The man sits as he died 2,000 years ago, in a position that looks like weeping. Surrounding him are amphorae jugs used to import wine, olive oil and fish sauce that fed the huge appetite of Rome at the centre of empire (Revelation 18).
Somewhere an angel sounded a trumpet in AD 79, “and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood ... thrown upon the earth” (Revelation 8). Mount Vesuvius on the coast of Italy erupted, sending molten pumice and smoke more than 30 km. high. Ash buried Pompeii. Side-wind to the eruption, the town of Herculaneum seemed spared. Then the ash column collapsed, launching a wave of gases that incinerated the town.
Pliny the Younger wrote, “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death...”
News of the cataclysm spread quickly, surely reaching a Christian leader named John who later wrote the book of Revelation. His vision has enough scenes of fire from heaven, mountains sliding into the sea and human anguish to suggest that Vesuvius provided some of his source material.
Thousands died from Vesuvius, but many more did not perish because they acted immediately at the first signs of danger.
Immediate action also is a theme of Revelation. It is possible that Revelation is not so much a prescription of end-time sufferings as a description of what will happen if humanity does not change course. At least some of Revelation’s plagues are caused by human sin: imperial conquest, war, famine and death. Sin knocks the planet off balance, and eventually the whole cosmos wobbles out of control.
Today Australia burns, snow disappears from Kilimanjaro, rising seas devour coastlands, farmlands turn to desert, tropical storms rage. Scientists agree: the world climate is changing. Sin and greed are at least partly to blame.
That man still seated at Pompeii is a plaster cast, made by archaeologists who found voids in the solidified ash. When the empty spaces were filled with plaster, human forms emerged. Encased in volcanic ash, victims had decomposed and disappeared over the centuries. They did not cause the disaster, but did not or could not act when danger appeared.
How are we responding to threats to our world? We have (some) time to act. Christians live in hope for when God will “make all things new,” hope not only for the future. Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5). Present tense verbs!
Horrors of Revelation do not have to happen; the vision calls humanity to change our ways and avert disaster. “Wake up ... remember what you have received and heard ... and repent!” (Revelation 3)
J. Nelson Kraybill is the president of Mennonite World Conference.