Adventist faith was born in the cradle of prophecy. Apocalyptic prophecies frame its identity and mission. However, in recent times, a sophisticated reasoning is deconstructing basic interpretive fundamentals. There is “a recent spate of anti-Adventist eschatology.... Rome is no longer an important player; Sunday persecution will never arise; our end-time scenario comes from Ellen White, not the Bible,” Clifford Goldstein warned recently. The matter has gotten attention from the General Conference's Biblical Research Institute and became the concern of this article.
Historically, the relationship between the mark of the beast and the future enforcement of Sunday laws is a key element of Adventist biblical eschatology. The mark of the beast has strong connections with the identification of the first and second beasts, the three angels’ messages, and the Sabbath, as well as with several other elements. It is a complex understanding, and not peripheral. This article delves into a topic that connects multiple fields of knowledge with the challenge of space constraints. It starts with biblical insights, the roots of Adventist interpretation, the role of Ellen White in the process, and significant current trends.
In Revelation 13, two beasts emerge to persecute God’s remnant people in the final moments of history. The first one is an embodiment of abnormality that violates the Creation categories of animals designed “according to their kind” (Gen. 1:24). This hybrid monster also breaks down the broad divisions between land and sea animals (Gen. 1:21, 24). The transgressive contours of the first beast denote not only a violation of boundaries (Lev. 19:19) but announce its ungodly essence. Made up of parts of unclean animals (Lev. 11), it represents the height of impurity. The greater the number of its heads, teeth, and horns, the greater is its strength and voracity. The second beast is not as monstrous, but it speaks as the dragon (Satan, see Rev. 12:9). Driven by the devil’s wrath, both beasts aim to harm the remnant of the woman, “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 12:17).
Consider the characteristics of the first beast (Rev. 13:1–10). First, it is a mix of the four beasts of Daniel 7. We also learn from comparing the prophecies of both the Revelator and Daniel that it also persecuted the saints for 1,260 years (Rev. 12:6; Dan 7:25) during the seemingly endless era of the Inquisition. One of its heads suffered a deadly wound, which Protestant interpreters have historically understood to signify the papacy’s gradual loss of strength, up to and including the imprisonment of Pius VI by French general Louis-Alexandre Berthier in 1798. And finally, the first beast recovers and amazes the world, which prefigures the restoration of the Church of Rome and the global stardom of the pope. This millennia-old, Roman-Christian, persecuting power that resurfaces in the eschatological end can only be that of the Church of Rome and the papacy, as Luther and other Reformers also believed in their era.
The second beast (Rev. 13:11–18) rises from the earth, not from the waters, typologically understood to represent peoples or existing nations (Rev. 17:15). Unlike the succession seen in Daniel 2 and 7, it did not arise from an empire that conquered another former imperial domain. The lamb-like beast “emerges” in a much broader and less populated region of the world.
This land beast has the appearance of a lamb (suggesting that it is religious) with two horns or predominant powers. It gains world dominance as the wound of the first beast recovers (Rev. 13:12). This unique blend of global power and religious appeal describes no other nation as well as it does the United States of America. Yet, this land beast is marked by two characteristics—“horns”—understood by Ellen White to be republicanism and Protestantism, and also by two major political parties. Its ambivalent characteristics (appearance vs. behavior) reflect the U.S. as the land of religious freedom, Protestant origins, Enlightenment ideas, and democracy (the lamb-like appearance), but at the same time, its voice betrays a proclivity for a violent intolerance at the very end of history. Still, it is a beast, a global superpower.
Image and Mark
The end-time masterpiece of deception engineered by the dragon/Satan and executed by the two beasts intends to attract universal worship to him (Rev. 13:4). The second beast, also named the “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10), serves the first one. It launches a global effort to persuade and force the world to do something for the first beast by forming an image to it and then calling the world to worship that image. Through miraculous signs (Rev. 13:12), the lamb-like beast convinces most of the world. This eschatological false prophet works the sign of a true one—Elijah on Mount Carmel—by making fire come down from heaven, for “the God who answers by fire, He is God” (1 Kings 18:24; Rev. 13:13). It all serves to give glory to the beast and the dragon itself in broad rebellion against God.
