We’ve spent a lot of time figuring out who these two beasts are that John describes in Chapter 13 of the book. We’ve settled, more or less, on the idea that the sea beast represents corrupted governmental power or, to put it more generally, organized violence. We don’t tend to think of our own government as organized violence, at least not at first blush, but it’s easy to see the first beast in the 20th century governments of Hitler and Stalin.
The second beast, or land beast, represents not so much coercion as seduction. The power of this animal is to deceive. This beast is a representation of organized deceit. In the first century – and particularly to the churches to which John’s writing was addressed – this deceit was often religious, and was incarnate in the corrupt practices of the priests of the imperial cult that encouraged the worship of the emperor (the sea beast).
It should not be difficult at all for us modern folk to understand the power of organized deceit. The bombardment of misinformation we suffer every day makes the deceit of the first-century priests look like the minor leagues. Of course, we are still surrounded by sensationalized and corrupt religious leaders. One need to look no further than the sad parade of discredited televangelists or the nightmare of the pedophilia scandal and its cover up within the Roman Catholic Church. But think of the deceit in advertising. How slick, how scientific, how sensational and, finally, how destructive, how enslaving.
In other words, John’s message, aimed at a specific group at a specific time, remains universally relevant. The beasts that haunted the world of the first century are still at large and their means are still the same means and, if anything, their power and influence and harm has only multiplied over the years.