Full disclosure. I’ve received the COVID vaccine. I enthusiastically encourage others to get the vaccine as well. I believe that it is safe and effective. It is a great way to avoid severe COVID or death. I wrote a defense of the vaccine several months ago, and I still stand by these words today. I am also absolutely opposed to measures like COVID vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. I have many reasons for this position,* but this post isn’t really about those reasons. This post is an attempt to answer a question that I have received enough times that it has become impossible for me to ignore.
Is the COVID vaccine the “mark of the Beast?”
The mark of the beast originates in Revelation 13:16-17.
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. (NIV)
I am not here to condescend or mock those who have asked this question because, frankly, I can understand why they are asking it. The people who ask this question are typically people who take the Bible seriously. They are also people who believe that Christians should live their lives with biblical discernment in this world. The promises and the warnings in scripture are real and urgent. When I see various Christian leaders flippantly dismiss or make fun of those who ask these kinds of questions it makes me sad. Why treat people who are trying to find biblical truth with such disdain? It never dawns on them that the religious leaders of Jesus’ own day were among the absolute worst interpreters of biblical prophecy. Perhaps a bit of humility is warranted.
And like I said, I can understand the worry about the mark of the beast even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. I mean when public health leaders go on national broadcasts and say the unvaccinated should not be allowed to use planes or trains, I can understand why some might see Revelation 13.
I understand the fear when the mayor of America’s largest city wants to ban the unvaccinated from public life, denying them entry to restaurants, gyms, and other public venues. Or what about the new governor of New York asking a room full of Christians to become “apostles for the vaccine?” Is there a person alive who isn’t absolutely creeped out by this? It seems like a scene in a really bad “Left Behind” movie.
When Christians get on social media and they see governments in formerly free places like Australia literally beating citizens who protest against COVID restrictions including vaccine mandates, is it hard to understand why they might start asking some eschatological questions? Or what about your own President threatening you and rallying your fellow citizens against you if you don’t get the vaccine? A straightforward reading of Revelation 13 links the mark of the beast with severe economic and social restrictions on those who don’t comply. Are you really surprised when people become suspicious and fearful?
Too many of our elites have used the COVID pandemic to indulge in authoritarian rhetoric and policies which have made many people extremely paranoid and put most everyone on edge. So let me say that this is a completely justified question, but let me also answer as clearly as I can. Based on my study, I am convinced that the COVID vaccine is not the mark of the beast.
Principles of Interpretation
Revelation is notoriously tricky to interpret, and there have long been debates among scholars about the best ways to understand the book. There are several important principles for interpreting Revelation, but two are especially important in this passage. The first principle is that Revelation is a book of symbols. This doesn’t mean that Revelation isn’t true, but it does mean that the truth of Revelation is delivered through extremely evocative imagery. In order to understand the book as a whole or specific passages like Revelation 13, you have to unpack the symbols. The second principle is that these symbols are anchored in a historical and cultural context. Think about political cartoons as an example. If you saw a donkey talking to an elephant, you would of course know that those were symbols representative of U.S. political parties. The same is true about the symbols in Revelation including the mark of the beast, but these symbols are actually informed by two sources: late first century politics and Old Testament passages. The message of Revelation is timeless and relevant for all people at all times, but in order to understand that message we have to meet Revelation on its own historical/cultural turf.
Understanding the Mark
The Christians addressed by the book of Revelation were facing what was often a life and death dilemma. It was growing more common in various parts of the Roman Empire for idol worship to become compulsory. Many trade guilds required the worship of a pagan god in order to work. Additionally, emperor worship was becoming commonplace and expected in some locations. To be a Christian in the first century often meant swimming in an ocean of false gods and pagan worship. There was strong social and economic pressure to comply with this worship. The mark of the beast must be understood against this backdrop.
Revelation scholar, Greg Beale, points out that the symbol of the mark reflects many realities of life in the first century. It was a common practice in the first century to brand or tattoo loyal devotees of gods of various religions. He concludes that the mark in Revelation 13 is “clearly figurative of the ways in which the state keeps check on whether people submit to compulsory idol worship.” Later persecutions under Diocletian and Decius even involved the issuance of a certificate to those loyal to the imperial cult. Even the word “mark” (χάραγμα) brings to mind this imperial cult. The word was used of the emperor’s official seal on business contracts. Beale summarizes, “If this background is in mind in Revelation 13, then it enforces the metaphorical idea that the mark alludes to the state’s political and economic ‘stamp of approval,’ given only to those who go along with its religious demands.”
In Revelation 14:1, we are shown a stark contrast with those who have received the mark of the beast: “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” The beast with his head full of blasphemous names (13:1) is the polar opposite of the Lamb. Those who worship the beast have his mark while those who are faithful to the Lamb have a very different mark. The mark in both cases represent allegiance, loyalty, and worship. The mark also represents ownership. Do we belong to the beast or to the Lamb?
It must also be pointed out that Revelation 13 is an intentional allusion to Deuteronomy 6, the shema, which was among the most cherished passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. In Deuteronomy 6, God’s people are exhorted to, among other things, bind the commandments of God on their hands and their foreheads (Deut. 6:8). The implication is that the commands of God are to be ever on your mind, shaping your ideological commitments. Those commands should also be on your hands, demonstrated in the practical outworking of that commitment in your daily life. We worship with our heads and our hands. Those who have received the mark of the beast are equally worshipping with their heads and their hands, but their worship is directed away from God and towards Satan.
What does it all mean?
Revelation 13 is about idolatry and false worship. Yes, that false worship is blended together with politics and economics. This is the way it has always been, and it remains the case today. Politics and economics are where our worship is consistently put the test and our allegiances are always challenged. Following the Lamb will put you at risk. This was painfully real for the Christian communities addressed by Revelation. It’s important to recognize that your government wanting you to get a vaccine is not a compulsion to worship. In rejecting a vaccine, you are not being persecuted for your devotion to Christ. A medical treatment is not an affront to your discipleship and devotion to Christ. While I may disagree with mandates, your employer or your government requiring a vaccine does not require an abandonment of Christ. It may be creepy and authoritarian, but it is not Satanic. At least in my estimation.
The message of Revelation 13 needs to be heard clearly, and I worry that sometimes the message is lost because we are distracted by looking for literal marks of the beast everywhere. We’re so busy trying to figure out how to creatively add up the letters in Pfizer or Moderna in a way that equals 666 that we miss the main point. The message is actually summarized simply by John in another New Testament book. “Dear Children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Be wary. Be discerning. Be brave. Be devoted. There are so many ways for us to bend our knees to false gods and antichrists in our world today for we also live in an ocean full of false gods and pagan worship.
*I believe, like a lot of COVID policies, they are illiberal, ineffective, and largely unnecessary. They also ignore the realities of age-stratified risk and the durable immunity that results from COVID infection. Many who advocate for such policies are laboring under two false assumptions: that we can make COVID essentially disappear with enough vaccinations and that vaccinated people are at risk from unvaccinated people.