“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean –– neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
This well known exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass chapter 6 –– Humpty Dumpty] encapsulates a profound issue related to biblical exegesis and interpretation, an issue in centuries past as well as in the 21st century. I label this popular approach of making Scripture mean “just what I chose it to mean–neither more nor less” Humpty Dumpty Hermeneutics [HDH]. The inclination to HDH is frequently found in the interpretation of Scripture in general, but my interest is in the book of Revelation. In case you don’t recognize this interpretive approach, let me share a conversation I had decades ago when I was a campus Chaplain at the University of Houston and shared times and ideas with other campus Chaplains. In conversation with Rev. Albert Ettling, the Episcopal Campus Chaplain at the University of Houston at that time, we were lamenting the ease with which religious students on campus were influenced by the apocalyptic and millenarian publications of Hal Lindsey [e.g., The Late, Great Planet Earth; Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis] and other authors of his ilk. We were discussing how unbiblical some of these Fundamentalist writers were in their misuse and abuse of parts of the book of Revelation. One of Bert’s wise observations was that it was certainly the right of Fundamentalists “if they want to believe that Jesus is coming back in a pink locomotive, they just don’t have the right to foist that belief upon the writers of Scripture.”
I would like make an observation similar to Bert’s regarding prevalent ideas about the biblical figure of the Antichrist. Both traditional and Fundamentalist Christian thinking about the
Antichrist in the book of Revelation needs to be aggressively and radically challenged since the term “Antichrist” is not found a single time in the book of Revelation, even though it often shows up in HDH writings about the book of Revelation. There are admittedly factual errors in Bible knowledge that are mere peccadilloes, e.g., the idea that Matthew mentions three Wise Men in his account of Jesus’ infancy, but neither the dogmatic intrusion nor the insinuation of the “Antichrist” into the book of Revelation should be regarded as a frivolous infraction of responsible Biblical interpretation.
Just like you cannot talk about Jesus as “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” [Heb. 5:10] in the letter to the Ephesians since it does not occur there, so you should not talk about the Antichrist in the book of Revelation since the term does not occur there. Most interpreters would readily acknowledge that you should not try to foist Paul’s ideas about the “curse of the Law,” found only in Gal. 3:10-14, upon a reading of 1 Thessalonians, since neither the term “curse” nor “law” is found in 1 Thessalonians. Similarly, it reflects flagrant disregard for Scripture to impose the idea of the Antichrist upon the book of Revelation since not a single one of its few occurrences in the New Testament is to be found in the book of Revelation.
Returning to Humpty Dumpty and Alice, at the moment it looks like they are in fierce combat in a chamber of death cage match. Humpty Dumpty is clearly fighting no holds barred and seems to be prevailing, at least in the raptured minds and in the noisy and pious enthusiasm of his premillenarian fans, who carry banners reading “I will make it mean whatever I want.” In the meantime, Alice is fighting backed ferociously to the cheers of her fans, who carry banners reading “Words can’t mean so many different things.”
When a fan of Alice was asked about the unfavorable odds, the larger fan base of Humpty, and the future of the match, beneath the smile of a Cheshire Cat she muttered some enigmatic words about an omelette.
[For thoughts on the contextual and exegetical meaning of the term “Antichrist” when it does occur in the New Testament, see my forthcoming book Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3, Wipf & Stock].