Question: In Luke 23:44, the writer states that an eclipse of the sun took place at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. Is there a basis of fact as to its occurrence? And, if so, was this solar eclipse coincidental and in accord with the laws of science?
— Chick P.
Answer: I am not sure why you call it an “eclipse.” None of the Gospel writers use this term. Matthew, Mark and Luke use the Greek term σκότος (skotos), which means, simply, “darkness.”
As a general rule we should avoid applying certain meanings to texts that are more specific than the author intends. That there was darkness over the land from noon till 3 p.m. is certainly attested in the sacred text. But the cause of that darkness is unexplained. Perhaps God made use of natural causes, such as an eclipse or very heavy clouds, to cause the darkness. But it is also possible that the darkness was of purely supernatural origin and was experienced only by some.
Hence, trying to explain the darkness simply in terms of “the laws of science” risks doing disservice to the text by missing its deeper meaning, namely, that the darkness of sin has reached its height.
Jesus had said elsewhere, “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil” (Jn 3:19). He also said, referring to his passion, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (Jn 9:4). And when Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John observes simply and profoundly, “And it was night” (Jn 13:30). Yes, deep darkness had come upon the world.
Though some modern scholars consider this darkness a mere literary device, there seems little reason to doubt that it actually occurred. While some refer to a purported Letter of Pontius Pilate to Tiberius that verifies it, the historical value of the document is highly disputed. Yet, three of the Gospels record it, and most of the Fathers of the Church treat the darkness as historical.
We should balance accepting its historicity with an appreciation that the texts are restrained in terms of precise details.
Destination of souls
Question: Where do our souls go after we die? Do all go to heaven?
Answer: The first destination is the judgment seat of Christ: “It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27). And again, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).
From here, are three possible destinations. Many do go to heaven, the ultimate destination of all who believe in the Lord and, by his grace, die in love and friendship with him, and are perfected.
But most of the heaven-bound likely first experience purgatory, where those who die in friendship with God, but are not yet fully perfected in his love, are purified and then drawn to heaven (1 Cor 3:12-15).
Finally, some go from judgment to hell, for by their own choice they rejected God and the values of the kingdom. It is wrong, as some do, to dismiss hell as an unlikely possibility. The Lord Jesus taught frequently of it, and warned that many were on the wide road that led there.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.