Tens of millions of people across the United States are preparing to look skyward next Monday as the moon passes between Earth and the sun and, for a few brief moments, daylight turns to darkness. For many, the solar eclipse is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, a magnificent demonstration of what can happen when celestial objects align.
For others, its magnificence is of a different kind.
Some religious groups and institutions are anticipating the eclipse through the lens of faith. A religious perspective provides certain tools for encountering natural wonders, adding a few extra layers to the experience. It can turn the eclipse into something other than just a really cool thing, and into a reminder of heavenly wonder, an opportunity to proselytize, or as an omen of dark days to come. (Or, for one Kickstarter project that raised $11,000, a chance to publish "an original communication" from God about alien contact.)
Several institutions in Oregon, Wyoming, Missouri, and other states along the path of totality—the narrow stretch of land where the full effect of the eclipse will be visible—are treating the eclipse and the wave of visitors following it as an opportunity to spread gospel.
In Silverton, Oregon, Sonrise Ranch is hosting a sold-out, family-friendly festival on its grounds called “Eclipsed With God’s Love,” which will include outdoor church services and Christian film screenings. In Casper, Wyoming, which is expecting thousands of visitors, a pair of Baptist churches and a local chapter of a Christian nonprofit will hand out hundreds of copies of God of Wonders, a movie, styled like a nature documentary, that features creationist explanations for everything from weather systems to DNA. “Additionally, if our parking lot is utilized for eclipse watchers, we will take that opportunity to try and share the Gospel,” a pastor explained, according to the Baptist Press. In Chillicothe, Missouri, a Baptist-run campground will host a “Wonders of Creation Solar Eclipse Family Retreat” of hiking, swimming, and other activities, interspersed with time for worship and teachings. “Since we’re in the range of the eclipse, we thought we were in a position to do teaching and ministry for families,” an organizer told The Pathway, a Baptist publication in Missouri.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish-outreach organization Chabad wondered in a blog post about the Jewish perspective on the solar eclipse. Although the Talmud, a fifth-century compilation of rabbinic teaching, warns that “when the luminaries are stricken, it is an ill omen for the world,” Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin writes, “an eclipse is not caused by sin. Rather, it is an indication of a trying time, a time when there is a natural predisposition for sin, and for strict judgment of that sin.” The Rabbinical Assembly, an organization of Conservative rabbis, explored the question of a potential blessing for the solar eclipse. In Judaism, there’s a blessing for nearly everything, from weather-related phenomena like lightning and thunder to everyday activities like preparing meals and going to the bathroom—but none for an eclipse. “One could certainly respond with any number of texts from our tradition that speak of inspiration derived from celestial bodies,” Rabbi Joshua Heller writes, and offers some advice on DIY blessings.
For a small group of Christian leaders, the solar eclipse is less about spreading the Word than receiving a message from God—and not a good one. In a recent blog post, Anne Graham Lotz, the Christian evangelist daughter of Billy Graham, compared the celebratory mood of viewing parties for the eclipse to the biblical feast Belshazzar held in Babylon, oblivious to the Persians and Medes sneaking up on the kingdom, ready to take over. “While no one can know for sure if judgment is coming on America, it does seem that God is signaling us about something,” she said. “Time will tell what that something is.”
Reverend Mark Creech, the head of the Christian Action League in North Carolina, agreed with Graham Lotz in a column at The Christian Post. “America is definitely ripe for judgment,” he wrote. Gary Ray, a writer for Unsealed, an evangelical Christian news site, told The Washington Post this week the eclipse may be a hint about the second coming of Jesus Christ. “The Bible says a number of times that there’s going to be signs in the heavens before Jesus Christ returns to Earth,” Ray said. “We see this as possibly one of those.”
The view of events like solar eclipses as messages from the gods—good or bad, but mostly bad—has a long record in human history. For millennia, the sudden and brief darkening of the sun was more likely to trigger panic than amazement because, also for millennia, eclipses were poorly understood.
Careful observations and attempts to predict these events took place in ancient civilizations across the globe, but the information gleaned from this study remained with the religious elite, explains Paul V. M. Flesher, a religious-studies professor at the University of Wyoming. For most people, the sudden disappearance of the midday sun was a break in the natural procession of the world as they knew it, in the rhythmic routine—sunrise, sunset—that arranged their lives. Such an unexpected interruption in the natural order of things was, not surprisingly, frightening. “What could be more traumatic than the abandonment of the sun?” as my editor Ross Andersen wrote last week. “This is the energy source that powers Earth’s photosynthetic food chains, the ball of fire that anchors and warms us as we twirl around in the cold cosmic void. The sun is the giver of life.”
The masses attributed eclipses to a god or gods, the only beings they knew to be capable of manipulating forces of nature, the kind that, for example, sometimes delivered badly needed rains for their crops, and other times, withheld them. “Eclipses, whether lunar or solar, are not really central to any theology of any religion,” Flesher said. But there are references to a darkening of the sun throughout religious literature, including in the description of the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s not known whether these mentions represent historical eclipse events or, as Flesher puts it, embellishments to convey significance beyond human control.
Science eventually explained solar eclipses as a testament to the natural world’s power, which is blissfully ignorant of the humans that fear it. Some superstition persists, because solar eclipses, while they’re easily predicted today, are still a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for many. “While they’re common on Earth, they aren’t common in the same place on Earth, so once you get to the notion that somehow this is a rare event and it’s not predictable, then you get to the notion that this is an omen or a portent,” Flesher said. While the continental United States hasn’t been in the direct path of a total solar eclipse in nearly 100 years, the phenomenon is visible from somewhere on Earth about every year and a half, according to NASA.
Eclipse viewers are susceptible to emotional responses to solar eclipses, whether they view them as natural phenomena or heavenly wonders. Feelings of fear and awe fall along the same spectrum, and the splendor of astronomical events can sometimes blur the lines.
“You read stories of people who saw their first eclipse as a child and it was an overwhelming, numinous—to use a good religious term—response to a physical natural event, something that is beyond description. It’s somehow coming face-to-face with something ultimate and unimaginable,” Flesher said. “The flip side of that kind of numinous reaction—it can be scary. It can be terrifying.”