There are whispers that “the Covid-19 vaccine,” though there are several, is “the Mark of the Beast.” If one is an Orthodox Christian, there is good reason for this paranoia. Saint Paisios the Athonite in Spiritual Bravery in the chapter “The Signs of the Times” warned that “a vaccine has been developed for a new disease, which will be obligatory and people taking it will be marked [with 666].” (Volume II, Part 3, Chap 1; p. 204) Recently, a synod of Bishops in Moldova warned that, “Bill Gates is believed to be primarily responsible for creating population microchipping technology through a vaccine that introduces nanoparticles into the body that react to waves transmitted by 5G technology and allow the system to control humans remotely.” Further, it is a scientific fact that vaccines can affect the passions, one example being anti-nicotine addiction vaccines and another pertaining to the development of vaccines that combat mental illness. So, logic would dictate if a vaccine can reinforce positive behaviors that one can be devised to do the opposite.
Does this mean Orthodox must avoid the Covid-19 vaccine (or all vaccines) at all costs? Not exactly. While the aforementioned Moldovan Synod asserted that the Covid-19 vaccine-5G conspiracy may be the case (it merely considered the possibility), its firm assertions permitted vaccination. Specifically, it taught against manditory vaccination and admonished that the issue be decided by individuals. This means, it did not positively reject vaccination or even the Covid-19 vaccine. The Russian Orthodox Church, which the Moldovan Synod is part of, recommended that the Covid-19 vaccine be “voluntary” and that vaccines be developed ethically without the use of human tissue from murdered fetuses. This is in keeping with the church’s position in 2019, which has caused an uproad among liberal Eastern Europeans as it has given moral support to anti-vaxxers in the Balkans.
Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to classify Russian Orthodoxy as anti-vaccine. One of their highest level Bishops recommended that everyone receive the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine. This is despite the fact that it was developed using human tissue like all Russian vaccines and therefore it does not abide by the ethical standards of Russian Orthodoxy. The Russian Church overall has been very pro-vaccine. This has been the policy of the Russian Orthodox Church for years, which has gone as far as to forbid “the distribution of anti-vaccination literature and audio-video material in its monasteries and temples” and recommends vaccination hoping in the meantime more ethical vaccines are developed. Likewise, ROCOR (the American contingent of Russian Orthodoxy reconciled to the Moscow Patriarchate in 2009) recommeneds its parishioners get the flu vaccine, perhaps unaware that ethically sourced flu vaccines are not yet developed.
So far, it would appear that only Russian Orthodoxy has weighed in on the issue of vaccination within the Orthodox communion. However, churches outside of the Russian Orthodox orbit have also weighed in on the issue in a consistent manner. The Cypriot Holy Synod recommended its parishioners get the Covid-19 vaccine once it is developed, but also asserted that it should be voluntary. A Greek Archbishop in Australia requested that his country develop the Covid-19 vaccine ethically and that it not be mandatory, obviously implicitly approving of a vaccine if it met these criteria. The vaccine project in Australia has since been abandoned due to trial participants developing false HIV positive test results.
In sum, it is clear that the Church has not come up with a universal position as it has not been weighed in upon synodically by enough churches. Hence, Orthodoxy’s teaching on vaccination is fragmentary, similar to her teaching on organ donation. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern a consistent teaching. Vaccination must not be mandatory and if possible it should be ethically developed. The Church has given little specific guidance on this large issue, leaving it to the discretion of spiritual fathers and their children to decide whether to get vaccinated though the churches generally recommened that their parishioners do.
In short, one can sum up the Orthodox teaching on vaccination as follows: vaccines are good, but they could be bad, and individuals must decide what is best for themselves and their families.
How does one know whether there are legitimate moral qualms with taking a vaccine? How can one be sure it is the best possible decision? While taking a vaccine may or may not be bad medically (such as the 1976 Swine Flu vaccine fiasco that everyone has conveniently forgot), the spiritual component of vaccination is not settled within Orthodoxy.
The reason this is the case is because there is no specific Apostolic teaching on this technology. The Church has only preserved what is Apostolic and cannot teach anything new. Therefore, one must identify what doctrinal issues vaccination actually is connected to and identify what the Apostolic teaching on these matters are. This now thrusts myself, as a layman and of no authority, into the realm of opinion–an opinion that my mind feels one way about, but my heart another.
My mind tells me that the Mark of the Beast in the Scriptures must be a clear denial of Jesus Christ. After all, in the saints’ lives we see clear affirmations of the faith contrasted with clear apostasies. Both are unambiguous. The Book of Revelation, in the saints’ commentaries, is always in reference to the history of persecution within the Church (and not strictly a window exclusively into the future.) Hence, the Mark of the Beast may have an ultimate fulfillment, but it has already existed just as there have been antichrists in the world 2,000 years ago (cf 1 John 2:18). Likewise, the “Mark of the Saints” (and not the Beast) has been around for thousands of years (cf Ezek 9:4-6, Rev 7:3, and Rev 9:4). Never before has there been an “ambiguous mark,” with someone unconciously assuming the Mark of the Beast or the Mark of the Saints. My mind tells me I am pulling from very clear Scriptural and patristic support on this.
