Shaking Up the Heavens…Cosmic Destruction? [Earthquakes…Signs of the Times, 8 (Mark 13)]

This is the eighth post in a series titled: Earthquakes… Signs of the Times? I invite you to read the rest of the series here to catch up (the first post would be extremely helpful)…

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Here is the text that needs to be dealt with in order to close some open-ended questions that still may linger about this passage as it relates to earthquakes and other natural disasters as signs of the end-times:

24 “But in those days, following that distress,
” ‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;

25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

Our current passage of continues to warn the disciples of the devastation to come, finding its climax in cosmic apocalyptic language.  The images of the sun being “darkened,” the moon losing its glow, stars falling from the sky, and “the heavenly bodies” being “shaken” have often been regarded as an event that will happen during the still future tribulation.  This is to take place as a sign that Jesus (Son of Man) is about to return.  But this makes the mistake of misinterpreting apocalyptic language!  In context, this passage suggests an impending national crisis that will come as an act of God’s judgment within history.  Many other examples of this can be found throughout the Old Testament, especially Isaiah.  Isaiah uses cosmic language to describe political events such as the coming of Babylon’s conquering and the eventual fall of Edom.  These are realities that have already been fulfilled in history!  Jesus is simply using an Old Testament prophetic rhetorical devise to explain the coming doom of Jerusalem.[1]

Consider the following analogy to understand the way apocalyptic language functions.  Jesus saying that “the sun will be darkened” or that “stars will fall from the sky” could be compared how we might say that something that happened in modern day was an “earth-shattering” event.   Think about the example of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Most would agree that in modern rhetoric this could be referred to as an “earth-shattering” event.  Now, suppose that someone read a news article with that type of language in it, they would not assume that an earthquake had caused the wall to fall down.  They would understand the exaggerated metaphor.  The same understanding may not be true of someone who two thousand years in the future, read the exact copy of that particular article.  Such a person may be inclined to think that a literal earthquake destroyed the Berlin Wall, causing a new political situation to emerge.  But we know that would not be true, because the historical reality is that the Berlin Wall was intentionally torn down stone by stone.  The exact same idea must equally be applied to our readings of this apocalyptic text in regards to the destruction of the Temple.  We have a two thousand year language gap, but when these are bridged appropriately, we may be able to avoid unnecessary doomsday theologies.[2]

What analogies help you to understand apocalyptic language?  Do you have any that complements the perspective offered here?  What other thoughts does this bring to your mind about the “communication gap” that must be bridged when reading texts like this?


[1]. Andrew Perriman, The Coming of The Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, 44.

 

[2]. N. T. Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, Grove Biblical Series (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1999), 9.

  • http://Jeremyinbyzantium.com Jeremy John

    well one thing that helped me changed my perspective was to know what the Greek word actually means. The Greek word “apocolpyis” does not mean a destruction of the world, but it means a “reveling” or “unveiling”. When the Greek new testament was translated to Latin in the west. It was translated to Revelatio, hence where we get the name. We have no reason to suppose from the very beginning that the “book of revelation” means a destruction of the earth.

  • Conrad

    OK so let me get this straight before I comment on anything, you are arguing that when Jesus said this:

    24 “But in those days, following that distress,
    ” ‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;

    25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

    He just meant “earthshattering” so to speak?

  • http://thoughtloose.blogspot.com Maria Kirby

    There was a gentleman in my church who use to teach at Moody. He said there were some papers/articles on how these astronomical events were metaphors of certain war practices like catapults.

    These general apocalyptic astronomical and earthly signs are found in many places through out the bible: psalms, Habakkuk, in addition to the more apocraphical literature. There are a lot of similarities between such events and the affects of a comet/asteroid collision.

    While I like how you draw out the fall of Jerusalem inferences, I find that too limiting. It seems to me that the passage can presage both a more immediate fulfillment and a distant fulfillment. Many other prophetic passages do this. The now fulfillment and the not yet fulfillment lens is very apropos to the theological time period that we are living in.

