I used to believe that Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii provided a fairly clear, unambiguous example of a Christian interpretation of the natural disaster as punishment for the corrupt, faithless Pompeiians, slave and free, Romans and Greeks. Many of the novelist's contemporaries certainly took it that way. To be sure, the Bulwer-Lytton presents many Pompeiians in a very critical light, particularly when he emphasizes how eagerly slaves and citizens alike want to see the lion and tiger rip a human being limb from limb. At the same time it is also true that he presents the Christians, particularly the stalwart Olinthus, in a favorable light, though he tempers this by several times excusing their fervent beliefs, perhaps because they resemble those of ninteenth-century Evangelicals.

One key point occurs at the climax of the novel when he presents the Christians proclaiming their obviously false conviction that the eruption of Pompeii marks the end of our world and Christ's return to judge it:

A group of men and women, bearing torches, passed by the temple. They were of the congregation of the Nazarenes; and a sublime and unearthly emotion had not, indeed, quelled their awe, but it had robbed awe of fear. They had long believed, according to the error of the early Christians, that the Last Day was at hand; they imagined now that the Day had come.

'Woe! woe!' cried, in a shrill and piercing voice, the elder at their head. 'Behold! the Lord descendeth to judgment! He maketh fire come down from heaven in the sight of men! Woe! woe! ye strong and mighty! Woe to ye of the fasces and the purple! Woe to the idolater and the worshipper of the beast! Woe to ye who pour forth the blood of saints, and gloat over the death-pangs of the sons of God! Woe to the harlot of the sea!—woe! woe!'

And with a loud and deep chorus, the troop chanted forth along the wild horrors of the air, 'Woe to the harlot of the sea!—woe! woe!'

Although the narrator doesn't mock the Nazarenes, he makes clear that he doesn't endorse their belief that the world is about to end — how could he when when it obviously didn't — and in do doing he treats early Christianity much as he treats the details of Roman costume, how people sit or recline at a Roman banquet, and customs of the bath, in other words, as historical or antiquarian curiosities. Yes, the eruption destroys the evil Arbaces and it saves the life of Glaucus, but it also destroys dutiful sentries, too. The destruction of Pompeii appears to be an opaque event that serves as a plot devide, but it's cosmic or religous meaning remains ambiguous.

Last modified 4 January 2007