I am happy to share a highly informative article by my good friend, Robert Cruickshank. (I call him my “PDF Guy” since he is incredible about finding scholarly PDF articles for me). Robert is an excellent researcher and Bible student, and this article on the Two Beasts of Revelation 13 is a fine example of that. Enjoy!!
Biblical Imagery vs. Modern Imagination: Capturing the Image of the Beast
Copyright © Robert E. Cruickshank, Jr (May 13, 2023)
Karen Rogers (Editor)
All Rights Reserved
C.S. Lewis coined the phrase “the discarded image.” While Lewis’ context wasn’t Revelation 13 or the image of the beast, the phrase is nevertheless apropos of how Dispensationalism’s wild speculation has shifted in this area. On the website GotQuestions.org, Shea Houdmann says, “The old speculation was that the image of the beast is a statue given the appearance of life.” Examples of “the old speculation” can be found in the Chick tracts of the 1970s, as well as the 1981 movie: “Image of the Beast: A Thief in the Night Part 3.” However, today’s Dispensational theories about the image of the beast bear a closer resemblance to the 1984 film “The Terminator” than they do to these other relics from the 70s and 80s. It seems that the old “image” has been “discarded” for a much more scientifically sophisticated version of the beastly incarnation.
With current technological advances, today’s prophecy speculators inform us that the image of the beast could be “a hologram, an android, a cyborg, a human-animal hybrid, a human clone,” or even “an avatar controlled by Satan.” According to EndTimeNews.net, “the image of the beast will be an Artificial Intelligence” with an “evil personality.” The website informs us that the former theory about a statue was merely a “low tech idol” inadequate to capture the true essence of John’s image of the beast. The “low tech” version has been replaced in favor of a new and improved design. Unlike the lifeless statue, the new model is “a living Artificial Intelligence” that is “able to defend itself” and kill “anyone who tries to disconnect” from its matrix. It seems that technological progress has pushed the Dispensational imagination far beyond anything previously thought possible. Keeping up with the times, the latest theory proposes an image that is self-aware as well as all-knowing and all-powerful.
Captain Travis, blogger at The Big Idea, says we should not think of the image of the beast as merely “a limited AI, like Star Trek’s Data, who is only in one place at a time.” He suggests an AI that “is in fact linked to the Internet” and would “have an awareness that spans the entire globe.” Travis’ version of the image of the beast would be “so intelligent that it would be able to know and speak to every single human being as an individual.”
Movie Scripts and Biblical Hermeneutics
To be fair, Travis is suggesting an “apocalyptic Christian story idea” for a novel or a movie. Like all such endeavors that have preceded it, however, he claims this storyline itself is nevertheless based on truth. This truth is supposedly that the “book of Revelation” is “a genuine message from God” about “the future.” Technically, this is correct, with one major caveat. The problem is that, by “the future,” he means our future and not the near future of the first-century audience to whom John was writing. This, in effect, makes John’s prophecy completely irrelevant to the very people to whom it was written, but it does make for exciting novels and movies in our own time.
Regarding the matter of audience relevance, Travis insists that John is prophesying about an “Artificial Intelligence in a way that the original audience of the book of Revelation could never have imagined.” And therein lies the problem. While the producers and creators of these modern apocalyptic scenarios claim that their movie scripts are based on the Bible, they are doing the exact opposite of what they claim. In other words, they’re trying to base the Bible on modern concepts, ideas, and, yes, even movies. They are basing their approach to Biblical interpretation on things completely foreign to the Bible’s primary recipients. This is not the best hermeneutical approach.
As David Chilton stated, the symbols in the book of Revelation weren’t “written in some sort of code” that was meant to be “unintelligible” to the original audience, only to be deciphered centuries later. “The only way to understand St. John’s system of symbolism,” writes Chilton, “is to become familiar with the Bible itself. In other words, John was expecting his readers to use the Bible itself in order to understand the meaning behind his symbolism. With that in mind, the Biblical writers had nothing to say about androids, holograms, or AI cyborgs. Neither would they have had the Star Trek movies or the Terminator films to clue them in on what they were missing. Modern technology and science fiction both have their place in this world today, but not in the world of the Bible. The key to understanding the “image” of the beast is understanding the Biblical “imagery” that John is using to begin with.
With a little study, this is not that difficult.
Leviathan and Behemoth
In Revelation 13, John speaks of one beast coming from the sea and the other coming from the land (Rev. 13:1, 11). In stark contrast to us today, this language would have been all too familiar to John’s target audience. As Adela Collins says, “Rev. 13:1 and 11 are alluding to Leviathan and Behemoth,” a “fairly standard motif” that was “widespread” in the “apocalyptic literature” of the time. John’s first-century readers would have gotten it right away. As Joseph Poon writes, “The allusion to Leviathan and Behemoth is explicit in Rev. 13, as in this chapter the beast coming up from the sea and the beast coming up from the land are clearly stated.”
