The fiery rhetoric and vivid imagery of 2 Peter 2 continues the prophetic traditions found in the Old Testament. Announcing itself to be written on the occasion of the author’s impending death (2 Peter 1:13–15), the letter conjures up images of divine judgement, as a means of highlighting the proper paths of Christian life.
The dating and authorship of 2 Peter have been subject to continued debate—its content and style more akin to the Epistle of Jude than the first Petrine letter. It distils a number of themes conveyed in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in setting forth clear delineations between truth and falsehood, morality and corruption (see Matthew 7:13–20). Moreover, the letter makes brief references to a number of motifs and events (false prophets, the fall of the rebel angels) that are more thoroughly expounded elsewhere in the Bible, in both the New and Old Testaments. Thus, although these subjects have frequently been subject to visual representation, 2 Peter is rarely the direct source.
However, as Gawin Kirkham’s The Broad and Narrow Way demonstrates, it is crucial to consider texts like this as part of a complex network of biblical exegesis. And although one could spend considerable time tracing the linkages in this network (and Kirkham’s print is certainly not exhaustive in its biblical sources), the broader message is clear: one path of life is more accessible and alluring, yet results in destruction and damnation; the other is winding and difficult, but has light and salvation as its ultimate reward. The apex of the image—the all-seeing eye of God enclosed in a radiant, triangular form—is in fact a reference to Peter’s first letter, which, although stylistically distinct from 2 Peter, is in this case thoroughly relevant: ‘For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil’ (1 Peter 3:12).
The urgency of following the path of righteousness is made palpable by the extent to which false paths can be cloaked in seductive words and alluring imagery. It is not difficult to imagine someone reading the words in the letter of Peter and wondering if this is itself the work of a false prophet or teacher. That the presumed author was Christ’s most trusted apostle and the ‘rock’ on which his Church was built (Matthew 16:18) might assuage those concerns.
The challenge of detecting false prophets and teachers owes as much to appearances as it does to the spoken or written word. The imprint of diabolical forces is not always physically manifest and readily perceivable to the attentive (let alone the passive) viewer. Andrea Commodi’s fallen angels remain powerfully masculine in their heroic nudity, perhaps embodying the desires of the flesh of which Peter warns. The golden-beaked owl in Francisco de Goya’s print conveys a contradictory set of symbolic resonances—historically, the owl could be interpreted as a sign of wisdom or folly, as vigilance or an omen of death. This is particularly powerful and disconcerting in the wake of the Enlightenment, when it was widely thought that adherence to reason over blind faith would lead to better circumstances for the masses. As Goya was well aware by the time he produced Los Caprichos (and as would become even more evident with the Napoleonic invasion of Spain), what appears to be the right path forward may very well lead to destruction and tyranny.
In many ways, the three images discussed here cohere with the dogmatic rhetoric of 2 Peter 2, which asserts a kind of Manichean worldview with respect to right and wrong, good and evil. However, Goya’s and Commodi’s images also underscore, in more or less subtle terms, the difficulties in discerning that boundary, which appears so clear in the Kirkham print.
The anxiety that Peter’s letter has undoubtedly evoked among adherents is made all the more crushing in his final assertion that those who initially followed the path of righteousness and strayed from it are ultimately in direr straits than those who never knew the true way.
2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. 3And in their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep.
4 For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; 5if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorʹrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; 7and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked 8(for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), 9then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
Bold and wilful, they are not afraid to revile the glorious ones, 11whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a reviling judgment upon them before the Lord. 12But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant, will be destroyed in the same destruction with them, 13suffering wrong for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation, carousing with you. 14They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 15Forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beʹor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 16but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved. 18For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. 19They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved. 20For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.