by Nabil Habibi
At the time of writing of this blog post, over 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been given out. Even as mass vaccinations have been progressively proving their effectiveness, we continue to hear certain vaccine fears broadcast on different media outlets.
While some fears can be termed rational, reasonable, or expected, others have tended to be rather illogical. It makes sense to ask questions concerning short and long-term side effects of new vaccines; however, I have seen a substantial number of my Christian friends express fears that the new vaccines contain the “mark of the beast” mentioned in The Book of Revelation.
At its very basic and simple level, the fear is like this: Covid-19 vaccines contain some kind of secret chip that is injected into your arm. Once injected, this chip fulfills the end-time prophecies of Revelation concerning submission to the eschatological beast before the final judgement.
It might be tempting for theologians to outright reject such theories without interacting with them; however, since it seems to me that a certain faction of our Evangelical family has been fervently seeking present-day applications of the prophecies and images of Revelation over the past decades and more, and since I feel that this notion concerning the vaccines is taking root in Arab Evangelical churches, I feel compelled to write a rebuttal founded on biblical theology. I believe this argument is seriously flawed on two different levels, biblically and logically/theologically.
Most scholars agree that the Book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s of the first century CE when the imperial cult in the Roman province of Asia (modern day western Turkey) gained ground demanding that the Emperor Domitian be worshipped. This led to persecution of religious systems refusing to worship him, including Christianity, and particularly the churches in Asia minor that John addressed in his letter.
Revelation is a mixture of Old Testament-style prophecy and apocalyptic genre. Thus, similar to the book of Daniel, it reports a series of visions by the speaker. It moves from an introduction and letters to seven churches in Asia minor (Ch. 1-3), to a series of three visions concerning seven judgements each (seals, trumpets, and bowls of wrath; Ch. 4-16), to oracles against Rome (Babylon) (Ch. 17-19), and finally to prophecies about the end times and the return of Christ (Ch. 19-22).
Being apocalyptic literature, Revelation contains symbols and numbers. It is crucial to understand that these must have been intelligible for the church of the first century (John clearly says in 1:4 and 1:11 that he is writing to first century churches in Asia Minor). Hence, the key to a correct interpretation of any of the various images in Revelation is to first understand the meaning of the image in its literary context and early church audience, and then move on to understand the implications of the church today.
The term “mark of the beast” (or mark) occurs seven times in Revelation (13:16, 17; 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). In every single mention it is associated with the notion of ”worshipping the beast.” Space does not suffice to go over each of the mentions, but one example is representative of the rest. Read with me the encouraging and challenging words of 20:4-6 (italics mine):
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years…Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them…
This beast figure must have made sense for the first readers of the book. It might then refer to the Roman Empire or the emperor, Domitian. Some interpreters see that the beast refers to all empires of this world across human history. Others argue that the beast refers to a future political leader who will be the Antichrist. I think that for the purpose of this blog, the identity of the beast is not crucial.
What is crucial is to note that the beast persecutes Jesus followers (“beheaded”). This persecution comes from the church’s refusal to worship the beast. Rather, Jesus followers choose to show allegiance to Christ over and against life-threatening societal pressures to bow to evil. This is the same picture we see every time the beast and his mark are mentioned in Revelation.
The message of Revelation for the persecuted church of the first century is then crystal clear: Christians must be ready to face death for their faithfulness to the Lordship of Christ and their refusal of the idols of this world. Christ’s return will bring them reward and justice. Even if you consider the beast to be a future being or a contemporary political figure, we do not fight it through refusing vaccinations and searching for the number 666 on medical supplies. You do not worship the beast and refuse its mark by declaring Christ as Lord. You declare Christ your Lord through obedience to Him in the face of persecution and resistance to the reigning empires of the day.
But even on a logical/theological scale, that is, even if we do not read Revelation and attempt to understand it in its context, what does all of this say about the God that you worship? What God is this who can embrace you and lead you into a life of obedience and service, but then he suddenly rejects you, considers you an enemy, and throws you into fire because you unknowingly put a smart chip in your body? What salvation is this that can be lost by a shot in the arm? This jars with the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. This jars with the life, person, teachings, and work of the revealed Word of God, Jesus Christ our risen savior!
If the churches to whom John wrote saw us searching for secret numbers and fighting scientific vaccines, they would be shocked and say to us, “Our Christianity was death for Christ with joy.” The Christianity of millions of Jesus followers in the Arab world and beyond today is death for Christ, service to the poor and the marginalized, and a commitment to faithful humble living in a sinful and power-hungry world. But a Christianity that searches for scientific conspiracies against it does not resemble the Christianity of the New Testament in any way, shape, or form.
What if our church discussions during these turbulent times centered around hope rather than fear? How is our faith in a resurrected savior impacting the way we deal with death? Rather than cowering in fear from imaginary conspiracies, why not lead the drive for vaccines and life? Why not give our bodies willingly for experimentation, in hope that discoveries will save more lives? Why not open our churches and homes to care for the sick?
“Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18)
Praise be to God now and forevermore.
When Nabil is not lecturing in New Testament Studies at ABTS he is busy engaging in political advocacy, serving the youth at his church, and hanging out with his super cute toddler and baby and charming wife