“I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”

by Scott Ashley Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

As I write this, the movie Oppenheimer is one of the biggest box-office draws in the United States. The subject is Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, often referred to as the “father of the bomb”—the first atomic bomb.

The movie (though not recommended due to some objectionable material), charts the development of the Manhattan Project, the pivotal and massively expensive race to build the world’s first nuclear weapon before Nazi Germany could beat the Allies to it. Both sides knew the winner of the race would likely win the Second World War—which is exactly what happened.

Oppenheimer, a complicated and complex genius, was put over the project. He recruited the world’s best scientific minds to come together to build a device unlike anything the world had ever seen.

No one was actually sure it would work, even up to the point of the first test detonation at White Sands, New Mexico. Some harbored a very real concern that the first atomic explosion could set off a chain reaction that would ignite the planet’s atmosphere and spread around the world, extinguishing all life on earth. 

At its peak, some 130,000 workers were involved in the project at more than 30 different sites. The cost of the project was staggering—some $2.2 billion at the time, worth about $24 billion in today’s dollars.

Reflecting on the fearsome power unleashed by the first successful atomic bomb detonation on July 16, 1945, and the massive casualties produced by the two bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a month later, Oppenheimer came to oppose the development and use of nuclear weapons.  

He later recalled his thoughts on witnessing that first blast: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed [in relief at the successful test], a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture . . . ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’

Now opposed to the weapons he had helped create, Dr. Oppenheimer spoke out against development of the hydrogen bomb, which the United States was in a race to develop before the Soviet Union could build one first. Because of his opposition and his left-leaning political views and associations, he was ostracized by the military and political leaders who had formerly championed him.

Dr. Oppenheimer’s story holds important lessons for us today. When people work together, they can accomplish great things and make astounding scientific advancements. But at the same time, those advancements and accomplishments are all too often put to evil uses. They have often led to new weapons of war designed to kill ever-larger numbers of human beings in ever-more-efficient ways—like the 100,000 to 200,000 who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

How is this relevant for our day?

Asked about the conditions that would precede His second coming, Jesus Christ foretold that mankind will be brought to the brink of extinction. His shocking response is recorded in Matthew 24:21-22: “It will be a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive; but for the sake of God’s chosen it will be cut short” (Revised English Bible, emphasis added).

To bring the human race to near-extinction will likely involve not only nuclear arms, but possibly even worse weapons. To echo Oppenheimer’s fears, if not for God’s direct intervention to save us from ourselves, humanity will become destroyer of its own world.

But God’s Word offers great hope—hope of an astounding new world where weaponry will become a thing of the past: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Be sure to read the articles in this issue to learn how that astounding new world will come about and what it will be like. And join us in praying as Jesus Christ instructed, “Thy kingdom come!”

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