Power unleashed

While the box office takings for the film ‘Barbie’ were huge, it wasn’t the only summer film to grab the public’s attention. The film ‘Oppenheimer’ (July 2023) retells the story of the atom bomb being developed and used.

Robert Oppenheimer, often credited as the “father of the atomic bomb”, was a theoretical physicist and the director of the Manhatten Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory, which designed and built the world’s first nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer became an important historical figure, but also spokesman for atomic bomb ethics and political discussions about nuclear power. 

The film was inspired by the biography called “The American Prometheus: The triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2005). Prometheus defied the Olympian gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humans in the form of technology, knowledge, and civilisation. The film charts the course of Oppenheimer’s rise in the scientific world, alongside a rather complicated history of skeletons in the cupboard (his political leanings remained the grounds for suspicion and mistrust by the Government) and a rather messy personal life. On the broader canvass it raises complex political and ethical issues. Not least of which was how to ensure that the Nazi’s, who were about 18 months ahead of the rest of the world, did not produce the weapon first. The USA was first to drop an Atom Bomb on Hiroshima (6.8.45), but despite the huge loss of life did not lead to Japan’s surrender until a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki (9.8.45).  The argument for its use centred on the minimising of even greater human destruction resulting from Nazi advance.

The film explores the question, does the end justify the means? Some would say yes, the bombings were necessary to quell the fighting by the Japanese and bring an end to World War II. Yet, as the famous physicist Niels Bohr remarked in the film, “A bomb falls on the just and the unjust.”

The bombings did lead to the end of WWII and Japan’s surrender, but it came at a heavy human cost, most of the casualties being civilians. The development led to much soul searching by Oppenheimer and the scientific community as to whether it was justifiable and whether they had unleashed a power that was difficult to control. This is evidenced by how the atom bomb meant that there was a threat of thermo-nuclear war for the duration of the Cold W from 1945 to 1991. It continues to be a prospect in our contemporary world.

In the closing scenes, Oppenheimer tells Albert Einstein that he believed they’d started “a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world”. The thought of nuclear annihilation is undeniably bleak, but a real threat. What are we to make of this depressing view? Jesus revealed what would mark the end of time when he warned his followers of history being littered with aggression: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come’ (Matthew 24v6).

Christian belief affirms that the LORD God is Sovereign over history and has unleashed the ultimate power of reconciliation, through the cross of Christ: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1v18). God’s gift of salvation offers redemption and transformation, irrespective of the skeletons in our cupboards, or even a questionable life’s work. All who humble themselves before Him will not be written off, since none are beyond the reach of His grace. Jesus brings us the prospect of future hope: a new heaven and a new earth, free from all evil and sin, where there will be peace and plenty for all. The gospel truth gives us a framework for ethical decisions as we look to the goal of history.

Paul Kingman