In his excellent little booklet, Leviathan and Behemoth: Giant Chaos Monsters in the Bible, Brian Godawa surveys the usage of this imagery across the board in the ancient world and characterizes the two beasts as “ancient mythological memes and motifs” that symbolized chaos and disorder. The Old Testament is replete with examples of Leviathan and Behemoth imagery being used in conjunction with oppressive foreign rulers and Israel’s own apostate religious leaders (e.g., Ps. 74:12-19; Isa. 51:9; Jer. 51:34Ezek. 29:3).
Chaos in the First Century
The implications for John’s usage of the familiar imagery are crystal clear when understood in light of the historical context of Revelation. As renowned biblical scholar Andrew Angel points out in his monograph Chaos and the Son of Man: “the beast from the sea represents Rome,” and “the beast from the land represents a local authority” demanding emperor worship. According to Angel, “Revelation 13 is a creative reworking of the Leviathan and Behemoth myth…to describe the contemporary persecution of the church under the power of Rome and local authorities.”
In Revelation 13:11, the worship of the first beast (Rome) is demanded by the Second Beast (the local authority), and Revelation 13:15 speaks of people being forced to worship the image of the first beast. This precisely fits the historical setting in which Revelation was written. As Steven Friesen notes, “Sacrificial activity for the emperors took place in a myriad of contexts. Emperors were worshipped in their own temples, at temples of other gods, in theaters, in gymnasiums, in stoas…in judicial settings, in private homes and elsewhere. Imperial cults,” says Friesen, “were everywhere.”
With this in mind, the second beast would be first-century Israel, which made its allegiance clear by rejecting their own Messiah and declaring, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15; cf. John 11:45-50). Noting the “cozy relationship with Rome,” Doug Wilson points out that “the land,” from which the second beast comes, is “best understood” as “the land of Israel.” “Putting all this together,” says Wilson, “I take the land beast as representing the priesthood of apostate Israel, with the high priest as the likely representative.”
Accordingly, “apostate Judaism became completely subservient to the Roman State,” and “the Jewish synagogues enforced submission to the emperor. Similarly, they organized economic boycotts against those who refused to submit to Caesar as Lord, with the leaders of the synagogues ‘forbidding all dealings with the excommunicate’ and going so far as to put them to death.”
Biblical Imagery from Genesis to Revelation and Back
This was the situation in the first century at the time that the book of Revelation was written. The imagery of the Sea Beast and the Land Beast was meant to convey the chaos and disorder unleashed upon believers at the time by the unholy alliance between a pagan empire and an apostate people. The source of the imagery for these two beasts is found in the pages of Scripture itself and in the history of the time, not in modern technology or the latest sci fi movies of our day. If this is the case with the imagery John employs to describe the beasts themselves, it is also the case with the imagery behind the “image of the beast” as well. John wants his readers to use Scripture as their guide to understanding what he is saying, and it stretches all the way back to the book of Genesis.
In the beginning God brought order out of chaos, and Adam and Eve were to be His image bearers, spreading Godly order to creation by taking dominion over it. Conversely, the beast is the image of chaos trying to assert itself over and against the new order being brought about by the New Adam (Jesus).
Verbally, the language of Revelation 13 tracks precisely with the language of the creation account in Genesis 1-2. The same nouns occur in both passages, i.e., “sea” (Gen. 1:10, Rev. 13:1), “land” (Gen. 1:10, Rev. 13:11), “beasts” (Gen. 1: 24, Rev. 13:1, 11), and “image” (Gen. 1: 26, 27, Rev. 13:14). Additionally, the verbs used for the making of the image are also the same. In Genesis, God “makes” man in his own “image” (Gen. 1:26) and “breathes” life into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). In Revelation 13, an “image” is “made” of the Sea Beast, and life is “breathed” into it (Rev. 13:14-15). This represents an attempted reversal of the creation account. It was an effort to return to chaos and usurp the rights of the newly crowned Ruler of the Kings of the Earth (Rev. 1:5). Just as Adam and Eve were to be the image bears of Godly order, Nero/Rome had become the image bearer of chaos and destruction. Craig Koester sums it up well: “When the finishing touches were put onto the image of the beast, Nero sat for the portrait.”
From Genesis to Revelation, and from Revelation back to Genesis, Scripture interprets Scripture. Scripture should not be interpreted in light of modern-day headlines, technological advances, or even great sci-fi movies. While today’s prophecy pundits are waiting for Skynet to become self-aware and fulfill Revelation 13:15, yesterday’s prophecy pundits were actually closer to the truth in waiting for a statue to be built. Their error was in the “waiting” part. The statues that embodied the image of the beast were in the streets and coliseums of Rome 2,000 years ago. Both the beast and its image are in the far, distant past. As we look to our own future, we should put the past in the past and focus on the “image” that we’ve been called to be in this world–His image. In doing so, we need to work to make this world into the image He wants it to be. It’s an image of a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). As we move forward, let’s discard the “image” of Dispensationalism’s doomsday, apocalyptic scenarios that have hampered and hindered us in this regard for well over a century now.