In this time of pandemic, in which vaccines have been quickly developed and rolled out across the world, some Christians are asking whether the vaccines are the “mark of the beast.” The “mark of the beast” comes from Revelation 13. For the sake of some context, here is the text of the whole chapter (my translation):
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads. On its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, with the feet of a bear, and its mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave it its power and its throne, and wide sovereignty. One of its heads was butchered to death, but its mortal wound was healed. The whole world behind the beast marvelled, and worshipped the dragon, which had given sovereignty to the beast. They worshipped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who has power to wage war against it?” A mouth making grand claims and blasphemies was given to it, and it was granted the exercise of sovereignty for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme against God, to blaspheme his name and his tabernacle, and those who dwell in the heavens. He was allowed to wage war against the holy ones and to conquer them. He was given sovereignty over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who lived on the earth worshipped him—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life—he who was butchered from the foundation of the world.
Whoever has an ear, let them hear.
Whoever is to go into imprisonment, to imprisonment they will go.
Whoever is to be executed by sword, by sword they will be executed.
This is the patience and the faith of the holy ones.
And I saw another beast, rising from the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but spoke like a dragon. It enacted all the sovereignty of the first beast on its behalf. It made the whole earth and all who lived in it worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performed great signs, making fire descend from heaven to the earth before the people. It deceived those who lived on the earth with the signs it was given to perform on the beast’s behalf, telling those who lived on the earth to make an image of the beast, which had a sword wound and yet lived. It was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast spoke, and to have all who did not worship the image of the beast executed. It made everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless they had the mark—the name of the beast or the number of its name.
Here is wisdom. Whoever has a mind can count the number of the beast, because it is a human’s number. Its number is 666.
Now, lots of Christians read this chapter with one eye on the news to see if anything happening in our world today lines up with the weird and wonderful imagery of Revelation’s rich apocalyptic world. And some have suggested that the Covid vaccines seem to match the description of the mark of the beast. I have heard this from people I love and who are dear to me. As governments and business around the world are making it increasingly difficult for people to operate normally in society without vaccination, the words, “It made everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless they had the mark,” resonate quite loudly. For that reason, some are reticent to get vaccinated, and some are even outright opposed to it, identifying the vaccines as the mark of the beast. It’s no wonder that many are afraid of the vaccines, or see them as a sign of the end times. Some are calling Covid “a plandemic” engineered by forces of a one-world-government to come, which will oppose Christians for being Christian, or else seeing the vaccines as a “trial run” for something more sinister (I am quoting phrases I’ve actually heard or read).
Here’s why that is not the case.
First, we need to say something about the imagery of Revelation. Many read Revelation as though it is a code to be deciphered, much like Nostradamus’s “prophecies.” But this is not how apocalyptic literature works. Apocalyptic is not a code, but a representation of the spiritual dynamics at work in the world—a bit like a political cartoon.
When you look at a political cartoon, you see deliberately caricatured people, places, and events. There is a way to “decipher” it, but that’s not always in code-like fashion. Political cartoons are not codes, but fantastic representations of our world. While you can identify people in political cartoons (often it’s politicians), the artists often take liberties, like depicting movements and nations as singular characters. Here are just two examples that demonstrate that (and I offer these without political comment—they are just to demonstrate the point about how apocalyptic works).
Revelation is like an ancient political cartoon. It has a sharp, punchy message, but presents it in a fanciful, fantastic form with weird and wonderful imagery. Our political cartoons today are actually the “descendants” of this kind of literature.
Second, the mark of the beast has already happened. In fact, it happened nearly two thousand years ago.
When we look at Revelation, we are seeing John present a political cartoon of what was happening in his day. Revelation 13 is not about the future from our perspective, but about the future from the perspective of the writer, John. We must remember that Revelation was not written to Christians today, but to Christians at the end of the first century. It is certainly beneficial for Christians today to read the book, but this is different to the book being written to Christians today. To read Revelation as though it is addressed to Christians today is like picking up someone else’s mail, and thinking that it’s up to you to pay the water bill in the envelope. Revelation was written to the Christians of seven cities in the Roman province of Asia. We see that in chapters 2–3 of the book. To understand Revelation properly, we need to understand the situation these Christians were in. The only way to really understand a political cartoon today is to know what’s actually going on right now. The political cartoon tries to depict it, and also to influence your perspective of it.
