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).
pete lange April 10, 2014
thank you dr. peter … i would only add to your fine article that the “day of the lord” has indeed come (in a proleptic sense) in the death and resurrection of jesus, and that the signs spoken of by the prophet joel did indeed take place on that “great and terrible” good friday. blessings …
David Peter April 15, 2014
I appreciate your observation here. Indeed, these celestial signs, and others mentioned in Joel 2, contribute to the summative message of God’s judgment upon sinners. Since on the cross Christ “became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), we see here the fullness of God’s judgment.
Brady Bush April 10, 2014
Luther disagreed with you, and was very much in favor of watching the sky for signs. Check out his sermon on Luke 21:25-36.
A few words from the Doctor:
“The course of the heavens has been so arranged from eternity that before the last day these signs must appear. The heathen say that the comet is a natural product; but God has created none that is not a token of future evil. Thus also the blind leader, Aristotle, writing a book about the phenomena of the heavens, attributes all to nature and declares these are no signs. Our learned men follow him and thus one fool fills the world with fools. Let us know that though the heavenly bodies wander in their courses according to law, God has still made these to be signs or tokens of his wrath. ‘And in the moon.’ This sign is given in Math. 24, 29, to the effect that ‘the moon shall not give her light’; that is, it will lose its brightness. The same is to be said of this as of the signs in the sun, no matter how natural it may be. Is it not true that scarcely a year has passed of late in which sun or moon or both have been eclipsed, sometimes one of them twice a year? If these are not signs, then, what are signs?”
David Peter April 15, 2014
I appreciate being alerted to this sermon. I read it from your link, and I note especially paragraph 5, in which Luther states that the signs compel him to believe that “the last day is near at hand.” He then cites events and conditions of the 16th century to support this, including solar and lunar eclipses as well as social conditions such as rampant immorality and the deceptions of the papacy.
It is well known that Luther expected the return of Christ to be immanent in his day, but also recognized that this would be according to God’s timetable. Obviously almost half a millennium has elapsed since then, during which there have been more solar and lunar eclipses than I wish to count.
Luther was right on at least two counts: First, that Christians should always live with the anticipation that Christ could return on any day, and be prepared for such. Second, that the signs cited in passages such as Matt. 24 and Luke 21 serve as reminders of this coming final day.
My point in this essay is that the blood moon phenomenon we are currently experiencing is not different from the lunar eclipses which Luther observed in the 16th century. We should not, as some people like Hagee do, mark the present lunar eclipses as extraordinary. Nonetheless, we are reminded of the coming judgment, and seek to be prepared through faith alone.
Tim Barone April 10, 2014
Thank you for addressing this in a thoughtful way.
Trackback: Blood Moon Coming | Lutheran in NJ
Kenneth Lee Booe on Facebook April 12, 2014
David Peter April 15, 2014
Yes! As one who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, I have appreciation for the ever-timely music of CCR!
David Peter April 12, 2014
Thanks to you who have commented. I’m away at a state tournament that my sons are competing in, and so will respond to your remarks early next week.
manicdrummer April 14, 2014
Beware those who deny the Word of God!
As a Jew, I am also skeptical when I hear of end time warnings from the religious fringe crowd. But one thing cannot be disputed: four blood moons will occur on Jewish holy days in 2014-2015. Every time that has occurred in history, significant events concerning us Jews have taken place. This time around is certainly no exception.
Perhaps in these modern times it is possible to apply science to explain away old superstitions. When it comes to the Word of God and Biblical prophecy, we are especially careful that we do not create widespread hysteria while examining celestial signs and their possible implications for the world in which we live. But let us not ignore the signs that appear. There is much historical precedent to be taken into account. We live in an age of reason, but let not our faith fade away, for the Lord knows what is in our hearts and will hold us all accountable for all that we say and do.
In the meantime, watch for the signs in the heavens and the Earth and be mindful of the events that shall unfold. Shalom!
Bill Cate May 7, 2014
Thanks for this excellent article, Dr. Peter. I’ve already had to deal with the blood moon issue a couple of times in my congregation and will no doubt hear it again when the next one rolls around. I keep telling people that interpreting John’s Revelation literally is like applying literal meaning to Aesop’s Fables; it can’t be done!
David Peter May 9, 2014
I commend you for faithfully teaching your members how to read the Bible appropriately for all its worth!