The Desperate Search for the Mark of the Beast

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This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: The Occult, No. 22 


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“I have a lot of anxiety and fear about not being saved,” a woman who identified herself as a Baptist wrote in the summer of 2017, on a message board called Christian Forums. “[B]ut don’t know how to be saved. I have been afraid of the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12, Mark 3, Luke 12), the mark of the beast […] even the number six by itself sets off impulsive thoughts.”

Earlier this year, in Reddit’s r/Christianity forum, another user shared a similar anxiety, edged with terror. “I was just wondering if anyone else has these feelings about the mark,” she wrote. “Sometimes I panic and wonder if I’m already marked or if smartphones are the mark. I was wondering other’s thoughts about it. My husband is not a Christian so he usually tells me to stop worrying about it.”

These are contemporary forums for expressing an almost ancient fear. Worried Christians have long agonized over salvation, experiencing a feeling that has been recently dubbed, with a nod to our therapy-obsessed age, “salvation anxiety.” A significant part of that anxiety — as well as the exact place where American Christianity merges with right-wing conspiracy theory — is the Mark of the Beast.

The Mark is mentioned in the Book of Revelation, the New Testament’s beautiful, baffling, and terrifying final book. Revelation, believed to have been written by John the Apostle, reads like a series of unanswered riddles. Some historians and theologists take it to be an allegory about life under the Roman Empire, while some Christian theorists read it as set of predictions, yet to unfold. For those Christians who follow a philosophy broadly known as futurism, the book is specifically a set of prophecies: the Rapture, the Great Tribulation — a period of terrible suffering for those left on earth — the reign of the Antichrist, the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the Final Judgment. Exactly when the events will occur, and in what order, is a subject of heated debate and more than a little sectarian squabbling. If the reign of the Antichrist is still in the future, that would mean that the Mark and Number of the Beast, too, are yet to be unleashed on the world.

It’s unclear who or what the Beast is, precisely; Revelation talks about two monstrous beings, one that emerges from the sea, and another, somewhat later, from the earth. They seem to be a kind of advance team for the Antichrist. The Mark of the Beast is the first sign of the coming terrors and the realization of the Antichrist’s sovereignty over the earth.

Spotting the first signs of the Antichrist’s appearance has long been a subject of fascination and speculation among many Christian groups. As the message boards make clear, the anxiety over seeing these signs is still strong, particularly among American evangelicals. Mitch Horowitz, the author of Occult America and an expert on esoteric religious thought in American life, pointed out in a recent interview that these fears show the outsize influence Revelation has had on American culture and popular religious thought. Revelation, he says, “has served as this kind of backwards filter for people on the rest of Scripture. Passages that were otherwise intended to refer to local conflicts or a dispute with a local ruler or the duality of God became reinterpreted as the personification of an adversary, of evil.” Had Revelation not been canonized — had it remained apocryphal as many other religious texts written around the same time — Horowitz says, “Our whole religious culture would be different. Concepts like the Mark of the Beast or the Apocalypse or even the personification of Satan would be on the fringes of society, instead of the voluminous place they occupy in popular culture.”

Instead, prophecies and predictions of the End Times have become mainstream. Many believe that the series of events leading up to Armageddon and the Second Coming can be decoded by close-reading the Bible, particularly Revelation and the Book of Daniel. To that end, the several lines in Revelation regarding the Mark have been the subject of fervent study:

And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.

These lines, because of their interpretative obscurity, can be read in thousands of ways. Often, readings are applied to current events or contemporary figures (some for example, believe that Trump is a sign of the second coming). Either way, these words have become a subject of urgent, fevered speculation, a mixture of both hope and terrible fear.

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Twentieth-century Christian futurists have seen the Mark many times over. Some of the uptick in End Times theorizing can be traced back to the early 1970s and the influence of one man, Hal Lindsey. Lindsey, an evangelical writer and television host, published a blockbuster book called The Late, Great Planet Earth, which prophesied that the Antichrist would come in the 1970s and the Rapture would come in the 1980s. Lindsey wrote many follow-ups, including Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth and The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon. Lindsey’s writing had an enormous effect on popular evangelical thought, making the previously dry subject of Christian eschatology and Biblical close-reading into something both accessible and tantalizing: a doctrinally acceptable way of foretelling the future. (Some theologians sniffed that Lindsey’s thinking wasn’t particularly fresh, but instead a simplified version of the work of John Nelson Darby, an Irish Anglican priest who died in 1882 and who’s considered to be the father of Christian futurism. Darby taught that Christians would be secretly raptured from the Earth in advance of the Great Tribulation.) Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series, whose first volume appeared in 1995, has followed in Lindsey’s footsteps. Both series were astonishingly successful, and helped create a tidy, ever-expanding End Times cottage industry. Both series also encouraged a keener eye for the Mark of the Beast.

Barcodes were one of the earliest objects of this modern form of salvation anxiety. They were introduced in 1973 — directly beneath the long shadow of Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth — and were immediately the subject of dire warnings from evangelical Christians. Barcodes were also part of many surprisingly durable urban legends (for instance, the story that every barcode contains the number 666, which Snopes has gone out of its way to debunk).

The entire concept of a cashless society has provoked similar foreboding. This fear can partly be traced back to another emerging technology: RFID chips. While radio frequency identification technology has been around since World War II, RFID tags became much more common in the early 2000s, used in credit cards, cars, and as microchips embedded underneath the skin of livestock. This proliferation caught the attention of many apocalypse-facing Christian groups, but the embedded chip raised the most alarm. The alarm only grew louder when tech publications like Wired started reporting, around 2003, that companies would soon start offering microchips that could be embedded under the skin of humans and used as a form of payment.

