Teaching Article for the Week of August 15-21, 2021
Receiving the very same phone call from two different people on the very same day captured my attention. Something must be going on.
- The first call was from a college basketball coach who asked with frustration, “Dad, one of my players thinks that Covid-19 is ‘The Mark of the Beast’, and he doesn’t want to get vaccinated. What can I tell him?”
- Within a few hours, I received the second call. A brother in Christ who worships at a congregation where I once preached asked in a concerned voice, “Bro. Don, do you think that COVID-19 might be ‘The Mark of the Beast?’” Premillennialism is popular and nearly predominant in his community.
Being neither Premillennial nor inclined to be rattled by Premillennial panic, no connection had crossed my mind between the current pandemic and Revelation 13:16’s reference to,
The second beast require(ing) all people small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their forehead.
Cruising Premillennial internet sites I quickly discovered, however, that although (i) no credible Bible thinkers are making this connection (ii) many pot-boilers are doing what they do – that is, they are using weasel words to boil-up sinister suspicions by saying things like “Could COVID-19 be “The Mark of the Beast?”, “Perhaps masks are The Mark of the Beast”, “There is growing concern that taking the COVID-19 vaccine is receiving The Mark of the Beast” and so on. Suffering from many self-inflected wounds or failed predictions, Premillennialists prefer weaselly predictions instead of predictions that are, well, literal.
With internet sites buzzing with headlines like, “Followers of Christ, and those who don’t claim to embrace Christ’s teachings are questioning whether the COVID-19 vaccine is “The “Mark of the Beast“, maybe it is time for a teaching article. If so, you might be interested in this piece that challenges the supposed connection between COVID-19 and Revelation and also considers Christian responses to very real (boy, do I ever know!) COVID-19 concerns.
Short Answer to the Question, Is COVID-19 The Mark of the Beast?
Long Answer #1 – Approaching the Book of Revelation
Study of the Book of Revelation is stretched between two incompatible interpretive approaches.
One approach accepts that Revelation is filled with figurative language. Following this approach, an approach that is not terribly different from the standard approach to the Bible’s poetic passages, references in Revelation are first compared with other Bible passages, especially other apocalyptic passages, and are then interpreted allegorically. That is, spiritual, symbolic allegories are allowed to reveal meanings that are consistent with literal truths and consistent with their own poetic themes and structures.
According to this approach, Revelation 13:16 does not refer to a literal mark but instead refers to “what we think and believe and the actions that stem from those thoughts and beliefs.” We accept this “mark,” in other words, by the false doctrines we believe “in our foreheads” and by the unchristian practice of “our right hands.”
The other approach insists that Revelation be understood as being filled with literal language, literal language only, and nothing but literal language. Following this approach, an approach that is not terribly different from the standard approach to the Bible’s law passages, references in Revelation are to be taken at face value – this has been described as the “Plain Sense” approach that interprets the words of Revelation in their plainest sense.
According to this approach, Revelation 13:16 is describing a demonic attempt to require that Christians accept some kind of physical mark that openly identifies them with a dominant, anti-Christian world system and that allows them to fully participate in that system, especially in its commerce.
Long Answer #2 – The Limits of Literalization
One of the limits of the literal approach to Revelation is that maintaining a consistently literal approach is almost impossible. This is because the symbols in Revelation are so many and so multi-layered that even the most literal literalist eventually breaks down and becomes a “figurativist.”
This breakdown is well illustrated by attempts to make COVID-19 “The Mark of the Beast.”
- Question #1 for literalists: is the “Mark” (i) COVID-19 itself, (ii) masks that are worn to mitigate COVID-19 exposure, or (iii) receiving a COVID-19 vaccine?
- Question #2 for literalists: if “The Mark of the Beast” is the virus itself, then how does that literally correspond with Revelation 13:16 that says that receiving the mark is forced or imposed by outside agency? A virus, no one is forced to receive COVID-19.
- Question #3 for literalists: if “The Mark of the Beast” is some kind of mask, then how does that correspond with the meaning of the word mark? Translated from the Greek word charagma, this word literally refers to an imprinted mark and possibly even a brand.
