Aug 24, 79 A.D. (ironically, the date of the Vulcanalia, a festival honoring Vulcan, the Roman god of fire) dawned like any other day for the residents of Pompeii, an ancient Roman city near modern Naples, in the Campania region of Italy, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. By dawn the next day, it was a smoldering lifeless mound of steaming volcanic ash.
If you have visited the ruins of Pompeii, you probably saw the body cavities that were perfectly preserved by the deadly pyroclastic flow that flowed from Mount Vesuvius when it erupted that day. The body cavities were formed when hot ash enveloped people trying to escape the destruction. They huddled together, mostly in fetal positions and often with loved ones and children, as the ash covered them. The heat of the ash killed them and eventually decomposed their bodies, leaving behind an empty cavity in the ash. When the cavities were discovered, they were filled with plaster so that we could see what they looked like after everything was excavated. They are striking, terrifying and sobering reminder of what can happen in an instant.
In a Roman world filled with promiscuity, divorce, homosexual acts with minors, orgies, beastiality and every other imaginable debauchery, Pompeii was typical. And it was destroyed in a single day.
For most, life was good in Pompeii; for many, it was quite luxurious. The great Roman orator Cicero had a villa in Pompeii; Julius Caesar's father-in-law owned one in nearby Herculaneum. Some villas were so large they took up an entire city block.
Most villas were built surrounding an open central courtyard, often highlighted by a pool and sometimes a fountain. There wealthy Pompeians could relax on hot summer days surrounded by opulent colonnaded gardens featuring elegant statuary and beautiful mosaic floors. Inside, many villas were equally richly decorated with colorful frescoes depicting various aspects of daily life, history and the mythology and religious beliefs of Pompeii's citizens.
The city's wealth and favorable position drew visitors from all over the empire. Pompeii was quite cosmopolitan, showing influences from many regions and religions. Its people could worship at its many temples dedicated to the Roman pantheon—Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Venus, Isis, Minerva and others.
For those whose worship ran to the more mundane level, graffiti inscribed on Pompeii's walls testified that successful gladiators were among the major celebrities of the day: “Celadus is the heartthrob of all the girls.” “Severus—55 fights—has just won again.” “The unbeaten Hermiscus was here.” “Crescens, the net fighter, holds the hearts of all the girls.” Other graffiti urged citizens to vote for this or that candidate.
Pompeii lay secure behind its massive defensive walls, which stood 20 feet thick and more than 30 feet high in some places. The hard stone for the walls, also used to pave the city's streets, was basalt, quarried nearby. Pompeii's builders didn't know it, but the basalt was hardened lava from past volcanic eruptions that had engulfed the area.
Pompeii was so prosperous that, when many of its major buildings suffered considerable damage from an earthquake in A.D. 62, it refused Rome's offers of assistance. Its citizens preferred to go it alone, confident that they could handle this and any other setback. Even when aftershocks rattled the city off and on for several years, Pompeians remained largely unconcerned. They certainly didn't connect them with Mt. Vesuvius, which, to their knowledge, had always been a peaceful mountain.
They failed to recognize the growing danger—that, six miles away, unimaginable pressures were building beneath Vesuvius as it began to awaken from its long sleep.
Warning signs had been building for some time. Streams and wells had suddenly dried up, particularly those near Mt. Vesuvius towering nearby. Some of the farmers attributed the sudden disappearance of water to the hot late-August weather. They didn't realize that not far beneath the earth's surface the water was being vaporized by the steadily rising heat.
Out in the majestic Bay of Naples, the sea had mysteriously begun to boil in some places, the underground heat sending streams of bubbles gurgling to the surface. Fishermen puzzled at the curious sight and murmured among themselves. Here and there even the ground had begun to rumble and quiver. Mt. Vesuvius itself appeared to moan and groan from time to time.
Ominously, many animals—dogs, cats, mice and rats—had begun abandoning the city of Pompeii. Something ominous was about to happen. The world ended for Pompeii in a single day.
Some survivors went back to the large mound of ash and debris that had been their city. Here and there a rooftop or broken wall or column helped guide people to their buried homes. As the ash cooled, a few burrowed tunnels to retrieve valuables. One person, likely a Jew or Christian, couldn't escape the parallel with a biblical story. Tunneling in the ruins, he scribbled “Sodom and Gomorrah” on a wall.
