The controversy surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine has been monumental, with conspiracy theories abounding. One particular fringe theory arose out of evangelical apocalypticism: that the Covid-19 vaccine is the “mark of the beast”—a sign of the end times and a symbol of alignment with the Antichrist. This fear has driven some Christians to request religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. Others have created TikToks dramatizing the Covid-19 vaccine as the mark of the beast. Some in the political arena like Marjorie Taylor Greene have suggested that the vaccine cards are the mark of the beast, while still others have pointed to masks as the true mark. And some have chosen the unconventional path of vandalization to get their point across.
The concept of the mark of the beast is rooted in Christian apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Different interpretations exist, but some Christians interpret the mark to be a literal one, received upon the forehead or the right hand, which according to Revelation 13:17 is “the name of the beast or the number  of the name.” One of a handful of signs preceding the end of the world in the framework of biblical fundamentalism, the mark of the beast would be required to buy or sell items and would be required by the Antichrist, a powerful satanic figure who unites the world under the promises of peace and unity but only delivers destruction.
To those who believe, the stakes are impossibly high: Anyone who takes the mark of the beast lands in the lake of fire (often interpreted as hell). But some Christians are also keen to identify the mark of the beast for another reason: It would mean the imminent return of Jesus, their Savior, who would herald the beginning of the final battle with evil and the establishment of peace.
It could be tempting to ignore it all as fringe, but the data cautions otherwise. Currently among American Christians, the belief that we are in the end times is anything but fringe. A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in March of 2021 asked religious and non-religious Americans to what extent they agreed with the following phrase: “The chaos in America today is evidence that we are living in what the Bible calls the ‘end times.’” The results showed that 64 percent of Black Protestants, 61 percent of white evangelical Protestants, and 61 percent of Hispanic Protestants agreed with the statement. With apocalyptic views currently high among American Christians, the importance of building historical awareness only grows.
Matthew Avery Sutton, author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, said, “The reason this theology attracts so many people is because it provides an explanation for things we can’t understand. ‘It’s going to get worse; it’s going to be bad, but we all know that we’re going to come out the winners.’ It offers hope in what seems to be a hopeless time.”
Times of crisis bring these fears out the most. “It ebbs and flows but we tend to find greater outcroppings when there’s a little more stress,” said Robert Fuller, author of Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession. By searching for evidence of the end times during times of crisis, paranoia begins to compound on what was already a stressful situation.
And it can be politically useful. “The search for the mark of the beast has the impact of constant presence of good versus evil,” Fuller said. “The good people are being deceived and persecuted. Your enemies can’t be trusted and must be undone at all costs.”
The search for the mark of the beast in American history can be traced at least back to the American Revolution. Puritans believed that the Stamp Act welcomed the mark of the beast, as the stamp was required on all legal documents and was an extension of the British Empire, which they believed to be “demonic,” if not evil. Early Americans have also related the mark of the beast with the papacy, alcohol during the Temperance movement, Free Masonry, and various (even minor) political endeavors.
However, the fervent and constant hunt for a literal mark of the beast in American Christianity is relatively new. Fuller said, “There’s been a general concern with an Antichrist—someone who represents Satan’s desire to thwart all people of God. But the specific concern with the Mark of the Beast emerges more in the early twentieth century as biblical fundamentalism defines itself.”
In the 1930s, some American fundamentalists thought that the National Recovery Act’s symbolic blue eagle, which was used to show compliance with the NRA, might be a forerunner to the mark of the beast. The language of “forerunner” is used pretty frequently to “be a little bit careful so they cannot be proven wrong,” explains Sutton. “But then the flip side is that it works very effectively for leaders because it keeps everybody on the edge of their seats. ‘If it’s not this thing, it’s the thing coming right around the corner.’ It keeps the anticipation high.”
After the blue eagle, social security numbers and social security cards were looked upon with suspicion, because they were a mandatory numeric identification system. Additionally, some fundamentalists believed that social security would lead to reliance on a government, which would reduce rights over time, paving the way for the Antichrist. Some opposition to social security numbers on the basis that they are the mark of the beast continues to this day.
