Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Shine your light and let the whole world see

Insights from the solar eclipse

Roland Clarke

Have you ever asked, “How can I start a conversation about spiritual things with unsaved friends and neighbors?” There are countless ways of engaging unbelievers in meaningful witness depending on the situation and the time of year. For example, around thanksgiving it is appropriate to talk about the good things God has done for us, including the best thing, God's indescribable gift of his Son who came to save us.

Another opportune time for pointing people to Jesus is Christmas which calls to mind the topic of stars. You could ask a thought-provoking question about the wise men, “Why were these magi (astrologers) from the East prepared to travel so far to find a newborn king?”

But Christmas is behind us and so too is Easter, another key event with a direct connection to Christ. Right now a common subject of everyday conversation is the recent solar eclipse that was visible in many parts of North America on April 8th. You can ask your friend/acquaintance, “Did you see the eclipse?” Perhaps he/she witnessed it himself or saw a pic on a friend's camera or on a news report. Then you could follow up with, “How did you feel?” After your friend shares his/her answer you can explain how it made you feel and why...

I drove to a nearby spot in the path of totality (Port Bruce) to get a better view and I wasn't disappointed. I noticed many people brought a camera or telescope. And, interestingly, almost everyone who witnessed the spectacular corona encircling the black moon was deeply moved or awestruck, including me and my wife. This was reinforced a few hours later when I saw people's reactions reported on the news. Of course, we should not be surprised, considering that most people around the world acknowledge a creator. In fact, it reminded me of the song of praise penned by King David (Daood in Islam) almost 3,000 years ago, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV) Notice how the psalmist underscores this celestial witness is constantly being transmitted day and night. Furthermore, these truths aren't just evident in the 'typical' orbits of the sun and moon, they're also seen in 'unusual' celestial phenomena, such as the total eclipse on April 8th 2024.

Did you know that a total eclipse happens somewhere on earth every 18 months on average? But there's another, even more remarkable fact which scientists call an 'amazing coincidence.' The moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, while the sun is 400 times farther away from the earth, on average. Indeed, it is these precise dimensions that providentially enable us to observe the sun's corona during a total eclipse! Suppose the moon happened to be a bit bigger (or closer to earth), then we wouldn't be able to see the corona. No wonder scientists call it an 'amazing coincidence', but it is actually no coincidence at all. Knowing these facts can help us answer skeptics/scoffers who resist/deny the idea of a good wise creator behind the universe.

I'll never forget hearing the exclamations of “Ooh and aah” as people witnessed the climactic spectacle of the moon completely overlapping the sun and yet not blocking the splendid aura of the sun's corona! There was a profound (almost mystical?) sense of camaraderie and commonality, so to speak, between onlookers. I saw someone spontaneously share his eclipse glasses with a neighbor who was viewing the event through a home-made box. I struck up a conversation with one stranger who, as it turned out, was a newcomer from Belarus. I had several conversations with different neighbors around me. A number of them gladly accepted a booklet, 'Let there be light' highlighting a magnificent picture of a sunrise and some thought-provoking comments pointing to Jesus. Looking back on this experience, I realize it would have been so natural and appropriate to exclaim, “How great God is!” Or even, “How can people say there is no God?”

This profound experience brought to mind a couple other Scriptures describing God as living “in light so brilliant that no human can approach him.” (1 Timothy 6:16) Also the apostle Paul testified, “a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me.” (Acts 26:13) Likewise, John the apostle saw Jesus, “and his face was like the sun in all its brilliance.” (Revelation 1:16) It is true: Jesus is the light of the world, but he also told his us, “You are the light of the world …” (Matthew 5:16) Elsewhere we are told: “Live clean, innocent lives as God's children ... shining like bright lights (stars) in a world full of crooked and perverse people.” (Philippians 2:14)

Conclusion: These last couple of weeks I've had several meaningful spiritual conversations with people sparked by a comment or question about the eclipse. My recent eclipse experience has opened doors to point people to Jesus as light of the world by sharing the above-mentioned booklet, 'Let there be light' which can be downloaded here.

