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Sleeping By Volcanoes

Photo by Abet Llacer on

“Oh, where do we begin? The rubble or our sins?”

-“Pompeii” by Bastille

Most people know the story of Pompeii, or at least have heard of the destruction that happened there just under 2,000 years ago. On that fateful day in 79 A.D. (August 24th or c. October 17th, depending on which historians you ask) Mount Vesuvius erupted with explosive power, spewing hot ash and rock miles into the sky and creating the easily recognizable mushroom cloud that we associate with volcanoes today. The sky blackened with ash and within a few hours, heavier pieces of hot pumice and lapilli (little stones) rained down onto Pompeii in a fiery hail, smashing through roofs and destroying buildings. However, this was just the beginning. Following the rock shower were pyroclastic surges, massive clouds of ash and volcanic gasses that raced down the side of the volcano at 200 mph. As six of these surges overwhelmed Pompeii and other surrounding cities with burning ash (up to 284 °F), any inhabitants trying to escape from the city were incinerated by the high temperatures and Pompeii was completely covered in ash. The neighboring city of Herculaneum was also destroyed, buried under 75 ft. of ash. Although we do not know for sure how many Pompeians died in that eruption, we have found evidence of at least 1,500 deaths, and we have reason to suspect that there may have been more that we simply have not uncovered.

This story is familiar to many of us, but one thing you may not have known is that historians think that the average Pompeian citizen didn’t realize they were living right under a volcano. Some of the wealthy, well-read, scientific community might have recognizes volcanic qualities of the mountain, such as the extremely rich, dark soil at the base of Vesuvius, or the scorched igneous rocks found in increasing measure towards the summit, but the scholarly discussions we have from ancient writers about different Mediterranean volcanoes never mention Vesuvius as a volcano. Even if there were published writings warning the people of the danger they were living with, the average Pompeian may not have had the time or education to understand the damage Vesuvius could do. In addition, before the 79 A.D. eruption, Vesuvius had been dormant for 700 years, so anyone who may have experienced and survived previous eruptions was long dead and gone.

Most people were simply drawn to the area around Vesuvius because of its fertile soil for crop growth, the picturesque mountainous view, and proximity to a harbor. The area seemed so perfect that those who did know about Vesuvius were content to ignore the dangers and enjoy life in the thriving city. Even the frequent tremors and earthquakes that we now recognize as warning signs of a coming eruption, couldn’t drive people away from their beautiful paradise.

Looking back at the ancient Pompeians from our vantage point of history, we might be tempted to call them foolish. What could have possessed them to live there? How could they miss the signs? Why didn’t people leave immediately as soon as they saw the volcano erupting? But then we look at people today, and realize that nothing has changed.

As of today, Vesuvius is still one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet, and still experiences the same type of explosive and devastating eruptions that it did 2,000 years ago. It is very much still active; within the last 400 years alone, Vesuvius has erupted 23 times, and the most recent eruption was only 77 years ago, in 1944.

Let that sink in. There are people still alive today who remember the last eruption of Vesuvius. And yet, even though they know the dangers, thousands of people live and work right near the volcano. It is estimated that 3 million people live within the radius of danger, and of those 3 million, 600,000 people live on or around the base of the volcano itself. While the Italian government has an evacuation plan for the modern city of Pompeii today, they openly admit that they would need at least 20 days of advance warning to safely move all those people out of harm’s way. If Vesuvius were to erupt unexpectedly, millions of people would die.

When I first found out the sheer number of people willing to live their lives right under a volcano, my first though was how do they sleep at night? How can you know the danger you could be in at any moment and just ignore it? How could you become numb to the the thing that could lead to your death? How can you be so drawn into the beauty and prosperity of the area that you forget that it is potentially deadly?

However, as I thought about the madness of these modern Pompeians sleeping by a volcano, I realized that many Christians do the same thing. No, most of us do not live by a physical volcano, but our lives contain metaphorical volcanoes in the form of sins. Just like a dormant volcano, sin habits usually do not start out dangerously; on the contrary, they often appear to be pleasant and offer the abundance and consolation our souls need to cope with the heaviness of life. Just one little white lie won’t hurt us, we think, I will make up for it later. Or if I look at this just this one time, it can’t be that bad. Much like the modern Pompeians citizens ignore Vesuvius, we know that sin is dangerous, and we see that in the past it has hurt people horribly, but we believe we are the exception of the rule, and so we ignore it. “Just one time” becomes two and then three and before we know it we are beginning to stifle the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit until we are comfortable sleeping on volcanoes of sin. We pretend that if we don’t acknowledge our sin issues, they don’t exist.

But the thing about volcanoes like Vesuvius is that the longer they lie dormant, the more powerful the eruption will be one day.

You can convince yourself that an addiction to pornography and masturbation aren’t that big of a deal until you are lying in bed with a husband you can’t love because you have trained your mind to only respond to unrealistic expectations of love. You can convince yourself that those little white lies are not really that big of a deal until you find one day that no one else trusts you and you can’t even trust yourself because you don’t know what is true anymore. You can tell yourself that your self-sufficiency is not an issue until you find yourself in a desperate situation and there is no one to turn to for help because you have pushed everyone close to you away. Having one more drink doesn’t seem to be the end of the world until your kids are in therapy ten years later talking about how they have no relationship with their father because of things he did when he was drunk.

Sin will appear to be dormant until one day it is not. As the old adage from Numbers 32:23 says, “You may be sure that your sin will find you out”. And on that day when you watch relationships crumbling and everything you knew fall apart, you will wish you had not been sleeping by a volcano.

John 10:10 says that “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly”. Brothers and sisters, do not let your lives be destroyed by a thief that tells you that it is OK to deal with your sin later. Now is the time of salvation. Now is the time to repent and embrace the abundant life God has for you.

Whatever you do, don’t keep sleeping by volcanoes.


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