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Shaking the Powers of Heaven: A Total Solar Eclipse and Adventist Eschatology

On Aug 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will envelop most of the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico in partial darkness, while a narrow, 70-mile strip from Oregon to South Carolina will experience “totality” for approximately 2.5 minutes.

An eclipse similar to this magnitude last visited the U.S. in 1918; without commuting to the affected areas, one will darken your door every 380 years.

As is typical at the time of these events, the engines of popular eschatology have been overheating for months. Ominous YouTube videos have been propagated widely, and on the heels of the eclipse, a newly minted “prophecy” considers the alignment of certain constellations on September 23, 2017, as a forming of the “woman clothed in the sun” of Revelation 12.

The site Unsealed announces that the eclipse will mark the beginning of seven years of tribulation, ending with the next American total solar eclipse of 2024. Prophecy News Watch warns that the eclipse falls exactly 40 days before this year’s Yom Kippur, and that may have eschatological implications.

Adventists are easily caught up in such sensationalist interpretations. In a misleading Facebook post titled “Signs in the Heavens” shared hundreds of times, Doug Batchelor mentions the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, and quotes the eschatological “signs in the sun, moon and stars” (Luke 21:25) but then says he does not really believe solar eclipses are fulfilment of prophecy!

It goes without saying that eclipses are universally tinged with religious superstitions. Brian Brewer’s book Eclipse explores the premonitory, “total awe” effect of total solar eclipses and other phenomena throughout history: the five-year war between the Lydians and Medes which had no victors but the sun; the fighting was halted permanently by the total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BCE; the lunar eclipse of February 29, 1504, convinced the natives of Jamaica that Columbus had divine powers.

The same sentiment accompanies earthquakes and tsunamis. In a case that hits close to home for me, the massive earthquake that hit the archipelago of the Azores on the night of July 9, 1757, and took the lives of my 6th great-grandparents on the island of São Jorge was called Mandado de Deus, “God’s Emissary,” by the islanders.

The publication in 1887 of Oppolzer’s Canon of the Eclipses which lists all eclipses from 1207 BCE to 2161 CE at once rationalized the occurrence of eclipses while also feeding speculation that some Old Testament prophecies predicting signs in the sun and moon may have actually referred to eclipses. The total solar eclipse of June 15, 763 BCE may have coincided with the one predicted in Amos 8:9; Peter quotes Joel 2:31 (cf. Acts 2:20) possibly referring to the lunar eclipse of Friday April 3, 33 CE, the most likely date of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Oppolzer’s work, however, shows that it is unlikely that eclipses have prophetic significance. Their regular, predictable paths would cheapen prophecy and inure the watchers. It seems there is a deeper meaning in the cosmic signs of the OT.

The fact is that during eclipses and other natural terrors, Christians have for millennia recalled the words of Jesus on the Mount of Olives:

Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light;

the stars will fall from heaven,

and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

(Matt 24:29; cf. Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:25-28)

Millerite millennialism, rising out of the historicist school of interpretation that dominated the late Middle Ages, foraged the literature for reports of unusual natural events and published these in the Signs of the Times and The Midnight Cry (1840-1843) as fulfilment of end-time prophecy.[1] Our Adventist forefathers, eager to find eschatological footing after the disappointment of 1844, maintained and refined the Millerite interpretations of these events.

Once established as the “official” Adventist interpretation, it received Ellen White’s imprimatur.  Reading the still fresh natural 18th-19th century disturbances as the fulfilment of the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-13, she writes in The Great Controversy, p. 304:

In fulfillment of this prophecy there occurred, in the year 1755, the most terrible earthquake that has ever been recorded.

About the dark day of May 19, 1780, she writes: “Since the time of Moses no period of darkness of equal density, extent, and duration, has ever been recorded” (p. 308); and the meteor showers of Nov 13, 1833 were “the last of the signs” (p. 333). She then exhorts: “Christ had bidden His people watch for the signs of His advent and rejoice as they should behold the tokens of their coming King.”

Adventist interest in these signs took a cosmic leap when Ellen White bestowed future prophetic significance to the constellation of Orion: “Dark, heavy clouds came up and clashed against each other; the atmosphere parted and rolled back, then we could see the open space in Orion from whence came the voice of God. I saw that the Holy City will come down through that open space” (Letter 2, 1848).

