“Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators” – G. K. Chesterton1
The Swedes are taking on the mark of the beast in droves, or at least that’s how it appears. NPR wrote an article late last year reporting that “thousands of Swedes are inserting microchips under their skin.”2 They are doing this for intense convenience. You can share data, enter events and transportation with ease, pay for food, and a woman named Szilvia Varszegi said it even helped her in “avoiding the need to spell out her name.”3
While this might all seem very convenient, if you’ve simply heard of Christianity you know that this is likely damning.
The Mark of the Beast is a curious, and deeply unsettling subject in the last book of the Bible, ‘The Revelation to John’ (referred to as ‘Revelation’ from here on). In this book, John chronicles a vision that God gave to him. This vision is difficult to understand, and is filled with wild imagery. In chapter 13 he writes,
Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon… 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 (Rev 13:11, 16-18).
So, according to John’s vision, a beast will at some point require all people to receive a mark on their right hand or forehead, if they want to do any commerce. In chapter 14 we see the consequences of receiving such a mark.
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. (Rev 14:9-11)
Woah, woah, woah! What’s the deal? Throughout the Bible God tells us that we are dead in our sins, and storing up wrath for ourselves in unrighteousness, but if we repent of our sins and put our faith in Jesus we will receive eternal life. But now John is saying, also don’t get this vague mark on your hand or forehead, or you will be cast into Hell for it. And he doesn’t say it off the cuff, he really lingers on the suffering that will happen if you get this mark.
What if I’m a Christian, but unknowingly got the wrong tattoo, or indulge in the latest form of technology? Am I forever doomed? Should I avoid all face/hand tattoos, or implant technology? What if I get it accidentally? Is that it for me? Aren’t they putting chips in kids now, to keep them anti-kidnapped? Do those kids even have a chance?
Maybe you fall into another camp. Maybe the Revelation of John is too weird or divisive and its best not to think about it. But then your parents tell you that your smartphone is a tool of the Beast and you’re sure they’re wrong, but you don’t have a great answer, and you love your smart phone.
Let’s see if we can make any sense of it. First a bit of ground work.
We approach horror movies differently than we do comedies. For a horror movie we turn out all the lights, sit close to a loved one, and lock all the doors. We don’t know necessarily what’s coming, but we know that we should be prepared for fear. As the music builds and then is suddenly silent, we know that we should grab onto something because a monster is about to jump out at us. It is a common trope, and is effective in horrific story telling.
If you know you’re going to watch a mystery movie, you’re already looking for clues before the murder even happens. It would be silly to approach a road-trip comedy in the same way.
This is why genre is important in literature. We can’t read and understand a work the way it is meant to be read and understood by the original author if we don’t understand the genre he or she is writing in.
‘Revelation’s genre is called apocalyptic literature. This is not an uncommon genre in ancient literature, meaning it is not a genre exclusive to Revelation. We see it in other writings such as ‘1 Enoch’, ‘Apocalypse of Abraham’, ‘Testament of Levi’ and even other books of the Bible, namely ‘Daniel’, ‘Ezekiel’, and ‘Zephaniah’.4
Through the study of these and other works we can learn patterns of structure, language and symbolism. For example, Old testament scholar Peter Gentry finds that within apocalyptic literature “almost all numbers in apocalyptic are symbolic.”5
This strikes against our instincts as careful American readers. But remember, this is not the dissertation of the ‘Letter to the Romans’, or the poetry book of ‘Psalms’. This is the graphic novel of ‘The Revelation to John’. To read them the same would be irresponsible. Reading them rightly shines a light on how people thought and communicated in a time and culture different than our own.
We use numeric symbolism in our own culture. “I waited at the DMV for a thousand years this morning.” So, even though using numbers like 3.5 and 666 seems very different than that, we can wrap our minds around the idea.
People often fade in and out of symbolism when they read ‘Revelation’. Our very topic illustrates this. Read this quote carefully.
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. Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. (Rev 13:16-4:1)
If you see the name of the beast written on people’s foreheads as a literal microchip, but the name of the Father written on people’s foreheads as symbolic, then you are reading with an inconsistent lens. If you are not consistent with how you read this book, you can be certain that you are in the weeds at least some of the time.
‘Revelation’ is a book that comes to us, not in a void, but at the end of a canon of other books inspired by God. The whole Bible is a textual unity. We see Jesus carrying His cross in Isaac carrying the wood up the mountain, (Gen 22, John 19). We see the kingdom of heaven Jesus talks about in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2, Mark 4). We see a marriage happening in Genesis 2 that is a foreshadowing of the marriage in Revelation 21, (Eph 5).
‘Revelation’ itself is full of allusions, echoes and quotes from all of scripture. To ignore these in our interpretations would also be to actively miss the author’s point. But in order to notice them, it is very helpful to be familiar with the rest of scripture.
For example, if I were to say, “my car isn’t the best looking car you’d ever seen, but it made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” you’d know what I meant, but only if you were pretty familiar with Star Wars. I’m not stating the actual high-speed of my car (even though I’m using a precise number). Neither am I announcing a real race my car has won. I am, however, communicating the truth that my car is really fast, to someone who knows the referent.
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So, in this symbolically saturated genre where we pass seamlessly through one biblical allusion after another, how do we understand this "mark"?
