The Mark of the Beast1
Today’s (5-4-13) headline of the Life section of my local newspaper (The Oklahoman) could hardly be missed: “Marks of the Beast? Scanners prompt biblical concerns.” The related headline also declares: “Technology renews questions on end time, ‘mark of the beast’” (by Carla Hinton).
The article mentions a local woman who “said she was concerned that biometric palm scanners used by her hospital employer to collect patient information were too similar to the ‘mark of the beast’ referenced in the biblical Book of Revelation” (page 1D). Other concerns were raised “about biometric digital photographs such as those used for driver’s licenses in several states. Parents of students in some school districts across the country have become alarmed about vein scanners and student I.D. cards that include a biochip implant system, or radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, to track students on school grounds at all times” (ibid.). Reference is also made, not unexpectedly, to one’s Social Security number as “a possible precursor to the ‘mark of the beast’” (ibid.).
So what are we to make of this? My answer probably won’t be well liked, but I’m growing weary of this sort of thing. In my new book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, I address the matter at some length. So I’ve decided to take selected portions of my discussion on the topic and say something about this ever-present hysteria among many Christians.
My reading of Revelation leads me to the conclusion that the Beast cannot be merely an individual living at the end of human history. Rather, the Beast is a graphic and terrifying symbol for the system of Satanically inspired evil, and thus opposition to the kingdom of God, that throughout history has manifested itself in a variety of forms, whether political, economic, military, social, philosophical, or religious. Alan Johnson provides this excellent explanation. The Beast, notes Johnson,
“is not to be identified in its description with any one historical form of its expression or with any one institutional aspect of its manifestation. In other words, the beast may appear now as Sodom, Egypt, Rome, or even Jerusalem and may manifest itself as a political power, an economic power, a religious power, or a heresy (1 John 2:18,22; 4:3). . . . This interpretation does not exclude the possibility that there will be a final climactic appearance of the beast in history in a person; in a political, religious, or economic system; or in a final totalitarian culture combining all these. The point is that the beast cannot be limited to either the past or the future” (Revelation, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 129).
The “blasphemous names” on the Beast’s heads (Rev. 13:1) indicate that he/it challenges the supremacy and majesty of God by denying and defying the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Therefore, says Johnson,
“whatever person or system – whether political, social, economic, or religious – cooperates with Satan by exalting itself against God’s sovereignty and by setting itself up to destroy the followers of Jesus, or entices them to become followers of Satan through deception, idolatry, blasphemy, and spiritual adultery, embodies the beast of Revelation 13. The description John gives of the beast from the sea does not describe a mere human political entity such as Rome. Rather, it describes in archetypal language the hideous, Satan-backed system of deception and idolatry that may at any time express itself in human systems of various kinds, such as Rome. Yet at the same time John also seems to be saying that this blasphemous, blaspheming, and blasphemy-producing reality will have a final, intense, and, for the saints, utterly devastating manifestation” (ibid.).
The Beast, then, is a trans-cultural, trans-temporal symbol for all individual and collective, Satanically-inspired, opposition to Jesus and his people. It is anything and everything (whether a principle, a person, or a power) utilized by the enemy to deceive and destroy the influence and advance of the kingdom of God.
Thus, the Beast is, at one time, the Roman Empire; at another, the Arian heresy (4th century). The Beast is, at one time, the emperor Decius (3rd century persecutor of the church); at another, secular evolutionary Darwinism (in the 21st century). The Beast is the late medieval Roman Catholic papacy, modern Protestant liberalism, Marxism, the radical feminist movement, the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century, communism, Joseph Stalin, the 17th century Enlightenment, 18th century deism, Roe v. Wade, the state persecution of Christians in China, the publication of the book The Myth of God Incarnate in the mid-70s, radical Islamic fundamentalism, angry 21st century atheism, etc. Each of these is, individually and on its own, the Beast. All of these are, collectively and in unity, the Beast.
The notion of the “mark” of the beast is found in Revelation 13:16-17 where we are told that “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, so 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.”
Many believe the reference to receiving a “mark” (charagma; found in 13:16, 17; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4) is an allusion to the ancient practice of branding or tattooing. David Aune (Revelation 6-16 [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998], 2:457-59) has documented several purposes for the latter:
- Barbarian tribes in antiquity practiced tattooing as a means of tribal identification.
- The Greeks used tattoos primarily as a way to punish both slaves and criminals. As such, it was a mark of disgrace and degradation, thus accounting for the methods of removal discussed in ancient medical literature.
- Tattooing could also be a mark of ownership, similar to the branding of cattle.
- In a number of ancient religions, tattooing indicated dedication and loyalty to a pagan deity.
Some have found the background for the “mark” of the Beast in the Jewish practice of wearing tephillim or phylacteries. These were leather boxes containing Scripture passages (cf. Exod. 13:9,16; Deut. 6:8; 11:18; Matt. 23:5) that were worn either on the left arm (facing the heart) or the forehead. The mark of the Beast, however, was to be placed on the right hand. Others have pointed out that the word “mark” was used of the emperor’s seal on business contracts and the impress of the Roman ruler’s head on coins. Perhaps, then, “the mark alludes to the state’s political and economic ‘stamp of approval,’ given only to those who go along with its religious demands” (Gregory K. Beale, Revelation, 715).
