Marked by Fear: COVID-19 and Mainstream Christianity’s Grappling with the End Times
Memories are precious things to me. Maybe you understand if you are the sentimental type as well. I remember one distinct time in college where a friend gave me a thank you note written on a napkin. Yep…still got it. Chances are if you’ve ever given me a note or a card, your message is sitting neatly in one of my memory boxes out there. All this to say – if a person gives me something, I likely will hold onto it for a while. This is even more true if someone gives me a piece of artwork. A few days ago, a friend of mine gave me the choice between two pieces of artwork he had drawn. He had decided to paint a portrait of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Knowing I was a huge fan and that I grew up watching it, he thoughtfully offered up a piece of artwork that I know took him a long time to create. From the moment he showed me, I was blown away! I loved this show growing up, and I could not believe he was thoughtful enough to give me that gift.
As I brought the piece of artwork home, I scanned it in greater detail. Sure enough, the artwork had the patented New York City moon in the background with Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo flexing in front of it. However, as I zoomed in, I noticed a little mark that you find on almost all pieces of artwork – the initials “AR” and the year 2020. Go ahead and look around your house – no matter what artwork you own, it will almost always have a distinguishing mark somewhere on the canvas. Have you ever wondered how ingenious a practice that is? No matter where a piece of artwork goes, it will never go unidentified. There in plain sight is a mark of ownership. That painting or drawing belonged to someone and was created by someone – even if it has now passed hands through the years. As long as it hangs on my wall, it will always I will never be able to escape that mark – whenever I see it, I will remember exactly who gave it to me and when I received it.
However, as I have contemplated the piece of artwork now framed in my bedroom, a much different mark came to mind – a much more notorious mark. The week before my friend gave me this piece of art, I had just had multiple conversations with different people at my church and in my community about the fears they had amongst the COVID-19 situation. Their specific fear? That the worldwide pandemic would usher in the end times and result in a time of great tribulation. If you have been around evangelical churches at all, you probably know what I’m talking about – the dreaded mark of the beast from Revelation 13. A few of the people I spoke with specifically referenced the talk of a microchip given to people during the vaccinations. The more I speak with people, the more I am beginning to hear this kind of language. So is there anything to the claim?
The Mark of the Beast and It’s Checkered Past
For some, the mark of the beast is one of the worst parts of the end times. For others, you might be wondering, “What’s that?!?” Before we look at the mark and if there is any relation to our current pandemic, let’s back that thang up and look at where the idea comes from:
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)
Above you will see a quote from the book of Revelation. If you are not familiar with a Bible, that is the very last book of the Bible. If you have never read it, it is the book of the Bible that most resembles what our culture would call a comic book or science fiction because of its vivid imagery. John, one of Jesus’ disciples, wrote the book of Revelation. It contains some of the most spectacular displays of visual imagery in all the Bible. In this part of the book, we read of the beast (some Satanic figure) who “causes all…to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark…” Now the tricky part about this passage (and the book of Revelation as a whole) is that it has been interpreted so many different ways over the years. The newest and most popular interpretation in the American Bible Belt is that this mark is some physical marking/technology (credit cards, microchips, tattoos, armband, bitcoin, etc.) that everyone will receive in the end times. The popularity of this view undoubtedly has to do with recent movies and the popularity in the 1990’s of the Left Behind series. Countless churches have broadcasted these movies to their members – from Teenagers all the way to Seniors. This is the understanding most evangelicals have regarding the mark of the beast, which vicariously leads to countless Facebook posts that give “proof” that the mark of the beast is on the horizon.
But hold your horses. Is that really what Revelation means by the mark of the beast? Firstly, let’s take a look and see if there are any legitimate reasons to see that in our present world. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, let’ ask why is this such a fascination in mainstream Christian culture?
Revelation: The Book Where Everyone Gets a Mark
There are a couple glaring holes in the abundance of Facebook posts about the mark of the beast being the next microchip, cryptocurrency, or vaccine on the market. The first problem is that people often do not read the verse in its entirety.
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.
Notice what John does here. He introduces the idea of a mark on the right hand or the forehead. After that, he mentions how this mark is necessary to buy and sell goods. But notice what comes next in the verse. He notes “the mark…[COMMA], that is, the name of the beast…” Commas are important. If you and your spouse are sitting on the couch together around 4:00PM, there’s a difference between you saying, “Hey, let’s make a little Italian, baby” and “Hey, let’s make a little Italian baby.” The comma in the passage above shows that John clarifies what this mark is: the mark is actually a name.
