The Mark of the Beast

Although I’ve written on this subject before, I think it would be helpful if we revisited Revelation 13:16-18 and the so-called “mark of the Beast.”

As you know, this is an issue that continues to inflame debate concerning the end times and contributes greatly to the overall hysteria that serves only to discredit the Christian community in the eyes of the world. I have in mind the belief by many that the “mark” of the Beast is a literal tattoo, or perhaps a chip implant, or imprint of sorts, or perhaps some other physiological branding by which his/its followers are visually identified. The popular notion among many Christians (usually of the dispensational, futurist school of interpretation) is that some such designation, whether “the name of the beast” or “the number [666] of its name” (Rev. 13:17) will be forcibly imposed on people living in the final few years prior to the coming of Christ. If one wishes to buy or sell and thus survive in the days ahead, he/she must submit to this means of identification.

Needless to say, this interpretation is largely based on a futurist reading of Revelation, such that what John describes pertains largely, if not solely, to that last generation of humanity alive on the earth just preceding the second coming of Christ. If, on the other hand the book of Revelation largely portrays events that occur throughout the entire course of church history, this view is seriously undermined. As is evident from Revelation 7, we should understand the “mark” of the Beast on the right hand or forehead of his/its followers to be a Satanic parody (a religious rip-off, so to speak) of the “seal” that is placed on the foreheads of God’s people (Rev. 7:3-8; 14:1; cf. 22:4).

Many believe the reference to receiving a “mark” (charagma; found in 13:16, 17; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4) is an allusion to the ancient practice of branding or tattooing. David Aune (2:457-59) has documented several purposes for the latter:

(1) Barbarian tribes in antiquity practiced tattooing as a means of tribal identification.

(2) The Greeks used tattoos primarily as a way to punish both slaves and criminals. As such, it was a mark of disgrace and degradation, thus accounting for the methods of removal discussed in ancient medical literature.

(3) Tattooing could also be a mark of ownership, similar to the branding of cattle.

(4) In a number of ancient religions, tattooing indicated dedication and loyalty to a pagan deity.

That being said, I do not believe that the so-called “mark of the Beast” is a literal, physical mark on the bodies of unbelievers, either on their forehead or their right hand. All through Revelation we see Satan making every effort to copy whatever God does. So, for example, the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, find their evil counterpart in Satan, the Beast, and the False Prophet. Just as Jesus died and rose again from the dead, the Beast is portrayed as dying and rising to life again.

My point is simply that the so-called “mark” of the Beast that unbelievers receive on their forehead or their right hand is a demonic rip-off, a depraved parody, a counterfeit imitation of the “mark” that believers receive on their foreheads. Look at the texts where the people of God are “sealed” on their foreheads:

“Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Rev. 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” (Rev. 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” (Rev. 14:1).

“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4).

No one that I know of believes that all Christians will literally and physically have the name of Jesus Christ and the name of the Father tattooed on their foreheads. This is simply a way of describing the fact that those who are born again and redeemed by the blood of Christ belong to him and to his Father and are preserved in faith by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

So when we read that the False Prophet causes everyone who isn’t a Christian to have the mark of the Beast written on his/her forehead we are to understand this as a sign that they belong to the Beast and are loyal to him. This “mark” on their foreheads or on their right hand is simply Satan’s way of mimicking the seal of God that is on the foreheads of God’s people. If you have the name of Jesus and God the Father written on your forehead it simply means they own you, you belong to them, you are loyal to the Lord God Almighty.

But if you have “the name of the beast” (Rev. 13:17) written on your forehead it signifies that he owns you, you belong to him, you are loyal to the Antichrist. My point is that if you don’t argue that the name of Jesus and God the Father is literally tattooed on the foreheads of Christians you have no reason to argue that the name of the Antichrist (or his number, 666) is literally tattooed on the foreheads of non-Christians.

Some have found the background for the “mark” of the beast in the Jewish practice of wearing tephillim or phylacteries. These were leather boxes containing Scripture passages (cf. Exod. 13:9,16; Deut. 6:8; 11:18; Mt. 23:5) that were worn either on the left arm (facing the heart) or the forehead. The mark of the beast, however, was to be placed on the right hand. Others have pointed out that the word “mark” was used of the emperor’s seal on business contracts and the impress of the Roman ruler’s head on coins. Perhaps, then, “the mark alludes to the state’s political and economic ‘stamp of approval,’ given only to those who go along with its religious demands” (Beale, 715).

Thus, it seems quite clear that the “mark” of the beast on his followers is the demonic counterpart and parody of the “seal” that is placed on the foreheads of the people of God (see 7:3-8; 14:1; 22:4). “Just as the seal and the divine name on believers connote God’s ownership and spiritual protection of them, so the mark and Satanic name signify those who belong to the devil and will undergo perdition” (Beale, 716). Since the seal or name on the believer is obviously invisible, being symbolic of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, it seems certain that the mark of the beast is likewise a symbolic way of describing the loyalty of his followers and his ownership of them.

If you’re wondering why the seal on God’s people and the mark on the non-Christian is placed on the forehead of each, it may be that the forehead points to one’s ideological commitment and the hand to the practical outworking or manifestation of that commitment.