Updated: Nov 30, 2020
This might seem an odd title to you if you are not a Christian but I imagine if you have grown up in the West you have at least a little bit of an idea of the phrase 'mark of the beast'. If you grew up in the 80s-00s as a Christian you probably know of the spate of Christian movies that emphasised the end of the world, a new world order, persecution of Christians and the 'Left Behind' series of books. Maybe you were unfortunate enough to watch the more recent Nicholas Cage movie with the same title. These movies and books have caused many people to assume the bible actually teaches what these movies suggest. One idea is that in the 'end times' (I'll explain this phrase in a moment), people will have to take a mark that allows them to buy and sell and shows that they are loyal to the new world order. This in turn means that very clever Christians, many who understand the science behind the new vaccines being developed, end up thinking they won't take the vaccine because some greater evil is behind it.
In as short a space as I can, I'll lay out where this idea comes from and why I don't think it is an appropriate response to scripture to suggest a vaccine is the mark that the author of Revelation talks about.
Where does this idea come from?
The main section of the bible that this idea comes from is Revelation. If you know anything about the bible this is probably one of the strangest books to read. It is a form of writing called apocalyptic literature and it is a genre we have no modern equivalent for. There are books in the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament/first two thirds of the bible) that are the same genre and Revelation alludes to - the book of Daniel and Ezekiel as well as some of Zechariah and Isaiah.
'Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it 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. Also 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. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.' Revelation 13:11-18
Reading this as a paragraph shows there is something bizarre going on here. The fact that 'the mark of the beast' and '666' are in the same passage as a beast rising out of the earth with lambs horns and a voice of a dragon should give us some pause before thinking this is a literal event going to happen.
I'm going to come back to the passage at hand in a moment but let me explain a few terms that we often think we know the meaning of but get mixed up with cultural ideas. Apocalypse does not mean 'end of the world' in the bible - if you are Greek or know Greek it is simply 'Revelation' and so the book title in Greek is 'Apocalypse' or as a longer title 'The Apocalypse (Revelation) of Jesus Christ' (see the first verse of the book). This is important because it highlights that the book isn't necessarily about the end of the world. The emphasis of the book is about Jesus and about God, not about a sequence of events we can expect to happen.
Many Christians disagree on the term 'end times' but the best explanation of this phrase is the space of time, no matter how long, between Jesus' ascension and Jesus' return. We are currently in the end times, but so were the first Christians 2000 years ago. This means we need to be very careful trying to interpret Revelation's symbolism through events happening today. We need to read the bible the other way around - recognising the context it was written first and then allowing that to bring out the meaning of the passage which is what I will do in a moment.
Literal interpretation vs symbolic
If you have interacted with Christians on this topic you will often hear people say 'I take this literally' or 'you hold a symbolic view'. Generally each label is said by someone disagreeing to discredit the other person's view. I argue that I take a 'both and' view of this passage - I take it literally in that it is symbolic. I'm in good company by those who have spent much longer digging into the bible and know original languages as well. G.K Beale argues that where the meaning is not clearly interpreted, we should not assume a literal interpretation of what is being seen in the context but actually to turn this idea "on its head: we are told in the book's introduction that the majority of the material in it is revelatory symbolism... Hence, the predominant manner by which to approach the material will be according to a nonliteral interpretative method. Of course, some parts are not symbolic, but the essence of the book is figurative. Where there is lack of clarity about whether something is symbolic, the scales of judgement should be tilted in the direction of a nonliteral analysis." (Beale, p.52)
In summary - if you think the passage you are reading in Revelation is obvious and should be taken as plain reading, you are probably reading it incorrectly.
Why won't the vaccine be the mark?
I will keep the reasons to three points but I think that what I've discussed already shows that the passage isn't as clear as many seem to make it out to be. This might raise a few more questions which I hope that maybe a longer study might help with which you can find in the resources below. Feel free to comment or message me through this blog if you have further questions and I'll do my best to give a helpful response! The first two reasons focus on the contradictions from thinking the mark might be a vaccine (or microchip) and the third is a positive argument for what I believe John (the author of Revelation who had the visions) actually means by the mark.
