The last time there was a world-wide pandemic, social media didn’t exist. Think about that. Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?
I’m joking. Mostly. I am grateful for platforms that enable me to stay in touch with friends who, for various reasons, I can’t visit physically. And I am extra thankful that technology like this allows people to worship online until they feel safe returning to church again. But this same technology is used to spread fear, anger and misinformation faster than previous generations could imagine. Sometimes, just spending five minutes on Facebook or Twitter feels like stepping in a fire ant mound. Before you know it, you’re swarmed and wondering, “Why did I do this?”
For months, I have read speculation from friends, Christian and non-Christian alike, about what will happen when a COVID vaccine hits the market. Some think it will be a gift from God, sent to finally end these months of turmoil. Others think it will be quite the opposite; some say, “There’s no way I’m taking a medication that was rushed into development.” I’ve even seen articles that say the “vaccine” will actually be a sophisticated way to track every person who takes it. Some wonder if this is the Mark of the Beast spoken of in biblical prophecy. Now that it appears very possible that a vaccine could be available in this country in the next few months, I feel compelled to address these issues. I freely admit that I do not possess the medical knowledge necessary to advise you on whether or not you should take a vaccine. My advice is that you get your advice from your family doctor. Not from your favorite political commentator, blog or website. Not from some person on social media who claims to be a doctor. Get your guidance from the person who has been treating you up to now.
I simply want to address this as a pastor. How should we think biblically about this? Here is what I know:
1. The COVID 19 pandemic is NOT evidence that the world is about to end. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Jesus is returning, and I look forward to that day. I hope I’m alive when it happens. If He comes back before I finish typing this, no one will be happier than me. But Jesus specifically said He would come back at a time when we do not expect Him (Matthew 24:44). He also said when we see calamitous world events, we should NOT be alarmed (Matthew 24:5-8). Somehow, we tend to get that backward.
2. Contrary to what your favorite TV preacher says, the purpose of biblical prophecy is NOT to give us a secret code we can use to interpret world events and predict what will happen next. Remember, there were dozens of prophecies of Jesus’ first coming. The people of God knew them by heart. Yet when He came, it all happened in a way none of them predicted. I truly believe His Second Coming will be similar in that way. When it’s all over, we’ll say, “Huh. That’s not the way I thought it would be. But I like His version better than what I expected!” That’s certainly how the first Christians felt.
So what is the purpose of biblical prophecy? It’s twofold: First, it’s to warn people that the current state of things isn’t permanent. The true King of this world is returning, and you’d better be ready. Second, it’s to encourage people who are trying to be faithful in a world where it seems like evil always wins. To that, biblical prophecy says, “Hang in there. The One who loves you is going to be King someday.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study prophecy; we absolutely should. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have opinions about how some things will be fulfilled. We just need to be much, much more humble than we usually tend to be about such opinions. And any preacher or author who is absolutely sure their interpretation is right is just trying to sell you something. Literally. A lot of money has been made by scaring God’s people about the End Times.
3. The Mark of the Beast is mentioned one time, and one time only, in Scripture, in Revelation 13:16-18. Many of us have read books, seen movies, and heard sermons that tell us this refers to an evil ruler or government (The Antichrist) who will force people to be branded with a sign. Apart from that sign, no one will be able to buy or sell anything. That sign may or may not be the number 666. That is certainly what the passage in question seems to say. And it has given rise to all sorts of speculation about what this mark might be: A tattoo? An identity card? A bar code? A microchip?
Of course, earlier in the same chapter, the beast is described in great detail. It looks like a leopard, but with the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion. Also, it has ten horns on its seven heads, with ten crowns on the ten horns. I’ve never heard anyone say they think that description should be taken literally. Nor do they think that when Jesus returns to the earth as described in Revelation 19, He will have a literal sword emerging from His mouth, and He’ll use it to slay the armies of the world. We understand that Revelation was written in an apocalyptic form, in which the things described are symbolic of higher realities. Why do we interpret the Mark of the Beast literally, when we do not do the same with the descriptions of the Beast or of Jesus? My guess is that the Mark of the Beast, whatever it represents, isn’t something physical at all. But that’s just my guess. And I admit that. (See how it’s done?) Truth is, we interpret it that way because it’s part of a way of looking at Revelation that we were taught. It was in The Late Great Planet Earth back in the 70s, along with many other bestsellers. It was in the Left Behind books in the 90s, and those terrible movies they made based on the books (Nick Cage? Really?) But that view of Revelation has really only been popular for the past 100 years or so. For most of Christian history, God’s people interpreted Revelation very differently.
4. But let’s say, for the purpose of argument, that the Mark of the Beast is meant to describe a literal mark. Think about this for a moment: The core truth of the Christian faith is that Jesus loved us enough to come to this world in the form of a man, die an atoning death for our sins, and rise again. There is literally nothing we can do to earn His love or salvation. He freely offers it at the ultimate personal cost to Himself. So if that’s true, and it is, then why are we worried about the Mark of the Beast? If it’s real, do you think God is so sloppy that He will be caught unawares, and fail to make His people—the people He loved enough to die for—aware of what it is, and that it should be avoided? Do you really think only the really, really smart, prophecy-savvy Christians will avoid being infected by the Mark? Trust me, if the mark of the Beast is real, it won’t be something you acquire by accident. Or by trying to do some good deed, like get immunized to stop the spread of a pandemic. It will require an act of outright rebellion against God. And even if I am somehow wrong about that, and some of us do get the Mark of the Beast (whatever that might mean) don’t you think His grace will be enough to cover even that sin? Forget the Mark of the Beast. Stick close to Jesus, and you cannot go wrong.
5. Finally, let us think about this another way. According to Jesus, all the commands in Scripture can be summed up in two: Love the Lord, and love your neighbor as yourself. I cannot tell you that you should be first in line to take the Covid vaccine when it’s available. But doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing the first followers of Jesus would have done? The people who stayed behind in cities with raging epidemics, caring for non-Christians whose families had fled, would not be afraid to take a medication that could stop a modern-day epidemic, save untold lives, and get our economy back on track. At least that’s what I think. Here’s what I know: They wouldn’t be the ones acting fearfully right now. They wouldn’t be shouting about their rights. They would be finding ways to lay down their lives.
And if I were the Devil himself, and I knew all of this (which he does), what better way to make the Church look foolish, weak, and self-centered than to spread the rumor among Christians: “Don’t take the vaccine. In fact, spread the word that it’s the mark of the Beast.”
I admit that last part is purely my speculation. But it does make sense, doesn’t it?
Think biblically, Christian. Whatever you do, act out of love, not fear.