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On Sunday night, I went out to see the “super blood moon” eclipse. It was a clear autumn night, and I got a good view of the Earth’s shadow spreading across the Moon, like a dark slice taken out of a white sea. When the eclipse reached totality, the Moon’s face dimmed to a ruddy polished-copper color, glimmering with, as Phil Plait puts it, the reflected light of every sunset on Earth.

This was the fourth and final in a series of total lunar eclipses last year and this year. It was also a “supermoon” month when the Moon’s orbit brings it closest to the Earth, making it appear larger and brighter. In addition, the eclipses coincided with the dates of two Jewish holidays, Passover and Sukkot, on back-to-back years.

This isn’t that unusual, since eclipse tetrads generally happen several times each century, and the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and one-sixth of all eclipses happen on or near these holidays. However, the four “blood moons” (a marketing term with no astronomical significance, as far as I can tell) have caused great excitement among Christian apocalyptic prophets. According to them, this coincidence has only happened eight times since the first century CE, and on previous occasions, it’s coincided with supposedly theologically significant events:

The incredible alignment has only happened a handful of times in the last two thousand years but, remarkably, on each of the last three occasions it has coincided with a globally significant religious event. The first Tetrad since the Middle Ages, in 1493, saw the expulsion of Jews by the Catholic Spanish Inquisition, which rocked western Europe. The second coincided with the establishment of the State of Israel – after thousands of years of struggle – in 1949. Strangely, the last one occurred in 1967 – far earlier than expected – precisely at the time of the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War. (source)

Another prophecy site enthuses, creationist-style, about the allegedly small odds of the four-eclipse alignment…

The chances of any lunar eclipse occurring on any particular day, whether total or partial, is less than 3/365. The chances of one occurring on particular days 4 times in a row would be 3/365 x 3/365 x 3/365 x 3/365 = or about one in 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 = one in 100 million days, or once in 273,000 years. Nevertheless they have occurred on the first day of Passover and Tabernacles 7 times since 1 AD, and are getting ready to occur again in 2014 and 2015. Statistically, they should probably NEVER HAPPEN. (source)

…except that, of course, eclipses don’t happen on random dates, but on predetermined and precisely calculable dates. You might as well write breathlessly about the tiny odds that Christmas just happens to fall on the same date every year.

However, I think my favorite quote is the following one. The author makes the same argument about how the last three tetrads happened in theologically significant years, but acknowledges the problematic point that the four previous tetrads didn’t. But that doesn’t overturn their prophetic applecart, because, they say, we can just assume that some kind of important events also happened on those four dates, even though no records were made of it:

It isn’t simply through tetrads that we have seen signs, but the seven previous ones since the Resurrection have given compelling evidence that they do signify important events. The first four occurred in in the first millennium AD. While it’s possible to look at history books and attribute significant events to the time periods surrounding 162-163, 795-796, 842-843, and 860-861, it would be a stretch to say that these events were clearly Biblical in nature and of enough significance to point to make a modern person’s jaw drop. Rather than mention the Antonine Plague, the attack on the Vatican church in Rome, or the end of Islamic invasions of Europe, we’ll assume that the events that transpired were significant but lost to history books. (source)

As best as I can tell, the blood-moon variant of Christian apocalypse-soonism began with Mark Biltz, a pastor who first noted the tetrad in 2008 and speculated that it might mean the Second Coming would occur in 2015. Needless to say, he’s since backed off that prediction. However, a more popular end-times preacher, John Hagee, picked up the idea and ran with it, publishing a best-selling book titled Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change. As you can guess from the subtitle, Hagee, unlike Biltz, refused to commit to the Second Coming idea, but coyly speculated that some sort of event just might be about to happen, maybe, possibly, not that he’s making any promises:

The fourth series of Four Blood Moons is coming! They are extremely rare even by scientific standards. God is shouting to us, “Something big is about to happen!” However, the coming Four Blood Moons of 2014-15 does not mean the Rapture is going to happen during that time. (source)

As I’ve often said, one of the few fatal errors in religion is making a falsifiable prediction, and Hagee has learned that lesson well. Rather than commit to anything specific, he vaguely forecasts “something big”, a handwave that could be fulfilled by any significant event on Earth any time this year or in the next few years. He’s literally saying nothing at all. Yet his devotees eagerly lap up this puffery, devoting time and money to a book that leaves them no wiser or better-informed than before. Not one of these self-styled prophets has brought about any increase in human knowledge, whereas NASA readily provides us with a table of when future eclipses will happen, as well as many other heavenly events past and future.

Just as they always do, purveyors of apocalypse continue to craft elaborate, convoluted timelines trying to match real-world events to vaguely-worded biblical prophecies. This Procrustean effort always involves the creative use of metaphor, the wholesale redefinition of words and concepts, and the amputation of biblical passages that don’t fit the scheme. Inevitably, they seize on whatever real-world events happen to be happening at the time and brandish them as if they were certain proof, rather than natural occurrences whose only meaning or significance lies in what we attribute to them.

Multiply this panic and speculation by a million, and you begin to get some idea of the toll that apocalyptic expectation has taken over the ages. I can only imagine how much fretfulness, fear, and agitation religious believers have inflicted on themselves by their endless, futile hunt for significance in the great cycles of chance and natural law. It’s so much easier being an atheist, when we can appreciate these natural phenomena for their beauty and scientific interest without superstitious fear.

Image credit: Patrick Murtha, released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...