Relax, That's Not The Mark of the Beast!

Lately, I've been running into a bunch of Christian conspiracy theorists who claim that this, that, or some other thing is the Mark of the Beast. Since panic over the Mark of the Beast seems to becoming more and more widespread, and is often being used to push hateful conspiracy theories, I decided to write an article on why these people actually have no idea what they're actually talking about, and why nothing they're talking about even remotely qualifies as the Mark of the Beast.

If you've been worried about the Mark of the Beast at all, I hope this article sets your mind at rest. If you know anyone who might be worried about it, please share it with them so they don't have to live in fear. I used to think that the Mark of the Beast was right around the corner when I was a teenager, and it was absolutely not fun, and I don't think anyone should have to live with that kind of fear.

First uploaded: October 31, 2021.

Table of Contents

Putting Revelation Into Historical Context

So first, we need to put both Revelation and Christianity into historical context. Both are products of apocalyptic theology, a tradition that began to take hold in the 3rd century BC. At this point, the Jewish people had been exposed to Persian ideas of a dualistic universe, in which Earth was essentially a battleground between good and evil. In this cosmology, an all-evil god was effectively at war with an all-good god. If you're familiar with Christianity, this should sound very familiar - it's not far off from the idea of God and Satan, angels and demons, waging war against each other on Earth for dominion and the souls of mankind.

Apocalyptic theology basically sought to explain the suffering and oppression the Jewish people faced under various imperial powers. It essentially proposed that all of this suffering and violence actually had a point, and everything was actually leading up to something. It tended to involve a messiah, or sometimes even two messiahs. Apocalypticism was not a monolith, and sometimes ideas within it clashed wildly. Many apocalyptic works were credited to writers who lived long ago, written as if they were prophecies of current events. (And yes, we know for sure that this was the case for many reasons, such as linguistic anachronisms and the like. For example, if someone showed you a book and claimed it was three hundred years old, but the book contained terms like "social influencer," "dad bod," or "binge-read," you'd know it just wasn't that old. Same kind of thing for these old books.)

Other well-known (or relatively well-known) apocalyptic literature today includes The Book of Daniel and The Book of Enoch. Other works include the War Scroll, 4 Ezra, 2 and 3 Baruch, the Apocalypse of Adam, and the Apocalypse of Peter. And these are just a few of the apocalyptic works we know about - there are many, many more out there.

The Book of Enoch in particular seems to have had a huge influence on the development of Christianity, as a number of writers of the New Testament seem to be familiar with many of its ideas In Jude 1:14-16, the author appears to be citing the Book of Enoch. Meanwhile, the Book of Revelation borrows significantly from The Book of Daniel, particularly the concept of beasts with horns. (The Book of Daniel, in turn, was apparently inspired by Hellenistic symbolism.)

To make an analogy, assuming that The Book of Revelation is the only piece of apocalyptic literature, or even the only piece of important apocalyptic literature, is kind of like assuming that Spider-Man was the only superhero in the 20th century. Imagine if you met someone from the future, and they told you that Spider-Man was the only superhero of your time period. Even if you don't know much about superhero media, you'd probably at the very least be aware that characters like Hulk, Batman, and Superman also exist, and therefore you'd recognize that this person doesn't know what they're talking about. It's a very similar situation when people act as if the Book of Revelation is the only piece of apocalyptic literature of any real weight or significance.

The Book of Revelation seems to have been written sometime in the 60s or 70s of the first century. The fact that it mentions the Second Temple suggests that it was written prior to its destruction in 70 AD, though I suppose it's also possible that John hadn't heard about the destruction yet, or dismissed the news as a rumor. In my opinion, the mention of a great earthquake followed by an obvious description of a volcanic eruption ("hail and fire mixed with blood" burning up grass and trees sure sounds like flying pyroclasts) that ultimately poisons the sea in Revelation 8:7-8 could have been inspired by earthquakes preceding the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. (Mount Vesuvius is located on the coast, so it seems possible that John imagined that it would fall into the ocean when it finally erupted.) There's also reason to think that it may have been written sometime shortly after the death of Nero in 68 AD - a reason which I'll go into later.

So the thing to know about John is, he really hates Rome's guts. Unlike Paul of Tarsus, who held a relatively positive view of Rome and Roman authority (unsurprising when you consider that Paul was a Roman citizen well-acquainted with Roman culture), John sees Rome as downright Satanic.

Now, if you're familiar with the text of the Book of Revelation, you might wonder what I'm talking about, since John doesn't explicitly say "Rome" or "Roman." This is because John refers to Rome through innuendo and metaphor, for the simple fact that Rome was the dominating power and was not exactly friendly to anyone it saw as rebellious. (Reminder that one intended purpose of crucifixion was to demoralize would-be rebels in the provinces.) Rome was also big on emperor worship, a practice that was considered blasphemous within Jewish monotheism. (Though I can't imagine that anyone, monotheistic or no, would exactly feel positive about being told to worship their oppressor as a god.)

