Nagasaki: The Sufferings of Christ


This is the third in a series of blog posts on the seventieth anniversary of the creation and use of the atomic bomb. The first two are Los Alamos: We Have Become Death and Hiroshima: An Anti-Transfiguration. I have asked Peri to write the final one on Nagasaki.

Nagasaki: The Sufferings of Christ
Peri Zahnd

1945. What a year it was. What it must have been like to have lived in that time — the last days of WWII, watching the evil Third Reich disintegrate, the fall of the Nazi regime, dancing in the streets of America when it was announced the war in Europe was finally over.

I can’t imagine what it was like to hear in the days and weeks to follow the stories of the concentration camps being liberated, the piles of bodies, the skeletal survivors. Had such horror ever been seen on the earth? I absolutely agree, the world must “never forget” what awful things were done in an attempt to utterly wipe out a people group, the Jews.

But the war wasn’t really over. America was also at war with Japan, and the Japanese had not yet surrendered. We were still at war, for a few more months, until August, when two atomic bombs were dropped in the space of four days on two major cities in Japan. I think it is safe to say again that such horror had never been seen on the earth.

I came across the book A Song for Nagasaki by Paul Glynn a few years ago, and it was one of the most unforgettable books I have ever read. It tells of the beauty of the Japanese culture, the story of Christianity coming to Japan, and the devotion of many who became martyrs rather than give up their faith. Nagasaki was the birthplace of Christianity in Japan, and had a thriving Christian community, the centerpiece of which was the Urakami Cathedral, Ground Zero for the bomb. But A Song for Nagasaki is really the story of Takashi Nagai, a medical doctor in Nagasaki who had become a devoted Christian after a long search for truth — disappointing his beloved father by abandoning the Shinto religion he’d been raised in.

Nagai was at work at the hospital on the beautiful morning in August when the bomb was dropped. He survived because he happened to be in an inner room of the hospital which provided some degree of protection. Nagai was trapped and injured; he was eventually dug out of the rubble by a co-worker. He finally made it outside and into a nightmare, literally a living hell.

I read the story of what he encountered that day with a sense of horror — the descriptions of the suffering of the people reminded me of the most ghastly descriptions of hell I’d ever imagined. To perish immediately was a great mercy. Despite his own serious injuries, the doctor immediately threw himself into doing all he could do to help the dying who were all around him — somewhere in the vicinity of one hundred thousand, half of which died that day, and half of which lingered a bit longer before succumbing to death.

It was several days before Takashi was able to leave the ghastly scene and make it to his home. He found what remained of his beloved wife in the kitchen — a few bone fragments and her rosary beads. His two young children had been spared — they had gone on a hike to the mountains with their grandmother that day.

The story grows even more remarkable in the months to follow, as Takashi refuses to give in to bitterness and instead forgives and becomes a great preacher of peace. He preached to the survivors of the church there and told them that the reason the bomb had fallen on Nagasaki was so that the body of Christ there could absorb the wounds, bear the sins of the world, end the cycle of violence, and not return evil for evil, but instead forgive. He became a great spiritual leader of the Christian community in Japan.

Very soon, his radiation sickness made him an invalid forced to lie on a mat in a one-room hut that his friends constructed for him. He became famous in Japan — a prophet, a revered holy man who spent his days in prayer, writing books, and receiving the many guests who came from around the world to meet him, even Helen Keller! A popular movie was made of his life — The Bells of Nagasaki, telling the story of how he helped organize the salvage of the cathedral bell found buried in the rubble and worked quickly to get it hung so that it could ring once again on Christmas Day — a symbol of hope and endurance for the believers there. He published several books, some of which are available in English. He lived much longer than anyone expected, but finally died of the radiation sickness in 1951.

As I finished this book, I marveled that Takashi Nagai and his story are mostly unknown here in America. I believe it is just as important that we not forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki as it is that we not forget Auschwitz and Dachau. Jesus would never endorse the torture and suffering and killing and destruction the atomic bomb caused. Why do we so readily agree that the Holocaust was a sin, but defend the atomic bombings?

There were plenty of highly placed people who were against the bomb being dropped — General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, who later became the 34th President of the United States, as well as Admiral William Leahy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Albert Einstein, who initially supported the creation of the atomic bomb, opposed its use. Yet, an American Christian today who voices their opposition to these bombings can be sure they will be soundly criticized. Why, in the name of God?!

No rational human contests the horror of the Holocaust. It is universally decried, except by a few marginalized “Holocaust deniers.” Why is it so controversial to question or criticize dropping atomic bombs on a city filled with children and families and teachers and doctors just living their lives?

Learning the truth about what happened is uncomfortable. The book was certainly not entertainment, not a feel-good read, but in the end very uplifting and inspiring. We need to read this book and others like it so that we can say, and continue to remind ourselves — “Never Again.”

I would like to leave you with a question. On August 9, 1945 where do we find Jesus? In a B-29 flying over Nagasaki? Or with the worshipers, soon to be sufferers, praying in the Urakami Cathedral?

“We suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him.” –Romans 8:17

Peri Zahnd

Urakami Cathedral, August 1945

Urakami Cathedral today