2 Peter 3 says the coming day of the Lord will destroy the heavens and earth with fire and goes on to describe it with visceral terminology including: ‘with a loud noise’ (rhoizēdon), ‘will be dissolved’ (lythēsetai, lythēsontai), ‘set ablaze’ (pyroumenoi), and ‘will melt’(tēketai) (2 Peter 3:10, 12 NRSV).
Such an overwhelming flame is condensed in Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s woodblock print Moon and Smoke from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. Since Japanese houses were traditionally built with wood, towns were vulnerable to fire, especially densely populated ones like Edo (modern-day Tokyo). The firefighter seen from behind in the left foreground holds aloft a standard that helps identify the squad fighting the fire as there could be a reward if property was preserved.
The intensity of the fire described in 2 Peter 3 is evoked in this work by the superimposed use of multiple woodblocks, inked with different colours. They render the flames in a fluorescent tapestry of yellows, oranges, and greys. Powdered shells and glue sprinkled on the surface of the paper add a three-dimensional effect suggesting embers leaping into the air.
There is a cosmic aspect to the fiery destruction in the epistle. Not only are ‘the earth and everything that is done on it’ burned up (2 Peter 3:10) but the fire reaches to the heavens (v.12). Such an engulfing of both heaven and earth may also be seen in Yoshitoshi’s print. Its right side is dominated by a myriad of diagonal lines forming flames that rise up, leading the eye from the skeletal remains of a roof in the lower right to where the moon is shrouded in smoke at the top of the print, just left of centre.
Reading this detail alongside 2 Peter 3, we may see a foreshadowing of the unthinkable: that even the heavenly bodies will not be immune from the all-consuming fire of the day of the Lord.
3This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved, and in both of them I have aroused your sincere mind by way of reminder; 2that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles. 3First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions 4and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, 6through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! 13But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
14 Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 15And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. 17You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability. 18But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.