Revelation refers to a wicked, oppressive city which it calls "Babylon," and personifies this city as the Whore of Babylon. (Jewish tradition often personifies collectives and nations as individuals. An example of this is Hosea 1:11, which says "When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son" - referring to the Hebrew people being rescued from slavery in Egypt as told in Exodus. You can find even more examples of this throughout the Hebrew Bible, if you read it.)

John also seems to be borrowing from Isaiah 1:21, which characterizes the Jewish people as a fallen woman who is being called to redeem herself through a return to righteousness. I also suspect that the Whore of Babylon may have been inspired by Aphrodite Epitragia, who was depicted as riding a goat around and in the 1st century. (Though obviously, I can't prove this right now.)

In any case, John's prostitute is a little different from Isaiah's; there is no hope for this woman whatsoever. She is irredeemably wanton and cruel, and doomed to certain destruction. Revelation 17:9 tells us that the woman sits upon seven mountains, or seven hills. Ancient Rome was indeed built upon seven hills. If you consider this, and consider that Rome's occupation of Palestine would have been perceived as getting "drunk with the blood of God's holy people" by many of the local Jews, then it makes sense that John is talking about Rome and none other. Far too many people today simply do not understand what a looming force of oppression the Roman Empire was, and therefore find it far too easy to dismiss this.

There are many other important details that modern people are unaware of. For example, Roman slaves caught stealing were branded on the forehead with "FUR," and those condemned to gladatorial rings were also branded on the forehead.

One last piece of important historical context many people don't realize, is that after Emperor Nero died in 68 BC there was a belief that he would actually come back to life - the Nero Redivivus legend. There were apparently even a number of people who tried to impersonate the dead emperor, though this clearly didn't get very far.

We don't have to believe that John had a perfect understanding of what was going down in the Greco-Roman world to accept that he was likely inspired and influenced by it. We only need to understand and acknowledge that he lived in a time and place where certain events were happening and where certain ideas about what those events meant and what would happen next were popular. It doesn't matter, for example, whether John thought that Nero, specifically, was going to come back. What matters is that he experienced Roman oppression, likely knew that Romans branded people on the forehead, and was probably exposed to the idea that a Roman emperor would come back to life. All of this stuff was quite likely rattling around in his brain and could have taken on numerous forms and shapes during some kind of mystical experience, or altered state of consciousness, or whatever it was he was doing when he came up with the material within the text of The Book of Revelation.

The Beast & The Mark

So one thing I'd like to get clear before going further is that John really, really has a thing for numbers. For example, you might remember that he specifies that God will seal twelve thousand virgin men from each of the twelve tribes, for a total of 144,000 virgin men. Now, this is an absolutely bizarre idea if you're used to the idea that salvation comes down to whether or not you accept Jesus as your savior, because what are the odds that exactly 12,000 virgin men from each of the twelve tribes would accept Jesus? This kind of theology either suggests some kind of holy predetermination, or suggests that only the top 12,000 holiest virgin men were chosen from each tribe. Either way, it's pretty weird compared to how most people view salvation these days.

John's thing for numbers dictates the style and structure of the whole book. For example, there are seven seals to be unbound, seven trumpets to be blown, and seven bowls to be poured out over the Earth - so basically, three sets of seven. Satan sweeps a third of the stars out of the sky in Revelation 12. Four angels are unbound to kill a third of humanity in Revelation 9:15. And on it goes.

Naturally, there are three monstrous figures working together in the Book of Revelation. When most people say "the Beast," they're often conflating these figures together, along with passages from 2 Thessalonians 2, 1 John 2, and 2 John 7. (Note that there is no substantial evidence that John of Patmos also authored 1st and 2nd John - more than one person can be named John, after all.)

The narrative of "the Beast," if we can even truly say that there is such a figure, begins in Revelation 12. This chapter gives us a little backstory about Satan's assault upon the Jewish people in the past. It basically involves the idea that every nation was guided or protected by an angel (an idea found in the Book of Daniel), and that these angels essentially "fell" when their protectorate nations attacked Israel, and were thus in rebellion against God. Here, Satan is described as a giant red dragon with seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns.

In Revelation 13, the red dragon stands on the shore of the sea and apparently watches as a beast comes out of the sea. (And I think it's worth keeping in mind, Romans of the day often traveled to Judea by the sea.) The dragon immediately grants it the power to wage war upon and conquer God's people, and a fatal wound suffered by one of the heads spontaneously heals. People start worshiping the dragon/Satan because it gave power to the beast, and start worshiping the beast itself because, presumably, the whole imperial cult thing. This big bad bearcat is what many people refer to as the Beast, but... this has some problems.

Many people think of this beast as an individual person, but Revelation 17 makes it clear this isn't the case. This beast is an institution, an imperial government. Each head represents a different leader, and each horn represents a king who allies themselves with the beast. The beast basically goes around doing what imperial powers do: It disrespects local beliefs and traditions, brutalizes people into submission, and forces them to adopt its own state religion on pain of death.

The second beast is described as rising from the earth. It's said to have two horns like a lamb, but that it also speaks like a dragon. This beast behaves a bit more how people imagine "the Beast" will behave. It performs "great signs" and even makes fire come down from the skies, much to the astonishment of the people. It commands people to set up an image in honor of the first beast and worship it, or else be killed.