So what were the ancient Christians of Asia Minor facing? They were facing potential hardship, even death, because of the Roman imperial cult operating in their province.
What was the imperial cult?
In short, it was a demand that the people of a region demonstrate their loyalty to the Roman emperor by participating in a sacrifice that recognised him as a god. The root of the imperial cult can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Here’s the potted history of its development.
Ancient Egyptians worshipped their pharaohs as living gods. It was unEgyptian not to do so.
The 32nd and final dynasty of Egypt was the Ptolemaic Kingdom, established by Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s companions. When he declared himself king in 305 BC, he also became Pharaoh of Egypt, and was worshipped as such. He then used this tradition to implore all his subjects to worship him as a means of showing loyalty. The Jews, who were part of his realm, were given exemption from having to sacrifice to him as a god. Instead, they were allowed to swear an oath of loyalty.
The Seleucid Dynasty of Syria started using the same kind of “royal cult” to secure the loyalty of its subjects. The Seleucid Kingdom incorporated Asia Minor within its territories. In 167 BC, the Seleucids removed the exemptions that Jews had, and made them participate by sacrificing to an image of the king set up in the Jerusalem temple—what Daniel called the “abomination of desolation.” It sparked the Maccabean Revolt, which led a few decades later to Jewish independence. (For more on that, see my forthcoming book, Bridging the Testaments.)
When Rome extended its power eastward, it did so at the expense of the Seleucid Dynasty. In the late first century, the local leaders in (by now) the Roman province of Asia, began to apply the royal cult to Augustus as a sign of their loyalty. Augustus soon began to heap up other divine honours, and before too long, it was fairly common for peoples within the Roman Empire (especially in the eastern Mediterranean) to worship the emperor as a god, and to worship Rome itself as a god. The emperor was, as it were, the embodiment of Rome and all it stood for—an indomitable world force.
Jews had special exemptions from participating in the imperial cult, although there was one close call in AD 40/1, when Caligula was about to install his own statue in the Jerusalem temple—another “abomination of desolation” (he was assassinated before it could be set up). But Christians were not recognised as having an official religion with any special exemptions. And so Christians, especially Gentile Christians, were compelled to participate in the imperial cult, along with every other Gentile in the province. But, of course, they could not do so without compromising their faith. The Christian faith proclaimed that there was but one God, and but one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was Lord, not Caesar. While polytheists were only too happy to offer their worship to Caesar and to Rome, Christians could not do so. If they were called upon to participate in the imperial cult, they would have to refuse, and risk exclusion from society, and potential imprisonment or execution as enemies of society and of the state. We know these kinds of things were happening in the early second century, as the correspondence between Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger, Governor of neighbouring Bithynia and Pontus, demonstrates.
Revelation sees the dragon as Satan and/or Rome (this identification has a long history in Jewish writing from the first century BC). The first beast is the ruling Caesar. The butchered head is probably Nero, whose suicide ended the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. But just when it seemed that imperial rule had collapsed, and Rome was in disorder, it was “revived” by Vespasian, whose son, Titus, was responsible for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. The second beast is the local Roman authorities who governed the province of Asia on Rome’s behalf. Pergamum was the provincial capital and seat of the Governor, and hence its description in Revelation 2:13 as the place “where the throne of Satan is.” It was the local authorities who compelled participation in the imperial cult. The forty-two months in which the beast exercises its sovereignty is an allusion to the duration of the persecution of Jews by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV (167–163 BC), when he forced them to participate in the royal cult on pain of death (what Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” is all about). It is meant to say that this kind of thing happening in Asia has happened before, but it will come to an end. And the emphasis on the name and number of the beast being that of a human being is about pulling the rug out from underneath the emperor. God is infinite, and cannot be contained or captured in an image or calculation. But the emperor is just a man, not a god. He’s finite flesh. He can be resisted. Yes, his system is powerful and threatening, and might exclude or execute you for being a Christian. But it will one day be gone, like every other human being and human institution.
