The centre of John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a swirling inferno. Equal parts fire, cyclone, and tsunami, it appears to melt and mix all the matter it engulfs. Even the fire itself seems to dissolve as the paint is reduced to abstract, blended smears that seem almost to drip down the canvas. The apocalyptic intensity of the scene gives palpable form to the stark description of the coming day of the Lord in 2 Peter 3:10–13.
The pairing of 2 Peter 3 with an image of Sodom and Gomorrah is fitting, for the biblical prototype of fiery destruction on a local level is the account of the cities doomed in Genesis 19. Earlier in the epistle, the author cites examples of past divine judgement, including just these cities (2 Peter 2:4–10). In particular, their story has sharp relevance to the message the author addresses to his Jewish Christian community: to remain faithful and pure like Lot against those who mislead and indulge in sensual excess.
Martin’s epic composition is punctuated by a diagonal flash of lightning that ends at the figure of Lot’s wife, an example of one who, contrary to 2 Peter’s exhortations (2 Peter 1:10; 2:1, 20–22; 3:14, 17), did not persevere in the faith. The figure marks a transition between two realms: the background (those marked for destruction) and the foreground (those who, like Lot and his daughters, escape through the compassion and patience of God; 2 Peter 3:7–9).
Ironically, Martin gives the viewer the perspective Lot and his family were prohibited from taking—looking back on the cataclysm. For when one looks at the painting, the cluster of survivors on the right are merely a steppingstone that leads the eye to the mesmerizing glow of death.
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.