The recent special exhibition, “Pompeii,” at the British Museum in London, England, vividly portrayed the spectacular volcanic eruption that buried that city in 79 A.D. Actually two prominent Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, were both so quickly destroyed that an unknown number (perhaps thousands) of people and animals were instantly incinerated where they stood. Yet my fascination in this was not limited to learning about ancient history or natural disasters. Reading the descriptions of the destruction of Pompeii so long ago brought to my mind the Biblical depiction of events at the end of this age.
Historians say that an immense and deadly 400 degree centigrade “pyroclastic surge” of superheated volcanic debris from Mount Vesuvius carbonized and preserved wood, leather, food, and much more under four meters of rock and ash. To date, archaeologists have uncovered about 1150 bodies in Pompeii out of a total population of 15,000, but only a third of the city has been excavated. Two-thirds of Herculaneum still lies buried and about 350 human remains out of a population of 5,000 have been found.
A Roman historian of the period, Pliny, witnessed the destruction from a safe distance. He described a dark mushroom cloud enveloping the sky for 24 hours, plunging the entire land in darkness like a room locked and sealed. Even at noon the land appeared as if it was midnight.
I mused over the fact that most Christians have an entirely idyllic view of events at the end of this age and the Second Coming of Christ. Most are longing fervently for that day to come. Yet Scripture warns us, “Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! to what end is it for you? the day of the LORD is darkness, and not light. As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Shall not the day of the LORD be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18-20)
The message for us here is that people never seem to learn from the lessons of the past.
We usually think of a volcanic eruption as a flow of lava out of a mountain top and down the hillsides. Yet we are told that there was no lava flow from Mount Vesuvius. Instead a huge dense cloud of gas, ash, and volcanic stones 30 kilometers (20 miles) high rained down from the skies. In addition, noxious gases and unearthly noises accompanied the eruption. Violent tremors caused buildings to collapse. Some people died of heat shock, or were suffocated or crushed as buildings collapsed. The ash and pumice stones rained down all day at a rate of 15 centimeters per hour, plunging everything into total darkness.
We read of consuming fire and violent tremors accompanying the return of Christ in the book of Hebrews: “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:25-29)
The Apostle Paul described the Second Coming, or Day of the Lord, in vivid language: “And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.” (2 Thess. 1:7-10)
How exactly this fire, shaking, destruction, and vengeance will be fulfilled is not given in detail in the Scriptures. Yet God is known to make use of the forces of nature in judgment. Fortunately, we who believe in Christ are comforted by the clear assurance that we will be preserved, saved, and delivered through this coming Day of Judgment, and that through this event Christ will “be admired in all them that believe.”
We have another intimation of what might occur at the end of this age in the words of Roman historian Pliny the Younger in his Letters VI, 20, 14. He wrote: “Not the darkness of a cloudy night or a night where there is no moon, but darkness as if the light has gone out in a room that is locked and sealed. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men.”
This sounds like a faint echo of Christ’s Words concerning the end of the age: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matt. 24:29-30)
Archaeologist Amadeo Maiuri described one Pompeii victim as “crouching on the ground next to the wall…like a beggar on the church steps…A tragic figure from one of Dante’s circles of hell.”
An historian of the Roman period, Statius Silvae wrote, “In a future generation, when crops spring up again, when the wasteland regains its green, will men believe that cities and peoples lie beneath? That in days of old their lands lay closer to the sea? Nor has that fatal summit ceased to threaten.” The message for us here is that people never seem to learn from the lessons of the past.
Of course, while it is certainly not possible to make an exact comparison between the destruction of Pompeii and the events at the end of this age, the destructive forces of nature will no doubt have a role. For believers, the most important thing to remember is that our salvation is assured through trial and tribulation. Let us take comfort in the words of Scripture: “Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble; but he shall be saved out of it.” (Jer. 30:7)