Who can you talk to about the solar eclipse? How can you share your belief and personal testimony that this was a display of God's power and beauty?

All Bible quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.

If you've enjoyed these insights or have questions I'd love to hear from you. Please write me here.


Endnote: An altar to an unknown god? (Acts 17:23)

Interestingly, the admiration and wonder people feel at seeing the total eclipse is like the awe/worship Athenians felt towards an unknown, if mysterious, deity. Modern observers of the eclipse may not exactly describe their admiration as 'worship'. Nevertheless, that's essentially what it is. How then can we learn from Paul's example so that we can tell our unsaved neighbors about the one true God in a seasoned-with-salt manner, considering that many of them were so deeply moved at witnessing this celestial spectacle?

One way to reinforce people's admiration at seeing the amazing splendor of the sun's corona is to comment, “Did you know that this beautiful scene wouldn't even be possible if the moon was larger or smaller or if the moon's orbit around the earth was slightly shorter or longer?” You could also make a remark as follows, “I was fascinated to learn that astronomers acknowledge it is precisely these unique dimensions that make it possible for us to experience such a remarkable and amazing event!” Based on this consideration, I asked my neighbor, “Suppose that the moon's orbit was closer to the earth so as to fully block the bright corona ring?” Would the resulting image of darkness draw half as many crowds of admiring onlookers? I doubt very much that people would exclaim, “Aaah, what an awesome, beautiful, sight!”??

It is one thing to admire the splendor of a corona ring encircling the dark moon, but let me share some observations that may stir your heart further to glorify and truly worship him.

The sun's eclipse portrays a dramatic spectacle showing the moon encroaching across the sun's face until the climactic moment of totality. Note: just when you expect complete darkness from the moon totally covering the sun, the moon is unable to fully block or overpower the light from breaking through. Onlookers are stunned and awe-struck as the splendid radiance of the corona light 'wins the day,' so to speak. Then only three minutes later the full brilliance of the sun begins to return, all the brighter for having been momentarily dimmed by the darkness. Suddenly it dawned on us: this heavenly drama is a fitting illustration of John 1:4-5, “In him [the Word] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (bold font added) The eclipse serves as an object lesson or analogy demonstrating that, in the final analysis, the sun 'wins the victory' over the dark moon.*

Interestingly, the apostle Paul's sermon referring to the altar to an 'unknown god' concludes by highlighting the resurrection of Jesus Christ; “God ... commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31) Indeed, when Jesus referred to his pending resurrection from the dead he repeatedly underscored that this momentous event would glorify God. (John 12:23,28)


Conclusion: How do Muslims view the eclipse?

Let me quote a Hadith followed by a commentary showing how Muslims are supposed to respond when an eclipse occurs.

Narrated Abu Musa: “The sun eclipsed and the Prophet got up, being afraid that it might be the Hour (i.e. Day of Judgment). He went to the Mosque and offered the prayer with the longest Qiyam, bowing and prostration that I had ever seen him doing. Then he said, "These signs which Allah sends do not occur because of the life or death of somebody, but Allah makes His worshipers afraid by them. So when you see anything thereof, proceed to remember Allah, invoke Him and ask for His forgiveness.”

