All the Way to Calvary: Darkness

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened …” (Luk 23:44-45a).[1]

When Christ was born, supernatural light filled the skies (Luk 2:9). Just before His death, the skies went supernaturally black. If His cradle was a scene of light, His cross suddenly became a spectacle of darkness. This darkness must have descended rather quickly and lifted just the same for the sixth and ninth hours to be thus noted and therefore agreed upon by Matthew, Mark and Luke.[2]

We insist that this darkness was supernatural, for it arrived at noon, when the sun would normally be at its brightest. An eclipse was not possible during the full moon of Passover, and certainly couldn’t last for three hours. A desert sirocco or sandstorm would also be extremely unlikely during the wet spring months. Such “logical” explanations fall short. But Luke makes it very clear: “the sun’s light failed” (23:45 NET, ESV, HCSB). It wasn’t that something was obstructing the brightness of the sun; it was that the sun itself refused to shine.

But what did the darkness mean? What significance did it carry? Why must the Light of the World hang in darkness? Some commentators cite Day of the Lord texts from the Old Testament. For example, “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day” (Amo 8:9). Others add texts from Joel’s prophecy (2:10,30-31), but Peter’s words in Acts 2:16-21 (esp. v20) show this Day of the Lord imagery to be yet future rather than being fulfilled at the cross. Not a few believe the darkness at the cross symbolized Christ’s defeat of the powers of darkness there (cf. Luk 22:53; Joh 12:31; Col 2:14-15). We must not be too dogmatic, for the Gospel writers do not directly state the meaning of the darkness. But we may be able to infer at least two things: the darkness points to God’s presence as well as His punishment of sin.

God’s Presence

It is reasonable to connect the darkness with God, since Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” just when the darkness ended (Mat 27:46; Mar 15:34 NET).

There are OT texts connecting the presence of God with darkness. “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was” (Exo 20:21). “Then spake Solomon, The Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness” (1Ki 8:12). “He shrouded himself in darkness” (Psa 18:11 NET). The ceremonial account of God’s covenant with Abram also connects darkness with His presence (Gen 15, esp. vv12,17). It seems that the darkness was a way of shielding onlookers from the presence of God, who is light, preserving them from certain death. Did the darkness at Calvary[3] protect the spectators there from a similar fate?

But all this begs the question, If the darkness does hint at God’s presence shrouded within it, what is the significance of His presence at the cross? Those Day of the Lord texts mentioned earlier, along with many others, do suggest something helpful to us.

God’s Punishment

Darkness is repeatedly connected with God’s wrath in both the OT and the NT. The judgment of the future Day of the Lord will involve darkness, according to many OT prophetic passages (e.g., Isa 13:10; Joe 2:31; Amo 5:20; 8:9; Zep 1:14-15). The ninth plague upon the Egyptians was a three-day judgment of darkness (Exo 10:21-23). The Lord Jesus spoke about “outer darkness” (Mat 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) when referring to the wrath of God.

We suggest, then, as others have, that the darkness at Calvary implied God’s presence to administer judgment for sin, judgment that fell upon the Lord Jesus Christ.

Darkness hung around Thy head,
When for sin Thy blood was shed,
Victim in the sinner’s stead:
Saviour, we adore Thee.[4]

It was then that “the Lord … punished Him for the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6 HCSB). “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (1Pe 2:24); “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2Co 5:21). This was the cup Jesus had been expecting, a cup of judgment so dreadful that the contemplation of it caused His bloodlike sweat in Gethsemane. In the garden, Christ resolved to drink it. On the cross, He did – every last drop. God’s judgment for sin was poured out and totally consumed by the Lord Jesus. I’m so glad that not a sin of mine was missing from that abominable cup! The God who doesn’t remember our sins now (Heb 8:12; 10:17) remembered every one of them at the cross. This was the very reason Jesus went all the way to Calvary.

But no one saw it happen. Some watched Christ carrying His cross. Some looked on as the soldiers drove the nails. Some witnessed the parting of His garments. But no human eye could see the Savior’s agony as He drank that cup. God cloaked the scene in darkness, not only shielding frail creatures from certain death but preventing cruel eyes from looking upon His suffering Son.

God made sure that no one could leave Calvary and say, I saw it all. Nor can we “see it all” now. The darkness and the infinite majesty of the One who died there guarantee that there will always be mystery when we survey the wondrous cross.

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut His glories in,
When the incarnate Maker died
For man, His creature’s sin.[5]

[1] Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Mat 27:45; Mar 15:33; Luk 23:44

[3] Admittedly, the darkness was not only present at Calvary, but “over all the land” (Mat 27:45), extending beyond the immediate vicinity of the crucifixion, and perhaps even globally.

[4] Samuel Trevor Francis (1834-1925)

[5] Isaac Watts (1674-1748)