Lighting Up the Apocalypse 25: The Beast from the Earth and the Mark

Revelation 13:11-18: LXX Daniel “Bel and the Dragon,” 12b: 1-42

It is tempting, as one born in Canada, to read Revelation 13:11-18 in terms of the political over-reach that has left some of my friends reeling. (And, since the day after this blog was written, the whole world has been transfixed by the cynical arrogance of Putin, as he moves to reclaim Ukraine under the subterfuge of deliverance, and in a more serious bid for power.) But we should remember that down through the ages, Christians, with their imaginations fired by the visionary description of the “beast from the earth,” have interpreted that text as speaking directly to their choicest political or religious villain.  And some have done this in our recent situation by reference to vaccines and suppression of corporate worship by the authorities.  Candidates for this dubious honor include the Prime Minister of Canada who at age 50 seems still to be eager to match his father’s legacy, and the President of Russia who desires by force to recreate the kingdom of Peter the Great. I will not take the bait.

After all, this visionary passage gives a specific description of the second beast, who commends the first beast to those on earth. By specificity, I do not mean that we are given cues to decode the picture in terms of today’s world by finding a one-to-one correspondence with historical figures that we know. It is understandable that this was tempting for those who lived in the rough time of, say Nero, with his pretense to divinity and the legendary promise of his “resurrection.” The fear of his return, or an emperor as religiously presumptuous as he, like Domitian, would have made such rulers obvious candidates for the first beast from the sea, aided by a second-hand man (the beast from earth), whoever that was discerned to be. But it is salutary for us to hear the words of St. Augustine, given about 350 years after Revelation was written:

Let us recall how long ago it was that John said that it is the last hour. If we had been alive then and had heard this, how could we have believed that so many years would pass after it, and would we not rather have hoped that the Lord would come while John was still present in the body? (Letters 199.7, FC 30:369)

I have been urging that this book, as holy Scripture, is applicable not only to a single situation, but is useful to Christians throughout the ages.  It language is frequently “tensive,” expandable to various contexts, rather than “steno” (one-to-one).  Thus we saw that the “two witnesses” of chapter 11 are said to die in “the great city, Sodom, Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.”  Clearly, St. John is seeing a coming together of images, and speaking of something larger than a single persecution of two men in a particular place.  The connection in time (42 months=1260 days=3 ½ years) also ties these two witnesses with the pursued yet protected woman, and with “the rest of her offspring” in their suffering (chapter 12). The emerging two beasts are, it seems, human extensions of the pursuing Dragon, who stands on the shore of the sea, straddling earth and water. In the last episode, we considered the first beast from the sea, his close connection to Satan, and his parody of the Messiah’s triumph. Here we encountered Satan’s use of political and quasi-religious figures in order to “wage war” against humanity.  As we look at the second beast, then, we will want to follow the same procedure, and not rush to identify individuals.  Rather, Revelation issues a warning concerning pressure to “fit in” with the world, and the persecution that should not surprise God’s people.

Here is the vision:

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 to be slain those who would not worship the image of the beast.  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.

Notice that this second beast is not simply a political leader, as we might think by his origin “from the earth.”  Rather, as noted by ancient commentators such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Andrew of Caesarea, he is also a false prophet.  He calls down fire like Elijah, speaks words of power, fosters false religion, and lead astray those who are deceived, so that they worship the would-be demonic “messiah,” pictured in the first beast.  There is certainly a political and economic aspect to his power, since he has the authority to physically oppress, and even martyr, those who do not follow his lead.  Those who do not show allegiance, either by a “mark on the hand” or “on the forehand,” will be excluded from the daily life of society, unable to buy or to sell.   But he is also, from the get-go, introduced to us in terms of cult rather than mere politics and promotion of the first beast —he has horns like “a lamb” (arnion, the precise language also used for Christ) and he speaks “like a dragon.”

