A Recent Theory Attributing the Darkness to a Nonsupernatural Cause
For the last three hours of Jesus' ordeal on a cross, a blanket of darkness descended upon the scene (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). Some have argued that the darkness was caused by a khamsin dust storm, also known as a black sirocco, which is a natural occurrence in some Middle Eastern countries (1). A dust storm of sufficient intensity can hide the sun and create the illusion of nighttime. But this explanation runs afoul of seven considerations.
Seven Reasons the Darkness Must Have Been Supernatural
1. Integrity of the apostles
If a dust storm descended on Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion, onlookers including the apostles and other members of Jesus’ band would surely have known what it was. In that case, as a result of their failure to tell us the true cause of the darkness, the apostles have put themselves in the position of being less than forthright. Even worse, their silence makes them appear dishonest, for they seem to be withholding information for the sake of exaggerating the significance of the darkness, in the hope that readers will construe it as a purely supernatural sign affirming Jesus’ identity and redemptive work. Yet the apostles would not have doctored the truth to advance their cause. Their willingness to die for the truth marked them as men of scrupulous integrity.
2. Extent of the darkness
All three Synoptic writers agree that the darkness was pervasive. It covered "all the land" (Matt. 27:45), "the whole land" (Mark 15:33), and "all the earth" (Luke 23:44). The Greek wording in every instance is virtually the same, except that Matthew employs a different term to convey the sense, "all." He uses pas, whereas the others use holos (2), but the meaning of both terms is certainly "all" and nothing less inclusive (3). All three writers identify the place entirely darkened as ge, root of such English words as geology and geography (4). The translators of the KJV render it "land" occasionally, but "earth" in about three fourths of its occurrences (5). Often the word clearly refers to the whole world. For example, Jesus said,
Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Among many other examples are Matthew 5:34–35, Colossians 3:2, and Hebrews 11:13. Generally, if the word has narrower meaning, the context defines it, such as when it refers to land as distinct from a body of water (Mark 4:1; John 21:8) or to a certain region (John 3:22; "land of Judea"). We conclude that when describing the extent of the darkness, the Synoptic writers chose an ambiguous term allowing readers, if they preferred, to decide that the darkness was merely regional, but also allowing them, if they were more disposed to see and exalt the power of God, to decide that the darkness enveloped the whole world.
So we return to the issue of integrity. Were these writers not dishonest if they were at least hinting at something more extraordinary than it really was? So, if we grant them honesty, we infer that the darkness was indeed a worldwide phenomenon, not the result of a dust storm.
Even to represent the darkness as covering for three hours a whole region like Judea appears to be, at best, an exaggeration if the darkness was not supernatural in origin, for it is unlikely that a dust storm would have been so enormous in its magnitude. Rarely is one strong enough to produce actual darkness for more than a matter of minutes (6). A typical sky laden with a khamsin continuing for hours is suffused with light. It has been described as a "yellow canvas of doom" (7).
3. Phlegon's testimony
Phlegon, a Greek historian writing after AD 137, stated that in AD 33 the world was gripped by the "greatest eclipse of the sun"; further, that
it became night in the sixth hour of the day so that the stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea [both places are in northwest Asia Minor] (8).
Phlegon’s testimony was later cited by Africanus and Origen (9). We can be sure that the darkness at the Crucifixion, which took place on the fourteenth of a lunar month, was not a solar eclipse. At that time, the moon is full. Thus, it is on the far side of the earth, not between the earth and the sun. But while we must dismiss Phlegon’s explanation for the darkness, we can accept his testimony as to what people observed—that the darkness did not obscure the stars. The stars are not visible when the sky is blanketed by dust.
4. The reaction of the soldiers
The dramatic events attending Jesus’ death so moved the Roman soldiers and their commanding officer to a state of fearful reverence that they cried, "Truly this was the Son of God" (Matt. 27:54). It is difficult to imagine the darkness as a contributing factor if it was brought on by a mere dust storm. The blowing about of some dirt would not have reduced hard-bitten soldiers to a state of extreme anxiety.
5. The necessity that Jesus endure being a spectacle
One aspect of Jesus’ necessary suffering for our sake was to endure the shame of being a spectacle. But a khamsin storm would have driven away many spectators, and for those remaining, the Cross would have been hard, or even impossible, to see with eyes blinded by dust. Yet Abraham had prophesied, "In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen" (Gen. 22:14). The Cross would have been visible enough with a backdrop of uncanny starlight.
6. The necessity that Jesus be buried a third night
A mere dust storm could not have provided a darkness adequate to fulfill Jesus’ prediction of a third night in His burial lasting three days and three nights (Matt. 12:40). See our lesson showing the day of Jesus' crucifixion.
7. The necessity to illustrate the Father's rejection of His Son
Much less could a dust storm have served as a physical sign of the overshadowing metaphysical tragedy—that the Father who is light (1 John 1:5) was turning His back on the Son who had become sin for us (Mark 15:34; 2 Cor. 5:21). The Father would never have trivialized this unfathomable crisis in the Godhead by comparing it to a common mundane event.