If you’ve spent many years of your life in or around conservative Evangelical Churches, you’ve heard plenty of speculation about who the Beast is in the Book of Revelation. Usually, you’ll hear them say it’s a person, like Barack Obama or the Pope, or that it’s an entity, like the U.N. or the Roman Catholic Church.
I say the Bible points to none of these and that the Religious Right simply uses such accusations to justify their nationalist condemnations of the outside world, when, in reality, Revelation’s criteria for the Beast actually points to their own world.
Why does any of this matter?
It matters, not because we need to determine the time of Jesus’ return, but because the Bible sternly warns us Christians that “those who worship the beast and his image” will have an exceedingly bad afterlife (Revelation 14:9-12), to put it mildly. So it’s of great importance that we not give the beast and its image a religious level of reverence and devotion, nor should we let it be our teacher of what is right and wrong.
Before we get started on examining each of Revelation’s criteria for the Beast, let’s clarify a couple things:
First, the Beast and the anti-Christ are two different things. The anti-Christ is a person who gets no mention in Revelation. And 1 John 2 says there were many anti-Christs who already existed in John’s day. So it’s questionable as to whether there is one official Anti-Christ just before the end of days.
Second, the Beast is not a person; it is a kingdom. And it’s not just any kingdom, it’s the world’s most dominant superpower. The concept of the beast originated in the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapter 7. Daniel had a dream about four beasts, each with a bizarre appearance. He didn’t understand it until “one like a son of man” whose “kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” said to him, “The four beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth.” Most scholars believe that the beasts were Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Rome, the 4th beast, is said to be the most terrifying, to the point that it would “oppress the saints (Dan 7:25).”
That’s where John, the writer of Revelation, comes in. He resurrected the Beast concept, once the promised “oppression of the saints” had begun. He introduced two beasts – the first “coming out of the sea;” the second “coming out of the earth [Rev 13].” The first Beast is most likely Rome, the world superpower at the time of writing, since Revelation 17:9-10 says, “The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while.”
The 2nd beast appears to lie in future, after the first beast had fallen. It’s likely to come along near the end of civilization, since it apparently has the technological ability to “make fire fall from the sky (Rev. 13:13)” and “control who can buy or sell (Rev. 13:16).” And, naturally, it must come along soon (if it hasn’t already), since our technological advances are quite capable of annihilating us any time, now. Thus, the chances of the 2nd Beast existing in today’s world are high.
(Another possibility is that the final Beast is not made up of just one nation. In fact, Rev 17:12 explains, “The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the Beast.” So maybe each age has its own beast – a world superpower who preys upon the innocent. If so, perhaps no single superpower matches all the criteria for the 1st Beast or the 2nd. Maybe it takes all the beasts & kings collectively to fulfill all the prophecies.)
That being said, let’s move forward by examining the criteria for the 2nd Beast and then seeing how it matches up with each of the major Beast candidates.
Criteria for the 2nd Beast:
Revelation 13:11: “Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon.”
If you know the Bible, it’s likely you know the horns represent rulers, the lamb represents Christ or Christians, and the dragon represents Satan. What’s open to debate is whether the number two is literal or symbolic. I had learned in my New Testament History class in the early 90’s that, in Jewish apocalyptic literature, two was the number of witness/testimony, such as those who go about in pairs sharing the faith. If that’s the case, then the 2nd beast is a kingdom whose ruler(s) professes Christianity, but speaks like the devil, who Jesus called the Father of Lies.
Roman Catholic Church: Once upon a time, they were a perfect fit. The popes of the late Middle Ages were downright demonic, waging wars against outsiders and conducting torturous inquisitions of their members. But today, they no longer have political power. And recent popes, like John Paul II and Pope Francis, have continued reforming the church.
The United Nations: The U.N. may qualify as a world superpower, but it does not profess to be Christian and it doesn’t have prominent leaders, so it’s not a good fit.
Russia & China: China’s rulers have not been professing Christianity up to this point in time. Russia’s Putin does promote orthodox Christianity, and he sure lies a lot. So Russia is a possible match.
USA: All its presidents claim to be Christian. Some are quiet about their faith, while others, like George W. Bush & Donald Trump, are quite vocal about it. All its presidents tell lies (which is probably necessary to get elected in a democracy). But PolitiFact has found 67% of Trump’s claims to be mostly or completely false, far worse than any other president. The USA is the closest match for this passage.
Revelation 13:12: “He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.”
Again, the 2nd beast is somehow rooted in the 1st beast and calls its people to worship the first beast. The problem here is that people don’t worship old fallen kingdoms, which is what the first beast is. So worship must mean something else, such as an allegiance to the location or the ideology of the first beast.
The Roman Catholic Church: It’s located in Rome, so that makes it a match for this criteria.
The United Nations: It has little to do with Rome – an unlikely candidate.
Russia & China: Little to do with Rome.
The Axis Powers: Eighty years ago, the Axis between Berlin and Rome would have been a perfect fit.