Miraculous signs will convince the world. The second beast/false prophet imparts “life” to the image, which starts speaking and causes “as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Rev. 13:15). In parallel with the “worship-or-die” decree of Daniel 3, it is typologically appropriate to say that the image of the beast is therefore a legal instrument, a law.
In the final crisis, signs performed by Christians will convince lawmakers to pass a law of intolerance. For more than a century the remarkable Pentecostal and charismatic experiences involving speaking in tongues, healings, and other supernatural manifestations have been understood by the hundreds of millions of Christians as hallmarks of divine approval. We also need to consider the cultural omnipresence of spiritualism. In the past, through miracles and mystical arts, the magicians and false prophets contradicted the genuine prophetic voice (Ex. 7:11, 22; 8:7). The same will occur at the end, with the “spirits of demons, performing signs” (Rev. 16:13).
Next, a diabolical classification comes into action: the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:16, 17). It will divide humanity between those who cooperate with the prevailing system and those who do not. It will promote a ruthless embargo or sanction, forbidding dissenters to “buy or sell” (Rev. 13:16, 17), which must be understood as literally as the deadly threat it promotes (v. 15).
In the New Testament world, “mark” (charagma, from the Greek verb charasso) has to do with a kind of engraving that leaves an indelible mark, similar to that used by kings on coins, slaves, and animals. Obviously, it denotes domination and possession. However, to decode the mark of the beast, one must find out what the corresponding “seal of God” is.
The seal of God (sphragida Theou, Rev. 7:2, 3, probably from the verb phrasso, “to stop,” “to surround,” “to obstruct”) is the counterpart of the mark of the beast. It refers to the ancient forms of authentication of the kings, with their rings and stamps applied to wax engravings to certify documents and letters. It indicates something reserved, private, or authorized. In Ezekiel, the sealing protects some Jews from the slaughter caused by invaders (Ezek. 9:1–11), just as the blood on the doorposts preserved the Israelites from the destroying angel (Exod. 12:21–23).
The seal of God is a distinctive element of His people who keep His commandments and have the faith of Jesus (Rev. 14:12). Among the commandments, the fourth is the only one that reveals God as Creator (Exo. 20:8–11). The language of this commandment is embedded in the first angel’s message (Rev. 14:6, 7) that is preached by the sealed people (Rev. 14:1; 7:1–8). Besides having the faith of Jesus, they keep the commandments as a distinctive element of identity, emphasizing the fourth one: the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.
They are a double-sealed people: with the gospel, for salvation (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim. 2:19), and with protection, to face the final crisis. The Sabbath has been a sign between God and His people throughout the ages (Ezek. 20:12, 20). Therefore, if God’s seal is somehow visible by keeping the commandments, especially the Sabbath, the mark of the beast emerges as the “anti-Sabbath,” Sunday, the mark of papal, Roman authority.
In the long American Protestant tradition, Sunday is called the “Sabbath” to this day and is kept by devout people. The change from Sabbath to Sunday was an act of the Roman Empire and papal Rome (Dan. 7:25), and the acceptance of Sunday by evangelicals is rightly understood as a sign of subservience to the Church of Rome. The secular world itself has already assimilated Sunday as a day of rest. The International Organization for Standardization, known as ISO, operating in 162 countries, has, since 1975, considered Sunday as the seventh day of the week, and this is reflected in many popular calendars.
Sunday is already an almost universal reality in Christian, especially Western, societies, but Revelation 13 indicates that it will be “anabolized”—inflated by laws that have not yet been enacted to become the mark of the beast. It will be a “wide and detailed counterfeiting.” Satan will simulate even the second coming of Christ as his almost irresistible deception.
The seal of God will be placed on the forehead, indicating conscious acceptance. The mark of the beast, by its turn, will be placed on the forehead or on the hand, symbolizing conscious or merely convenient acceptance. Earthly powers will threaten whoever does not receive the mark of the beast. On the other side, those who receive the mark of the beast will suffer the divine wrath (the plagues) and will suffer the second death in the lake of fire (Rev. 13:9–11; 20:4, 5, 9, 10, 14, 15). Everyone will make a decision and choose their ultimate destiny.
