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.

  • Debra

    “Because this is so, we must repent and rethink everything.” I agree. Yet, I am afraid that the masses have already surrendered the fundamental essence of our humanity – the ability to think, leading to the inability to feel, so that the massive death of flesh is a manifestation to come of the truth that: as a man [collective men] think in [our] heart; so [are] we. (Proverbs 23:7) As in the days of Noah will be the violent days of the end … when the thoughts and intentions of the collective are evil continually. Some will repent, hallelujah. There are still some in the highways and byways. There are still some who will answer the knock of the Lord on the satiated Laodicean church’s heart. So we must continue to uplift this Messiah, the only One who is able to bring the peace and security that has eluded mankind since Cain and Able became the representative “ever after” in the story of the collective.

  • Joey Millington

    Love this post, but if Jesus is God (“If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus”) how can we explain what God asked Joshua to do in the Old Testament (First Covenant)? I am not trying to start an argument. I am genuinely seeking an answer to this question.
    Thank you!

  • In building the atomic bomb, weren’t the sons and daughters of Abel the children who found a way to kill Cain a million at a time since Imperial Japan was the aggressor?

  • It’s the killing that defines Cain.

  • All of humanity is capable of killing, but isn’t Cain defined as the first of us to have killed, i.e., to set the precedent?

  • Thomas

    I agree with your posts many times. However, I feel that you sometimes jumble everything together and I disagree that you can do that. A weapons manufacturer is different than a firearm manufacturer. Also, many comments I have read about our military (not in this post) are factually incorrect. 1% of people in the military actually fight and are involved with “violence”. The others do a variety of things many of which help people and have nothing to do with violence, war, or American greed. Your overall message is spot on, but your passion I feel many times spills into unfamiliar territory at times.

  • Gerald Lewis

    The answer in in Lamech’s confession and Jesus rebuttal. Lamech embraced escalating violence with a neverending wrath with the use his 70X7 statement. Jesus countered this with ever increasing mercy or 70X7 which ended the argument. By use of these specific words, He gave us the vision of our future. Jesus was truly awesome.

  • Jefferson W. Slinkard

    Brian You said “there will be universities where we learn to wage peace” would the teaching not first be taught to our children who will become the next generation? Or, maybe what your saying is, mankind will learn peace gradually and realize the teaching of it will lead to universities with classes taught on peace.?

  • “Not at all” what?
    That Cain wasn’t the first recorded killer in the Bible, or that humanity is incapable of killing?

    Never mind — apparently you posted under the wrong question.

  • Jesse Ireland

    Wait, what?!! So when Jesus says to love our enemies, He really didn’t mean that right? Are you kidding me? There is no possible way that killing your enemies is a way to love them. You can disagree fine, but please don’t say that your thinking aligns with Jesus because it just doesn’t.

  • Jesse Ireland

    Not its not. Jesus made it quite simple. He said to love your enemies. That is pretty simple, not easy, but simple. Do you honestly think that killing our enemies is in any way showing them love?

  • Jesse Ireland

    Your view says that it is either killed or be killed, I’m saying there are more options than that. The issue is we never try to think of them, and resort that it is either do nothing or kill. There are a more options in between those two things. As for self defense, how is dropping tow bombs on cities whose citizens had nothing to do with the war in any way self defense? There is no rational for doing that, none. Hence why no bombs have been dropped since, we realize how dumb it was to do it in the first place.

  • Yes, which is why when we choose to kill it make us sons and daughters of Cain. Following in his violent footsteps.

  • This post is about nuclear weapons.

  • ERSchindler

    Hello Thomas, could you explain how a weapons manufacturer is different from a firearms manufacturer, regarding Brian’s post?
    Regarding the military, even if it’s true that only 1% are involved in direct violence, aren’t 100% involved in systemic violence? And aren’t both just as evil? Not trying to be confrontational, just asking honest questions. Thanks for any thoughts!

  • ERSchindler

    Only one small problem… your conquering god looks nothing like Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

  • Even in self-defense.
    Even to end a (world) war.

  • Thomas

    Hi ERSchindler, a weapons manufacturer deals with scuds, nuclear warheads, bunker bombs, computerized missiles, etc. Firearms pretty much deal with that. For example, Mossberg is a firearms manufacturer. They make shotguns and rifles primarily. They don’t make grenades or hydrogen bombs. There is a big difference. According to Pastor Brian you can’t make a gun and make heaven. His words. As far as the military goes, I happen to know first hand that they do much good. They diffuse bombs and water mines over water which many of our cruise ships have sailed, build roads here in America, and many them are simply studying to get other jobs. You won’t hear that side though. I agree there is a big problem in many areas regarding our military and our country leaders for that matter. Please understand though, that pastor Brian I feel many times makes a good point followed by statements that don’t have merit. If you disagree with him, you are a moron and incorrect. He might not use those words, but he might as well. He is a great writer and knows how to word his sarcasm and condescending thoughts quite well.