The second and more dangerous problem is mainstream Christianity’s view misunderstands the book of Revelation as a whole. What do I mean? If you read the entire book, the beast isn’t the only one marking people. In fact, he’s not even the first to mark his people. The truth: every single person in Revelation has something on their foreheads. Let’s take a look at a couple examples:
Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads. (Revelation 7:3)
They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. (Revelation 9:4)
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. (Revelation 14:1)
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:4)
The first interesting thing to note: look at the multiple places where this mark is referenced. With all the attention Revelation gives to God marking his people on their foreheads with his name, why the heck have we likely never heard about the above passages? Why do you hear debates on what physical mark of the beast and not the mark of God? It appears that the beast has written the name of his people on their foreheads to imitate God, who has written the name of his people on their foreheads.
You will notice this kind of imitation happens throughout the book. Satan routinely tries to do the same things God does. The only problem? He sucks at it. He can’t quite do it because he’s not God. Let’s take a look at some of the ways he does it:
- God is a Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit) vs. Satan tries to make an unholy trinity (the false prophet, the beast, the devil)
- God has a wife (19:6-10) vs. Satan, who has a prostitute (Revelation 17)
- God marks his people with a seal on their foreheads (Revelation 14:1) vs. Satan, who marks his people on their foreheads (Revelation 13:11-18)
- God is a 7 vs. Satan thinks he’s a 7, but he’s only a 6. In fact, he’ll only and forever be a 6 (666 – Revelation 13:3)
- God has a Lamb who actually was slain, but truly comes back to life (Revelation 5:5-7) vs. Satan who has a dragon that appeared to be slain, but its wound is healed (Revelation 13:1-3)
Notice everything listed in the above section. Everything God does, Satan tries to imitate. Everything Satan does, God does better. The only problem is that each imitation is a cheap knock-off. I mean, which one is better – a wife or a prostitute? One is with you because she loves you and is committed to you. The other is with you because you pay her. One will remember your birthday, the other won’t care if you exist when she leaves your room.
So what does this tell us about the mark in the book of Revelation? The mark (or seal) on the forehead is a mark of ownership and devotion. It’s a way of saying, “Who do you love and who do you belong to?” In other words, those who belong to God are marked by him or sealed by him. God’s people are devoted to Him despite any sufferings they might incur (which makes these passages extremely encouraging if you think about it). However, the beast has his people as well. Those who do not repent and throw themselves on the mercy of Christ, they do not have the mark of God on them. They have a much different mark. They are marked, even if they don’t realize they’re marked. What Revelation is doing is anticipating the great and final judgment, sorting out humanity into two sides: those who belong to Christ and those who do not.
Is the mark of the beast a literal marking or a piece of technology? Although popular opinion says yes, I would respectfully disagree. I don’t think it was going to be some microchip hidden in a vaccine, I don’t think it will be a credit card embedded in an arm, or really any other fanciful Facebook post. ‘Why?’ you might ask? Honestly, while the book of Revelation describes a literal second coming and a literal end of history, it does so in a way that often uses vivid metaphors to attempt to describe the indescribable. I do not think these are literal marks a person can see on the skin. Whenever Christ does come back, I don’t think humanity will be divided between those who have God’s literal tattoo on their forehead or Satan’s literal tattoo on their forehead/arm.
What Can We Learn From This?
Perhaps yet a better question is to consider why these speculations exist and what it reveals about us as human beings. Why, when disasters happen or new technology is invented, does the human mind run to these? Let me make a couple observations, but before I do, please know I am not saying all these are true for every person reading this. Some of these observations will characterize this person, others will characterize that person.
- Observation #1 – The craze over the mark of the beast demonstrates how movies have a huge impact on the way we understand the world
- I could be wrong, but I have a hypothesis about the popularity of where this comes from in mainstream Christianity. I would wager the majority of this speculation finds its origin in the movies and media people have consumed. If you did not have the Left Behind series of the 1990s and the teaching that spawned from that series, I’m not sure this struggle would be as real as it is for some.
