Los Alamos: We Have Become Death


Los Alamos: We Have Become Death
Brian Zahnd

Seventy summers ago in a New Mexico desert we crossed a dark threshold when we created the capacity for our own annihilation. A generation earlier Albert Einstein had perceived something elemental about the nature of Creation: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared (E = mc2). As I understand it, matter is “frozen” energy which when released unleashes the power of the sun. That our instinctual impulse upon gaining such knowledge was to build atomic bombs says something sad about us — we are still the sons and daughters of Cain, and now we’re looking for ways to kill Abel a million at a time.

The first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, gave the test the code name Trinity. Oppenheimer was, of course, a brilliant physicist, but he was also well-read in religious and philosophical texts. He took the code name Trinity from a poem written by John Donne, a sixteenth century Anglican priest and poet.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I don’t know why Robert Oppenheimer chose to name the test of the atomic bomb after the Trinity described in John Donne’s poem. Perhaps it had something to do with the Trinity being fundamental to the nature of God and E = mc2 being fundamental to the nature of physics. I don’t know. Whatever the case, I can’t help finding it sadly ironic. The Holy Trinity is self-giving Love…not an atomic bomb. Our 1945 Trinity gave humanity, not love, but the force to break, blow, burn, and me us dead.

Robert Oppenheimer drew upon another religious text to describe his feelings after witnessing the detonation of the first atomic bomb. After a blinding flash and a hideous mushroom cloud rose over the New Mexico desert, Oppenheimer recalled,

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Yes, with the ghastly invention from the real life Dr. Frankenstein laboratory in Los Alamos seventy summers ago we have become death. With that first bomb — and the 15,695 nuclear warheads that exist today! — we have created the capacity for our own mass suicide.

At Los Alamos we intruded upon what previously only God possessed: the capacity to undo humanity. In yielding to the temptation to harness the fundamental physics of the universe for the purpose of building city-obliterating bombs, have we again heard the serpent whisper, “You will be like God”? I believe so. Of course, when humankind tries to act like God in terms of omnipotence, we do not become God-like, but demonic.

Am I suggesting that the creation of the atomic bomb was wrong? I’m not suggesting, I’m saying it outright — it was a sin! A grave sin. To create a device whose only purpose is to kill multitudes of people in a single instant…and then to create ten thousand more!…is unspeakably immoral. If one of the earliest revelations of God’s will is, “thou shalt not kill,” then the invention of bombs capable of killing a million at a time is to sin against what we’ve known ever since Moses came down from Mount Sinai.

And I’ve heard all of the arguments against what I’m saying. All of them.
God told Joshua to kill a bunch of people.
We had to get the bomb before Hitler did.
Well, they started it. Remember Pearl Harbor?
Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives.
We had to show the Soviets we were in charge.

Can you imagine President Truman making these arguments and Jesus saying, “Yes, Harry, you did the right thing. Give ‘em hell, Harry!” Can you imagine Jesus saying that?! If you can, then I am afraid our understanding of Jesus is so fundamentally different that there is little hope of us agreeing.

For what it’s worth, there was a time when I supported all of the arguments for the creation and use of American atomic bombs. But God in his mercy opened my eyes and I repented. Now I’m seeking to make amends and preach peace.

So here we are seventy summers after Los Alamos, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the question remains: Can humanity possess the capacity for self-destruction and not resort to it? The jury is still out. But this much is certain: If we think the ideas of Jesus about peace are irrelevant in the age of nuclear weapons, we have invented an utterly irrelevant Christianity!

But Christ is not irrelevant. He is Lord. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Christ has come to us refusing the warhorse and riding the peace donkey. His crown was of thorns, his throne was a cross, his coronation was by crucifixion. He died faithfully showing us the way of the Father. Now the Father has vindicated Jesus in resurrection and exalted him to authority over the nations. We live in the days of the prophets’ dreams.

See, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will take away the chariot from Ephraim,
and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The weapons of war will be broken,
and he will teach peace to the nations.
–Zechariah 9:9, 10

He will mediate between peoples
And will settle disputes between strong nations far away.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
Nor train for war anymore.
–Micah 4:3

Swords turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Tanks turned into tractors, missile silos into grain silos. The study of war abandoned for learning the ways of the Lord. Instead of academies where we learn to make war, there will be universities where we learn to wage peace. The cynic will laugh (for lack of prophetic imagination), but this is the prophet’s vision of Messiah.

This is my simple message: Jesus is that Messiah. Jesus is the promised Prince and Peace. We know this because God has set his seal upon him by raising him from the dead. Because this is so, we must repent and rethink everything. We must listen to Jesus, learn from him, follow him, and imitate his ways of peace. Now. Not someday, but today. We can no longer afford not to. After Los Alamos we became death. But Jesus will lead us to life…if we will follow him.


P.S. On August 6 I will have a post on Hiroshima and on August 9 a post on Nagasaki.