Sheikh Muhammad Salih Al Munajjid explains the Islamic understanding behind an eclipse;

Solar and lunar eclipses are two of the signs of Allah with which He scares His slaves and reminds them of some of the things which will happen on the Day of Resurrection, when the sun will be wound round and will lose its light and be overthrown and the stars will fall (cf. al-Takweer 81:1), and the sight will be dazed, the moon will be eclipsed and the sun and moon will be joined together (by going into one another, or folded up, or deprived of their light) (al-Qiyaamah 75:8-9). This is why Muslims should be alarmed by eclipses. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) used to fear Allah very much, and one day he came out in an agitated state, thinking that the Hour had begun, when the sun was eclipsed during his lifetime… This is indicative of the great extent to which he kept the Hour in mind and feared it. We, on the other hand, have become negligent and most people no longer think of eclipses as anything other than a natural phenomenon which they go out to watch with special glasses, carrying cameras. They limit themselves to the worldly scientific explanation without understanding the reminder of the Hereafter which it brings. This is one of the signs of hard-heartedness and a lack of concern about the matters of the Hereafter. It reflects a lack of fear of the onset of the Hour ... 

According to the Bible darkness does imply something ominous and fearful, but as explained earlier, in the final analysis, “the darkness has not overcome it.” i.e. light. Also notice Christ's words to Saul on the road to Damascus, “I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins ...” (Acts 9:17-18) Some years later Paul wrote about light in his letter to the church in Colosse, “God has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.” (Colossians 1:12-14)

Elsewhere Scripture describes Jesus as the Saviour who “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” (2 Timothy 1:10) Also “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. … We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, 'Let there be light in the darkness,' has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:4-6) Notice the highlighted words which imply light overpowers darkness. Also notice 'the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.'

Like Christians, Muslims believe that God is light and the heavens declare his glory. Tragically, however, they view the eclipse as a reminder and exhortation to be afraid and fearful, based on the example of Muhammad’s reaction. But for us Christians the eclipse calls to mind the ultimate victory of God's glorious light overpowering the short-term apparent power of darkness which inspires joyful praise rather than fear.


Footnote

* We should not be surprised that Scripture uses metaphors to describe the sun, e.g. “It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race. The sun rises at one end of the heavens and follows its course to the other end. Nothing can hide from its heat.” (Psalm 19:5-6) Elsewhere Scripture portrays certain inanimate things responding to the momentous event of Christ's crucifixion: the earth shook, the rocks were split and darkness came over the whole land as the sun's light failed for three hours. Such uncharacteristic reactions of inanimate things underscore the profound implications behind this event. Even more astonishingly, we read that the tombs were opened so that “many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead.” (Luke 23:44-45; Matthew 27:51-52) These miraculous resurrections signified that, indeed, Christ's kingdom of light was breaking through and overpowering Satan's dark kingdom in keeping with the declaration, “the darkness has not overcome the light.” (John 1:5) Achieving this victory over the powers of death and darkness involves an undeniable paradox: In order to rise up victorious over the powers of darkness and death Jesus first had to die. As it is written, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The Bible says that the phenomena of darkness, earthquake and splitting rocks evoked terror in the hearts of the soldiers who guarded the cross. Indeed, this kind of response is to be expected from people who do not know God's salvation as revealed through his Son, the Messiah. In a similar way, it is understandable to see Muhammad (and his followers) responding in fear and terror based on their perception of the unnatural and sinister darkness from a solar eclipse as a reminder or omen of Qiyamah (final judgment day). Interestingly, Hindus like Muslims, interpret the solar eclipse as having a dark, sinister meaning as seen in this statement by Eesha Das Gupta, a PhD astronomy student at University of Toronto. “The story of eclipses, especially solar eclipses, falls around demons swallowing the sun, so it's seen generally as ominous.”


Endnote: Aurora and Eclipse as segues to the gospel

Over the last month and a half social media and news outlets spotlighted the amazing spectacle of the solar eclipse followed by even more dazzling displays of the aurora. These celestial signs prompted someone to observe; “Nothing quite beats seeing the northern lights in all their glory.” But where do these magnificent scenes come from? Are they just random or do they point to the artistry of a Creator as celebrated by the psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands”? God himself is brilliant and beautiful beyond anything else. He is the One who deserves our adoration and true worship.

I want to share some stories illustrating how God is glorified through these events and how we can make the most of the opportunity to point people to Jesus.