It seems quite clear to me that the “mark” of the Beast on his followers is the demonic counterpart and parody of the “seal” that is placed on the foreheads of the people of God (see 7:3-8; 14:1; 22:4). “Just as the seal and the divine name on believers connote God’s ownership and spiritual protection of them, so the mark and Satanic name signify those who belong to the devil and will undergo perdition” (Beale, 716). Since the seal or name on the believer is obviously invisible, being symbolic, it seems probable that the mark of the Beast is likewise a symbolic way of describing the loyalty of his followers and his ownership of them.
The reason for the mark being placed on either the forehead or the hand is at least two-fold. In the first place, as noted above, this is a demonic parody of the Jewish phylacteries which were worn on either the left arm or the forehead. Secondly, it may be that the forehead points to one’s ideological commitment and the hand to the practical outworking or manifestation of that commitment. The reference to socio-economic sanctions points to the hardship under which Christians are often compelled to live due to their commitment to Christ. This is present not only in Revelation (cf. 2:9; 3:8) but also in other NT texts (Heb. 10:34; Rom. 15:26).
But what is the significance of the number itself: 666? The meaning of this number has puzzled students of the Scriptures ever since John first wrote Revelation 13:8. There are essentially three schools of thought on the problem.
First is the Chronological View. Some have thought that the number refers to the duration of the life of the beast or his kingdom. Very few, if any, hold this view today.
Second is the Historical View. According to this school of thought, the number is believed to refer to some historical individual, power, or kingdom. This is easily the most popular interpretation and is based on a practice in ancient times called Gematria (from the Greek geomatria, from which we derive our English word “geometry”). This practice, found in both pagan and Jewish circles, assigns a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet. For example, using the English alphabet, the first 9 letters would stand for numbers 1 through 9 (A = 1; B = 2; C = 3; etc.), the next 9 letters for numbers 10 through 90 (J = 10; K = 20; L = 30; etc.) and so on. If one wished to write the number “23”, for example, it would appear as “KC” (K = 20 + C = 3). There is a well-known and oft-cited example from a bit of graffiti found in the city of Pompeii which reads: “I love the girl whose number is 545”. Apparently the initials of her name were ph = 500; mu = 40; epsilon = 5.
Third is the Symbolic View. Virtually all other numbers in the book of Revelation are figurative or symbolic of some spiritual or theological reality and give no indication that the calculations entailed by gematria are in view. Thus, according to this view, the number refers to the Beast as the archetype man who falls short of perfection in every respect. Triple sixes are merely a contrast with the divine sevens in Revelation and signify incompleteness and imperfection. 777 is the number of deity and 666 falls short in every digit. Again, “three sixes are a parody of the divine trinity of three sevens. That is, though the beast attempts to mimic God, Christ, and the prophetic Spirit of truth, he falls short of succeeding” (Beale, 722). Thus the number does not identify the Beast, but describes him. It refers to his character.
Furthermore, if a particular historical individual were in view, why didn’t John use the Greek aner / andros instead of anthropos / anthropon? The former means “man” as over against woman, child, etc. The latter, however, is generic, i.e., it speaks of “man” as a class over against, say, animals or angels (see also Rev. 21:17 for the use of the generic “man’s measure” / “angel’s measure”). Also, if a particular historical person were in view, John could have made that explicit by saying a “certain” (tinos) man or “one” (henos) man. If this view is correct, we should translate: “for it is man’s number.” This stresses the character or quality of man as apart from Christ forever short of perfection, completely epitomized in the Beast.
Finally, let me briefly return to the notion held by many that the “mark” of the Beast is a literal tattoo, implant, or imprint of sorts, or perhaps some other physiological branding by which his/its followers are visually identified. The popular notion among many Christians (usually of the dispensational, futurist school of interpretation) is that some such designation, whether “the name of the beast” or “the number  of its name” (Rev. 13:17) will be forcibly imposed on people living in the final few years prior to the coming of Christ. If one wishes to buy or sell and thus survive in the days ahead, he/she must submit to this means of identification.
Needless to say, this interpretation is largely based on a futurist reading of Revelation, such that what John describes pertains primarily, if not solely, to that last generation of humanity alive on the earth just preceding the second coming of Christ. If, on the other hand, the book of Revelation largely portrays events that occur throughout the entire course of church history, this view is seriously undermined. As I argued earlier, we should understand the “mark” of the Beast on the right hand or forehead of his/its followers to be a Satanic parody (a religious rip-off, so to speak) of the “seal” that is placed on the foreheads of God’s people (Rev. 7:3-8; 14:1; cf. 22:4). G. K. Beale is again surely right: “Just as the seal and the divine name on believers connote God’s ownership and spiritual protection of them, so the mark and Satanic name signify those who belong to the devil and will undergo perdition” (716).
Since the seal or name on the believer is obviously invisible, being symbolic, it seems quite certain that the mark of the Beast is likewise a symbolic way of describing the loyalty of his followers and his ownership of them. Would that the day might come when Christians forego the embarrassing and sensational efforts to locate the mark of the Beast in a computer chip to be placed under the skin or some other technological means to differentiate his followers from those of Christ.
I address all these issues in greater detail in Kingdom Come. I hope you’ll find it helpful and informative.