How did Ellen White's prophetic ministry contribute to this understanding? Although she wrote to people about immediate events, her primary work was reviewing and confirming theological positions (and some interpretations) achieved through intense group study of Scripture by Adventist pioneers. That occurred concerning several topics, including the mark of the beast. It was not an innovation of hers and, in some cases, not even of the pioneers.
As early as 1766, Rev. Ebenezer Frothingham, a Congregationalist minister from Connecticut, had already identified “America” as the lamb-like beast of Revelation 13. Amazingly, he came to this conclusion 10 years before the American Revolution, and 23 years before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution!
LeRoy Edwin Froom points out that Adventist doctrinal development was a process grounded on solid Bible study helped by Ellen White’s confirmatory role of cementing positions and unsetting gridlocks. Joseph Bates, in 1847, was the first to identify the mark of the beast as the observance of Sunday. In that same year, Ellen White wrote to Bates, endorsing his interpretation, a stance she maintained for 68 years until her death in 1915.
Froom stresses that by January 1849, Bates had already understood that Sunday observance would be legally enforced. In his pamphlet “A Seal of the Living God,” he stated: “This ungodly power from which God’s people have been called out [Rev. 18:4], will yet, as it now appears, enact a law for the express purpose of making all bow down and keep the Pope's Sabbath (Sunday).”
In 1850, Joseph Bates, James White, J. Lindsey, and Hiram Edson identified the mark of the beast as the observance of the first day of the week, as Alberto Timm notes. In the same year, G. W. Holt and Hiram Edson understood that “worshipping the beast and his image” (Rev. 14:9, 11) referred to “keeping the first day of the week instead of the seventh.” In May 1851, J. N. Andrews identified the second beast as the United States, the country through which Rome would impose the mark of the beast. Finally, Uriah Smith developed the general interpretation of the theme in his commentary on Revelation.
One of the most subtle arguments of the revisionism applied to the role and writings of Ellen White is that of artificially conditioning them to their time. No doubt, it is foundational to understand her words in their original context and to safeguard their meaning. We should be aware that the nature of the very meaning of words has been eroding since Immanuel Kant and is crumbling further in the postmodern era. We need to understand the “times and the seasons”—when reader-response interpretation holds sway, when people impose their perceptions on the text, relativism overwrites the meaning, and creative, fictional contexts speak louder than the text itself.
Applying Daniel Fischer’s words to prophecy, we must avoid the fallacy of presentism, that is, interpreting the past in light of later events as if we were to prune the dry branches of the past and leave only the green branches, the more recent ones. So, to be fair to any author, we need to view later declarations along with previous ones, the whole frame, line, and progress of thought to understand them, to discern as much as possible the meaning of a work.
The book The Great Controversy is widely understood as the defining work of Ellen White’s ministry and views on eschatology. It is the only book with an introduction written by her. In solemn lines, she states that the book is a record of scenes of the conflict between good and evil “through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.” Of particular note is the vision she had at Lovett's Grove, Ohio, on March 14, 1858, which yielded the first version of The Great Controversy, the book Spiritual Gifts, published six months later.
At this point, we can come to some safe conclusions. First, the key elements of Ellen White’s views on the mark of the beast were already embryonically present in her first vision of the great controversy. In 1847, Mrs. White identified the papacy’s action and the mark of the beast as the counterfeit of the seal of God. Four years later, she referred to a decree: “And they will have to unlearn much, and learn again. And those who will not receive the mark of the beast and his image, when the decree goes forth, must have decision now to say, nay.”
Second, her views of the great conflict had a cumulative effect. They added and expanded information on the very same basis. Her writings of the 1880s, when there was a real threat of a national Sunday law resolution in the United States Senate, gave more sharpness and clarity to what was already settled. In 1882, she stated, “Thirty-six years ago, I was shown that what is now transpiring would take place, that the observance of an institution of the papacy would be enforced upon the people by a Sunday law.” The statements found in the 1888 version of The Great Controversy, while in dialogue to some extent with its context, were not a recent, reactive outgrowth of it, but an expansion of past views, and it remained so until the final version of the book (1911), which Ellen White carefully supervised.