Recently I spent several hours prayerfully walking through a large park with a couple friends. It was wonderful meeting all kinds of people enjoying sunshine, fun and food. The vast majority were newcomers from around the world, especially Muslims. We engaged about twenty people in conversation, including playing Frisbee with children. More than a dozen people gained a glimpse of the Good News as we engaged them in conversation about splendid celestial scenes as recently highlighted in news stories and social media.

These spectacular events have evoked amazement as well as fear worldwide. For example, people were strictly warned to wear special glasses when viewing the eclipse so as to protect themselves from suffering blindness. Also Muslims, Hindus and animists around the world view the solar eclipse as having an ominous meaning. On the other hand, the colorful aurora lights resonate with people of all cultures admiring them as stunningly beautiful. And yet these dazzling lights have a down side, not unlike the solar eclipse, as noted by Quentin Verspieren who coordinates the European Space Agency's space safety program. This expert warns “that behind this beauty, there is danger ...” In fact, various space agencies, like the ESA, carefully monitor sinister potential impacts of solar storms which could take out power grids and satellites.

Of course, the paradox of beauty and danger correlates with how Scripture describes God in 1 Timothy 6:16, “God … lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him. No human eye has ever seen him, nor ever will. All honor and power to him forever! Amen.” During the time of Moses the Israelites recognized God as holy and unapproachable, yet also a refuge to those who truly trust and reverence him. As it is written in Hebrews 12:18-29,

You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. For they heard an awesome trumpet blast and a voice so terrible that they begged God to stop speaking. They staggered back under God’s command: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, “I am terrified and trembling.”

No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. ... So let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a devouring fire.” (bold font added)

Notice the words 'joyful gathering' and 'names written in heaven.' Do you recall the time when Christ's disciples rejoiced because they were able to cast out demons by the power of Jesus name? But then Jesus said, “don’t rejoice because evil spirits obey you; rejoice because your names are registered in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)

The term 'heavenly Jerusalem' reminds me of two Scriptures, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Notice in both passages the prominent theme of light and the rich spectrum of beautiful colors as seen in the precious stones inlaid in the foundation walls of the new Jerusalem:

Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see. For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you. Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you. All nations will come to your light; mighty kings will come to see your radiance. … Your eyes will shine, and your heart will thrill with joy, for merchants from around the world will come to you. They will bring you the wealth of many lands. The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense and will come worshiping the Lord. The flocks of Kedar will be given to you, and the rams of Nebaioth will be brought for my altars. I will accept their offerings, and I will make my Temple glorious. … Though you were once despised and hated, with no one traveling through you, I will make you beautiful forever, a joy to all generations. … No longer will you need the sun to shine by day, nor the moon to give its light by night, for the Lord your God will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set; your moon will not go down. For the Lord will be your everlasting light. Your days of mourning will come to an end.” (Isaiah 60)

We also read in Revelation 21,

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.”

“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

Then one of the seven angels who held the seven bowls containing the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come with me! I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” So he took me in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. And the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the gates. There were three gates on each side—east, north, south, and west. The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

The angel who talked to me held in his hand a gold measuring stick to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. When he measured it, he found it was a square, as wide as it was long. In fact, its length and width and height were each 1,400 miles. Then he measured the walls and found them to be 216 feet thick (according to the human standard used by the angel).

The wall was made of jasper, and the city was pure gold, as clear as glass. The wall of the city was built on foundation stones inlaid with twelve precious stones: the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were made of pearls—each gate from a single pearl! And the main street was pure gold, as clear as glass.