More recently, another a new technology emerging as a potential Mark: cryptocurrency, which the End Times author Britt Gillette has proclaimed to be the closest thing yet to the economic system Revelation describes. “In order to control who can buy and who can sell, the Antichrist will need a system capable of tracking every transaction on earth,” he wrote in 2018. “Cryptocurrencies and public block chain records provide such a system.” 

The search for the mark goes beyond technology however. As the Antichrist stubbornly refuses to make his appearance — most mainstream evangelical thinkers believe the Antichrist is indeed a “he,” and likely to come from the European Union — the theorizing and the fears have become more closely aligned with secular right-wing fears about government overreach, manipulation, and insidious methods of control.

The particular place where secular far-right groups and Christian extremists overlap is the idea of the so-called “New World Order,” a term that right-wing extremists and militia movements use to mean a system of tyrannical one-world government enslaving us all. Beginning in the 1970s — and reaching a fever pitch in the 1990s, after George H. W. Bush used the term “New World Order” in a speech — secular far-right groups and some Christian futurists alike started to warn that the United Nations or some other global body were planning an impending takeover of the United States.

In some cases, Christianity and the far-right overlapped, producing a genus of Christian extremists like The Covenant, The Sword, and The Arm of the Lord (CSA), a group that grew out of a Baptist congregation in the 1970s, and whose leader, minister James Ellison, preached that a race war was impending and “God’s people,” white Christians, needed “an Ark.” The CSA eventually created a heavily fortified Arkansas compound, which dissolved under a massive federal raid in 1985; the group was found to be stockpiling potassium cyanide as part of a plan to poison the water supply and hasten the Second Coming. Though the CSA raid ended when its leaders surrendered peacefully, the federal government subsequently used a much more heavy-handed response during two other standoffs with groups with strong religious ties: the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. The Weaver matriarch Vicki, her son Sammy and their dog Striker were killed by federal agents. After several days of the standoff at Waco, federal agents began spraying tear gas into the compound and the government says the Branch Davidians began then setting fires throughout the compound. Some survivors of the attack have accused the government of setting the fires. In all, 76 people died in the fires, including 25 children.

Though they were the most dramatic, these violent events weren’t the last time that secular right-wing and Christian conspiracy theories would coincide. In his 1999 book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, the author and professor Mark Fenster points out that Christian conspiracy theories, particularly those around the Apocalypse, tend to mirror secular right-wing conspiracy theories, in ways that strengthen and reinforce both sides. “Many popular eschatological texts lean towards right-wing conspiracy theory,” he wrote, “Particularly in their patriotism, fears of a one-world government, virulent anti-Communism and calls for a strong military — all of which would seem to contradict their sublime longing for Christ’s return from a spiritual realm of which humans have no power.”

Fenster notes that conservative Christianity has a “tendency to view historical and current events in terms of vast conspiracies led by knowing and unwitting agents of Satan.” Seen that way, he writes, it’s not surprising that conservative Christians find so much common ground with the John Birch Society and other far right groups, all of which see the world “as the domain of secret and dangerous groups that seek to undermine and destroy Christian beliefs and values.”

Evangelical fears about the Satanic undermining of society have faced plenty of scoffing from mainstream, secular types. But fears about broad surveillance, about the ethical implications of a cashless society, about the constant tradeoffs we make between privacy and security, aren’t wild-eyed conspiracy theorizing, they aren’t limited to the Christian right, and they aren’t hard to understand. (Nor are they new: In The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, a key plot point is that women are deprived access to their bank accounts overnight because the system has been so centralized.) Conspiratorial ideas tend to be a particularly fervid and intense reflection of mainstream culture, and a fear about the government tracking and microchipping us for insidious ends becomes, frankly, less outlandish with every passing year.

There’s also no denying that some aspects of centralized government control are more of a concern for those on the right. Irvin Baxter is a genial, politically conservative Pentecostal televangelist based in Texas whose entire ministry — fittingly called End Times Ministries — is oriented toward what he and others call the “end of the age.” Over the years, he has issued warnings himself about RFID chips and cashless technologies; more recently, he’s also speculated that the REAL ID Act and Obamacare are precursors to the Mark, because both programs sought to impose greater federal regulation on state-run systems, namely drivers’ licenses and the health insurance markets. Baxter, like Lindsey, has written about the dangers of a cashless society in ways designed to appeal to both the Apocalypse-fearing and IRS-loathing parts of his audience. “In a cashless society, no one will be in jail for bank robbery because there will be nothing to steal,” he wrote in an undated post about the Mark of the Beast. “Also, a cashless society is very attractive to the IRS, because, if the government has records of everything you do, it will be able to withdraw taxes from your income before you have a chance to spend it.”

Despite the popularity of figures like Baxter, End Times prophecies and the hunt for the Mark of the Beast remain fringe (Randall Palmer, chair of the religious studies department at Dartmouth College, who’s also an Episcopal priest, speaking to the Tennessean in 2017, politely called them a “parlor game”). Among those who believe, though there are a riot of competing theories, one commonality remains: many End Times theorists are convinced that whatever the Mark is, it’s already here. “Our mistake is to assume that The Mark of the Beast is an artifact of the future,” says the surprisingly conspiratorial Catholic Online, one of the largest internet resources for Catholics. “It has already arrived. Therefore, since it is a sign, we would do well to prepare ourselves for the final hour could come at any time.”

 

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Anna Merlan is a senior reporter at Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk and the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theories and Their Surprising Rise to Power.