev. Rev. 2:10+, Rev. 2:13+).

Beale prefers the later date because of indications that general Christian persecution intensified near the end of the first century:

The letters in Revelation suggest that Jewish Christians were tempted to escape persecution by seeking some form of identification with Jewish synagogues, which were exempted from emperor worship, and that Gentile Christians were tempted to compromise with trade guild cults and even the emperor cult in order to escape persecution. Such a situation is more likely to have been present toward the end of the first century rather than earlier.1

There is even record of Christian persecution involving both execution and exile under Domitian:

Dio Casius records that Domitian executed the aristocrat Flavious Clemens and banished his wife Flavia Domitilla because of “atheism” (ἀθεότης [atheotēs] ). . . . Dio’s full statement views “atheism” as “a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned.” A similar but later statement affirms that Domitian’s persecution was explicitly two-pronged, being directed against “maiestas [treason]” or against “adopting the Jewish mode of life.” . . . With particular reference to Flavia Domitilla, inscriptions and Christian tradition affirm that she professed Christianity, which would have made her a prime candidate for a charge of “atheism” by those believing in the deity of the emperor.2

Beale also notes that evidence is lacking that Nero’s persecution of Christians extended beyond Rome to Asia Minor as reflected by the letters to the seven churches there.3

The different treatment of Peter and Paul (executed) versus John (banished) is more difficult to explain if all three occurred under Nero’s reign:

Church history consistently testifies that both Peter and Paul were executed in Rome near the end of Nero’s reign. Preterists maintain that during this same time the apostle John was banished to Patmos by Nero. Why would Nero execute Peter and Paul and banish John? This seems inconsistent. The different punishments for Peter and Paul as compared with John argue for the fact that they were persecuted under different rulers. Moreover, there is no evidence of Nero’s use of banishment for Christians.4

Overall, it seems that evidence of Christian persecution in the book of Revelation is more characteristic of the reign of Domitian than that of Nero.


1 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 13.

2 Ibid., 6-7,9.

3 “There is no evidence that Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome extended also to Asia Minor, where the churches addressed in the Apocalypse are located.”—Ibid., 12.

4 Mark Hitchcock, “The Stake in the Heart—The A.D. 95 Date of Revelation,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 149.