With all the rightful concern about the COVID-19 pandemic, many well-meaning Christians have wondered (and worried) if the advent of a global, mass vaccination is a somehow a prophetic fulfillment of the fearful mark of the beast. They hear it from friends or maybe see something posted on social media and their apocalyptic alarm bells go off. It’s understandable because if you know anything about the Bible’s end times teaching, the mark of the beast is bad thing to possess. It signifies you belong to Satan, are destined for eternal judgment, and something you would give a hard pass if before you.
The mark of the beast is primarily referred to in passages such as Revelation 13:15-18 which reads,
15And [the second beast] was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.16Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead,17so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.
Unfortunately, some pastors and religious leaders see a disturbing connection between this text and today’s vaccination rollout, even telling their congregations it’s preparatory for receiving the mark because these actions are about government control (cf., the buying and selling in Rev. 13:17). They read about the creation of COVID-19 Vaccination Report Cards and see the latest news suggesting American citizens may have to show something like them in order to do business, travel, or attend school in the near future. As such, they are convinced that this must be the leading to the mark of the Beast, if it’s not the mark itself! By the way, this kind of anxiety isn’t new for 21st century Christians. Just last year, Kenyan churches were embroiled in their own version of the old microchip-in-the-hand-mark-of-the-beast hysteria.
Fortunately, if one reexamines biblical passage itself as well as its historical context, I believe our fears can subside a bit.
Revelation is addressed to a group of churches in Asia Minor under Roman rule which, at that time, meant that the government demanded not only national but spiritual fidelity. To be a good Roman citizen meant being a patriot and worshipping the emperor as divine! You read that correctly. The Caesar was to be revered as a god! Thus, the state wasn’t something you merely gave your obedience but your worship as well.
To make matters worse, the local trade guilds (e.g., textiles, carpenters, stonemasons) in these cities had specific idols that also were to be worshipped by the tradesfolk. They believed those deities would bless their business dealings. Therefore, the pressure was on Christian communities to compromise their fidelity to Jesus as the one true God by paying homage to Roman idolatry. Local civic leaders wouldn’t take anything less, believing the Christians’ refusal to honor the gods would curse the economy. Consequently, Christians who refused would essentially be locked out of the business world. In other words, followers of Jesus couldn’t “buy or sell” (Rev. 13:17) unless they gave demonstrated before city authorities the worship Rome demanded. Even worse, believers who refused and were faithful witnesses to the gospel in the midst of economic and civic pressures could (and would) be persecuted even unto death (cf., v. 15, “might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain”).
Knowing this background helps us see that the heart of the issue concerning the mark of the beast1 (and arguably Revelation as a whole) is ultimately about compromising one’s gospel witness by worshipping the state as god and/or the gods of the state. Those who throughout history have diverted their devotion from Jesus to idols in order to serve the world’s fallen, satanic system have demonstrated themselves to be followers of the beast. However, Revelation also tells us that by the Lord’s grace through the Spirit’s empowerment, genuine believers will overcome persecution and persevere in their fidelity to Jesus.
Where does that leave us today? Well, it appears what the government wants to do with vaccination cards and possible restrictions has nothing to do with worshipping the state. On the contrary, it has to do with safety. While disagreeing with that strategy is one thing, it is completely another to say getting vaccinated is tantamount to receiving the mark of the beast. Unless the United States mandates that we stop worshipping Jesus in order to do business, engage in travel, or attend school, then what we currently have with this vaccination plan isn’t a nefarious attempt to create a new world order2 but merely live in a world that decreases the spread of a virus that has killed 1.7M people around the globe to date. It’s that simple.
Let me put it this way: No, the vaccination isn’t the mark of the beast.
- Many if not most scholars think the mark is figurative not literal. The location on the right hand and forehead may be an allusion to how Roman disobedient slaves or devotees of other religions were branded. Thus, such a mark would signify one is the property of the beast or its faithful follower. Also, the mark of the beast may very well be a dark parody and opposite of the sealing of believers in Rev. 7. Additionally, without going into too much detail, many scholars argue that 666 is best understood as referring to fallen humanity with the beast itself as the supreme representative of unregenerate humanity. (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC, Eerdmans, 715-721.)
- For an insightful discussion about the development of the vaccines, misconceptions about them, and what it will take to get church life back to “normal” watch this recent interview of Dr. Francis Collins, a Christian who happens to be the Director of the National Institutes of Health.