When bar codes and UPC scanners arrived on the scene, some Christians found this new technology to be worrisome because it seemed that people were unable to buy or sell without it. Many believed that the number of the beast, “666,” was present on every barcode—a hypothesis that has been debunked. Nevertheless, the theory is still alive, and resurfaced in Texas in 2012.
“Americans are always nervous about new technologies and what those new technologies might do,” Sutton said. “But when you combine that with an obsession with identifying the mark of the beast … then technology becomes something you’re even more afraid of.”
And because technology, politics, and economics are guaranteed to transform, so is the imagination of what could be the mark of the beast. After barcodes, computers began to look suspicious. Books such as Computers and the Beast of Revelation (1986), Antichrist, Computers, and You!: High Technology and the Beast (1987), and Racing Toward the Mark of the Beast: Your Money, Computers, and the End of the World (1994) pointed toward computers as a critical technological innovation for the facilitation of a cashless society, a red flag of the mark of the beast. More recently, in 2014, televangelist Pat Robertson suggested that all electronic financial transactions—with a special emphasis on computers—were a sign of the coming of the mark of the beast. He had been saying the same of credit cards for years.
Predictably, another leap in technological development, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, caused quite a backlash. RFID chips were approved for human implantation by the FDA in 2004. Since then, a flurry of conspiracy theories that the RFID chip may be the mark of the beast have surfaced. A certain subset of Christians believed that the Affordable Care Act legislation contained a secret requirement for all citizens to be implanted with an RFID chip by 3/23/13. This claim caused enough of an uproar that Snopes debunked it, though that hasn’t stopped the fear from reemerging again and again, including as part of protective legislation.
The REAL ID, which explicitly merged identifying information with microchip technology, became the newest thing to fear in the 2000s. The REAL ID is a state-issued driver’s license or identification card which, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), should “make our identity documents more consistent and secure.” These new cards contain an RFID chip that holds biographic and biometric data, as well as a barcode. Both of these qualities sparked an automatic sense of suspicion among the Christians who believed it might be the mark of the beast. According to DHS, the REAL ID Act did not create a federal driver’s license database, but that fact has not stopped some Christians from speculation to the contrary.
Each new wave of invention—from cell phones to Apple watches—has brought out suspicions due to the incorporation of new technology like GPS and NFC (near field communications). Biometric data, including facial recognition and fingerprint scanning, has also set off warning bells for some Christians. In some cases, this data has been used for employment, for school identification, for the government, to buy school lunches, and in some cases it is being prepped for use to buy various items, all of which have sparked fears of the mark of the beast.
The quantum-dot tattoo was developed by researchers at MIT in order to tackle the challenge of medical recordkeeping, including vaccination history, in low-resource settings. The tattoo is invisible to the naked eye but made visible through the use of modified smartphones that can detect near-infrared quantum dots. Some fear that this new technology is actually the mark of the beast.
If this seems like a jump, the fear of an invisible tattoo as the mark of the beast was already latent in some Christians’ imagination. A Christian fiction book from 1970 called Behold a Pale Horse, and its corresponding screenplay, “The Rapture,” both by Joe Musser, depicted a supercomputer in Brussels called “the Beast,” also known as Beast 666, which would track the buying and selling of every person in the world through invisible tattoos.
It is within this context that the fear around the Covid-19 vaccine emerged. The vaccine, some Christians have argued, would limit their ability to buy or sell because of requirements placed by businesses. Other Christians have become fearful that the vaccine would implant a microchip or a quantum dot tattoo without their knowledge, which would be the mark of the beast. These fears were inflamed through social media, especially through videos showing temperature checks that scanned foreheads or hands.
The theology that undergirds this constant vigilance is woven into the fabric of American history. Examined altogether, a pattern emerges. Things to be suspicious of include: efforts toward unity and promises of peace by a powerful leader, any numerical required identification systems, and anything which changes how we engage with money—often involving changes in technology. But these markers are also the same things that could help us to build a better world, organize ourselves more effectively, and show us that we are still growing and learning as humans.
American Christians live side by side with the discarded remnants of past generations’ fears of apocalypse, often without even knowing it. But perhaps by knowing a little bit more of the history, we can dive a little further—and with less hesitance—into the future.
Tiffany Firebaugh, MPH, is a freelance writer. Find her on twitter @tiff_fire and see more of her work at tiffanyfirebaugh.com.