This statement bred a generation of Adventist astronomy enthusiasts, giving rise to the Adventist legend that the three stars in Orion’s belt were actually separating to make room for Jesus. I remember the first time I heard this. I was 12 and already in my second canvassing campaign. During an all-nighter prayer vigil, someone shared how he believed that Jesus was coming soon because Orion was opening to allow him to pass through on his way to earth. With the chilly winter wind blowing on our faces, we looked up to a clear night sky and saw the “separating” Three Marys and hoped for the soon end of all things.

Such appetite for cosmology influenced more than just dilettante star-gazers; it has forged its own sort of Adventist “astrology” often dominated by the “lunatic fringe” who see the fulfilment of prophecy in any natural disturbance, often for the benefit of their fundraising efforts.

The question still remains: Were these 18-19th century events really “signs of the advent” as predicted by Jesus on the Mount of Olives?

Traditionally, Adventists have seen this sermon as having a “double fulfilment”: at the destruction of Jerusalem and at the End. In support of a fulfilment of the Olivet Discourse in the first century are three important factors: (1) the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD in vv. 20-24 (the “abomination of desolation” is replaced by “surrounded with [Roman] armies” in Luke 21:20); (2) the allusion to the coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13-14 which does not automatically point to Jesus’ Second Coming but may be a prophecy of his enthronement in heaven at the ascension and the establishment of the church (cf. the use of the gathering of the “elect” in v. 31) and; (3) the fulfilment of all these signs in “this generation”, i.e., the original hearers (vv. 33, 34).[2]

Evangelical scholars have negotiated these difficulties by explaining that the actual Second Coming stands in the same “eschatological horizon” of the events connected with the fall of Jerusalem predicted in the Discourse, although today we see that horizon “further removed”[3] into the future.

As to the actual nature of the “signs in the sun and moon and stars,” it is important to note that Matthew 24:29 draws on symbolic imagery from Old Testament sources. The shaking of the natural order is a recurring theme in the OT; its oracles capitalized on ancient understanding of cosmic events as symbols of the subversion of the natural order and applied them to “the day of the Lord” (cf. Joel 2:31; Amos 8:9).

More specifically Matthew 24:29 alludes to the oracle against Babylon in Isa 13:10 and 34:4 (cf. also Joel 2:10) when it predicts that “the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.” At first brush, it may seem that these are literal signs, but the context indicates that this imagery is actually symbolic: along with the description of the darkening of the heavenly bodies, the oracle describes hearts “melting” (v. 7), the sky “trembling,” and the earth being moved from its place (v. 13); the wicked are compared to “gazelles” (v. 14) and phantasms of “goat-demons” (v. 21) inhabit Babylon’s ruins.

Similar symbolism is used against Edom in Isaiah 34:4: “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall wither like a leaf withering on a vine, or fruit withering on a fig tree.” In its ruins “goat-demons” find shelter alongside the mythological-demonic Lilith (v. 14). In a “lamentation” against the Egyptians, Ezekiel also uses symbolic imagery: they are caught by a “net” (v. 3), their bodies fill entire valleys (v. 5), their blood reaches up to the mountains (v. 6), the sun, moon and stars are darkened (v. 7), and God is depicted as a warrior using a “sword” (v. 10).

The darkening of the sun, moon, and stars as symbols of judgment in the OT is significant because Egypt and Babylon were known for not only worshipping these but also for being at the forefront of ancient astronomical and calendrical measurements. The disruptions in the sun, moon and stars, whose predictable movement they had mastered, represented the ultimate judgment: only a superior God could be responsible for it. These signs symbolized the end of what brought security to those nations at the arrival of the “day of the Lord.” “Can your “gods” do this?” asked the OT prophets.

In his eschatological sermon Jesus uses the same symbolic imagery of the OT to describe the judgment inflicted upon the wicked world at the eschatological end: the “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” indicate that the natural order has come to an end with the appearance of the Son of Man “with power and great glory” (v. 30).

In addition, the symbolic cosmic events which herald the end in Matthew 24:29-30 are part of a contiguous sequence of events. Regardless of their precise nature, Jesus indicates that they affect the same group of people: they all go through the “tribulation,” they “faint,” and they witness the end of the world when Jesus appears. They are all part of an eschatological “package.”

John of Patmos echoes this imagery in his description of the opening of the sixth seal: 

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood and the stars of the sky fell to earth… The sky vanished… and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Revelation 6:12-14: cf. 16:20).

The same pattern applies here: as in the OT, oracles against heathen nations, the cosmic signs of the sixth seal affect “the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free” (v. 15) on the day of the “wrath of the Lamb (v. 17).

