“He also caused everyone (small and great, rich and poor, free and slave) to obtain a mark on their right hand or on their forehead. Thus no one was allowed to buy or sell things unless he bore the mark of the beast—that is, his name or his number. This calls for wisdom: Let the one who has insight calculate the beast’s number, for it is man’s number, and his number is 666.” (Rev 13:16–18)
Many interpreters debate whether the mark of the beast will be a literal, physical mark or whether it refers only to a symbol for some spiritual truth.
For me this is like asking whether the reference to “the Lamb” in the book of Revelation is literal or symbolic. No one would disagree that it is both. It refers to a literal entity, Jesus, and the term “Lamb” is symbolic as it possesses connotations of his non-resistant death to the slaughter of the cross.
I think there are a number reasons why the mark should be construed as a literal mark, while also connoting a symbolic meaning. I want to comment on two of these reasons.
The first reason why I think the mark of the beast will be a literal, physical mark is the fact that if you do not possess the mark, you will not be able to buy or sell. The sellers will need to know whether you are able to buy their goods! This obvious point seems to escape most interpreters of this passage. A mere symbol does not function as such in the real, concrete world.
Yet, while the mark will be literal-physical, it can also be said to have a spiritual-symbolic role: its function is to test one’s allegiance to Christ or to the beast—it symbolizes your allegiance. So the function of the mark is through the means of a concrete act of defiance by refusing the beast’s demands.
The second reason why it should be conceived as literal is because in its immediate context it is functionally linked with the image of the beast:
“and, by the signs he was permitted to perform on behalf of the beast, he deceived those who live on the earth. He told those who live on the earth to make an image [eikōn] to the beast who had been wounded by the sword, but still lived. The second beast was empowered to give life to the image [eikōn] of the first beast so that it could speak, and could cause all those who did not worship the image [eikōn] of the beast to be killed.” (Rev 13:14–15)
The term for image, eikōn, typically refers to a physical entity. But even more persuasive, it is referring to something physical on earth that John explicitly highlights, activities that can only be understood as physical: “He told those who live on the earth to make an image [eikōn] to the beast so that it could speak.” The collocation of image and these two physical activities construes the image as a physical entity, thereby linking this function with the mark that should then be understood as literal.
For these two reasons, we should view the mark as a literal notion that the beast will use. There is nothing in the text of Rev 13 that would suggest that the mark, nor the image, will not be physical-literal entities. The mark and image will function to test whether you love your earthly goods more than your spiritual goods—your allegiance to the beast or to Jesus.