  • I think violence is violence, so yes.

    I don’t see anyway to interpret the detonation of a nuclear bomb as anything even remotely approaching justified. To move with such little value for human and kill so indiscriminately is appalling to me. When we see Christians attempt to sanctify that type of horror with the bible and teachings of Christ as something Christ would approve of, I’m at a complete loss.

    Even in self-deffense
    even to end a world war.

    And on all of this we disagree, and that’s ok. If Brian hasn’t convinced you I surely cannot.

  • Gerald Lewis

    Sorry for the confusion Joe. My mind went straight to the solution of 70×7. I was thinking in broader terms.

  • Jesse Ireland

    So how does your clear understanding of scripture deal with Hebrews 1:3, where it states that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature. So if we are to try to understand who God is we are to listen and look at Jesus. Jesus says love your enemies, not kill them. Jesus says to forgive others instead of seeking revenge. Look we all interpret scripture through our lens, but we need to understand that the Prophets and OT all point to one thing and that is Jesus. He is the perfect image of God. If your view of God does not look like Jesus, then we just create a God in our own image. That is one of the reasons Jesus was sent, to clear up our misconception of who God is and to reveal what it means to be truly human. I get where you are coming from, but if we don’t interpret the Bible from a Jesus viewpoint, then we get all kind of things that just don’t align to Jesus. There is no way that bombing two cities and wiping out people who had nothing to do with the war is justifiable in any manner, none. And to try to use Jesus to do so, is basically ignoring all of his teachings about enemy love.

  • As I didn’t say anything was “justified” — much less “sanctified” — your argument is a straw man standing on a soap box.

    The way a world war is ended may not justify anything, but it does end the violence, otherwise widespread violence goes on unabated.

  • It’s OK — I now know you only have about a dozen Discus posts.
    Just realize that when I answer from the notifications section of Discus on my profile page, I only see your post and what you directly replied to, not all that came before it .

  • So killing 200,000 civilian men, women, and children ended violence? That stretches the meaning of language. It’s quite like saying, “if we kill everyone violence will end.”

  • For the sake of Brian’s comment section I’m happy to continue in a different forum. You can DM me @loveservegrow on twitter if you like.

  • Killing 200,000 with A-bombs ended the violence of World War II, otherwise the following would have gone into effect:

    “In April 1945, the Japanese Suzuki government had prepared a war policy called Ketsugo which was a refinement of the Shosango victory plan for the defense of the home islands to the last man. These plans would prepare the Japanese people psychologically to die as a nation in defense of their homeland. Even children, including girls, would be trained to use makeshift lethal weapons, and exhorted to sacrifice themselves by killing an American invader. To implement this policy of training children to kill, soldiers attended Japanese schools and trained even small children in the use of weapons such as bamboo spears….”

    If implemented, the Ketsugo plan would have easily resulted in much more than 200,000 deaths; in fact, practically every able-bodied Imperial Japanese soldier and citizen could have been killed or injured.

    I don’t know if the lesser of two evils can justify the former, but at least I can do the math.

  • Thank you for the offer, otherwise “Brian” will blame me for hijacking his blog if we continue here.

  • Jesse Ireland

    I can see you want to use the Bible to justify killing, go for it you can but in no way does it align to Jesus. When you ready to have a discussion about the real Jesus please let me know because the one you follow is a fake and in no way deserved of our worship, it’s a good thing your image of God isn’t the true Father

  • physics guy

    Einstein, who regretted planting the idea of developing atomic weapons in FDR’s mind, stated that one cannot simultaneously prepare for peace and war. The bitter irony is that the world has passed a point of no return when it comes to nuclear weapons. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) has worked (so far) because of the overwhelming stockpile of nuclear weapons on both sides (referring to the US and Russia). However, according to some military strategists, if the world’s number of nuclear warheads falls below about 1000, then it may be possible to ‘win’ a nuclear war (whatever THAT means). As a pacifist and follower of Jesus, and as one who truly believes that you CANNOT love your enemy while blowing them up at the same time, I am at a loss as to how to rid ourselves of these weapons without running the risk of someone trying a first-strike.

  • ERSchindler

    Hey Thomas, thanks for your response. I understand your point about the military doing much good. But my basic problem with Christians choosing to join the US military is this: by enlisting, they are basically saying that they are willing to kill another human being, if they are told so by the state. So a new recruit could one day be building a dam, and the next day be thrust into a war zone where they are expected to kill other human beings. For me, this terrible reality makes it impossible to support Christians joining the military. Not sure if this addresses your point – please clarify if it doesn’t!

  • Vicki A.

    This is an extremely powerful essay, and the short clip of Oppenheimer is stunning. I’m so glad you’re saying these things.

  • JK

    Pastor Z, I saw this and thought you’d like it. http://kottke.org/15/08/the-thousands-of-bombs-exploded-on-earth

    I wonder how many of us are more upset by the swearing at the end of the article than by the 2,153 nuke detonations.