One common way is to see the mark as an ancient way of communicating a technology that was not yet available. People do this with all sorts of things in the book of Revelation, though there is no precedent for this interpretation in any other form of apocalyptic literature, even in the rest of the Bible. This is, however, the preferred reading of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, who wrote the 'Left Behind' series. Here's an excerpt from their book, 'The Mark'.
David was afraid his crashing heart and shaking hands would make him conspicuous. What if someone got the bright idea to apply the mark to the inner circle that very night? He might be in heaven before Annie knew he was dead.
"We have settled on the technology" Viv continued. "The miniature biochip with the suffix numbers embedded in it can be inserted as painlessly as a vaccination in a matter of seconds. Citizens may choose either location, and visible will be a thin, half-inch scar, and to its immediate left, in six-point black ink --impossible to remove under penalty of law-- the number that designates the home region of the individual. That number may be included in the embedded chip, should the person prefer that one of the variations of the name of the potentate appear on their flesh." 6
This view assumes that, through the book of Revelation, God did not intend to communicate to its original audience, or anyone before fifty years ago. It also assumes, as alluded to earlier, that the Christian perseveres only so long as he keeps away from microchip implants. Or strange tattoos. The rest of the Bible does not read this way. John himself (author of Revelation) wrote Jesus' words, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30).
The Bible is not without warnings, even to those who claim to be Christians. For example, the author of Hebrews writes, "for it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt" (Heb 6:4-6).
Warnings like this one serve the believer, causing them to cling closer and closer to Christ for their salvation. All warnings in scripture with regards to eternal salvation are faith and sin related. Not material related.
So, to interpret this scripture as proclaiming a literal device or ink imbedded in your hand or forehead, is to first demonstrate a misunderstanding of the language used within the genre of Revelation. It is also to misunderstand the biblical doctrine of salvation.
This may seem harsh, but sometimes we have to raise our heads above the water we're swimming in, in order to see clearly. The book of Revelation is way easier to read if you spend time looking at the scripture it is alluding to for help in deciphering the symbolism. Albeit, the book is still crazy difficult, but you can keep yourself from joining Chesterton's wild commentators by tethering yourself to the solid mast of God's word. Through this you will find it is not necessary to believe that the mark is a microchip or that the antichrist is Barack Obama.
What We Can Know at This Point
A helpful question to ask is: What goes on hands and foreheads in the Bible? Even at the reading of the question, your mind might already find a solid answer. Recall Exodus 13.
You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. Therefore, you shall keep this ordinance at its appointed time from year to year. (Ex 13:8-10, NASB)
The Israelites were to take a sign on their hands and on their foreheads. Here, in a historical narrative, we know exactly what this sign was. It was to keep the feast of unleavened bread (see earlier in chapter 13). The sign on their hands and foreheads, even in a historical narrative, was not understood to be a tattoo or a microchip, but a remembrance and an obedience. Professor G. K. Beale puts it this way, "The 'forehead' represents ideological commitment and the 'hand' the practical outworking of that commitment."7
This flows well with the language, genre, biblical allusions, and context of Revelation 13 and 14. It also jives with the scriptural doctrine of salvation and with the biblical use of warnings. It is absolutely faith and sin related. The beast (which we will not discuss at length here, perhaps in another article), a known enemy of Jesus, will demand loyalty and faith in him-- not in Jesus. The number 666 splendidly parodies the number 'seven' associated with the Spirit of God and his church relentlessly throughout the book. People are taking on the name of Jesus' enemy, and forsaking the name of Jesus, even to the extent of apostasy. They put their faith elsewhere, for the sake of their own financial well-being in the coming age. This is what it means to take the mark of the beast.
There is much more to say about all of this. How exactly this all plays out is still a mystery to me. Is this strictly referring to a future date, or does it play out throughout history? My guess is yes and yes, but here is something we know for sure. Those who forsake Jesus, have made themselves his enemy and are sons of the devil. They bear his mark on themselves (John 8:44, James 4:4). Those who bear the name of Jesus, having put their faith in Him and Him alone for the forgiveness of their sins, bear His mark on their hands and foreheads, and have great assurance. A seal has been put on their hearts, namely the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:22). They have no need to fear the beast.
Post Script: Though it is unlikely that the mark mentioned in Revelation is a "biochip," there are still plenty of reasons to avoid receiving a microchip implant. Here are a few.
- Having to switch out the hardware when new updates come along.
- Privacy is a gift. It is important even if you "have nothing to hide." Don't give it away so cheaply (Prov 11:13, Psalm 119:114).
- History shows us that knowledge is power, and power corrupts. Those that have all your information, are not likely to remain as trustworthy as they are now. It is also evident that they are not trustworthy even now.
- Hackers, perverts and hacker-perverts.
- Obviously don't get a microchip implant. Doesn't your soul tell you this?]
- Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. Redditch U.K., Read Books Ltd., 2013, p. 5.
- Savage, Maddy. "Thousands Of Swedes Are Inserting Microchips Under Their Skin" NPR, 22 Oct. 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/22/658808705/thousands-of-swedes-are-inserting-microchips-under-their-skin
- Gentry, Peter. How to Read & Understand the Biblical Prophets. Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2017, p. 100
- Ibid. p. 199
- Lahaye, Tim & Jenkins, Jerry B. The Mark: The Beast Rules the World. Wheaton, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2000, p. 86.
- Beale, G. K. & Campbell, David H. Revelation: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015, p. 283.