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What Is The Mark Of The Beast?
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
The Mark of the Beast is perhaps the most frequently reference image from the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian Bible and the source of many of the Christian religions eschatological traditions. Yet in many ways it is also the most obscure--what is the "Mark of the Beast"?
Biblical scholarship is replete with theories about the significance of the mark, and the nature of the mark. Historians and theologians alike have myriad theories about what John of Patmos ("John the Revelator") meant when he described the mark.
Yet to my mind, such scholarly musings miss an essential point of sacred text: the question is never so much what did the author mean, or what did God mean, but what do the words mean to us? When John speaks of a mark, how do we conceptualize that mark?
As with all my Biblical ponderings, I have no grand theological or historical insights into the verse. I write as one ordinary man, grappling with a most extraordinary verse.
The Bible As Myth And Metaphor
Myths are "stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests; and closely linked to religion. Once this link is broken, and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale. Where the central actor is divine but the story is trivial ... the result is religious legend, not myth."
Myth, therefore, is religious story informing a religious truth. Whether the historicity is precise is irrelevant in such a construction, in the same manner that the ancient Greeks were unconcerned with the historical accuracy of the Iliad, and greatly concerned with that work's capacity to teach the essential heroic virtues of ancient Greek society.
In like manner, the Bible's enduring legacy it its capacity to teach the essential virtues of Judeo-Christian religion and culture.
If we read the Bible as myth, we must approach the Mark of the Beast as a metaphor. It does not need to be a literal mark, or even something imprinted on a particular body part. It need only be something that can stand as a label.
What Is The Metaphor Of The Mark?
Thus apprehended, what metaphor can we find in the Mark of the Beast?
The text gives us a few clues. It describes the mark as something on either the right hand or on the forehead--something that is visible and palpable. It describes the mark as an essential prerequisite to commerce--one cannot move through society without it.
Such a mark, however, carries ramifications and consequences that go far beyond the mere transaction of business. The mark's meaning goes far beyond simple commerce. Consider: if a man can neither buy nor sell, not only has he no way to make a living, but he has no way to procure the essentials of life itself.
If a man must wear a certain mark to buy, without the mark he cannot buy food, cannot eat in a restaurant, cannot rent a room or an apartment, cannot ride public transport, cannot buy private transport--in short, he cannot function in society at all.
If a man must wear a certain mark to sell, and must only sell to other wearers of that mark, without the mark he cannot sell goods, cannot operate a business, cannot hold a job or provide services of any kind--in short, he cannot function in society at all.
With such strictures, in wearing such a mark, in participating in such a society, a man surrenders his capacity to choose to whom he will sell and from whom he will buy. Such choices are made for him by the "beast" claiming to rule over all.
If we accept such a mark, we are not merely surrendering political and economic allegiance. We are not simply "bending the knee." We are surrendering our own moral agency, our capacity to choose right from wrong, and to act on that choice.
Caesar Is Never God
One teaching is emphatic throughout the Bible: we are all accountable for our own moral choices. This is made explicit in the Gospels when Jesus resolves the question of paying the imperial tax (Matthew 22:15-22):
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
In every faith, in every tradition, the duty of moral right is a duty that we undeniably give to God. It is never a duty that we give to Caesar. Our obligation to do what is right is not a right administered to or ever claimed by the State.
Yet is not that the claim made by the "Beast" in Revelation, and is not the Beast unquestionably a manifestation of the administrative State within a nation? The depiction of the "Beast" as having many heads is at the very least an apt description of government bureaucracy!
If we consent to wear such a mark, are we not turning Gospel on its head, and giving all to Caesar, including that which properly should be given to God?
Force: We Surrender Or We Perish
Revelation says people are forced to wear the mark. Yet let us be clear on what the nature of such force is. In all cases, "force" is itself but a choice: we surrender to that which would force us, or we perish.
Surrender or die--that is the choice of force.
Let us be clear, therefore, that even when force is applied, we remain responsible for the choices we make. If we choose surrender, we own the consequences of that surrender. If we choose to perish, we accept destruction as the price for our freedom.
If we choose to wear the mark, even under threat of force, we are still choosing to abandon moral agency and surrender moral autonomy. We are choosing to give to Caesar the moral duty we should give to God. Whether the choice is "fair" or "just" is immaterial. If we choose the mark we are choosing evil over good.
Let us be clear, also, that when the choice is to surrender to evil or to perish, Revelation makes clear what the good choice is: perish. We are told the direct consequence of surrender--of accepting the mark (Revelation 14:9-11):
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
We are also told the direct consequence of choosing to perish rather than surrender (Revelation 14:13)
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
The State As Moral Arbiter Is The Essence Of The Mark
Thus to my mind the "Mark of the Beast" is whenever government intrudes into the moral sphere, and seeks to compromise individual moral agency. When government presumes to tell us moral right from moral wrong, and presumes to regulate on such basis, the papers and documents of government become the Mark of the Beast.
If we accept, on that basis, the demand of government to carry such papers, or to be tagged with whatever technological device government deems fitting, we are accepting onto ourselves that Mark of the Beast. Whether it is on the right hand or not, forehead or not, if we accept such assertion of power by a government, we are choosing to wear the mark of the beast, metaphorically even if not literally.
If we ever accept the Mark of the Beast we are choosing evil over good, by definition.
As the Mark of the Beast brought God's fury upon people in Revelation, the assertion of such power by the State invariably brings incomprehensible suffering on us when we choose to accept the State as moral arbiter. We need only look at the grotesque humanitarian calamities wrought by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century--the Soviet Union and its satellites, Communist China, Nazi Germany--to see there is more than a little truth in this warning.
Do not wear the Mark of the Beast. Not for any reason. It will never end well.