Learning to Rightly Interpret Scripture in an Age of Biblical Illiteracy


Hank Hanegraaff

Article ID:



May 14, 2024


Mar 14, 2021

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 01 (2021) in the From the President and Practical Hermeneutics Columns. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

I thought about a question I received recently from a Christian leader as I read the cover article of this issue of the Christian Research Journal. He wanted to know why God chose to reveal Himself in the way He did. Why the confusing prose of Genesis? Why bizarre prophecies such as those encountered in Daniel and Ezekiel? And why end the panoply of Scripture with a virtually unintelligible book chronicling the end of the world?

In thinking about how I should respond, I was reminded of Rebekah Valerius’s inclusion of the following G. K. Chesterton quote in the cover article titled “G. K. Chesterton on the Book of Job”:

Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”1 (emphasis added)

In the end, writes Valerius, “Job is comforted in knowing that the world is more complex than any human explanation can account for” (p. 14).

And that is the essence of the matter. Scripture is a heavenly condescension. A divine repository in which God condescends to elucidate a universe that is far “more complex than any human explanation can account for.” To explain the profundity and purposes of God to humanity is, as the erudite Frederick Buechner once put it, “like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam.”2 We do well, exhorts Valerius, to “keep at the back of our minds the reality of our finitude” (14). The reality that the ineffability of God not only eludes us in the present but will elude us even after the Parousia.

This is precisely why we must approach the task of interpreting Scripture with a great deal of humility. Recognizing that illumination can come only through the Spirit of truth. Nowhere does this verity become more manifest than in the book of Job. After thirty-plus chapters of rambling speculations, God appears and asks some questions of His own. In essence, God asks Job and his counselors whether they would like to try their hand at running the universe for a while. Try creating a lightning bolt. How about just a tiny drop of dew?

God is far beyond our comprehension. And yet He condescends to communicate eternal verities in ways that are profoundly meaningful. I am particularly intrigued by the way in which God explicates the nature of our archenemy. In Genesis, he is presented as an alluring serpent; in Psalms, he is portrayed as a multiheaded monster opposing the purposes of God; in Isaiah, he is a coiling serpent emerging out of the primal waters; and in Revelation, he is a red dragon that personifies the extremities of evil. Moreover, in Job, the literary progression moves from creation, to creatures, to the cherub who once ranked first in the order of creation — a monster who will ultimately be vanquished.

Genius of Genesis. While Scripture is admittedly inexhaustible and mysterious, it invites us not only to apprehend but to imprint its majesty on the canvas of our consciousness. In this vein, Genesis opens with a literary mnemonic by which we are daily reminded of God’s creative prowess. The first six days outline a hierarchy of creation that culminates in humanity as its crowning jewel. On the seventh, the Creator, in whom we ultimately find our Sabbath, rests. As such, the history of creation is remembered and recalled through its association with the continuous seven-day cycle of life.

The heavenly condescension continues with a structure that may be remembered using our ten fingers. With one hand we recall primeval history: the accounts of the heavens and the earth, Adam, Noah, Noah’s sons, and Shem, the father of the ancient Near East. With the other hand, we remember the accounts of Terah (father of Abraham), Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob, who is called Israel. In process of communicating eternal verities, Moses employs Hebrew symmetries, parallelisms, and sevenfold patterns. The end result is a unified and memorable prologue to the whole of redemptive history.

Prophetic Prose. Like Genesis, prophetic books such as Daniel and Ezekiel follow a profound but comprehensible literary sequence. Complex but hardly convoluted. Through Daniel God reveals His present and eternal purposes for the world. Six centuries before the advent of Christ, Daniel was empowered to do what no soothsayer or astrologer could do. With awe-inspiring precision, he predicted a succession of nations from Babylon through the Median and Persian Empires to the coming of the Babe of Bethlehem — a king who would usher in a kingdom that will never be vanquished or destroyed.

Like the prophet Daniel, the prophetic prose of Ezekiel is profound. The climax of his prophecies highlights both the resuscitation of Israel and the resurrection of true Israel. Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded, and suddenly “there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked,” said Ezekiel, “and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them” (Ezek. 37:7–8).3 Again Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded, and breath entered the bodies: “they came to life and stood on their feet — a vast army” (37:10). The interpretation leaves little guesswork. God would unlock the abode of the dead and reinvigorate Israel. “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD” (37:14).

Sevenfold Rhythm of Revelation. As for the book of Revelation, it is hardly “a virtually unintelligible book chronicling the end of the world.” Rather, the essence of Revelation is the unveiling of a bride. It is a wedding covenant from beginning to end — from first to last — from Alpha to Omega. It begins with seven love letters to a persecuted bride — true Israel. It continues with the noxious vision of a prostituted bride — apostate Israel. And it concludes with the unveiling of a purified bride — true Israel.

