solar eclipse

Does the approaching solar eclipse signal the second coming of Jesus? In all likelihood, no, but that hasn’t stopped people from speculating that it does. The New Testament is filled with references to Jesus’ second coming, the time when Christians believe Jesus will return to earth, the wicked will face judgment, and the righteous will be rewarded. The Apostle Paul discusses it in his letters, and the Gospels illustrate Jesus talking about it.

The upcoming solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, which will be visible over parts of North America, has brought with it several predictions that Jesus might be returning sooner rather than later. Religious theories surrounding this eclipse are part of a larger pattern of attempts to find meaning in astronomical events that go back thousands of years. One of the more famous examples from the ancient world of people finding meaning in the skies occurred in 44 B.C.E. when a comet appeared in the skies over Italy just four short months after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Roman authors Pliny the Elder and Suetonius claimed that the comet was visible for about a week and that it was so bright it could be spotted in the late afternoon.

Many Romans interpreted its appearance and lingering presence as a sign that Caesar had ascended to the heavens and had taken a seat among the many gods of Rome. Caesar’s deification was made official by a vote of the Roman Senate less than two years later. A few examples from the past 30 years further illustrate this phenomenon. In December 2020, speculation ran wild in some Christian circles that a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn signaled the return of the fabled “Star of Bethlehem” that led the wise men to the newborn Jesus. For at least 10 years, televangelist John Hagee has promoted theories linking various “blood moons” as signs that the apocalypse is approaching.

A tragic example is the religious movement known as Heaven’s Gate. Members of this movement believed that there was a spacecraft hidden in the tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet, which appeared in 1997. This spacecraft, they thought, was coming to transport them to a higher level of consciousness. In March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate movement committed ritualized mass suicide through a lethal combination of phenobarbital, vodka and asphyxiation. It can be challenging to pinpoint where such interpretations of celestial events originate.

In the case of the upcoming eclipse, one of the images that has fueled predictions of Jesus’ second coming simply notes southern Illinois as the location where the upcoming eclipse will overlap the path of the last North American solar eclipse in 2017. The second coming of Jesus is undeniably a topic of conversation among New Testament authors. Still, what’s interesting to note is that there is little agreement among these authors when it comes to timing. What is presented in the Gospels is different from what is presented in the letters of Paul. And both of these are pretty different from what is found in the book of Revelation.

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