I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. (bold font added)

So, if you think the eclipse was awesome, if you think the auroras were beautiful, you haven't seen anything yet! “That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.’” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

God AND the Lamb

Interestingly Revelation 21 says of the new Jerusalem, “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light.” (bold font added)

Notice how Jesus' face is described in Revelation 1:16, “like the sun in all its brilliance.” Again in Matthew 17:2 where Christ was transfigured and his “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.” Bold font added) In a similar way, we read in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, 'Let there be light in the darkness,' has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” (bold font added) The fact is: we cannot experience God's glory unless he shines his light in our heart “as seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” (bold added) So if we really want to know God we must look intently at Jesus. Only then can our heart resonate with the heavenly hosts worshiping God and the Lamb in Revelation. As Jesus said in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Worship is the wellspring of witness

In John 4 we read how Jesus felt compelled to reach out and 'seek his other lost sheep' the Samaritans. He knew full well that they were ensnared in a false religious deception, but still he appealed to them basic awareness of a creator God who is worthy of worship, “But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him ... in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24, bold added)

Similarly, in Acts 17 Paul appealed to the innate human capacity of pagans to worship a divine being, albeit unknown to them. Speaking to an audience of unbelievers at Mars Hill Paul said, “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.” (vs. 22-23, bold font added)

If Jesus and Paul could address unbelievers as 'worshiping' an unknown god can we not also address modern day secularists, Hindu's or even Muslims as worshipers of an unknown deity who we need to properly tell them about? Therefore, when our neighbors admiringly watch magnificent displays of aurora lights can't we point them to the one who created such beauty? And can we not go further to help them know who that creator is and what he is like?

When preaching to the Athenians at Mars Hill Paul didn't hold back from telling them the truth about the need to repent because “God has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

Judgment Day is coming

It is true that Jesus' message in John 4 and Paul's sermon in Acts 17 began in a gracious and tactful way. We also need to engage modern unbelievers in a gracious, seasoned-with-salt manner. One way of doing this is by talking about the colorful aurora lights and the awe-inspiring eclipse. We can even point to the brilliant and beautiful vision of the new heaven and new earth, but in the final analysis, we need to lovingly warn people about the coming Day of Judgment, challenging them to repent and be forgiven through Christ. As we already saw in Revelations 21 Satan is real but he and his demons will eventually be thrown into an awful place of eternal torment. In fact, everyone who does not love the truth and rejects God's way of escape, the Lamb who died on the cross, will suffer a similar fate in that dark place called hell.

As you probably know, Muslims believe a day is coming when God the creator will judge everyone. Like us they believe God is light and they have no difficulty acknowledging that the heavens declare his glory. Muslims even believe God reveals truth to those who will pay attention and reflect on his signs. This includes celestial phenomena like solar eclipses and aurora lights. So there is ample scope to engage our Muslim neighbors in friendly, meaningful dialog based on these and other commonalities. On the other hand, Muslims emphatically deny Jesus is God's Son, implying his essential equality with God. Another core Bible truth that is a stumbling block to Muslims is the idea of Christ being slain on the cross as the sacrificial Lamb. (1 Corinthians 1:23)

Earlier I mentioned that Muslims view the solar eclipse as a fearful omen which reminds them of judgment day. They fail to understand that, though the dark moon steadily encroaches across the sun, still it cannot fully black out the bright corona. So they miss the spiritual significance that 'darkness cannot overpower the light,' as Scripture says in John 1:5. Hindus also interpret the solar eclipse as an evil omen, believing that it signifies a demon god swallows the sun. Sadly, both Muslims and Hindus are dominated by fear, not understanding that ultimately light overpowers darkness.

Interestingly, Scripture tells us that when Jesus, the light of the world, died on the cross, a deep darkness fell across the land and blocked the sunlight for three hours. (Luke 23:44-45) The onlookers were terrified, but we realize, as believers, what was really happening: God abandoned his Son, pouring out his holy anger on Jesus. But then three days later Christ dramatically rose to life again proving that God accepted the sacrificial death of his perfect Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Jesus not only took away the sin which blocked our access to God, he also destroyed the ancient Serpent, Satan, who still holds unbelievers in slavery to fear of dying all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15; cf. Revelation 12) Yes, the light overpowers the darkness and “there will be no more night.” (Revelation 22:5)