Blood Moon Lunacy
As if you didn’t have enough to worry about with your federal and state income tax forms due on April 15, now there is one more matter to be concerned with. On that day (or actually at night) the moon will turn red, manifesting what many call a “blood moon.” Many Christians see this as heralding a dramatic event in “end times” prophecy. Likely some members of Lutheran congregations who watch premillennial preachers or read the literature of such ilk will be asking their pastors to provide an interpretation of this celestial event.
During the early morning hours of April 15 one will be able to observe a total lunar eclipse. This phenomenon occurs when the sun, the earth, and the moon are in straight linear alignment. The result is that the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon, which is in a full phase. The shadow darkens the moon’s reflection of the sun’s light with a reddish-brown hue, which is caused by refraction of the sunlight by our planet’s atmosphere. This is similar to the way in which the earth’s atmosphere causes the sun to turn red at sunset.
Such total lunar eclipses are not rare. In fact, within 18 months in 2014 and 2015, there will be four total lunar eclipses. The other three “blood moon” events will occur on October 8 of this year, and on April 8 and September 28 of 2015. What is infrequent is such a series of four eclipses, called a lunar tetrad. But even this is not extremely exceptional since a total of eight lunar tetrads are scheduled to occur in the twenty-first century.
What the apocalyptic preachers are pouncing on, however, is that the upcoming lunar eclipses will each fall on a Jewish feast day: Passover in the spring of 2014 and 2015, and Sukkot (Tabernacles) in the autumn of 2014 and 2015. Even more importantly, they emphasize that this extraordinary lunar phenomena fulfills two scriptural prophecies which, they say, associate the end of the world with the moon turning blood red. The first scripture cited is Joel 2:31: “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” The second scripture is Revelation 6:12: “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became as black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood.” Most prominent among the advocates of this position is John Hagee, televangelist and pastor of a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas. In his book, Four Blood Moons: Something is About to Change, Hagee interprets the lunar tetrad to be a dramatic celestial signal relating to the geo-political nation of Israel.
The essential error in this blood moon mania is a hermeneutical one. It has to do with the interpretation of apocalyptic literature, which is represented by the passages of concern here from both Joel’s oracle and John’s apocalypse. This biblical genre is highly symbolic and is to be interpreted as such. For example, Revelation 6 begins with the vision of the Lamb opening seals of a scroll. It is clear that the depiction of a lamb here is symbolic, referring to the resurrected Christ. The description is not to be taken literally, as if a little wooly yearling of the species ovis aries was actually sitting on the throne. It must be interpreted to evoke a meaning without an explicit explanation given in the text. The coded language of biblical apocalyptic literature finds its key for interpretation in the usage of imagery elsewhere in scripture. In the case of the book of Revelation, much of the symbolic imagery is taken from the Old Testament. Since in the Old Testament the lamb was a primary victim for the sacrificial cultus of Israel, the image of the “Lamb upon the throne” in Revelation 5 and 6 evokes an association with Jesus Christ who was sacrificed on the cross but now who reigns as coregent with the Father following his ascension.
However, the modus operandi of the premillennial dispensationalists in interpreting the imagery of apocalyptic literature is oftentimes to read these literally (although this is not always consistent). For example, only a few verses after the reference to the blood moon in Revelation 6, John describes 144,000 servants of God divided equally among the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:4-8). Dispensationalists assert that this number is to be taken literally and the fact that there are 12,000 from each tribe of Israel indicates that there will be a mass conversion of Israelis before Jesus returns in glory. Similarly, they interpret the images in these apocalyptic passages to refer to current events or observable phenomena in contemporary history. Thus the fact that the nation of Israel was constituted in 1948 sets the stage for the 144,000 Israelites to be gathered together. Similarly, the series of lunar eclipses in 2014-15 sets the stage for the impending intervention of God to inaugurate the countdown to Armageddon.
The point to be made here is that the appropriate and legitimate source for interpreting the images in apocalyptic literature is not the current news in USA Today or even contemporary natural phenomena observed by telescope or the naked eye. The source for interpreting these images is the Bible itself. How does holy scripture develop these meanings?
One thing is clear regarding the scriptural use of the image of the moon becoming like blood. It never stands alone as an isolated cataclysmic phenomenon. That is to say, it is always accompanied by manifestations of other cosmic catastrophes. In the case of the prophecy of Joel, the phenomena are “wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke” (Joel 2:30). Indeed, the moon will appear as blood, but also “the sun shall be turned to darkness…before the great and awesome day of the LORD appears.” (Joel 2:31). In fact, all of chapter two of the book of Joel addresses the “day of Yahweh” (v. 1), which is variously described as a day of “clouds and thick darkness” (v. 2), a devouring fire (v. 3), an invading army (vv. 4-9), and earthquake (v. 10), and the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars (v. 10). These phenomena are depicted as occurring simultaneously and their meaning has a cumulative effect. They are universal in scope and concurrent in effect. The imagery depicts the created order coming apart and judgment coming upon the earth! The same could be said of other Old Testament passages depicting the “day of Yahweh” (Is. 13:9ff; 34:1ff; Ezk. 32:7ff; Am. 8.9) as well as New Testament passages which describe the day of Christ’s parousia (Mt. 24:29; Lk. 21:25-26; Rev. 6:12ff), which add even more details to the vision of cosmic cataclysm.
The message of this apocalyptic imagery is that the last day will truly be “the end of the world as we know it.” The purpose of this apocalyptic ménage is that we get the big picture and do not place our hope in the present age but in the age to come. We are not to analyze every brushstroke of an impressionist painting; instead we step back to view the integrated composition. Likewise, we do not disintegrate the images of the apocalyptic vision—be it an earthquake here, a conflagration there, a blood moon now, or a solar eclipse later. Instead we view them from a cumulative perspective which truly leaves an impression of the dreadfulness and uniqueness of the coming “great and awesome day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5).
That day will come as a thief in the night (Mt. 24:42-44; 1 Thes. 5:2). Therefore we take to heart Christ’s words to “stay awake at all times [i.e., always, not only during a lunar tetrad], praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk. 21:36).