One can sympathise with the unease among many Christians about taking any Covid vaccine but such a vaccine could in no way be seen as the mark of the Beast mentioned in Revelation.
The Identity of the Beast
The identity of the beast in Rev. 13 and 17 has intrigued many for a long time. The scare that the number of the beast has produced in Christian and non-Christian alike is well known. Who or what is the beast in these passages? We explore just a few key aspects of this fascinating if grotesque creature. First. we need to notice that there is dual imagery involved from the texts themselves.
Whereas Rev. 13.18 says the number of the beast is “the number of a man” i.e. individually portrayed, the angel in 17.10, says the 7 heads of the beast represent 7 kings. Seemingly, these 7 kings “arise in chronological succession; some have already died, one is now reigning, one is yet to come (17.10-11). Thus, the beast is generically portrayed as a kingdom [or line of kings]” as Kenneth Gentry argues in The Beast of Revelation.
Somewhat puzzlingly, Rev. 17.11 declares “the beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is one of the seven.” Given the centrality of the Emperor to the Roman Empire, at times, the one was treated as synonymous with the other, so, writing about Augustus, the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – AD 18) says “the state is Caesar”.
How does the number 666 assist in identifying the Beast individually? Well, by appealing to the age-old and 1st century Jewish tradition of Gematria (playing with the numbers behind letters of the alphabet, called isopsephia in Greek). You may recall that Latin letters also double as numbers, e.g. XVI is 16, x =10, v=5, I=1.
Interestingly, there are a couple manuscripts of Rev. 13.18 that have 616 instead of 666 as the number of the beast. This manuscript change seemed not to have been accidental. As the revered late textual critic and Greek scholar Bruce Metzger says, “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Nerōn Caesar written in Hebrew characters…is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar…is equivalent to 616.”
(Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 752)
Metzger further says “When Greek letters are used as numerals the difference between 666 and 616 is merely a change from Χ [chi] to Ι[ iota]…” (p.752)
Do note that contrary to the mistranslation of Rev. 13:17 in the KJV and the NKJV “…the mark or the name of the beast or the number of his name.” and a consequent misunderstanding by a certain denomination there are not three different things re the mark of the beast but two, “…the mark of the beast or the number of his name.” as the Greek text reads!
Nero is the only emperor whose name fits the Gematria riddle hand in glove, so he seemed to have been the individual beast John had in mind. “The generic identity of the Beast is the ancient Roman Empire of the first century” (Gentry, The Beast, p.11) headquartered in Rome, the centre of the empire and the city with seven hills or mountains (Rev. 17.9).
The Character of the Beast
The terror and dread that the beast generated is most apt as a description of the character of Nero as of no other Emperor. Nero’s epitaph is dreadful. As a person he was regarded as a beast, a monster and was popularly called ‘the tyrant’. Here are a few select quotations about Nero:
“In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many, many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs…And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mother, but Nero has gorged himself on this diet.” (Apollonius of Tyana, b. 4 BC, cited in Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, p.214)
“[Nero’s persecution claimed] a vast multitude of the elect …through many indignities and tortures.” (Clement of Rome, b. AD 30, cited in Gentry, Beast, p.54)
“[Nero] compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena.” (Suetonius, b. circa AD 69, cited in Gentry, Before Jerusalem, p.213)
“[Nero] …inflicted unheard-of punishments on…Christians…And their death was aggravated with mockeries, insomuch that, wrapped in the hides of wild beasts, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or fastened to crosses to be set on fire, that when the darkness fell they might be burned to illuminate the night…whence it came about that, though the victims were guilty and deserved the most exemplary punishment, a sense of pity was aroused by the feeling that they were sacrificed not on the altar of public interest, but to satisfy the cruelty of one man.” (Tacitus, b. circa AD 56, Annals, 15.44)
Nero killed his parents, brother, aunt and many others close to him and even kicked his pregnant wife to death.
So then the character of the beast as described in Revelation matches what is known about Nero’s character. It is instructive too that Rev. 13.5, 7 speaks of the beast warring with the saints and overcoming them for forty-two months (3 ½ years).
Nero was the first Emperor to persecute Christians as Christians and this persecution began some months after the great fire of Rome (July 19, AD 64). From the middle or late November, AD 64, Nero assaulted the Church, causing the deaths of many Christians including Peter and Paul and this state of affairs haunted the Church until his suicide on June 9, AD 68, almost exactly 3 ½ years.