December 5, 2020

Signs in the Heavens

Signs in the Heavens

Matthew 24: 29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: 30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

The post on Saturday and Monday’s eclipse (saw it from work with the glasses) got me thinking about signs and portents in the heavens.  As Chaplain Mike noted in Saturday’s post, people have always thought astronomical phenomena, especially total solar eclipses, portend some kind of meaning.  Moderns both secular and religious cannot seem to resist attaching some kind of meaning (most often judgement, it seems) to, what seems on the face of it, to be naturally occurring phenomena with completely explainable series of causes and effects.

Ancient man could be reasonably be forgiven for attaching superstitious meaning to astronomical phenomena since it was both rare and seemingly unexplainable.  Although it should be noted that supposedly by 20 B.C. the Chinese knew how eclipses were caused … By 8 B.C. the Chinese could predict eclipses by using the 135 month period; and by A.D. 206 they could predict eclipses by analyzing the motion of the moon. By A.D. 390 they could predict how much of the moon would be in shadow.  In the west, Hipparchus (second century BC), Pliny (first century AD) and Ptolemy (second century AD) were aware of the cyclic nature of eclipses, though the degree to which they could be predicted for a specific location is debatable.  Ptolemy ( ca 150 AD] represents the epitome of Grecian astronomy, and surviving records show that he had a sophisticated scheme for predicting both lunar and solar eclipses.

What excuse do modern men and women have for attaching meaning to the phenomena?  Perhaps there is some excuse for evangelicals and other Christians to attach meaning.  The bible in several passages, both old and new testaments speaks of “signs” in the “heavens” that have meaning, usually judgment, I’m having a hard time thinking of any heavenly signs that don’t portend judgment, except maybe for the star of Bethlehem.  As the opening quote in the post from Matthew 24 indicates; the return of Jesus is to be accompanied by signs in the sky.  So, it could be argued, attaching meaning to astronomical phenomena is “biblical”, I suppose.  But isn’t this really an artifact of an ancient viewpoint?  Viewed from the earth with the naked eye, eclipses and comets or meteorites streaking across the sky seem impressive, but not compared to a supernova or a gamma ray burst which are orders of magnitude… well… magnitudinous.  In fact, to the ancients, stars were little twinkly things that could fall to earth, whereas we moderns know that many “stars” we view are galaxies made up of hundreds of billions of stars. And then compare Antares to our sun…

The best you could say if some “judgement” or biblical event coincided with some astronomical “sign” would be that it was a providential coincidence, like maybe the star of Bethlehem.

Well, that got me to thinking which miraculous phenomena in the bible I was willing to accept based on that ancient document scribe’s testimony; and what phenomena that my modern mind just can’t swallow.  And by what criteria I was making that distinction.

First of all, I accept the resurrections, both Jesus’ and his raising of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17).  Peter raising Dorcas and Paul raising Eutychus are in as well.  I can’t think of a healing account in the New Testament that I don’t believe.  So God’s grace giving us soteria and shalom is something that seems consistent with his character especially as demonstrated by Jesus.  My own experiences with my friend with the regrown kidney and my own “resurrection” from a burst appendix seem to bear out that grace as well.  Why some get it and some don’t has always bothered me and I have no convincing explanation to offer, and bearing in mind God’s rebuke of Job’s friends, wouldn’t offer one if I did.

The miracles of abundance like the water to wine at the wedding feast of Cana and the feeding of the 5000 also seem consistent with a gracious God.  The walking on the water I also believe but I would have trouble with it if it wasn’t for part with Peter.  I cannot bring myself to believe the disciples would lie about that or make up a story that includes Peter walking then faltering.  They just weren’t that type of men.  Same with stilling the storm at sea, they were utterly shocked at that.

However, the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25) I just don’t get.  I know it’s supposed to be about the barrenness of Israel; but the parable in Luke 13 seems more consistent with God’s nature regarding barren fig trees (and Israel).

The biggest problem with New Testament miracles I have is with Matthew 27:52f and the resurrections following the crucifixion.  It just seems strange and out of place.  Remember Michael Licona where in a passage in his 2010 book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona questioned the literal interpretation of the story of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27, suggesting the possibility that it might be apocalyptic imagery?  Remember evangelicals going ballistic?

