An almost invisible electronic device used all over the world – best known to much of the public for helping reunite lost pets and their owners, but also found in subway cards, electronic tolling, luggage tags, passports and warehouse inventory systems – has alarmed some evangelical Christian communities, who see in this technology the work of the Antichrist.
In a section of “A Billion Little Pieces,” my recent book about Radio Frequency Identification chips, also known as RFID chips, I investigate why these tiny items have, in some religious circles, become closely linked with the apocalypse depicted in the biblical Book of Revelation. The reasons are more connected with modern concerns than you might expect.
What is RFID?
Maschinenjunge/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA Reuters/Nigel Treblin
For starters, RFID technology is a method of wirelessly, digitally identifying objects – like luggage, cars or subway passes – that often does not require any internal power source. A small chip is inserted into or attached to an item to be identified – like a duffel bag or a toll pass transponder. It does nothing until it passes near an RFID reader, which can be a few inches away for passports, or several feet away as in highway toll barriers. The reader emits a specific radio frequency that activates the chip, which then transmits its digital identification code.
The chips, also called tags, are just about everywhere. About 10 billion tags were used around the world in 2018 alone. Retailers – especially clothing stores – are a potentially huge market that has begun to adopt RFID systems to monitor inventory and to prevent theft.
Many domestic pets are microchipped with RFID, encoding information that helps them reunite with their owners if they get lost. Some humans have also chosen to microchip themselves so their bodies can wirelessly communicate with identification systems – and that’s where the evangelicals get upset.
The Mark of the Beast
What does a chip implant have to do with the Bible? Believers see echoes of RFID chips in a short passage in the Book of Revelation:
“[The beast] causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
This passage is the origin of beliefs around what would eventually become known as the “Mark of the Beast,” a way to identify those who worship the Antichrist. More than 15 years ago, some evangelicals began linking RFID to the mark.