USA: It’s not Rome. However, its founders resurrected the Roman concept of a Republican government. The USA even has a political party called The Republican Party. One might argue that Rome had become an empire, run by a dictator rather than by a republican government, by the time of Revelation’s writing. But one could also argue that increasing executive power, even to the point where the president can fire those investigating him, has effectively turned the USA into a dictatorship; and with a military presence in most of the world’s nations, it has become the world’s most powerful empire of all time. While ancient Rome may not be worshipped by Americans in a traditional manner, many Americans effectively worship America, regard its Rome-inspired Constitution as sacred, and honor its Rome-admiring founders with a religious zeal normally reserved for gods. Thus, the USA is a likely candidate.
Revelation 13:13: “And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men.”
Only countries able to engage in modern warfare can literally make fire come down from the sky. So this can’t be the Roman Catholic Church, since it has no weapons, but it could be the U.N., Russia, China, or the USA.
Revelation 13:14-15: “…He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.”
“Wounded by the sword and yet lived” makes sense as a reference to Rome as the first Beast. The Western Roman Empire was taken down by invaders (by the sword), yet the Holy Roman Empire took its place. By using the Roman name, they, in a sense, kept the empire alive.
Problem: If the beast is a fallen kingdom, like Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were, then how could anyone make an image of it and cause it to speak? Obviously, we’re getting into some pretty symbolic imagery here. We can assume, however, that the image is something made by humans that symbolizes the first beast. The image that inspires the most reverence in the modern world is a nation’s flag, which is symbolic of the nation’s government. It’s the government and its constitution that speak. So perhaps, the flag & constitution of the kingdom whose government is most like that of ancient Rome is the image to which this passage refers (that would be the USA). Perhaps a day will come when those who fail to honor the “image ” of the flag will be persecuted. Therefore, any entity that commands its people to revere the flag could fulfill this prophecy.
Revelation 13:16-18: “He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of the name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.”
We could get into all kinds of speculation about calculating the number of the beast, but since there are so many possibilities, there’s no room for that here.
The question that we can address, however, is “Who has the power to control whether people can buy or sell?”
Roman Catholic Church: Today’s church has little control over world finances. Even if it were to prohibit its members from buying or selling, most Catholics would not obey, just like they don’t obey the church on birth control. And there would be nothing the church could do about it. Unlikely candidate.
The U.N.: U.N. resolutions have little power, so a resolution that no one could buy or sell would be ineffective. The nations of the U.N. can work together in a join military venture, but that’s not the kind of thing that would restrict individual buying or selling. Unlikely candidate.
China & Russia: As both countries grow in wealth and power, their ability to control buying or selling grows, too. Certainly, they both have some very wealthy and powerful people who may someday control some of the world’s most powerful industries. And both have a tendency toward authoritarian leadership that controls every facet of people’s lives. Both are likely candidates.
The USA: America is less authoritarian than some other countries, but that can change very quickly. The U.S. and the U.K. control global banking. And global banking, in many ways, controls them. The lines between the government and corporate financial power are blurred, with democratic governments having the power to regulate finance, but also with the financial industry having the money to get their own kind elected, so they can control the system that has power over them and increase their power even further. As our commerce system moves away from cash so that people must rely more and more on electronic commercial instruments provided by the financial industry, the easier it is to simply deny people access to these instruments if they displease the powers that be. Thus, the USA, where corporate capitalism has most of its roots, is the most likely candidate.
Revelation 16:10, “The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.”
Roman Catholic Church: It’s pretty hard to plunge a religion into darkness, since its members are scattered around the globe. Unlikely candidate.
The U.N.: Since the U.N. consists of 193 nations, the whole planet would have to be plunged into darkness. That could be done with a change in solar activity, heavy ash in the atmosphere from an asteroid impact, or a nuclear winter. But if that were the case, you would think Revelation would simply say the whole world would be plunged into darkness. Unlikely candidate.
Russia, China & the USA: A country could be plunged into darkness one of two ways – a major volcanic eruption, like Krakatoa, or, in modern times, a broken power grid. Ted Koppel recently published a book about the latter, called “Lights Out.” It’s possible one or more of these countries could have their power grids hacked and destroyed by cyber-terrorists (or destroyed from an electromagnetic pulse caused by a nuclear bomb detonated atop the earth’s atmosphere high above the target nation). And with hardly any Large Power Transformer replacements on hand, 99% of their citizens would be without food, funds, refrigeration, clean water, sewer, gasoline, and functioning hospitals for several months to several years. Diseases from malnutrition, contaminated water, and lack of healthcare would cause the “pains and sores” mentioned in the passage. Perfect candidates.
Conclusion: If there’s a representation of Revelation’s final Beast in the modern world, the United States of America is most likely it, or at the very least, part of it (perhaps joining together with other nations or intertwining with growing corporate power around the globe). They appear to be the only candidate that matches all the criteria.
That’s a tough pill to swallow if you grew up in the USA, thinking your country was the good guy, after all it had done to protect the world from Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan, the Soviet Union, and Communist China. But the power it gained in the process can be used for evil. The election of Trump to the presidency is proof of that. And there’s something kind of supernatural about the way it all went down – from brainwashing millions of Christians into following the least Christ-like individual there could possibly be, to the surreal election night in which he won against all expectations and odds. Some, like Franklin Graham, have said the “hand of God” was involved. Perhaps he’s right: Revelation 17:17 says, “For God has put it in their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the Beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled.”
Just because someone comes to power by the “hand of God,” doesn’t mean they aren’t of the devil.
– K. Scott Schaeffer