Tonight (15 April 2014) was a ‘blood moon’. That is, there was a total eclipse of the moon (I dare you not to think of Bonnie Tyler!) that turned the moon a reddish colour for a short time. Unfortunately, here in Sydney it was overcast and raining, so I didn’t get to see it. However, I’ve seen images that others were able to take, and it’s quite a phenomenon to behold.
In Joel 2.31, we read these words:
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and awe-inspiring Day of Yahweh comes.
There has been a lot of talk about how the particular blood moon of today might be a fulfilment of this prophecy, especially since there seem to be more such celestial phenomena to come in the near future. Some see in this blood moon a sign of the imminent return of Jesus.
I beg to differ.
But not because I want to be a heretic, party-pooper, or a lover of novelty. I’m just taking my lead from the Apostle Peter.
In Acts 2, we read that the Apostle Peter preached to crowds of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God had just rushed upon Peter and the other Apostles, enabling them to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus in all the languages of the various pilgrims in Jerusalem at the time. This was such a groundbreaking event that Peter interpreted it as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. And he quoted directly the very passage that contains the ‘moon to blood’ quote. There was no astronomical phenomenon happening at the time. It was, rather, a bunch of people speaking in languages they didn’t natively know, proclaiming ‘the magnificent acts of God’ (Acts 2.11). Yet Peter saw the entire passage from Joel as appropriate for describing this linguistic phenomenon. He didn’t just quote the part from Joel that referred to various people prophesying, dreaming, and seeing visions—he chose to quote the whole passage, which included reference to signs of blood, fire, and smoke, the sun growing dark, and the moon turning to blood.
In other words, Peter did not see Joel’s image of celestial catastrophe as a sign in need of literal fulfilment. Rather, he interpreted Joel’s prophecy as fulfilled in a figurative manner by the apostles speaking in other languages on the Day of Pentecost. The motif of cataclysmic events is frequently seen in proto-apocalyptic and apocalyptic texts. It is not meant to be taken in a literal fashion. It is, rather, a vivid way of portraying something that is going to ‘rock the world’, so to speak.
We do this kind of thing today without batting an eyelid. When we talk about something being ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘earth-shattering’, we don’t actually mean that the earth under our feet has split open. We simply use it to refer to something new, exciting, and highly significant. The image of a blood moon in biblical literature is very similar to this.
What this means is that Peter viewed the events of his day, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus, as the most groundbreaking event of history. It was the Day of the Lord—the time in which God would act in such a significant way that nothing would ever be the same again.
Now, while I believe that Jesus will one day return, I don’t think we need to be looking for eclipses, blood moons, and celestial catastrophes before he can return. Many will point to other supposed signs that are meant to happen before Jesus returns (e.g. the re-emergence of modern Israel, or the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple), but I don’t think a rigorous and prophetically responsible reading of either the Old or New Testament supports any of these. There is only one substantive sign that the Bible gives as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus, and that is the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. And that occurred in AD 70.
In biblical thought, the Last Day is characterised by the resurrection from the dead. This day began when Jesus was raised from the dead. He was the first one to experience Judgement Day, when God declared the verdict of ‘righteous’ on his life. The rest of us will experience judgement at a later stage. But there is nothing more than need happen before this occurs, for it the day has already begun. And the return of Jesus as the judge of all humanity, which will wrap up Judgement Day, will occur at any time.
So what should we make of this blood moon today? Let it remind you of Peter’s speech in Acts 2. Let it remind you that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the most groundbreaking (or should that be ‘tomb-breaking’) event in all of history. But also marvel at the natural phenomena the Creator has put in place. Let the words of Psalm 8 resound:
Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth,
how you put your majesty over the heavens!
From the mouths of infants
you have established strength,
so that your rivals stop,
the enemy be avenged.
When I observe your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars,
which you have set in place,
what is humanity that you remember them,
the son of man that you look after him?
You made him less than gods,
yet crowned him with glory and splendour.
You have him rule the works of your hands,
everything have you put under his feet;
sheep and oxen all
even the animals in the wild;
the birds of heaven,
and the fish of the sea,
that which swims the paths of the seas.
Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!
On the morning of 5 April, AD 33, women carrying spices to anoint the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth discovered that the tomb in which the corpse had been put was empty. One of them, Mary Magdalene, instantly concludes that the body had been stolen. Within hours, however, the story that Jesus had risen from death and walked out of the tomb alive was circulating among his disciples.
How is it that this story became Christianity’s ‘official’ explanation for what happened to Jesus?
The rise of Christianity is predicated on the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. If the resurrection were merely a fictional or mythological portrayal of ultimate vindication, then Jesus’ remains would still have occupied the tomb in which he’d been laid. If this were so, then the claim of resurrection could have been easily countered factually, for people could have gone to the tomb, opened it up, and seen the body. It would have been easy to produce the body, then, and prove the production of the myth. However, this never happened. Nor did anyone claim that the resurrection was actually a mythical claim. The resurrection claim seems to have been understood as actual—that is, the claim was that Jesus physically walked out of his tomb. And there appears to have been no evidence available to counter this claim. If there were, Christianity never would have gotten off the ground 1980 years ago. But it did!
So what was going on?
We’re left with a few possible scenarios. Possibly there was a hoax going on—the most successful in history, and for which the instigators were willing to be martyred. It just might be that Jesus’ followers, who had all abandoned him to save their own skins, now tried to save their own reputations by rehabilitating the reputation of their fallen master. In this way, they could claim to have followed the ultimate winner and not have been stigmatised for their association with him. But if so, this failed miserably, for they were stigmatised anyway, and they eventually did lose their own skins. So if the resurrection were a hoax, then we have to give the disciples full marks for commitment to fraud that backfired on them anyway, and superb pride at not being willing to admit it.
Alternatively, grave robbers took Jesus’ body. However, this would be a very odd thing, since bodies themselves were not valuable to grave robbers. Bodies rotted! It was, rather, the spices, linen and other trinkets buried with a body that were valuable. But there were no spices applied to Jesus’ corpse when he was buried. The Sabbath evening was approaching when Jesus’ corpse was removed from his cross, and he was hastily buried without the unguents to mask the smell of decomposition. The women who came to the tomb on the morning after the Sabbath were, in fact, coming to add those unguents to the body when they found the tomb empty. And the linen was found in the tomb. In other words, the only thing of value in the tomb, the linen, was not taken. Despite this oddity, the first explanation entertained by Mary Magdalene, one of those women, was that Jesus’ body had been taken. And yet, she changed her story. Why?
Again, we may have a hoax, in which case Mary certainly pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, or managed to convince others to join her hoax. But this then raises the issues I mention above about the unlikelihood of hoax. Alternatively, perhaps someone was playing a cruel trick on the disciples by removing the body and giving the impression of a resurrection. Or perhaps Mary just ended up projecting wishful thinking into a grand story of resurrection. In either of those two cases, we have to conclude that they led to mass hallucination of groups of people all seeing the exact same hallucination of Jesus alive again, and all at the same time.
Alternatively, Jesus’ followers, most of whom had abandoned him before his execution, actually saw him alive again. Once more, they were all seeing the same thing. If there were only independent ‘sightings’ of a risen Jesus, then the evidence is weakened considerably. There would be little corroboration between the various sightings. But there were groups of people all seeing the same thing, including apparently about 500 people at one time. The empirical evidence pushed these people to conclude that, despite all expectations, this guy had actually come back to life. They all knew what ‘dead’ meant, and some of them had seen and touched Jesus’ dead body. But the empirical evidence that confronted them on 5 April, AD 33, and for weeks thereafter, forced them to conclude that Jesus had risen.
Now whether Jesus did come to life or not is a big call, and I can understand people’s doubt over that. However, the best explanation for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus’ followers honestly believed that he had risen from the dead. And there was no evidence available to counter that claim. His tomb was empty. Either the disciples got away with a huge call, or Jesus did walk out of his tomb alive.
Today, 5 April 2013, Christianity turns 1980 years old.