Exactly how many Christians lost their lives for not participating in the imperial cult is not known. But Pliny the Younger’s letters to Trajan show that Governors found the intransigence of Christians both mystifying and sinister, and despite some hesitation, were still prepared to execute them simply for being Christians. In any event, the Roman Empire is gone. The Christian faith is still here.
So the mark of the beast has already happened historically. We might point to other parallel situations where Christians have been put under similar pressure. John himself alludes to the pressure put on Jews a few centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. But they come and go. For those undergoing such pressure, it might be the end of their world. But the end of the world is in the hands of God and of his Christ (read on in Revelation). That’s not to trivialise the suffering of those who have died for their faith. Revelation depicts the souls of the executed crying out to God as their only true sovereign, “How long, O holy and true Despot?” (Rev 6:9–10)
But here’s why the Covid vaccines do not belong in that same category as persecution: Christians are not being compelled to give up or betray their faith in Jesus as Lord. They’re being invited to take a vaccine that, it is argued, reduces the risk of sickness and death due to Covid. The two are not the same. In fact, Jesus was generally well-disposed towards providing people with health and wellbeing. Whether you take the vaccine or not, you are still free to retain your belief in Jesus as Lord. You are not betraying your faith by taking a vaccine. You are not being asked to worship another god. You are simply being invited to take a particular medication, much like other vaccines (e.g., polio, rubella, malaria, hepatitis, etc.). If you choose not to be vaccinated (and that is your right), then you won’t be potentially excluded from society for your faith in Jesus, but for public health interests, including your own. You can be vaccinated and believe in Jesus. To be vaccinated is not to disown your faith. You are not receiving an indelible damning “mark of the beast.”
The final reason I want to raise for why the vaccines are not related to the mark of the beast is the character of God. The Christian faith proclaims a loving God who welcomes all who repent and turn to him through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus could welcome repentant prostitutes and tax collectors, then anyone who repents is welcomed. And unconditional love is to be shown to everyone, whether they are part of the faith or not. In fact, Christians are to have the same attitude as Jesus himself, which was to consider the interests of others above their own, and even to give up their own rights for the sake of others. Self-sacrificial love.
To imply that God will not accept someone on the basis of a vaccination is to propose that the God who made himself known in Jesus—the God of the Christian faith—has recently had a major schizophrenic episode, and changed his character to such an extent, that the Christian faith itself has irrevocably changed. Suddenly, salvation is no longer “by faith alone,” but “by faith and no vaccine.” But the vaccines are not asking you to give up your Christian faith, or betray it. To believe that they are is to imply that Paul should have written the following lines to the Christians in Rome:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Oh, except a vaccine! A vaccine would definitely do it. (cf. Rom 8:38–39)
A vaccine has never compromised Christian faith in the past. It is not compromising Christian faith in the present.
Yes, your government, employer, or supermarket might ask you to take the vaccine. But this is not extraordinary. At its core it is not too different from governments forcing us to put seat belts on in cars, obey speed limits, and stop at traffic lights, with repercussions if we do not. These are “impositions” made in the interests of public health, safety, and wellbeing. You can be prosecuted for infringing these “impositions.” But our governments are not prosecuting us for not taking a vaccine. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences either, mind you. Christians should think carefully about their attitude to the vaccines, in light of their attitudes to other such government “impositions” that are about protecting life.
Of course, there sometimes are valid reasons for why people can’t take a vaccine (e.g., underlying health issues). But the Christian faith is not one of them, because no one is asking Christians to betray their own faith by taking a vaccine.
To sum up, the Covid vaccines are not the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast has already happened in history. Yes, there will be challenges to the Christian faith, as there have been before. But the vaccines are not one of them.