After the 1888 crisis, Ellen White retained her position on the mark of the beast and Sunday until her death in the 20th century. At that time, she pointed not to the past but to the future. On March 22, 1910, she stated: “When the Protestant churches shall unite with the secular power to sustain a false religion, for opposing which their ancestors endured the fiercest persecution: when the state shall use its power to enforce the decrees and sustain the institutions of the church,—then will Protestant America have formed an image to the Papacy.”
Some may try to evaluate Ellen White’s positions on the mark of the beast by asking if her ministry was that of a classic or an apocalyptic prophet. Classic prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jonah announced many conditional prophecies, which might happen or might not, depending on the obedience of those receiving the messages, while looking into a glorious future designed by God. Apocalyptic prophecy, however, refers to things that must take place; in other words, it is unconditional (Rev. 1:1). Therefore, Ellen White’s understanding of an apocalyptic vision is itself linked to the unconditional nature of this kind of prophecy.
Applying a “yes or no,” “A or B” question to a complex non-binary issue is a fallacy. Jesus dealt with it in His ministry (Matt. 22:17; Mark 11:30). So a better question regarding Ellen White and the mark of the beast, as for any other of her positions on Revelation, could be something like: How did her prophetic ministry point to the best understanding of this apocalyptic (unconditional) prophecy? Her position on the mark of the beast is not conditional—because of the unconditional nature of the prophecy she refers to. The book of Revelation is unconditional, and so is the interpretation she openly endorsed about the mark of the beast. At the end, it is all about the core of her ministry: to shine a lesser light to help us understand—and choose the best conclusions—about the greater one.
How could the land of liberty do such a thing and the world follow its path? Marvin Moore dedicated an entire book (Could it Really Happen? Revelation 13 in the Light of History and Current Events) to answer this question. Since the time of Ellen White, “predictions” along these lines seemed “groundless and absurd,” as she herself recognized. Though prophecy is hermeneutically coherent, we believe it by faith, not primarily relying on logic or plausibility. However, as time moves forward and some remarkable things happen toward prophecy fulfillment, we need to be vigilant and able to recognize them.
After all, prophecy would be meaningless without its predictive nature that guides and confirms people’s faith (John 13:19). It is vital to discern trends signaling the end, but also, it is equally necessary to be careful not to impose newspaper headlines on the Bible. “But take heed; see, I have told you all things beforehand. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near—at the doors!” (Mark 13:23, 24). Referring to the title of this article, we should keep our eyes on the following trends:
America's cooperation with the Vatican. The first meeting between an American president and a pope took place in 1919. Forty years later, the second occurred. However, from 1963 to 2017, there have been 28 meetings of 12 American presidents with five popes. It tells something about the mutual respect between the parties, as well as common global challenges and interests. For example, the peace rhetoric, the enormous soft power of both parties, and the charismatic appeal to the masses launched by John Paul II, in partnership with Ronald Reagan, brought down the Berlin Wall and the 40-year-old Iron Curtain. Crowds effusively cheered Pope Francis in his last visit to the U.S. A reigning pope also addressed the U.S. Congress for the first time in its history. Washington and the Vatican are major global players that have been cooperating for decades.
The U.S. Christian Right. According to a Barna Institute survey, only 25 percent of American evangelicals agreed that “no one set of values should dominate the country.” Conversely, 75 percent of evangelicals agreed that a set of Christian values should rule the U.S., which would mean the effective end of the separation of church and state. The Christian Right, always present in American politics, emerged to public prominence in the modern era in the 1970s, and is a religiopolitical movement supported by a colossal complex of institutions, lobbyists, websites, TV and radio, bookstores, and fundraising groups. In a reaction to a growing de-Christianization trend of American society, these forces operate on at least three lines: (1) in defense of family-related values; (2) for a Christian approach to civil legislation (including the defense of the so-called blue laws); and (3) to increase their political influence, by helping to elect politicians, especially presidents. The Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, has also been widely associated with the elements of both White nationalism and the Christian Right. The unprecedented assault on the U.S. Capitol is regarded as “some of the most extreme political action that any group of evangelicals has taken in recent history.” Certainly, it is a result of 150 years of evangelical dispensationalist apocalypticism that goes much beyond the last and next U.S. elections.