    • Conrad

      lol I find the catapult interpretation rather ridiculous unless they have a REALLY good explanation for it…

      But I agree with your view on the “lens effect” if you read the very next verse (26) it becomes pretty obvious that that hasn’t been fulfilled yet. And verse 27 is OBVIOUSLY not talking about about the fall of Jerusalem, since it is the opposite of what happened there…

  • http://findingmeaningin.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    I tend to agree with Maria. On the one hand, apocalyptic literature is at its core a message of hope for the original hearers. It is a poetic, image-rich way of communication that the powers of the world are not the ultimate power, and that God is moving in history. Rome, Jerusalem, the Temple, are temporary in their existence and believers must hold firm in their allegiance to the Kingdom of God. And it uses cosmic imagery to express these truths.

    For this reason, I think it is a mistake when believers create maps and calendars (either literal or figurative) of the events of the end times, and try to identify powers in our world specifically with the images of biblical apocalyptic literature (e.g- Obama is the antichrist, Russia is the beast, etc.) Apocalyptic literature speaks of the political, economic, and religious powers of our era only inasmuch as it speaks of the powers in all eras. Likewise, natural disasters and wars are manifestations of apocalyptic prophecy only inasmuch as those things represent the fallenness of creation in all times and places. I do think we can draw from Scripture the truth that the Powers in our world are temporary and will be thrown down in due time, but let’s resist the arrogance which would lead us to assume that the end of the American empire is equivalent to the end of human history. Let us not forget, Jesus concludes Mark 13 with the admonition that no one knows the day or hour, save only the Father.

    However, I do not want to overstate the case. I do think there is a sense in which this immediate hope for the triumph of God over the particular powers of a given era is rooted in the conviction that the God is moving in the universe with intention and purpose. That God is moving toward an ultimate work of redemption and re-creation. That the tension between the Kingdom of God and the powers will be resolved in a final and permanent way. So as I said, I think we need to acknowledge that we don’t know the day or hour and that the truth of apocalyptic literature is equally applied to each generation in such a way that the demise of our powers should not be equated with ‘the end’. But I also want to maintain the hope and conviction that God’s triumph in history will be consummated fully. And I want to continue to pray with the church throughout history, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus”.

  • http://mystic444.wordpress.com mystic444

    As you would expect, I find your points to be excellent. Your analogy to ‘earthshaking’ events captures the idea contained in such hyperbolic language beautifully. I like to say such ‘end of the world’ terminology indicates that it’s going to be ‘lights out’ and ‘then end of the world’ for the nation or people at whom the prophecy is directed. They may even literally cease to exist as a people. Jews did not literally cease to exist, but their national existence came to an end, together with all of the things outwardly associated with the religion (Temple, sacrifices, priesthood, etc.).

    One can laugh at the idea of a national calamity being referred to by such cataclysmic terminology as the sun being darkened and the moon not giving its light (or being turned to blood), and the stars falling to the earth; but anyone who seriously examines Hebrew prophecy and poetry will find that is exactly the kind of language those prophets used for such events. In a prophecy against Pharaoh, king of Egypt, Ezekiel said this (32:7 and 8): “When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you; I will bring darkness over your land, declares the Sovereign Lord”. This language referred to the conquest by Babylon (verse 11).

    In Isaiah 13,when prophesying about Babylon (verse 1) being overthrown by the Medes (verse 17), Isaiah said this: ” The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light… Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty in the day of his burning anger” (verses 10 and 13).

    When prophesying about the destruction of Edom (34:5), Isaiah said this: “All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree. My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed” (verses 4 and 5).

    According to Jesus, Jerusalem and national Israel was about to be ‘snuffed out’ like Egypt in Ezekiel 32; it was about to be destroyed like Edom. The same type of ‘end of the world’ language which was used for those other nations then became applicable to Jerusalem and the Jewish nation. It was not at all inappropriate, but neither was it literal any more than it was literal with regard to the destruction of Babylon, Edom, or Egypt.

    And besides, Jesus unequivocally said that all those things would happen before that generation passed away. If it is still future, then Jesus was a false prophet. I don’t think your readers are willing to allow that Jesus was mistaken, so he must have been speaking metaphorically about the wrath of God coming on the Jewish nation.

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