What do the two “beasts” depicted in Revelation 13 represent? The first comes up out of the sea (v. 1). The second rises from the earth (v. 11). And what is the meaning of not being able to “buy or sell” without the “mark” of the beast (vv. 16-17)?
In his commentary, The Book of Revelation, Robert Mounce contends that these “beasts” are “two agents through whom Satan carries out his war against believers” (1998, 243). That is beyond dispute. It is the identity of those beasts that is open to some controversy.
The First Beast
As I observed in my book, Revelation: Jesus Christ’s Final Message of Hope, the first beast of Revelation 13, rising out of the sea, is virtually unanimously acknowledged to be a symbol of the persecuting force of political Rome’s power against the early Christians. Mounce contends: “There is little doubt that for John the beast was the Roman Empire as persecutor of the church” (1998, 246). The late brother J. W. Roberts wrote: “It seems clear that the first beast represents Imperial Rome” (1974, 108). Similar comments could be multiplied many times over.
By way of contrast, this beast is not the so-called “Antichrist,” as alleged by those of the premillennial persuasion (see: John MacArthur 2005, 2017). There is no solitary ominous person known as “the Antichrist” in biblical literature (cf. 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7).
The Second Beast
The issue then becomes: what is symbolized by the second beast that arises out of the earth? This evil force clearly is distinguished from the sea beast, being designated as “another” beast (v. 11). The term “another” (allos) suggests, however, another of a similar devilish character.
Scholars who have not been influenced by Catholicism’s brand of “preterism” (an interpretation that does not reach in scope beyond Imperial Rome), contend that the second beast most significantly represented the fomenting apostate church (that is a church that had digressed from the primitive pattern of Christianity; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff; 1 Timothy 4:1ff; 2 Timothy 4:1ff).
This was a movement consisting of an amalgamation of pagan Rome, and the corrupt church (a mixture of degenerate Christianity and heathen religion). These varying elements eventually evolved into the system known today as Catholicism (in its three prominent modern forms—Roman, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican).
Burton Coffman identified the second beast as a mixture, first of “paganism, then as apostate Christianity and the derivatives of it” (1979, 447). He contended that those who cannot see an apostate church in the imagery of the book of Revelation are afflicted with an exegetical “astigmatism.”
This movement was one of the most vicious persecuting forces of the ancient world. That era specifically known as the Middle Ages, a period that spanned about a thousand years, beginning with the fall of Rome in A.D. 476, overflowed with the blood of those martyred by the corrupt Church of Rome.
For example, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, which occurred August 24, 1572, involved the slaughter of between ten and twenty thousand Protestants throughout France. When the news of the bloodbath reached Rome, the Pope ordered a Te Deum [a hymn of praise] to be sung (Fisher 1890, 339).
The “Mark” of the Beast
How, then, does Revelation 13:17 fit into this interpretation? This text, employing powerful symbolism, speaks of the dire hardships that would be imposed by the beast upon those determined to remain faithful to Christ.
Those who yielded to the false philosophy of this political-religious beast were identified by a “mark” upon their right hand, or upon their forehead. This picture language appears to identify those who had given either mental assent, or extended the right hand of fellowship (cf. Galatians 2:9), to this evil conglomerate power. These compromisers thus were able to prosper economically. By way of contrast, those who received not the mark were unable to buy or sell, hence suffered hardship, illustrated in the form of economic deprivation.
This latter fate certainly is documented during the “dark ages” (considered by Catholicism as her “golden era”). After the fall of pagan Rome, an era developed known in history as the Dark Ages (or as indicated above, also called the Middle Ages). The evolving Roman church became a powerful, negative force in this period. With the rise of the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism’s evil influence was neutered significantly.