- Question #4 for literalists: if “The Mark of the Beast” is the vaccine inoculation, then the only mark left is the pin-prick site of the actual shot. Does such a tiny and quickly healed mark constitute the obvious “Mark” of Revelation 13:16?
The problems represented by these questions cause a critical breakdown in the literal approach in general and, in particular, to the application of Revelation 13:16 to COVID-19.
Long Answer #3 – The History of The Mark of the Beast
John’s reference to “The Mark of the Beast” has been around for more than 2,000 years. The current Covid-19 destabilization, not yet two years old, is not the first application of Revelation 13:16 that Premillennialists have historically made. Here is a partial list of previous explanations of “The Mark of the Beast.”
- Christians in Roman times thought that the Mark might have something to do with Emperor Nero or to worshipping emperors in the Imperial cult.
- The earliest Protestant Reformers almost always saw some of the symbolism and ritual of Roman Catholicism in “The Mark of the Beast.” To borrow weasel words, could the smudge Catholics receive on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday be the dreaded Mark?
- Perhaps worship on Saturday or worship on Sunday is the Mark. This has been argued in the Sabbatarian debates.
- There was growing concern toward the end of the Cold War that the menacing birthmark on former President of the Soviet Union Mikael Gorbachev’s forehead was The Mark of the Beast.
- Many other marks have been suggested, including the Nazi swastika, clerical robes, the Starbuck’s logo, allegiance to Donald Trump, the crossed swords on many American military uniforms, Social Security numbers, bar codes, RFID chips, QR codes, and so on, all before COVID-19 came along.
Only very recently has COVID-19 been added to the list. If Nero, the Pope, Mikael Gorbachev, and Donald Trump have been previous candidates, then what makes Covid-19 a superior and enduring candidate?
Answer #4 – KISS
In addition to being consistent with the allegorical approach to Revelation, the explanation of The Mark of the Beast as “what we think and believe and the actions that stem from those thoughts and beliefs” also has the advantage of keeping things simple. Compared with the breakdown caused by the limits of literalization and with the confusion of so many historical (hysterical?) candidates for The Mark of the Beast, James Burton Coffman’s comments on Revelation 13:16 earn the advantage of simplicity.
The obvious meaning of this “head and hand” identification is that both mental and physical cooperation was the price of “belonging.” There is no likelihood that anything literal is meant by this “mark”…No Christian of John’s times…could have failed to read this (as) “head and hand,” “heart and hand” compliance with the persecutor’s will.
William Hendriksen adds,
Theories (like the current Covid = Mark mania; DAP) err in this respect, namely, they interpret the mark as a single, individual, outward, visible sign that will appear on the forehead or hand…at one particular moment in history; then, and only then. But the beast ever persecutes the church…Wherever and whenever the beast appears, you will also find the mark of the beast.
Homer Hailey concurs.
As the seal which God placed of the foreheads of His subjects was not physical but a spiritual recognition of devotion to Him (see Rev. 7:3, 9:4; DAP) it is best to think of the mark of the beast as (a) stamp…impressed upon the character and conduct.
Developing strong opinions in times like these is only natural. COVID-19 has brought fear of a disease we cannot resist and resistance against pushy governmental demands that we cannot control. The problem is that everyone wants to (pardon me) mask their opinions behind the Bible.
In other words, whether we are for or against more COVID-19 quarantines, social distancing, mask mandates, vaccine passports, and so on, we would all like to elevate our opinions to the heights of scripture. This is all too common among Christians. We really want our opinions to also be the opinions of God.
Sinister suspicions that connect COVID-19 to The Mark of the Beast are an extreme example of opinion masking made possible by the current social frenzy about the virus, current distrust of the government, and by the current popularity of Premillennialism. A more balanced view respects the dangers of COVID-19, respects personal opinions for or against, and then respects that our opinions are nothing more than opinions.
Respecting different opinions regarding COVID-19 is especially important just now for church members. We really need to get back to business full-time and full-strength. We can return to the work and worship of the church only if we equally accommodate the opinions of brethren who are fearful and also accommodate the opinions of brethren who are tired of being fearful. Reasonable people of faith can work this out.