While preparing to write this article, I received an e-mail from a respected head elder who, from time to time, shares his burdens with me. This time he claimed that the issue of the Mark of the Beast was currently stirring up a lot of dust in his church congregation. He asked me for a balanced, biblical perspective on this issue. Clearly, ‘how one reads, teaches and preaches Revelation can have a powerful impact on one’s own — and other people’s— emotional, spiritual, and even physical and economic well-being.’1 So, interpreting Revelation is a serious responsibility which is not to be entered into without careful consideration.
Adventism and Apocalyptic Fervour
Apocalyptic fervour was, from the very beginning, the driving force of Adventism. The prophecies of Daniel and of Revelation defined the core of Adventist identity. Moreover, the sense of the approaching end, and the conviction of the critical role of Adventism in preparing the world for the return of Jesus, supplied a strong motivation for a worldwide mission.
A strong, unbalanced apocalyptic sense, however, can bring a lot of frustration as well. Whenever the latest world crisis or disaster is seen as a ‘sign’ that the end of the world is at hand, disillusionment is only a step away. Such a fervour often defines one’s hermeneutics: how one approaches the Scriptures. Without giving the biblical text the detailed attention which it deserves, often surface parallels are identified between some current events and the text. Instead of allowing the Scripture to be its own interpreter (Sacra Scriptura Sui Ipsius Interpres), ideas are read into the biblical text with an intention of generating apocalyptic excitement.
Such apocalyptic parallelomania is well attested in the history of Adventism. A good example is when the Second Coming was expected in 1964, based of Jesus’s statement, ‘For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah’ (Matt 24:37 NAS). It has been claimed on the basis of this text that as Noah preached for 120 years, so will last the preaching of the eschatological message to our world (1844+120=1964). No question, the story of the flood has an eschatological relevance, as Jesus clearly pointed out; but the typological parallel has its limits, so we should not press the parallels too far.
The Mark of The Beast
Probably the most fruitful chapters for apocalyptic parallelomania in Adventist circles are Revelation 13 and 17, chapters which have intrigued many for a long time. The Mark of the Beast was, from the time of the early church, a matter of particular importance. Many throughout history read into it their own time and place. Among them was even Martin Luther, who identifies the Mark of the Beast with the Turks when they knocked on the door of Vienna and threatened to extend their empire to western Europe. Recently, a number of Christians have seen the Covid-19 vaccine as the Mark of the Beast. Such an interpretation, however, can be seen as a serious distortion of the Scripture on hermeneutical and exegetical grounds.
First of all, Revelation is to be understood in light of the Old Testament, not in light of the daily news or different conspiracy theories. Namely, the basic background of Revelation 13 is Daniel 3 and 7. Not only verbal, but also thematic and structural parallels can be established between these contexts. According to Revelation 13, the scenario of demanding universal idolatry (Daniel 3) will be repeated at the end-time. The height of the golden statue, set up on the plain of Dura in Babylon, was sixty cubits, and its width was six cubits (Daniel 3:1). Its length might also have been six cubits. It is well-known that Babylonian arithmetic was based on a sexagesimal system with 6 and 60 as the basic counting units. Six is thus the number of Babylon which stands in contrast with seven as the number of God (a symbolism rooted in Genesis 1). It is said of 666 that it is a human number (arithmos anthrōpou; Rev 13:18). It designates a Babylonian, human-centred, quasi-sovereign system which refuses to acknowledge the creator God as the sole authority in the universe (Revelation 14:7).
Also, the Mark of the Beast is to be understood as a diabolic counterpart of the seal of God in Revelation (7:1–8; 14:1–5) and not as a specific human initiative of global character. These are competing ‘marks’ which have a representing function: they ‘represent the name of the reality to which they point.’2 They are not visible manifestations of a certain sign on the forehead (or the right hand), but they signify belonging. The fact that vaccination is a global initiative does not qualify it as the Mark of the Beast, since the cardinal issue in Revelation 13 is not vaccination, but worship. We can sympathise with the unease of many believing Christians about taking the Covid vaccine, but this dilemma has not much to do with the eschatological dilemma delineated in Revelation 13. As slaves, soldiers or the devotees of a particular deity were tattooed in the ancient world, signifying their allegiance, so will human beings need to make choice in the eschatological scenario about their adherence either to Babylon or to New Jerusalem. Generating eschatological excitement by making superficial links between the Mark of the Beast and vaccination misrepresents what Adventism stand for at its core: devotion to responsible reading and application of the Scriptures.
Biblical discipleship is not based on apocalyptic excitement, but it is rooted in a conviction about God’s faithfulness. Advent hope is an essential component of trusting in God’s faithfulness. It is not a euphoria; and it is definitely not an irresponsible sense of imminence which utilizes false hermeneutics to stir up emotions. It is a conviction that Jesus is on the way to restore his world, and his kingdom will come in its fulness soon. No question, Advent hope has an element of eagerness, but that eagerness is intelligent, since it is complemented by patience which gives durability to the hope.