If the first beast represents the Roman Empire, then it seems likely that the second beast could represent either a complicit local government enforcing imperial decree, or someone like Petronius, who was involved in Emperor Caligula's unsuccessful efforts to install a statue of himself in the temple. (Note that it doesn't have to literally be Petronius - the author may have simply envisioned another Roman official like him.) Whichever it was, I think it's obvious that real events played a role in shaping the narrative of the Book of Revelation.

At this point, the second beast forces people to take the Mark of the Beast. So what we're basically looking at here is probably either a local government or an imperial representative enforcing imperial policy upon a colonized population. The Mark of the Beast comes in two forms: people can either receive the Beast's name on their right hand or forehead, or they can just get the Beast's gematria number, 666.

Christian conspiracy theories about what the Mark supposedly is consistently fail to account for everything that John describes. Few (if any) of their candidates have anything to do with some kind of imperial cult, and none of them account for the part where getting the Beast's proper name is supposed to be an option. Instead, most of them fixate on the Number of the Beast, and ignore pretty much everything else.

Thing is, getting a microchip in your hand to perform cashless transactions can't be the Mark of the Beast as described in Revelation because it 1. has nothing to do with an imperial cult, 2. there's no option to get it in your forehead, and 3. there's no option to just get the Beast's name instead. Vaccines and vaccine cards have a similar problem - what do they have to do with an imperial cult? Where's the option to get it branded on your forehead? Perhaps one of the most baffling things I've seen claimed as the Mark of the Beast is bar codes, which you don't even put on or in your body at all.

One last thing that throws a wrench into the conspiracy theories is the fact that the 144,000 virgin men are also marked on their foreheads. Revelation 14:1 reveals that they have God and Jesus's names on their foreheads. In other words, it's all about allegiance and who you belong to. To John, capitulating to the imperial cult was the ultimate form of treason and betrayal, and therefore deserved the ultimate punishment, as described in Revelation 9:11. (Personally, I don't think it's fair to be so harsh on the victims of colonial violence, but of course Christianity often doesn't really go for moral complexity.)

So Much For The Antichrist

In addition to destroying pretty much every Christian conspiracy theory about the Mark of the Beast, this also shows that the powerful, charismatic Antichrist figure many Christians keep hoping to find simply does not exist. Other writers of the New Testament speak of Antichrists - plural. When they do, they are obviously speaking about people who reject the idea that Jesus is the messiah, or even claim themselves to be the messiah. The thing is, in the 1st century there were a lot of people claiming to be the messiah, and it's difficult to imagine that they or their followers were exactly fans of each other.

The idea that there would be a singular Antichrist, that the Antichrist would be Satan or Satan's son in human form, that he would become the leader of a world government, and that he would die and resurrect after three days, all came around much later. For John of Patmos, the enemy was Rome, and anyone who collaborated or capitulated to the imperial cult.

As interesting as the idea of a singular Antichrist figure like this might be at times, I think we need to be more aware of how it's being used to demonize individual leaders, particularly those with more liberal-minded politics. There was nothing liberal about the beasts of Revelation. Rather, they were depicted as perpetrators of violent colonialism. They didn't go around telling people things like "hey, be nice to refugees and gay people," but rather, they executed anyone who refused to worship their emperor as a divine being.

Many people today believe that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are War, Famine, Death, and Pestilence. But this is not so. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would be better described as Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. This is nothing more and nothing less than the progress of imperialism: First, the empire decides to claim new territory. Then it wages war on its inhabitants. Then it destroys and pillages their goods. And then the people go without, and die.

I think if we're going to ask ourselves what Revelation "really" means, we should first try to look at it from the perspective of its writer - a man living under the weight of an oppressive empire, living with the pain and trauma of seeing his people exploited and murdered. We have to understand that this text isn't about us, and it definitely isn't about current American politics.

One final thing I want to say: Listening to other people try to tell you what's in the Bible is no substitute for actually reading the Bible, and what's in the Bible will make a whole lot more sense if you stop trying to impose your modern preconceptions on it and start trying to understand it in the contexts of the places and time periods its many, many books were written in.

I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you liked it, please share it on your social media and with any friends you think might be interested. If you want to learn more about the fascinating topic of apocalypticism and the evolution of Jewish and Christian beliefs, I'll be including links with relevant information under External Resources.

Other Pages You Might Like:

A Beginner's Guide To Spotting Cranky Websites & Culty Groups
Some Observations On Conspiracy Propaganda
Why New Age Spirituality Even Is Creepier Than You Thought
Sketchy Spiritualities & Shady Pseudohistories: What People Need To Know

External Resources

666: What Does It REALLY Mean?
The Number of the Beast in Revelation 13 in Light of Papyri, Graffiti, and Inscriptions
The Origins Of Satan
We Should Talk About the Devil
Introduction to Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism - Lecture Series (Contains general history of Judaism and apocalypticism)
What's The Deal With The Nephilim?
Left Behind and the Translation of God

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