It appears then that this amalgam of eschatological OT symbols is not meant to be taken literally; they do not describe the actual darkening of the sun or the reddening of the moon. These are not literal events any more than the islands of the entire world are not moved from their place and mountains are not flattened literally by the earthquake.

Like the OT lawsuits against heathen nations, the cosmic disturbances described in the Gospels and Revelation point to theological rather than geological or astronomical realities: the eschatological day of the Lord represents the end of the natural securities attached to the cycle of day and night and the end of the present order, regardless of whether the sun or moon will still shine or remain in orbital relationship with the earth after the “day of the Lord.”

Moreover, a cursory review of the science of the cosmos tends to falsify our faith in such facile explications.

It is not possible for the sun and moon to be moved literally “out of their places” without the utter annihilation of all mankind and the destruction of the planet itself. As significant as they may have appeared in their own time, the dark day of 1780 which affected only New England in the U.S., the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and the fall of meteors of 1833 were not supernaturally/divinely caused. The dark day was caused by a combination of smoke from a large fire, fog, and a thick cloud cover; the earthquake was the result of reoccurring plate tectonics, the Leonid meteor showers of November 13, 1833, reoccur every 33 years. Moreover, it is obvious that none of these centuries-old events are connected with the arrival of the End: we are still here!

As to the Adventist lore about Orion, the basics of astronomy deny it a place in the line-up of end-time events. Its nebula alone could fit 60 million solar systems; its light travels 1,500 years to reach earth. In order to be visible anywhere within Orion, Jesus’s entourage would have to be large enough to be noticed from this inconceivable distance and yet, it would have to remain within the speed of light in order to be actually seen there. But this creates a conundrum: at that speed, it would take Jesus 1,500 years to reach us! Not to mention the rather unimaginative notion of Jesus and the angels actually traveling through time/space.

The problems of the traditions surrounding Orion point to another “revelatory” source. In relating her visions of the end-time, Ellen White was likely influenced by Captain Joseph Bates who had been peering at Orion with a rudimentary telescope. He saw a “gap” into a brighter area in the Orion nebula which he concluded was heaven.[4] When describing the same scene later, she replaced Orion with “a clear place of settled glory” from which God’s voice was heard (cf. Spiritual Gifts 1, 205; 1858).

Finally, despite the symbolic and theological implications of the cosmic signs in the New Testament, it is to be expected that a cataclysm such as the Second Coming of Christ will be accompanied by a disruption of the natural order. But if these are “signs of coming,”[5] they will take place so close to the actual event as to be eclipsed by it. By that time, it will be too late to change sides as a result of these “signs.”

Adventist theologians such as LaRondelle and George Knight have been warning against the misuse of “cosmic signs” for decades. Jon Paulien calls for a “sane approach” to the interpretation of these events.[6] The intricacies of prophetic interpretation are far more complex than our enthusiastic evangelists make it sound. It is time we cease from creating false hopes based on erroneous readings of events from the ancient past or contemporary natural phenomena unrelated to "The End."

On August 21, my family and I will be in Charleston, South Carolina, to celebrate how “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

Notes & References:
[1] See Mark Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 55-60 for a helpful discussion of Millerite views on these events.
[2] Surprisingly, Josephus and Roman historians describe apparitions in the sky before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (Wars 6:296-300).
[3] “As we have seen at various points throughout this section, there is a heightening that has to do, not with descriptive accuracy, but with an eschatological horizon in relation to which the events are being understood. Much as had been the case with the Daniel prophecies, the arrival of the ‘desolating sacrilege’ has proved not to have the degree of immediate connection with the final phase of the end-time events that was anticipated, so it is perhaps not surprising that it had about it less of the grandness appropriate to eschatological events. The eschatological horizon has proved to be further removed.” (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W. B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005], 975–976).
[4] Bates wrote a pamphlet titled The Opening Heavens or A Connected View of the Testimony of The Prophets and Apostles, Concerning The Opening Heavens, Compared with Astronomical Observations, and of The Present and Future Location of The New Jerusalem, The Paradise of God (New Bedford, MA: Press of Benjamin Lindsey, 1846).
[5]George R. Knight, Matthew (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1994), 236, 237.
[6] What the Bible Says About the End of the World (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1994), 157.


André Reis has published articles and book chapters on theology, church history, worship, and music. He has recently finished a PhD in New Testament at Avondale College.

Image Credit: NASA Viz Team/ Ernie Wright

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