In the Old Testament, the miraculous flour bin and the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath by Elijah in 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 4:1-7 Elisha and the widow’s oil I’m good with as well as the healing of Naaman of leprosy.  Again, for same reasons as in the New Testament, it seems coincident with God’s gracious nature.  Maybe you think you see a pattern in my criteria; Mike the Geologist—you just don’t like judgement; you’re the sloppy agape’ type.  But I’m good with the handwriting on the wall for the Babylonians, that arrogant SOB had it coming.  Same with Daniel in the lion’s den; his persecutors got what was coming to them after he was miraculously delivered.   Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; and the fourth one like unto a son of man—you go pre-incarnate Christ, not even the smell of smoke indeed!  And the 10 plagues on Egypt?  What the heck, Pharaoh, after the first nine why would you bring such a sorrowful judgment on your own people to let their first born sons be killed.  It’s not like you weren’t warned.  Stubborn leader, answerable to no one, brings destruction to his own nation…hmmm… why does that sound familiar?

I’m sorry for the rambling nature of this post; obviously I’m just spit-ballin’ here.  The one OT miracle I just don’t believe happened was Joshua’s long day (Joshua 10:12-14),  or the corollary story that the sun’s shadow moved backward ten steps – exactly 40 minutes, the story says – on the stairway of Ahaz at the time of Hezekiah’s illness (2 Kings 20:10-11).  Now when the ancients believed the earth was the center of the cosmos the sun not moving, or going backwards, although still a big deal, was at least conceivable.  But now… for the sun to stand still in the sky means the earth would stop in its rotation.  The immediate consequence of that would be 1100 mile per hour winds due to the atmosphere continuing its motion at its original speed.  Therefore, everything that’s not firmly attached to the bedrock will be swept off the ground; huge rocks, topsoil, buildings, vehicles, will be lifted up and swept away by the atmosphere.  Wind speeds of 1100 mph; an F5 tornado is classified as speeds over 200 mph.  Let that sink in.

Defenders of literal biblical inerrancy have to justify this stuff, else their house of cards comes down.  Some twaddle from Henry Morris for example:

Some quibble about the language employed, suggesting that Joshua thought the sun “moves,” instead of the earth. The fact is, the motion of any heavenly body must be given in terms of relative motion (since all objects in the universe are moving in some way). Scientists normally assume the fixed point of zero motion to be the one which makes their equations most convenient to use, and this usually is the earth’s surface at the location of the observer. Joshua’s language was . . . quite scientific!

Furthermore, many scholars have documented numerous traditions of a “long day” (or “long night,” in the western hemisphere) about the time of Joshua. The biblical story is well supported as a real fact of history. There was a long day!

Want to know who the “many scholars” are: go here .  The “scholars” include Immanuel Velikovsky and his 1950 book, Worlds in Collison.   Same argument for dinosaurs co-existing with humans: people have dragon legends.

I realize I am leaving myself open to charges of inconsistency by both the fundies and the atheists.  A miracle is a miracle, God can do anything, and the bible is infallible; what real basis do you have for picking and choosing?  Science?  And if you are going to go with science, why don’t you treat biblical accounts the way you treat any other religious holy book?

The thing is that either position is consistent within its own framework, but I don’t have to choose either framework; it is not a strict dichotomy.  As Chaplain Mike put it so brilliantly yesterday that it bears repeating today:

What would it be like if we as Christians believed that the Bible was written for us:

…to encourage us to think more, not less?

…to help us develop wisdom so that we can come to conclusions and make decisions maturely on our own, not simply give us answers and rules to follow?

…to engage us in an ongoing struggle to find truth, not to lead us to think we have all the answers?

…to make us more curious about our world and other areas of learning, such as the sciences, literature, and the arts, and not less?

…to give us material about which we can faithfully argue and disagree with one another, not to resolve all arguments and disagreements?

…to force us to trust by taking us deeper into places of mystery, wonder, and bewilderment, rather than taking away all our doubts and questions?

…as a tool more for contemplation and conversation with God and each other than as a handbook for life, a rulebook, or a book of doctrines?

…to form us into people who are more authentically human and more involved in the world, not less?

…to enable us to find more common ground with our neighbors, not less?

…to help us focus fully on fulfilling the greatest commandments of loving God and our neighbors?

There is a sign to believe in.


  1. One I like is the fire from heaven burning the altar that Elijah set up.

    It would take millennia before we learnt that wet things on hilltops are more likely to be hit by lightning.

    Does that make it less of a miracle?

    (OK, apparently there were no clouds, but I LIKE my idea)

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > you just don’t like judgement; you’re the sloppy agape’ type.

    I don’t know if I am a “sloppy agape’ type”, but I am certainly “sloppy”. I am ardently pro-sloppy. As I have no clear idea about many things, and few ‘tight’ ideas are provided in Scripture – at least by my reading.

    Sloppy does not mean anything goes; it just means a lot of things can go, and I try to keep to tending my own little sphere. Perhaps that guy in that other Sphere doing things I don’t “get” knows or sees something I can’t or don’t.

    Most of the ‘tight’ arguments I hear [lots of those on Reformed & Evangelical podcasts] are apropos to nothing in real life. Yes, lets have another divisive argument about which dead guys said what about the nature of the Trinity some ~480 years ago. Yay! I am sure my neighbors will show up for that. #sarcasm

    > I have no convincing explanation to offer, and bearing in mind God’s rebuke of
    > Job’s friends, wouldn’t offer one if I did

    Maximum Ditto.

    Note that the word “friends” in “Job’s friends” should be in air-quotes. With friends like that …

  3. Mike, I doubt if my own attitude of adopting a Sunday School kid view of the Bible as a collection of stories would be of much help here. I ran across an article yesterday that on the surface might seem off your subject but I found quite relevant, not only to the question of science and religion but to our current world turmoil in general. Seems to me that it applies not only to scientists but to college educated people in general, which would include the majority of people here. Science Is Classist. Here’s a Solution:

    • Mike the Geologist says

      The article made some good points. However, most of the regular commenters here do not strike me as arrogant and elite-ist. Also, even though God has “hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1Cor 1:27) I still don’t think He puts a premium on ignorance. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness”. (Colossians 3:12-14)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Also, even though God has “hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1Cor 1:27) I still don’t think He puts a premium on ignorance.

        The problems begin when you invert that Verse and figure “If it’s stupid & foolish, It Must Be Of GOD.” Pretty soon it becomes a race for the bottom.

      • >> I still don’t think He puts a premium on ignorance.

        My working class neighbors are not ignorant, their education is different than mine and just as valuable, if not more so. If I have an electrical problem or a culvert going bad, they know way more than I do and I am the ignorant one. To assume that people without a college education are ignorant is an example of what the article speaks to.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > To assume that people without a college education are ignorant

          I fail to see where such a notion was expressed?

          • Burro [Mule] says

            It seldom has to be expressed. People without a college education are never considered ignorant if their opinions on race, gender, or sexual expression align with those of the front-row kids

  4. For the earth stopping rotating, Randall Munroe, the creator of the xkcd web comic, addressed this in his book “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” (a great book for laughter and sneaking science into your kids – I read it aloud to them). It is one of the chapters that got sampled online, so you can find it in places like Obviously, if God did do this, he’d have to have also dealt with air and ocean (water/lake) rotation, not just stopping the earth.

    But I recall hearing a commentary on Joshua’s long day that observed the positions of the two armies were swapped east/west from what they should be for the literal understanding to be sensible. And thus that it likely did not refer to a long day, but rather to the times of sunrise and moonset being such as to appear as a bad omen for the foes of Israel. I don’t know enough to know if this comment is valid.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Obviously, if God did do this, he’d have to have also dealt with air and ocean (water/lake) rotation, not just stopping the earth.

      From my readings in both SF and Ufology, that could only be done by some sort of “acceleration field effect” (similar to gravitational attraction) which would decelerate ALL matter in the field boundary as one.

  5. Speaking of uncharacteristic ‘miracles’, the story of Ananias and Sapphire being struck dead by God in the NT seems similarly out of place, in my mind. Seems uncharacteristic of Jesus. I doubt the OT Flood story for the same reason.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      True, although that also cues into why I wouldn’t title myself as a sloppy-agape-guy. Scripture does seem to reserve the harshest treatment for Frauds; this continues on into Revelation [although Revelation has all manner of its own issues].

      It seems like you can be an adulterous lay-about and perhaps a prophet will arrive to admonish you. But pompous frauds beware; the scythe of the Lord will not tarry. In the vein of a-millstone-about-ones-neck.

      I cannot complete the separation of Scripture from the notion of Condemnation; especially around the notion of pomposity.

      On the other hand an acute allergy to pomposity may be a tell of a people/nation who feel themselves the under-dog. So come down hard on pomposity in lieu of other sins, the condemnation of which would be politically more expensive.

      • It seems like you can be an adulterous lay-about and perhaps a prophet will arrive to admonish you. But pompous frauds beware; the scythe of the Lord will not tarry. In the vein of a-millstone-about-ones-neck.

        “You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality,
        I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie
        there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to
        Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.
        Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere
        fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil
        became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the
        complete anti-God state of mind.” – C S Lewis, *Mere Christianity*

        • Is there anything more prideful than willfully misrepresenting God?

          • Apparently stealing from God or his children. Then he’ll shake you down with divine retribution.

            It’s sort of a small scale Canaanites situation. Your favorite preferred local deity always seems to wish calamity and ill upon people who are mean to his chosen…after the fact.

            • >…after the fact

              Yeah, when he could have stopped it from the get-go. Seems more like a revenge fantasy of the people than an act of God.

              And the Ananias and Sapphira story seems more like a cautionary legend made up by the church to prevent believers from defrauding or betraying the church, at a time when defrauding or betrayal could have been fatally calamitous for the church, than an act of God.

  6. Science is “arrogant” and “elitist” only to the degree that it demonstrates that our dang fool notions can’t be true. One of the particular delusions of our age is that we all have our own personal “truth” which corresponds exactly to our hopes and needs and desires. Alas, wishing it to be so doesn’t make it so and humans are so prone to self-deception and wishful thinking that it might be safer to assume our perceptions are always wrong. Fortunately this is not true either. I simply recall the quote from Richard Feynman –

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”


    Ok Mike the G, you opened this big ole can’o’worms so lets talk about miracles. My first response has always been that the most astounding claim in the Bible is that Jesus rose from the dead so if you accept that as an actual event in space-time then why balk at anything else? Including six-day creations and earth halting its rotation?

    However, my views are informed by scientific methodology and historical critical study of these ancient texts. These tales were written by people living generations after the events they claim to recall. For example none of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Jesus’ followers were illiterate Aramaic speaking Jews. The writers of the gospels were highly educated urban Greek speakers, at last two of which were non-Jews.. They were recording oral traditions that has skipped not only cultures by languages as well.

    I think the Resurrection was not an event in space-time but an event in the consciousness of Jesus’ disciples. But what this means is that it is a not simply a historical datum to be assented to, but an event that can occur in the consciousness of people TODAY. I’ll butcher the quote since I don’t have my books in front of me but recall the sentiment of Meister Eckhart – What difference does it make if Jesus was born of Mary if he is not born of me?

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who will note the inherent tension between Feynman’s positivism and the idealism of the gospels. But we must not pretend the tension does not exist. We are truly apes AND angels I wish I could credit the source but I read a striking quote a while back that has stayed with me over the years. We are creatures of matter. But through science we have seen that matter is what the ancients conceived spirit to be.

    • Stephen, I recommend Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for a case that much of the Gospels material comes from eyewitness reports.

      • Yes Chaplain Mike thank you, I am familiar with Prof Bauckham’s views. I just don’t find them persuasive. Some of the connections he wants to make in the early traditions are far more tenuous than he needs them to be to come to the conclusions he does. I think Prof Bauckham has an insufficient understanding of how traditions actually work in oral cultures. (There is a great deal of literature on this subject although not much reflected in New Testament studies unfortunately.) Also his work rests on the mistaken assumption that eyewitness testimony should be privileged. (There is a great deal of literature on that too.)

        Interesting arguments though. I note that ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ just appeared in a second edition.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      Not speaking directly to your interestong comment, but your last paragraph remindes me of that excellent Pratchett quote:

      I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.

  7. In terms of accepting miracles…J.I. Packer writes in “Knowing God” that the incarnation is the biggest miracle of the NT. Anything else pales in comparison. (my paraphrase from memory but that is the main point).

    It also seems the incarnation might fit in Mike’s category of coinciding with God’s nature…that is, He humbles Himself.

  8. Thanks, Mike the G. It was allowing myself to ask questions and think these kinds of thoughts that made it possible for me to eventually see other ways of interpreting Scripture – and Life – than what I was given as an Evangelical. Finn’s comment “Most of the ‘tight’ arguments I hear … are apropos to nothing in real life” was how I experienced most Ev. interpretations more and more, the older I got. I was tired of arguing over the details of historical events; it was because I respected Scripture that I was singularly focused on pursuing Meaning. (Still do, and still am.)

    As to Matt 24 and following re “the end of the age”, I think that Jesus in his capacity of Prophet is, like the OT prophets, foretelling things that will not only happen in the far future, but also the nearer future – both aspects exist at the same time in many of the prophetic sayings. Indeed, the nearer future he is foretelling is what will happen in just a few hours *to him*. It would take a very gifted person to tease out the exact how and when of everything Jesus says in Matt 24-25 regarding “near” fulfillment and “ultimate” fulfillment, but I think ch 25 should include the 2 verses that open ch 26: “When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.'” I think the near fulfillment of “the sign of the Son of man in in heaven” is Christ lifted up on the Cross – above earth, in “the heavens” (“the atmosphere all around us”, as Willard rendered the Greek “ourano”).

    Linking Christ coming in glory – and the Judgment – to his Crucifixion is a feature of Eastern Christian thought. What you write about in this post, Mike, is again a matter of interpretation: are we going to push scientific data into the box of a particular interpretive framework, or – accepting that what we call “miraculous” may have actually happened and yet was chronicled for a different purpose than providing scientific data or a kind of “written video recording” that must needs be non-falsifiable – are we going to seek an interpretive framework that makes better sense and is more cohesive, in terms of enlightening us about the Meaning of what God is up to? Fr Stephen’s latest, “Before the Judgment Seat of Christ,” leapt immediately to mind. Do please give it a read.