The two beasts, indeed, tend to blend with each other, and with the dragon—this second beast’s two horns reflect the Dragon’s two beasts.  Andrew of Caesarea explains the difficulty of keeping track of these figures in his commentary. This fluidity means that we see Church fathers who differ regarding which should be seen as the Antichrist, but the consensus seems to support the first beast as the Antichrist and the second as his false prophet.  Reading in sequence may lead us to read the visionary narrative as a precise description of the political and religious situation envisaged for the end-times.  However, more frequently the fathers encourage us to see, as prompted by St. John’s epistle, that “many antichrists” are coming into the world (1 Jn 2:18; 2 Jn 2:7), supported by political leaders who dabble in religious affairs, and both of these doing the will of the spiritual Enemy who normally remains unseen. The Church fathers also speak of the mark that is put on the hand, or on the forehead, as a sign that those who are misled will sin either practically (with their hands) or confessionally (with their minds).  In the light of the temptation to active or contemplative sin, we take comfort in our thorough chrismations, where forehead, eyes, mouth, ears, chest, hands, feet, are all signed to the glory of God, and for our protection from sin that may tempt us in these areas.

Visions are tricky things, and it seems to me that there are several ways that they can be flattened, or domesticated, as we try to comprehend their mysterious qualities.  Best known in North America is the attempt to comprehend, or tame these visions, by reading them as speaking specifically and singly to our current situation.  Those who are my age will remember the panic regarding the Y2K bug at the turn of the millennium, stoked by TV evangelists such as Jack van Impe, and the ABC miniseries, ridiculously called “Revelations”—as though there were more than one of these books in the NT.  The new prospect of globalism does provide some with good reason to wonder about the possibility of world-wide oppression and imposed universal ideologies. We are no longer startled today to hear similar rhetoric and opinions coming from countries far removed from each other geographically, as has been demonstrated by both Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau. Some have latched on to these new global realities and been very specific about today’s “mark of the beast,” garnering seemingly appropriate prophecies from the Elder St. Paisios. However, fastening onto certain public figures or events as a sure sign that the end is imminent may become a distraction from our calling to live as light and salt in the world.  There is controversy regarding weather St. Paisios, in receiving a letter from a brother elder, came also to this conclusion.  What we do know is that in his final years, St. Paisios himself stopped speaking specifically about Revelation 13, and pointed those who spoke with him to other matters of the faith. We are called to a sober reading of the Scriptures, one that does not encourage hysteria, that is in harmony with the instruction that we not be surprised by oppression, that retains Jesus’ words regarding not knowing the time of his return, and that looks to the written words as encouragement for living as well as for dying in Christ. Treating the vision of John as a puzzle to be decoded for the sake of special knowledge sets us up for pride rather than for humble and trusting living.

Others in the Orthodox community may also be tempted to interpret the book too neatly as an intensifying series of patterns in which the world inevitably moves, and that are manifesting themselves in certain ways today.  I am grateful to Jonathan Pageau for his interesting treatment of the imagery of Revelation, and for the way in which he shows how it speaks, among other applications, to our marginalization in a Covid time.  He remains wise in prescinding from a wooden identification of our situation with the eschaton. However, some have been too intrigued by his reading of Revelation 13 as a declaration that “these are patterns that are just going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” and as describing events “circling around and aiming closer to what in Revelation is called the mark of the beast” (The Mark of Cain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gh9BC-wONBs ).

The book of Revelation is, of course, structured by means of three increasingly dramatic cycles of seven:  but does the vision intend us to read this as a description of how things are unfolding and will unfold in history?  We might highlight Jonathan’s insightful description of Satanic sin as “an excess of perfection and pride in the ability to explain” and beastly oppression as a matter of “identification and inclusion” is intriguing: this gives us some tools today to see signs of the enemy at work in our current political climate, so that we are not deceived. Our brother is rightly concerned about those with a desire to explain everything, without leaving a remainder for mystery.   Ironically, his very system of interpretation, seems itself a bit totalizing:  at times it becomes as precise as decoding “the flexible tail” of the beast as an assault on intelligence and authority, further, it sets up an inevitable pattern of order and chaos for the world until the last “show-down”. We might get the impression that Revelation’s visions are there for us to explain.  As he urges, Revelation partakes of a “highly codified language of prophecy refined over centuries to give us “a cosmic map, or pattern.”  Now Jonathan admits that he is not a biblical exegete, and defers frequently to his own brother, Mathieu. It seems to me, though, that it is not his lack of expertise, but his desire to render a mystery too transparent, that may mislead.  In all this creative and sometimes undisciplined linking together of images, where is the sense of wonder, of awe, of mystery?  Has he unwittingly misdirected some to read the book as simply a political commentary, and not as enshrining the mystery of the Lamb, of the Bride, and of cosmic worship?

