The way I saw it:
Darkness = fear + loneliness + negativity
You may be glad to know I have grown out of that. Now I’m a lights off guy. I’m a pitch black, darker the better, head down, forget the world and sleep kind of guy.
Darkness = peace + rest + comfort
Three of the four gospel accounts of the crucifixion speak of a darkness that covered the land for three hours. None of them reveals its nature, its source, or its significance. Luke is the only author who gives it anything more than a cursory mention when he declares that ‘the sun’s light failed’ (Luke 23:45). For many years I approached this account much the same as I approached my childhood bedtime:
Darkness = fear + loneliness + negativity
The traditional explanation for the darkness is to see it as an eclipse, signifying the despair and separation that Jesus endured. Matthew Henry expresses it thus:
“The indignities done to our Lord Jesus, made the heavens astonished, and horribly afraid, and even put them into disorder and confusion; such wickedness as this the sun never saw before, and therefore withdrew, and would not see this. […] That which was principally intended in this darkness, was, (1) Christ’s present conflict with the powers of darkness. […] (2) His present want of heavenly comforts. This darkness signified that dark cloud which the human soul of our Lord Jesus was now under.” (Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible, p1768-1769)
The tone of this explanation is expressly negative; the heavens are astonished and the sun withdraws, as if the celestial entities themselves react emotionally. Shock, horror and disgust are of course entirely apt for such an atrocity as the cross. Not for one moment do I wish to belittle the sacrifice or rationalise the pain that Christ went through. But I would like to propose that there is a deeper, more joyous meaning behind this phenomenon. So I invite you to reassess your perspective on darkness and begin to find peace and hope therein.
In its immediate context, the darkness is linked to the tearing of the Temple curtain. We see this most clearly in Luke’s account:
‘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)
The tearing of the curtain is a positive act, which speaks of man’s access to God. Once a year the high priest would enter through to make atonement for people’s sins (Leviticus 16:1-34). This penetrating of the curtain is used symbolically in Hebrews to refer to the immediate access Christians now have to God because of Christ (Heb 6:19; 9:3; 10:20). I would put it to you that if the tearing of the curtain is a positive act, might the accompanying darkness not also be open to a positive interpretation?
Often when New Testament writers give little explanation for a passing detail, it is because the imagery employed would have been so ingrained in the Jewish mind that the allusion would be obvious. So it would do us well to examine the Old Testament texts that speak of the inner areas of the temple, and particularly the Day of Atonement.
So turn with me to Leviticus 16. Here God gives detailed directions for the construction and use of the altar. The passage speaks about the sin offerings, the burnt offerings and the scapegoat. God says ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.’ (Leviticus 16:30)
At the beginning of the chapter God declares that Aaron must not come into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain, else he will die. And the reason is this. God says: ‘I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.’ (v2) The presence of God, manifest in the form of a cloud was the sign that the sacrifice was accepted and forgiveness granted. In other words:
Cloud + Curtain = Atonement
Do you see where I’m going? The day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 is ‘a copy and shadow of the heavenly things’ (Hebrews 8:5). If God displayed His glory in such an evident way in Leviticus 16, how much more should we expect Him to display His glory when atonement is made for all people?
God’s presence at the atonement cover was a glorious statement that the sacrifice of Aaron was acceptable and accepted. And so, I propose, the darkness at the death of Christ spoke of the same thing; the offering of Jesus’ perfect and sinless life was acceptable to the Holy God.
Stop and ponder for a moment. How does that make you rethink the passage? Does it engender a sense of gloom and despair, or great hope? Does it make more sense of the surrounding events; a torn curtain and opened graves? The dark presence of God in the form of a cloud speaks of freedom, forgiveness, cleansing and access to the Father.
Now, I suppose you may raise a number of objections; for example, none of the three gospel accounts mention a cloud. Granted. The closest we get to a clear description is from Luke, who claims that ‘The sun’s light failed’ (Luke 23:45). But this is surely not intended as a literal scientific explanation. We are not expected to believe that the sun ‘failed’ like a power grid or lightbulb might fail. The Greek έκλείπω can mean either to fail or to be eclipsed. If we are to claim that the sun was eclipsed, why should it not have been eclipsed by a cloud rather than a planet?
Leon Morris makes the important observation that ‘translators and commentators are in error who speak of an eclipse of the sun. An eclipse is impossible at the full moon (which of course, determined the time of the Passover), and Luke’s language should not be pressed to mean this’ (Morris, Leon, Luke, An Introduction and Commentary, p329-330). If we cannot attribute the darkness to an eclipse, I propose that we are fully entitled to explore other explanations for the failing of the sun, such as the cover of a cloud.
A second objection is that the manifest presence of God’s glory is a bright, radiant phenomenon, not one of darkness. Certainly there are passages in Scripture where the glory of God is described as a light. See for example the angelic visitation to the shepherds (Luke 2:9), the transfiguration (Matt 17:2-5) and John’s vision of the heavenly city, which
‘has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.’ (Revelation 21:23)
But references to the glory of God are not all linked with brightness. Ezekiel speaks of the glory of God shining (Ezekiel 43:2) but he also refers to the brightness being accompanied by a cloud (Ezekiel 10:4). This is not an isolated reference to cloud. We have already seen it in Leviticus 16, but similar references linking a cloud with the glory of the Lord can be found throughout the Old Testament. (e.g. Numbers 16:42, 2 Chronicles 5:13-14)
1 Kings 8 provides an interesting insight:
‘When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that He would dwell in thick darkness. I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”’ (1 Kings 8:10-13)
The coming of the glory of the Lord is accompanied by a cloud, which results in the priests being unable to perform their service. Solomon’s throwaway statement that ‘The Lord has said he would dwell in thick darkness’ suggests that the cloud of His presence was dark. We find similar statements in Psalm 18:11-12 and 97:1-4.
There are also references to the glory of the Lord being linked with fire (Deuteronomy 5:24;Zech 2:5) and Exodus 24 is a prime example of a text that speaks of God’s glory both in terms of fire and cloud:
‘Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.’ (Exodus 24:15-17)
The final chapter of Exodus speaks about the cloud settling, the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle, and there being a cloud to guide by day and a fire by night (Exodus 40:34-38). It appears that God adapts the manifestation of His presence according to the time of day: fire illuminates the dark, and dark cloud is visible in daylight.
Interestingly, the two gospel references to the brightness of the glory of God were both evening or nighttime occurrences (Luke 2:8-9; Matt 17:4). But at the crucifixion the time was from the sixth to the ninth hour; the middle of the day. So for God to reveal Himself by a dark cloud rather than fire would be the most visible and appropriate form, perfectly in keeping with His Old Testament practice.
So in summary, whilst in no way wishing to diminish the agony of Jesus at this moment of intense separation from his Father, I would argue that the darkness that fell was not the elements recoiling in horror, but a symbolically loaded action, rooted in Leviticus 16.
Jesus was the great sacrifice, the true atonement cover, the genuine mercy seat. And just as God appeared in the cloud on the Day of Atonement, so He revealed Himself on this Great Day of Atonement. He gave His approval to the sacrifice. He tore down the curtain of division. He consumed the sacrifice and made open the way to God. On that day He fulfilled, in the most dramatic and remarkable way, His age-old promise:
Darkness = peace + rest + comfort