However, I say this at odds with Saint Paisios the Athonite. I am no saint. Saint Paisios believes that credit and ID cards are precursors to “666 laser markings” (and presumably microchips) which would act as ID/credit cards for people. Paisios asserted that the Mark would not even be outward, but say “666” inwardly. He was asked whether or not people would be forgiven for their ignorance, as they were not knowingly rejecting Christ. Paisios responded that ignorance was no excuse, blaming such people for their indifference.
Permit me to attempt reconciling our positions. The difference between myself and the saint may not be so much the issue of “indifference,” but rather what is “clear” and what is not. After all, it would be indifferent to take a Mark that is not explicitly advertised “Mark of the Beast,” yet otherwise shows complete solidarity with something explicitly anti-Christian. For example, the libelli given to those who sacrificed/lit incense to the emperor’s idol exempted lapsed Christians from persecution. The mere purchase of one of these libelli, even if it was a counterfeit and there was no actual worship of the emperor, resulted in a penance that was less severe than actually lapsing. Nevertheless, there was still a penance. Apostasy, apparently, exists in a spectrum. It is not a binary.
In any event, this historical episode does underscore how completely indifferent one must be to apostasize. Apostasy is unambiguous. It is obvious (and not mysterious) which side someone is on when he/she commits the act of handing over Scriptures to destruction and accepting a libellus showing capitulation to the emperor’s cult.
I ask myself, will the Mark of the Beast by unambiguous? Saint Paul gives us a good indication of when we should know that something is amiss:
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. (2 Thes 2:3-4)
The idea that there will be a real disease with a questionable kill rate (the death rate in 2020 is up about 1.2 percent from 2019) and people will be tricked into getting a vaccine that has nothing to do with a son of perdition, false messiah, or anything specifically spiritual or attached to an individual–but is still the Mark of the Beast–seems to be a lot to swallow. In other words, for the Covid-19 vaccine to be the Mark of the Beast, this would mean the Mark was essentially a trick and not a deliberate turning away from God. If one is too stupid, oh well. Now he’s damned.
There seems to be some Scriptural support for skepticism for the possibility the Covid-19 vaccine is the (ambiguous) Mark of the Beast and not a legitimate (though perhaps badly designed) pharmaceutical. The term pharmakos (i.e. pharmaceutical comes from this word) is mentioned three times in the New Testament, but it is not in reference to “legitimate” medicine. In Rev 9:21 it is used in relation to sorcery that was not repented from. In Rev 21:8 and 22:15 it pertains to a class of people (sorcerers) who will be damned. In the LXX it is used in the same sense in Jer 34:9 and Nah 3:4. The sorcery referred to in all of these passages is public and deliberate. Hence, there seems to be no room for taking the Mark of the Beast by mistake if it meets the criteria of sinful pharmakos.
Nevertheless, Saint Paisios by any standard would have the following right: those of us living in the world, by varying degrees, participate in the Beastial system. Some of our retirements are invested in unethical companies or enterprises when the fact we even have retirements is problematic, we vote for politicians who support unethical wars of offense or social policies, we borrow money from godless usurers for things we want and not need, we send our children to schools which overtly brainwash them with godlessness, we partake in godless amusements, we simply accept multiple layers of identifications to make life easier and never reflect upon the spiritual component of people being reduced to numbers, and etcetera. We may not be taking the Mark of the Beast, but “friendship with this world is enmity with God” (James 4:4) and we sure as heck cozy ourselves up to the world. To the degree we have compromised and embraced the world and the love of its goods (cf 1 John 2:15-17), we have deliberately turned away from God. If the Mark of the Beast is spiritual and on some sort of spectrum, then most of us are on the spectrum–just like the lapsed of the early Church who were given varying degrees of penance for their varying degrees of apostasy. If we are honest with ourselves, we have almost gone “all the way” into apostasy and taking the Mark. This gives us every reason to repent and be in the world, but not of this world.
In conclusion, Orthodoxy does not condemn vaccinations. It even allows for unethically devised vaccines, as long as there is finger wagging at the scientists for not figuring out a better way to go about their work. The Church has also taught that vaccination can never be compulsory. In any event, all of these conclusions are tentative as there is no apostolic tradition on the matter. The Church cannot speak on the issue with the same authority as anything the Apostles did explicitly teach about. Rather, it can only recommend disciplines for the spiritual well-being of its people and in so doing, creating precedents that, if they prevail over time, gain the authority of custom. (cf Saint Augustine, City of God, Book 17, Chap 20)