To unpack this a bit, Revelation begins by unveiling a persecuted bride. True Israel, represented by the faithful in seven churches in the province of Asia, face the full fury of a ferocious Roman beast bent on her obliteration. Thus, the Bridegroom exhorts and encourages His bride to be faithful and fearless. Those who do not forsake their “first love” (2:4) may “suffer persecution for ten days” (2:10), but in the end they will “reign with Christ a thousand years” (20:4).

Furthermore, as the letters of Christ to His persecuted bride utilize images deeply embedded in the language of the Bible, so too the judgment of Christ against a prostituted bride — a judgment written on a seven-sealed scroll, announced by seven angels with seven trumpets, and depicted through seven plagues that befall a prostitute in bed with a beast — finds its referents in the history of the Old Testament Scriptures. The pattern of sevenfold judgment against unfaithfulness on the part of Israel is spelled out in dreadful detail in Leviticus. Four times God tells His covenant people, “I will punish you for your sins seven times over.”4 In similar fashion, the imagery of sevenfold judgment against apostate Israel is unveiled on four occasions in Revelation. The pronouncement of judgment for unfaithfulness in the seven churches is followed by the judgments of the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Following on the heels of the judgment of the seven bowls is the judgment of the prostituted bride. She is described as “the great prostitute who sits on many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery” (Rev. 17:1).

Finally, Revelation is the unveiling of the purified bride, dressed in fine linen bright and clean. A bride that the Bridegroom carries over the threshold of the Jordan into a new Jerusalem that comes “down out of heaven from God” — “a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (21:2), a bride whose “names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27). Revelation thus commences with seven letters to a persecuted bride; continues with a sevenfold judgment against a prostituted bride; and crescendos with the unveiling of a purified bride by a bridegroom described as having seven horns and seven eyes.

What should be readily apparent is that the book of Revelation is hardly unintelligible, nor is it a mere book of riddles. Rather, it is a book of symbols deeply rooted in Old Testament history. We mistake their meanings when we fail to hear the background music of the Old Covenant.5 The tree of life referred to in Jesus’ letter to the church in Ephesus first appears in Genesis; the ten days of testing in Smyrna find their referent in Daniel; the heavenly manna promised to the church of Pergamum first fell from heaven in Exodus; the Jezebel who promoted sexual immorality in Thyatira is the mirror image of the idolatrous Jezebel in Kings; the seven spirits of the letter to the church in Sardis hark back to the Spirit as described by Zechariah; the key of David referenced in the letter to Philadelphia echoes the words of Isaiah; and Christ’s rebuke to the church in Laodicea alludes to the words of Proverbs, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke” (3:11).

Scriptural Synergy. In Revelation, as in the rest of Scripture, we are immediately alerted to the reality that the whole of Scripture is greater than the sum of its individual passages. You cannot comprehend the Bible as a whole without comprehending its individual passages; and you cannot comprehend its individual passages without comprehending the Bible as a whole. The synergy of Scripture demands that individual passages may never be interpreted in such a way as to conflict with the whole of Scripture. The biblical interpreter must keep in mind that all Scripture, though communicated through various human instruments, has one single Author. And that Author does not contradict Himself nor does He confuse His servants.

This reality is made abundantly plain in Fr. Lawrence Farley’s article, “In Defense of the Church’s Traditional Doctrine of Hell.” “Embracing universalism,” writes Fr. Farley, “involves parting with the clear teaching of the New Testament, the consensus of the Fathers, the settled teaching of the Church, and the monastic tradition of spiritual struggle” (28). As such, it militates against the art and science of biblical interpretation. A science in that certain rules apply. An art in that the more you apply the rules, the better you get at it.

And this, in large part, is what the Christian Research Institute seeks to do through its various outreach ministries — not the least of which is the Christian Research Journal. To teach our ever-growing worldwide audience to understand a view of reality that is existentially satisfying yet one that always leaves us yearning for more. As you read through the current issue of our flagship publication, remember that while seeking to rightly interpret Scripture in an age of biblical illiteracy takes effort, it is well worth the investment. For even in heaven — especially in heaven — we will continue to learn and grow, forever seeking to comprehend more fully the ineffable God who has saved us by His grace.6 Hank Hanegraaff


  1. G. K. Chesterton, “The Book of Job,” in G. K .C. as M. C.: A Collection of 37 Rare G. K. Chesterton Essays, ed. J. P. de Fonseka (London: Methuen and Co., 1929), 46–47.
  2. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 46. Thanks to Philip Yancy for this quotation.
  3. Scripture quotations are from NIV 1984.
  4. Leviticus 26:18, 21, 24, 28.
  5. I first heard this metaphor from New Testament scholar N. T. Wright.
  6. This article contains portions adapted from Hank Hanegraaff, The Creation Answer Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012); Hanegraaff, Has God Spoken? Memorable Proofs of the Bible’s Divine Inspiration (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011); and Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code: Find Out What the Bible Really Says About the End Times, and Why It Matters Today (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).


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