Sunday's relevance to the Vatican and the secular world. Papal encyclicals, such as Dies Domini (Lord’s Day, 1998) and Laudato Si’ (Praised Be, 2015), move broadly in the same direction as many evangelical values, adding the rescue of human dignity and care for the environment. They also resonate with demands for a low-carbon future. Some religious lobbyists, trade unions, and social entities are working hard to approve a common day of rest, especially in Europe. A global climate crisis has also led to a cry for less consumption and lowered carbon emissions. In parallel, dialogue around common values is linked to ecumenism, a process inaugurated by the Roman Church through the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis recently said that ecumenism is “irreversible,” “an essential requirement of the faith we profess.” “We are walking together on the path leading to the goal of visible unity,” he added.
Threats of tyranny. The United States has not yet reached the prophesied condition of intolerance. It still promotes ideals of freedom. As history richly illustrates, however, that situation can change without notice. The attack on Pearl Harbor (1941) led to the executive suspension of the rights of 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent, including enforced deportation to internment camps and the subsequent confiscation of their legally owned property. Just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, the Patriot Act opened an unprecedented age of mass surveillance. New persecutions and invasions of constitutionally guaranteed rights cannot be ruled out, as “the anxieties of our own era could once again give rise to scapegoats and imagined enemies,” Timothy Snyder observed in a New York Times article.
Algorithms, AI, and Big Data. New technologies have enabled and broadened an unimaginable surveillance network, especially with the advent of Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI). Some like the Israeli Yuval Noah Harari have warned about the growing threat of the “dictatorship of algorithms.” The algorithms allow political parties, governments, and large corporations to “herd” the masses without attracting social attention. In the wrong hands, these mind-blowing new technologies can lead to almost absolute control of whole societies—already a stark reality in some countries. Such techniques are also temptations for democratic nations because they may help to improve international competitiveness. Algorithms allow more precise segregation of those who do not agree or act according to the prevailing values and laws. Such technologies can lead to individual discrimination and targeting, as is already the case with our credit ratings. We have additionally witnessed a growing capacity to economically block nations and, most recently, individuals, with sanctions. Oliver Nachtwey observes “the dangerous prospect of a regressive process of decivilization” in which we see a growing disillusionment with the economy, politics, and the declining social status of the majorities. Finally, it leads to blaming others—the elites, globalization, women, and immigrants, and paradoxically raises feelings of “accepting the coercion of an authoritarian leader” as a radical way to find identity.
All the bad news described thus far sounds familiar to those acquainted with biblical prophecies. Prophecy and shocking realities are in front of us but still may seem obscure to some. We live, some say, as in Ezekiel’s time, when the prospects of captivity were being fulfilled and not fulfilling at the same time. Two Babylonian invasions had already occurred, but the Judaean kingdom and the temple were still standing. God asked the prophet, “Son of man, what is this proverb that you people have about the land of Israel, which says, ‘The days are prolonged, and every vision fails?’ ” (Ezek. 12:22, 23). Some remained skeptical of a third invasion.
Today, the eschatological Babylon is increasing its power, but some in “Israel” are skeptical. Others sink in conspiracy theories and sensationalism. It is easy to slip toward extremes. We need a safe place to be. A sound understanding of Bible prophecy leads to a vibrant Christian life—not a skeptical, exaggerated, indifferent, anemic one—but a life fueled by hope. We are called to trust the prophetic word (2 Cor. 20:20) and to prepare ourselves for its long-announced scenario, because suddenly the Lord may say again: “I will lay this proverb to rest” (Ezek. 12:23).
The passing of days cannot erase the vision. Our eyes must shine again with the hope of prophecy.
Diogo Cavalcanti holds a Master of Jewish Studies degree from Sao Paulo State University and is studying for a PhD in Old Testament theology at Universidad Adventista del Plata. An author of books and articles, he works as a senior book editor at Brazil Publishing House.