Pompeii is a sobering reminder of the fragility and fleetingness of our existence, of how entire cities and civilizations can vanish in a single day. Perhaps most of all, it's a reminder of the folly of human beings in refusing to face up to unpleasant realities, of ignoring or misunderstanding the danger signs until it's too late. Rich and poor, free citizen and slave, young and old—all met the same fate in Pompeii. The only ones who escaped were those who recognized the growing danger. For those who lingered too long, denying the seriousness of their plight or hoping that conditions would somehow change, the city became their tomb.
One citizen of ancient Pompeii got one lesson right—the unknown individual who scribbled “Sodom and Gomorrah” on one of the city's buried walls. His simple, three-word judgment says more about the city than many books that have been written about it.
A modern visitor to Pompeii doesn't have to look very hard to see evidence of the moral climate of the city. Up to several dozen buildings have been identified as likely houses of prostitution. Some, due to the explicit wall paintings and graffiti found in them, leave no doubt as to their purpose. Even in private homes, wall paintings and mosaics depict all kinds of sexual activity, and many common household objects such as lamps, dishes, vases and fountains have been found with sexual motifs. Recent excavations at one of Pompeii's public baths indicate that one floor of the structure may have been a brothel.
Oversized representations of sex organs can be found built into the walls facing some streets, and in at least one case carved right in the street itself. The Bible tells us that sexual perversion was rampant in the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-13), which God destroyed by fire (verse 24). Their depravity was so great that they have become a byword for sin and God's judgment.
Yet today many of our cities are no different from Sodom and Pompeii. Seldom mentioned in news coverage was the fact that the devastating December 2004 tsunami wiped out the portion of the Thai coast infamous for its child-sex trade, or that New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina five days before 100,000 gays and lesbians were to be welcomed into the city for its appropriately named “Southern Decadence” festival.
Does the catastrophe that befell Pompeii hold lessons for us today?
It certainly should. The story of Pompeii should fill us with a vague sense of unease. After all, if it could happen to them, an entire city … In many ways our era is much like the time of Pompeii. Many of us surround ourselves with luxuries and conveniences. Life is good; we live in the wealthiest and most prosperous time in human history. Technology has given us so much, made life so comfortable.
Could it ever end? The Bible says that it can—and that it will.
We live in a world as awash in sin as it is in material pleasures. “But know this,” said the apostle Paul, “that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4).
While Paul was describing our day, he could just as well have been describing Pompeii. And like Pompeii, there will be a day of reckoning for us as well.
Scripture repeatedly warns of final judgment falling like a "thief in the night". Rev 18 foretells the destruction of a great city in one hour.
Prophecy after prophecy of the Bible foretells a time of global trouble that will be unlike anything human beings have ever experienced (Jeremiah 30:7; Daniel 12:1). Jesus Christ says of this time: “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again” (Matthew 24:21, New International Version).
Can we even begin to comprehend that? What does it mean to have a time of terror and turmoil, chaos and catastrophe unlike anything witnessed in human history?
Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, wrote a warning that is far more applicable to our day than his own: “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape."
“But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober.”
One day Pompeii was a thriving, vibrant city, and the next it was a giant tomb. “Sudden destruction” takes on a whole new meaning as you stroll Pompeii's long-dead streets and consider that you're walking through a 2,000-year-old time capsule.
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius happened at lunchtime, so life stopped before many Pompeians could finish their meal. Their food lay untouched for almost 2,000 years. Cooking pots still contained the bones of stews. One oven contained the remains of a pig that had been left roasting at the time the disaster struck. Bread, eggs, fish, nuts and dates lay undisturbed on tables until stunned excavators uncovered them.
Most haunting of all the sights in Pompeii are the casts of those who didn't make it out of the doomed city. Their bodies, sealed in the hardening ash, eventually decayed to dust, leaving voids into which Pompeii's excavators poured plaster and concrete almost 2,000 years later. The resulting ghostly images captured the citizens of Pompeii at the moment of their deaths.
We see plenty of warning signs gathering around us. Do we understand them? Or do we willingly choose to misunderstand them, writing them off as passing inconveniences or temporary interruptions in the constantly improving flow of human progress?
Will we, like the doomed citizens of Pompeii, ignore the rumblings and tremors until it's too late? Or will we heed the words of Jesus Christ's warning in Luke 21:36: “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
(Coming in Part 2 next week, Nov 1, 1755 - The Wrath of God)