We Have Met the Beast and He Is Us

Beast666Somehow this is still a thing. Christian politicians and pundits routinely make fearmongering overtures about the identity of “the beast,” “the antichrist,” the cosmic boogeyman who will bring about the End Times™ and also happens to be their ideological opponent. Just pick a public figure you don’t like, label them “dangerous,” throw in a vague appeal to “biblical prophecy,” and you’re good to go.

Even as we roll our eyes, we think we know exactly which Bible prophecy is being abused: the book of Revelation and its warning of a coming antichrist. But it’s not simply that the words of Revelation are being misappropriated as political fodder, they have been completely misread and misunderstood in the first place. If we take an educated and careful look at the relevant passages, a very different picture comes into focus. Spoiler Alert: there is no singular “antichrist” figure in Revelation. There are several metaphorical “monsters” in the text, but the nearest contemporary analog for the “beast” in question is not a Muslim warrior, a popular Pope, or a socialist President. It’s something much more familiar and far more insidious.

(Actually) Reading Revelation

I get a little twitchy when uninformed Christians rant about “what it says in Revelation” concerning “the antichrist.” For starters, the word “antichrist” never appears in the text. It’s not there. Something like it can be found in John’s epistles, but not here. There is a “beast” in Revelation, a few of them in fact, and to put them into proper context we’ll need a quick overview of the whole thing.

The final book in the New Testament canon, Revelation was written as a coded message to first century churches from an exiled pastor named John. It’s an apocalypse, a sort of ancient political cartoon, imagining the imminent destruction of the Roman Empire and the vindication of Jewish-Christian martyrs who had been killed by the state. Apocalyptic literature allowed its authors and recipients to express their true feelings about Rome without incrimination, using cryptic metaphors and bizarre symbolic imagery instead of openly political language.

Revelation plays out as a pageant of symbolic tableaus. The martyrs entreat the heavenly throne for justice, Jesus (depicted as a slain lamb) opens a scroll containing God’s purposes, and bowls of consuming wrath are poured out onto the armies and superpowers of earth. In the end, the great Whore of Babylon (a.k.a. Rome) is defeated and God’s kingdom is established in its place, a glistening (earthly!) city called New Jerusalem. The end.

So where does “the beast” figure in?

Dragon and the Beasts, This Fall on ABC

The chapters in question are Revelation 12 and 13, wherein the narrative shifts and the Bible suddenly goes all Harryhausen. A “great red dragon” falls to earth and summons two “beasts” (or “monsters”), one from the sea and one from the land, who do the dragon’s bidding. The first monster speaks “blasphemous words” and “makes war on the saints,” while the second one “deceives” the people of the earth into worshiping the first monster. This is the beast that “marks” humans with a number permitting them to “buy and sell.”

The text explicitly identifies the dragon as “the satan,” the evil power which animates the two earthly monsters. The first monster is the Roman Empire, with its temporary authority to rule over the tribes of the earth and its thirst for the righteous blood of the martyrs. Who then is the second beast, the one which so preoccupies dispensationalist Christians that they’ve forgotten all the other apocalyptic critters? He represents the religious and economic systems that feed the ambitions of the first beast. He makes images of his counterpart to be worshiped and brands citizens for participation in the marketplace. And what is the “number” that this beast stamps on the people’s hands and foreheads? 666, the numeric name of Nero, the great persecutor of Christians. This beast dupes God’s people into bankrolling their greatest enemy.

Hitting Close to Home

This is the dreaded beast of Revelation: imperial consumerism that lulls people into working and buying and selling and worshiping against their own interests. Revelation wasn’t a warning to the future about the rise of a bad guy from an enemy camp, it was a clarion call to first century Christians against capitulation and collusion with the powers-that-be. It was an anti-establishment screed, reminding its hearers that Christians do not play at power and war and money like the beasts do. In a bottomless pit of irony, those Christian gatekeepers who most loudly sound the “antichrist” alarm in our own day tend to be those who are most sold out to nationalism, capitalism, and the established imperial order.

In context, the monsters of Revelation confront us with an unexpected threat. It’s easy to exploit weird, cryptic prophecies for personal gain, fearmongering, and drumming up the donor base. It’s easy to imagine some far off, foreign enemy who threatens to take our freedom away and disrupt our lifestyle. It’s quite another thing to imagine that our very lifestyle itself might have all the markings of a beast.

For a more detailed breakdown of Revelation, check out this podcast.