1. The vaccine is not a visible mark
Recently I was in conversation with someone suggesting that the vaccine could be the mark. They focused on the Greek word that is translated 'mark' and it is literally an etching or visible mark on the skin. It would be visible and very clear and everyone could see it on the forehead or hand. A mark would be more like a tattoo or the scars from a branding iron. The so-called literal idea that 'mark' means vaccine or microchip shows actually that 'mark' is no longer a literal reading but a symbolic one that changes the text from something that is visible to something that is inside the body that no one could see. When you look at me you have no idea what vaccines I've had, this will be the case with the COVID vaccine as well. This interpretation fails in being a plain reading of the text.
2. The vaccine is in a long line of failed interpretations
Christians have been taking odd meanings from Revelation for decades if not centuries. The vaccine is just the modern interpretation in a long line of people guessing what the mark would look like. People have argued that the mark is a tattoo, a microchip and a branding mark and you can easily find an argument online that this will be given by an American president for every president in most recent history. Every one of these interpretations has proven false and the false prophets have simply moved the dates and focus of their interpretations to keep their followers listening in fear of missing out on the rapture (another idea lacking in biblical grounding but that is for another article). Basically reading Revelation like this brings fear and anxiety rather than hope and expectation for Jesus and fulfilling the promise that his kingdom will be on earth as it is in heaven.
3. The mark is a symbol for loyalty, obedience and worship
How should we read Revelation? Well John is quite clear that he is having a series of visions and these visions mean something. In many places he says what he means:
'and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. ' Revelation 5:8
in other places he alludes to the Hebrew Bible, compare the following two quotes:
'The hairs of his (Jesus') head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, ' Revelation 1:14
'“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. ' Daniel 7:9
John was pointing out the early Christian view the Jesus was the son of man seen in Daniel's visions while also being God. That again is for another article, but this is why Revelation isn't necessarily a straight forward read. John knew the Hebrew Bible far better than most of us do and we must read Revelation slowly and carefully rather than rushing to apply symbols to modern technologies.
When it comes to taking a name or a mark, we can look all the way back to Genesis 11. There is a theme from the story of Babel (the founding city of Babylon as the Hebrew translated Babel is equal to Babylon). Babylon turns up a lot in Revelation as the archetype, the symbol, or rebellion against God. Genesis 11 talks about humanity building a tower that 'makes a name' for humanity and brings God to humanity's level. The tower is destroyed, and humanity scattered but it is the repetition of a long theme of humanity trying be a god of their own making which actually starts in Genesis 3.
In Revelation 3 we see this promise for the Christian who remains faithful even through hardship:
'The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. ' Revelation 3:12
I have yet to hear someone argue that in the new creation, the Christian will have the name of God tattooed on their forehead or that they will look like a pillar holding up a temple roof. Yet this would be the plain reading of this verse! What does John mean by this verse? It means that we will be known by God, loyal and obedient to him, and be promised to be a part of the restored earth where God will dwell with *his* people.
What would be the anti-thesis of this promise? It would be a mark of loyalty and ownership to the Babylon of the world. A person and/or system that rejects God's gift of life and fights against the church. It is loyalty to a person or system that claims to be God, displays signs and wonders (think miracles) but actually brings deception and death because it is against Jesus - literally anti-Christ.
How is someone 'marked'? Like the promise of God in Revelation 3, we are marked by how we live, by who or what we worship and what we hope in. Some seem to be focused on a certain political party more than Jesus, some seem to be more focused on moral behaviours than Jesus, some seem to be more focused on their doctrine than Jesus. As many Christians before me have noted, we all worship (live for) something and when we don't live for the God revealed through Jesus, we will find ourselves living for something else and that something else becomes the mark that doesn't lead to life.
The arc of the bible is that humanity should rule and reign with God. The Christian story is one that is hoping for a new humanity, one that is marked by God's life and not marked by the greatest enemy of humanity - the beast of death. The video below is a great summary of this story and it is one where we don't need to fear the medical advances of vaccines. As Christians we know this vaccine won't defeat death, it only puts a damper on one aspect of death - a deadly virus - but ultimately we look back at the one time in history someone actually defeated death to look forward to a time when death will be no more.
Ian Paul has written an excellent commentary on Revelation and talks about this present crisis in relation to Revelation on his blog here: click me
The New International Greek Testament Commentary, The Book of Revelation, G. K. Beale, 1999 (my edition, 2013), Eerdmans.
The bible project podcast series on Revelation: click me
How to read apocalyptic literature: