Total solar eclipses don’t come around very often. When they do occur, they become major cultural events, and the one in late summer of 2017 was no exception. Many people drove or flew hundreds of miles to be in the path of totality, to gain a vantage point from which they could view the full effect of the eclipse. Many more followed the live coverage on their smartphones or laptops, eager to watch the cosmic drama unfold.

But whether on the ground or online, the sight of the moon blotting out the sun and then turning it into a celestial diamond ring created a moment of transcendent wonder.

For Christians, that sense of wonder was doubly acute, a vivid embodiment of the opening words of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.”

Those familiar words, however, can roll off the tongue a bit too smoothly, without first rolling about in the mind and imagination. To be precise, in what way does a solar eclipse declare the glory of God? As might be expected, there is more than one.

A finely tuned cosmos

Since total solar eclipses are so rare and unusual, it’s tempting to think of them as random coincidences of nature. But they’re nothing of the sort. In reality, they follow a complex pattern of physical and mathematical rules that makes it possible to predict their occurrence years in advance, as people have been doing since ancient times. This pattern depends on the sun, moon and earth having exactly the right size, composition, relative distance and motion with respect to each other. If there were any variation in any of these properties, total eclipses as we know them would never occur.

These physical properties of the earth, moon and sun are part of a much larger, vastly more complex pattern of cosmic variables, all of which must be precisely as they are for life on earth to exist. The odds of them all falling into place by pure chance is, in a word, astronomical. Taken together, they offer powerful evidence of what scientists call universal fine tuning. Far from being the product of random processes, the cosmos is as its name implies: a created order designed by the unfathomable wisdom of a Creator God. The rare celestial convergence of a total eclipse is a potent reminder of this reality.

Mercy over judgment

Throughout history, eclipses have been interpreted as bad omens or spiritual portents of doom. Across many cultures, they’ve often been explained in terms of mythical beasts or demons devouring the sun. In fact, the modern term “eclipse” derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning to abandon, to forsake or to fail. The implication of the original term is evident: the sun, the source of light and life, has failed and forsaken the world.

On several occasions, the authors of Scripture also speak of a phenomenon that resembles an eclipse. In poetic language, they describe the sun as being darkened and the moon as turning to blood. All of these passages are prophetic in nature and linked to the concept of divine judgment. But then, the Gospel writers record a similar celestial event that occurred in real history, during the Crucifixion:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46, emphasis added)

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this He breathed His last. (Luke 23:44-46, emphasis added)

It’s unlikely this was a natural solar eclipse for a number of reasons, not least because normal total eclipses only last a few minutes at maximum. More likely it was a unique supernatural event, arranged by God to echo what was happening on the Cross. Either way, the parallel language is unmistakable between the light of the sun failing and the Son being forsaken by His Father. But once Jesus had finished His work and paid the full penalty for sin, the darkness ended and the sun returned.

Even so, every natural solar eclipse since the Crucifixion can be seen not only as a portent of judgment, but rather of judgment swallowed up by mercy. The darkness is for a moment, but cannot block the sun for long, any more than the tomb could hold Jesus for long. Because of the Resurrection, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century preacher, expressed this truth most eloquently:

A total eclipse is one of the most terrible and grand sights that ever will be seen. But thank God, whatever eclipse happens to a Christian, it is never a total eclipse. There is always a ring of comfort left. There is always a crescent of love and mercy to shine upon God’s child.

A veiled glory

From a Biblical standpoint, the symbolism of the eclipse isn’t restricted to the death of Jesus on the Cross. It extends to His entire life as the incarnate Son of God. For a brief moment in history, the glory of the eternal God was veiled in human form, much as the moon temporarily hides the light of the sun.

Over the centuries, more than a few believers have drawn this connection between solar eclipses and the divine mystery of the Incarnation. John Owen, a Puritan theologian and Oxford academic who lived in the years following Galileo’s discoveries, offers a fascinating example:

When the sun is under a total eclipse, it loses nothing of its native beauty, light, and glory. It is still the same that it was from the beginning, a “great light to rule the day.” To us it appears as a dark, useless meteor; but when it comes by its course to free itself from the lunar interposition, to its proper aspect towards us, it manifests again its native light and glory.

So was it with the divine nature of Christ, as we have before declared. He veiled the glory of it by the interposition of the flesh, or the assumption of our nature to be His own; with this addition, that He took on Him the “form of a servant,” of a person of mean and low degree. But this temporary eclipse being past and over, it now shines forth in its infinite luster and beauty, which belongs to the present exaltation of His person.

Beauty, pure and simple

Beyond the complex physics and math, beyond even the rich theological symbolism, total eclipses speak a simple, direct language that’s readily understood by everyone: beauty. Those who’ve seen an eclipse in its totality, with its beads of light and diamond ring effect, invariably describe it as the most beautiful natural phenomenon they’ve ever experienced.

This is no more a coincidence than the alignment of sun, moon and earth that created the eclipse in the first place. The existence of beauty, along with beings who are capable of recognizing and appreciating it, is one of the strongest arguments for the existence of a beautiful, glorious God. Astronomer Hugh Ross makes the connection:

I don’t think it’s an accident that God put us human beings here on Earth where we can actually see total solar eclipses. I think God wants us to make these discoveries. I would argue that God on purpose made the universe beautiful, and one of the beauties is a solar eclipse.

Since these beauties reflect the character and glory of God, they call for something more than simple mental acknowledgement from His creatures. They demand the engagement of all the faculties, the mind as well as the emotions and the imagination. They challenge God’s image-bearers to delight in His creation for the sake of their Creator. Trevin Wax at the Gospel Coalition sums it up this way:

When God created the world, all the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:4-7). The God who sings over His creation is the God who rejoices in His works (Psalm 104:31). If God delights in the work of His hands, shouldn’t we? And shouldn’t the wonders of creation lead us to praise and thank Him?

So, let’s not wait until the next eclipse to stop and pause and wonder. Look up to the heavens, and then look further up, until you find joy in the God who enjoys His handiwork.

Sources and further reading

Joe Carter, “9 things you should know about solar eclipses,” Gospel Coalition, August 21, 2017.

Sarah Chaffee, “In 2017, watch a spectacular display of intelligent design,” Evolution News and Science Today, August 27, 2016.

Rob Garner and Brian Dunbar, editors, “Eclipses and Transits,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, updated on August 21, 2017. NASA resource page offering images and information about eclipses in general and the 2017 solar eclipse in particular.

Laura Geggel, “Do other planets have solar eclipses?” Live Science, August 5, 2017.

Lewis Guest IV, “The Son inside the solar eclipse: Watching with Owen, Edwards, and Spurgeon,” Desiring God, August 21, 2017.

Eric Metaxas, “Observatory Earth: Eclipses and our privileged planet,” BreakPoint, September 7, 2016.

Jay W. Richards, “Perfect eclipses: Coincidence or conspiracy?” Evolution News and Science Today, August 17, 2017.

Trevin Wax, “Why does it take an eclipse to get us to look up to the heavens?” Gospel Coalition, August 16, 2017.

Julie Zauzmer, “For some, eclipse day showcases God’s majesty. For others, it means the Rapture is coming,” Washington Post, August 21, 2017.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox

View comments ()