Question Box: Interpreting Scripture


By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box

How are we to interpret the “signs of the end” that are in Bible, for example in Luke 21? Is this only in reference to the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD?

Fr. Hennen

This can be confusing. It is tempting and exciting to try to thread together the various visions of things to come in the Bible, to look for a precise key to understand how everything fits neatly together to give us a “roadmap to the apocalypse.” Of course, if you set out looking for this, you will probably find it, not because it is in the text but because you want to find it. This is a classic human error.

I once saw an evangelist on a Christian television network some years ago explaining in great detail what the dream of Nebuchadnezzar from the Book of Daniel meant for our time, never mind the fact that Daniel offers the interpretation right there in the text. It would be interesting to go back and see if anything this televangelist “predicted” ever came to pass. My hunch is that he would have to retract much of what he said. Good biblical scholarship and even casual devotional reading of the Bible draws meaning from the text and does not read into it. This is not to say that we cannot derive great personal meaning from the Scriptures or that they have nothing to say to us in our own times and circumstances. The divine author bleeds through every page and can touch the soul.


While we believe the Bible to be truly the word of God, it is also composed by multiple authors over many centuries in different places, cultures and contexts. The Bible is not one book, but many books, with many different literary genres. For that reason, we should be careful not to pull from these passages more than was intended. In some cases, yes, passages may be referring to future events, but often, especially in what we call the “apocalyptic literature” of the Bible, what we are looking at is a commentary on events happening at the time. Often they express both the anxiety of a community’s situation and the hope for a more peaceful future.

As for that particular section of Luke (which parallels Mark 13), it is a good bet that this is in reference to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Most scholars date the writing of Luke’s Gospel around 85 AD, so after the destruction of the temple. I am not saying that Luke was creating this detail out of thin air, but that in light of this event he recalled what Jesus had said and wanted to make sure to include it.

The verses that follow the prediction of the destruction of the temple are more instructive. Here Jesus tells us not to be duped by people saying, “The time has come” (Luke 21:8). He mentions all manner of things that will inevitably happen but says that “it will not immediately be the end” (Luke 21:9). Here we are some 2,000 years later. Probably every age of the Church has thought it was living in the “end times.” Who knows, but obsessing about it or trying to nail down exactly when this will all happen is little help.

I remember once seeing a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming — look busy!” I chuckled, but then thought, “I don’t think that will be enough.” We have to be busy about the work of the Kingdom every day, whether Christ returns tomorrow or we are called from this life.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and vicar general for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to

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