If the worries of most quarantined Christians in the United States center on health and when they might resume their lives, there is a segment that wonders whether this moment has greater biblical significance. These apocalyptic-minded Christians seem to have become increasingly less concerned about the disease itself and more concerned about the government’s response to the disease.
To some, it appears Satan’s emissaries are poised to take advantage of the pandemic. Some Christian pastors believe the start of a Last Days battle for religious freedom began with the social distancing orders that have placed weekly in-person church services under fire. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle, a Louisiana megachurch, defended his decision to hold a Palm Sunday service: “The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist, let us assemble regardless of what anyone says.” Another Louisiana pastor, Ronnie Hampton, decried the order “because Caesar is mandating how we conduct ourselves using the pretext of this virus to be able to conduct our lives and run our lives for us.”
American apocalypticists tend to be suspicious of government, of course. This is partly due to their conservative bent, but this suspicion is nearly mandated by a literalist reading of the Book of Revelation. John the Revelator’s arch-villains are political powers that institute totalitarian social controls while persecuting the righteous who refuse to profess their allegiance. The second beast of Revelation 13, commonly known as the Anti-Christ, will, according to many Christians, come to power in the chaos of the apocalypse. John described him as a miracle worker who will deceive the nations to worship the image of an earlier beast, a dragon with seven heads and ten horns that is sometimes identified as Satan himself.
The second beast enforces this strange new religion by slaughtering those who refuse to submit to his sinister call to worship. John also prophesied of an economic dimension to the Anti-Christ’s rule. He stated that this beast “causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name… his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” (Revelation 13:16-18)
In the early twentieth century, this prophecy became linked to American fears of a powerful federal government. A 1943 letter to the editor of the Pampa Daily News was representative of this growing resentment coupling conspiracy with apocalypticism:
We should count it dishonorable for a free people to produce a ration card, a birth certificate, an identification card, a social security number – they are what Christian men used to brand as the ‘Mark of the Beast’ of state absolutism and dictatorship. Every time we produce a card of any sort we admit to the world we are no longer free human beings. We are crawling, cringing tools of the state, pawns of dictators, slaves of bureaucrats. And every student of history knows that the next event is anarchy, race riots, pillage, murder, bankruptcy, panic, famine – there has been found no other alternative.
In more recent decades, commentary of the prophecy of the mark of the beast drew on anxieties over global governance, surveillance, and technology. In the early 1980s, Mary Stewart Relfe’s books, When Your Money Fails: The “666 System” is Here (1981) and The New Money System 666 (1982), popularized the idea that the Uniform Product Codes (i.e. UPCs or barcodes) were the mark of the beast and would one day be tattooed on human bodies. A trend of ironic barcode tattoos popular in the early twentieth century nods to this idea while commenting on western consumerism.
Microchip technology has since replaced the UPC as the most likely candidate for the introduction of a cashless society and thus the mark of the beast. While there have been various experiments with human microchipping on a limited basis, there remains a strong objection to the development only partly for biblical reasons. Others are deeply uneasy over the potential for intrusive surveillance and whether such technology would be forced on the public. In response, several states have passed legislation forbidding companies from requiring employees to be microchipped for their internal security systems.
This is where covid-19 comes in. In the past several weeks, suspicion of a sinister conspiracy behind the development of a coronavirus vaccine has been spurred on by a comment from Bill Gates on March 18. As part of a Reddit forum, Gates noted that in the future “digital certificates” could trace who had recently been tested or who had received a vaccine (when one is developed) making it possible for business to resume as usual. By the next day, a rumor had begun to circulate that these digital certificates would include microchipping. On March 22, 2020, the first of several videos—this one entitled, “Bill Gates, the Quantum Dot Tattoo, and the Mark of the Beast,” appeared, associating these ideas with the Mark of the Beast. The video was produced by TruNews, an outlet run by Rick Wiles who, one RD contributor recently wrote, has a “solid record of antisemitism, racism, and homophobia,” in his piece on the outlet having several times received press credentials from the Trump administration. A similar video posted on March 29, 2020, has nearly a million and a half views in mid-April.
After watching and reading dozens of renditions of this conspiracy claim, it’s evident that while the specifics vary, the basic argument is consistent. The vaccine will be coupled with one of two projects that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has played a role in funding. In the first scenario, the vaccine will be injected and tracked via quantum dot technology which, as one video explains, consists of “an invisible tattoo which is only visible through the use of this special smartphone camera app and filter.”
In the second scenario, the vaccine would be tied to a second project funded in part by the Gates, ID2020, an international project aimed to provide digital IDs for individuals living throughout the world. This program will allegedly, albeit inaccurately, lead to microchipping. In other words, the vaccine is not the Mark of the Beast itself but will be used to implement the Mark of the Beast in much the same way that many apocalypticists have expected for decades.
This isn’t the first time Bill Gates’s vaccine advocacy has triggered criticism. In 2011, Gates credited vaccines with “reduc[ing] population growth.” This led to the conclusion that Gates had inadvertently let on that vaccines were killing or sterilizing unsuspecting recipients. Gates clarified, even before this statement, that evidence suggests that by reducing child mortality rates through vaccines, families would plan for fewer children and thus reduce global populations.
Gates has also tried to clarify his reference to “digital certificates,” which he explained referred “to efforts to create an open source digital platform with the goal of expanding access to safe, home-based testing.” Of course, explanations don’t seem to lessen the overall sentiment that he has something to do with a Last Days numbering scenario. After all, an effort to provide a global ID is an effort to track world populations even if its intentions are benevolent.
While the spread of a vaccine-linked conspiracy theory has been spearheaded via social media and YouTube, there are also proponents among local church leaders and national Christian figures. Ronnie Hampton, cited above, warned his congregation against the vaccine via social media. “They’re gonna come up with a vaccine and in that vaccine everybody is gonna have to take it … and inside of that vaccine there’s going to be some type of electronic computer device that’s gonna put some type of chip in you and maybe even have some mood, mind-altering circumstances … and they’re saying that the chip would be the mark of the beast.”
Curt Landry of Curt Landry Ministries likewise instructed his listeners: “Do not pray, do not hope, do not think, ‘Oh, praise God they are going to have a vaccine. That vaccine is from the pit of Hell. Do not pray for those vaccines, and do not take the vaccine. These vaccines are going to be coming. They are not going to be good. They’re not good for you physically, and spiritually, they’re a set-up for what shall come later.” Landry noted that while he didn’t think that the vaccine was the Mark of the Beast it would pave the way for this satanic system.
Such uproar isn’t universal. Conservative Christians, including prophecy enthusiasts among them, have strived to refute the vaccine-Mark of the Beast theory. Seventh-day Adventist (and other Seventh-day Sabbatarian) voices have started to remind their congregations that the Mark of the Beast is the rejection of a seventh-day sabbath and not “some kind of secret tattoo or symbol.”
On April 7, Hank Hanegraff, host of the “Bible Answer Man” radio show, suggested these conspiracy theories were a “concoction by paranoid prophecy pundits who have little or no aptitude for reading the Bible for all its substantial worth.” Instead, he explained that the Mark of the Beast was “symbolic language” in reference to individuals’ “beliefs and behavior.”
Even Pat Robertson of the 700 Club stated on April 16 that the Mark of the Beast was about giving “your head and your hand … your volition and your action to this Anti-Christ. That’s the Mark of the Beast. I don’t think a little microchip is what we are talking about.”