How should we appraise the arrival of technologies that seem to be tracking us in our every movement and every transaction of our daily lives? The Old Believers, as we know, would refuse to cooperate with registration and passport requirements altogether, because they believed that appearance of the Antichrist was imminent, and that the secular government, being a tool of Satan, would use every means sooner or later to seduce the world into accepting the so-called “Mark of the Beast” as spoken of in the Apocalypse. Today, however, we have the census and more: Our passports, our social security numbers, our REAL IDs, and our smartphones bearing all kinds of personal data regarding our whereabouts, our business conduct, and leisure activities, while even unguardedly sharing unbeknownst amounts of data here and there with various secular agencies. With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, there is even talk now about introducing universal contact tracing systematically in this country—something that has already been done by the internal security services in Israel, though not without controversy. At what point do faithful Christians refuse to accept these technologies in order to be numbered, not among those who will be made to drink “the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out” upon those who have received the Mark of the Beast (according to the Book of the Apocalypse [Rev. 14:9-10]), but instead, among the those who resisted, who Scripture reveals to be “the redeemed”, “without fault before God”, the “144,000” [Rev. 14:4-5]?
Here is Protodeacon Patrick Mitchell’s answer to this question:
This is a very timely and well-put question, which more and more Christians may be forced to face in coming years. The question raises many issues about which much could be said, both certainly and speculatively. This answer will concentrate on what can be said certainly, acknowledging the speculations of others without adding to them, while also providing a broader basis for a proper Orthodox understanding of our subjection to secular authorities.
First, it must be said that the Church has no settled interpretation of the Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian, better known in English as the Book of Revelation. Very few early Church Fathers speculated on how the book’s vision might come to pass in human history. More recently, many Russian Fathers including Archbishop Theophan of Poltava and Archbishop Averky of Jordanville have seen a partial fulfillment of prophecy in the wars and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet even during the Soviet era, other Fathers such as St. Nikolai Velimirovich and Metropolitan Anthony Krapovitsky understood Revelation to speak less of historical events than of the ongoing struggle between good and evil in the world. These two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive (they could both be true), but opinions differ widely as to which view is to be preferred, which is a reason for caution.
The specific prophecy concerning the “mark of the beast” (Rev. 13:16-18, 14:9-10) also has no settled interpretation. In the twentieth century, it was sometimes said to be the red star or hammer-and-sickle of the Soviet regime, and later (as you say) passports, bar codes, social security numbers, and the like. But to early Christians who knew the Scriptures, the marking of hands and foreheads in Rev. 13:16-18 would have recalled several passages in the Old Testament in which God commands His people to keep His words ever before them, saying, for example, in Deuteronomy 6:4-8:
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: 5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: 7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
The last verse is repeated nearly verbatim in Deut. 11:18 and in Exodus 13:9 and 13:16. The ancient Pharisees ritualized this commandment to require the wearing of phylacteries or tefillin—little boxes containing words of Scripture that they strapped to their foreheads and right forearms, which Our Lord mentions in Matt. 23:5 and which is still the custom of some Jews. But Christians have always understood the commandment metaphorically to mean that the first Great Commandment—“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:5)—should guide our thoughts and our actions.
Thus the “mark of the beast” has often been understood to mean the Antichrist’s domination of the thoughts and actions of those who submit to him. In the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome took the mark on the hand to mean that the Antichrist would force people to offer sacrifices to him, as the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to force the Jews to do (1 Maccabees 1:50-51) and as the Roman emperors tried to force Christians to do before the triumph of St. Constantine the Great. The New Hieromartyr Damascene of Glukhov (+1935) also understood the “mark of the beast” in this way, noting that the mark is to be placed not on both the hand and the forehead but on one or the other, and taking the mark on the hand to signify those who submit to the Antichrist out of fear of punishment and the mark on the forehead to signify those who are completely deceived by the Antichrist and follow him without compulsion.
Now we are faced with the eerie possibility of a much more literal interpretation, one in which the hand or the head may in fact be marked, physically and electronically, as a means of controlling our thoughts and actions to a degree never before possible. The technology, called “biochipping,” already exists and is being marketed as a personal convenience—no need to carry around credit cards, house keys, or health records—but it could conceivably be put to less innocuous purposes similar to China’s “social credit” system, which uses facial recognition to track people’s movements and award credits and debits for different behaviors.
Given the growing hostility of many earthly powers to Our Lord and His Church, it is only reasonable that Christians would view such systems of social control as potential threats and strive to avoid and oppose them. But identifying the point at which faithful Christians must “refuse to accept” a new measure of control and its enabling technology is extremely difficult. Government itself is a system of social control, and yet we are obliged to obey even bad governments so long as we ourselves do not sin in doing so. Our Lord tells us to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Likewise, the Holy Apostle Paul tells us, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God,” Rom. 13:1). For Orthodox Christians, there is therefore no question of a government’s “legitimacy,” whereby we are relieved of all obedience to an earthly power on account of the “illegitimacy” of its constitution or its policies. Since all governments are ordained by God for His own purposes, all governments deserve a measure of our respect, be they monarchies, democracies, or even tyrannies (as under some Roman emperors). Our practice has therefore always been to assist the State in the doing of good, to resist the State in the doing of evil, and to patiently and prayerfully suffer the State in many things beyond our power to avoid or address or even understand.
As our situation worsens, knowing what to assist, what to resist, and what to suffer could become paradoxically easier and harder— easier for the faithful because of the increasing contrast between good and evil, but harder for the faithless because the prince of this world has already set the “mark of the beast” on their foreheads, so to speak, by distorting their perception of reality and inclining them toward evil. Our challenge is to avoid being deceived by their perverse passions and panics by which they justify wars abroad and tyranny at home. To keep our own foreheads free of the mark, we will need to pay more attention to who says what about our world, seek other sources of information from among those who believe in Christ, and stop trusting people who do not believe in truth to tell us the truth. We will need to think more skeptically and critically about many issues and to teach our children to do so also, lest the world capture their imaginations with fantasies and lies to turn them into festal Christians but political Bolsheviks. And we will need to live up to our ordination as democratic citizens with civic rights and moral responsibilities not just to vote but to contribute to the policymaking process by speaking out publicly and privately against wickedness and tyranny. We have heard the prophecy and know what is coming. We need not wait for the signs to become clearer to make a stand against the Antichrist. The time to make our stand is now.
Protodeacon Brian Patrick Mitchell, Ph.D., is a former Washington bureau chief of Investor’s Business Daily and the author of Eight Ways to Run the Country.
Parish Life, July 2020
Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Washington, DC