- Observation #2 – The craze over the mark of the beast demonstrates how evangelicals have a void of deep and applicable teaching that will help us understand our Bibles
- I think the fear of the mark of the beast is a culmination of an increasing trend in evangelical churches over the last 100 years. As I heard someone say the other day, “Evangelicals have two speeds when reading the Bible: 1) things necessary for salvation, and 2) not important.” Unfortunately, many churches have unofficially adopted this reasoning. When was the last time we heard deep and applicable teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper, the Atonement of Christ, how to read Leviticus, how Revelation relates to Exodus, etc? If our church is only teaching “Healthy Marriages,” “Good Finance,” “Right Character,” “Kindness,” – all of which are good things – then we can expect confusion when we open our Bibles. We have become a proverbial 30-year old taking spoonfuls of spiritual Gerber from devotionals and teachers who do not stretch and challenge us. You might have a church of 50, 500, or 5,000. But think about it: if 90% of us in each situation don’t enjoy, meditate, or read the Bible except on a shallow level, has that really gotten us anywhere? This is especially true about the book of Revelation. I think most of us unknowingly take what we’ve heard about Revelation in our right hand hand and news headlines in our left, matching them up to see the future. That kind of reading will never get us anywhere. You can even tell something is amiss, because instead of our reading leading us to confidence (which is one of the purposes of Revelation — to show that no matter what, God’s people will overcome because Christ will overcome), it leads many to anxiety.
- Observation #3 – The craze over the mark of the beast demonstrates it’s natural for fallen human beings to fear
- When some people fear the potential of the mark of the beast, I think it shows a genuine fear. In this case, it is a fear of pain and suffering that is part of being a fallen human being. For example, I don’t want to get punched in the mouth by Mike Tyson. If I know I’m getting punched at 10:00AM tomorrow by Iron Mike, around 9:55AM I’m going to be a little nervous. I know he punches so hard that my lip will probably wrap around my face. In the same way, if a Christian knows suffering is coming, they do not necessarily look forward to it. They know it’s going to hurt. But their overwhelming trust will cause any anxiety to be overcome because they know any suffering is temporary and will be ultimately redeemed by Jesus Christ. However, that’s not the whole story. I think perhaps the biggest reason for the craze over the mark of the beast is…
- Observation #4 – The craze over the mark of the beast demonstrates a hidden idol in the hearts of evangelicals: worldly comfort.
- Out of all the observations, I think this one is the most widespread. It is more than the natural fear in observation #3. As evangelicals, especially in America, we struggle with the idol of comfort and riches more than we ever give ourselves credit for. I think one part of this mark of the beast passage really scares a lot of people: “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.” Undoubtedly in all this, there is probably a hidden affection for worldly comforts that many do not realize is there. But that is the great message of Revelation: first comes suffering, and that suffering is real. But for those who endure comes a greater pleasure and treasure than we could ever imagine. Behind many of our Facebook posts is a desire to have our cake in this life and the next. Many of us “trust” the Lord, but you know what we also trust? Our mutual funds. Our pension. Our nice car. Our ideas for a future. Security is not a bad thing. We are creatures who long for security and hunt for it for it everywhere. The only problem comes when we seek security from a life that is so fragile. That’s like trying to build a bridge out of toothpicks. It might be possible, but a great collapse will come when you walk on it. And yet we have a gracious God who calls us to abandon these false idols that will only ever let us down on the day we really need them.
Revelation helps us pull back the curtain of this life to show us what is really at stake. It shows us how suicidal it is to live our lives for the present when we know how things will end. The whole point of the mark of the beast is actually to give Christians comfort. They will not receive some “accidental marking” by getting a microchip only to find out tomorrow, “Oh no! It’s the mark of the beast!” No. The point of the mark of the beast is to highlight God’s marking his people. If he has saved us, he will hold us to the very end. That holding might come by rescuing us from hidden idols like worldly comfort, but it also might come by holding us through oppression because the world knows who we belong to. Either way, our Savior will come and we will be rescued.
So is there any relation between our current COVID-19 crisis and the End Times in general? Of course there is! But in one sense it is just like every other natural disaster — hurricanes, tornadoes, financial crashes, plagues. All of these are anticipating a judgment to come. It’s funny that Christians were asking the same questions during plagues of the past. However, here’s what we do know: we are closer now to the second coming of Christ than we have ever been. If he does not come today, we will be closer tomorrow than we have ever been. If he waits and 1,000 years from now he has still not come, then 3020 will be closer yet to his coming. Until then, we wait and we do his work of loving and sharing the gospel — not with anxiety, but with confidence in our Lord and the mission he has given us until our death or his return.