Certainly Jonathan also speaks about the cosmic pattern of self-sacrifice, seen in the Lamb who was slain, and yet lives. I would highlight this element of his commentary, and urge us to stand in awe of that, and other mysteries that are left over. “The remainder” that speaks to us evocatively, if not cognitively, is intimated in the uninterpreted thunders of chapter 10, the wonder of One who is a Lion-Lamb on the throne and among the faithful, and the knowledge that though the faithful are “on earth,” we are also in the heavenlies, especially when we pray and worship.  We must not allow our “wisdom as serpents”  concerning the world to chase away our “innocence as doves” concerning worship and the holy One. I think that Jonathan would not disagree, for he says that it is “love” and not “totalizing systems” that holds things together.

And something more may be said:  Christians may be in danger of deception, but what will move them into the camp of the beast will be something immoral that they do or something untrue that they confess (the mark on the hand or on the forehead). It seems highly unlikely that anything as technical as a vaccination can be in itself “the mark,” or even a precursor to the final mark. Apostasy and heresy are choices that are made, usually for the sake of pride and one’s own benefit, not because of an honest opinion, if mistaken, regarding a medical matter. We may be helped by recalling the story of “Bel and the Dragon,” which is found at the end of chapter 12 in the LXX version of the book of Daniel.  There, as with the beast in our chapter of Revelation, tricks are being played in order to make an idol look real: in Revelation, the idol speaks, and in Daniel, it seemingly eats. This appearance is exposed when Daniel traps the dissembling priests and their families, and then has the dragon eat something so that it explodes from the inside.

The difference in this prophetic story is that it is PAGANS who are being misled to worship idols, and once the lie is exposed, they cease and desist.  Those who have been sealed by Christ have the wherewithal to see idolatry for what it is, and to withstand it. Simply to receive a vaccine, or not to receive it, is not to blaspheme God, to hate one’s brother and sister, or to repudiate Christ.  If, however, one imbibes the spirit of false exclusivity and false inclusivity, if one demonizes one’s brother or sister for holding other opinions about debatable matters, if one wrongly attributes motivation to those who either take the jab or do not, then this threatens the unity of the body of Christ. Let us by all means speak earnestly with each other about these present things that concern us, for how we live in society matters –but without dismissing or unfriending those who are Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The book of Revelation is given to prepare us for such times as these—not to give any of us a sense of superiority or fear. Let us not accuse each other of self-centeredness or of capitulation to godless powers, but instead turn to the Lamb.

The number of the beast from the earth is, St. John tells us, the number of a man.  Yet it is not necessary (though many have tried) to assign this number to a particular figure by means of different numerological schemes.  St. Andrew of Caesarea comments, “were it necessary, as some of the teachers say, that such a name be clearly known, the seer would have revealed it.” (Commentary Apocalypse 13.18).  What we can perceive, short of such an identity, is the character of this one who glorifies humanity, and who acts in arrogance.  666 signifies an unholy Trinity of human pride.  It is neither 777, the mysterious number of God’s fullness, nor is it 888, the number of completion and resurrection on the third day. In the end, this passage teaches us, whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves, to worship Christ alone, and not to be afraid of social or political exclusion, nor even martyrdom.  The specter of the beast is not given to us to frighten or to draw into endless speculation, but to turn us firmly away from the pretended and empty riches of this world, and towards the Lamb.  Him we will see, standing with His own, in the next chapter of this mysterious vision.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.