Christopher Nolan’s most political film to date paints an undeniably bleak picture, says Giles Gough, and asks some impossible ethical questions. Thank God for Christian hope
Unless you’ve been holed up in your own Barbie dream house for the past few months, you’ll be aware of the buzz surrounding Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer, released last Friday.
A week is nowhere near enough time to process the existential dread provoked by Nolan’s most overtly political film to date, a biographical depiction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist pivotal in developing the world’s first nuclear weapons.
How should a Christian respond to the moral questions posed by the movie? Should atomic weapons have been developed at all? And should they ever have been used?
A new era
In 1938, when scientists first discovered that splitting the atom produced massive amounts of energy, it effectively fired the starter pistol in the race to develop nuclear weapons, ushering in the Atomic Age.
The film points out that the Nazis had an 18-month head start on Allied attempts and, as Oppenheimer knowingly says: “I know what it means if the Nazis have a bomb”; if Hitler had got there first, it would almost certainly have resulted in victory in the second world war.
Trying to work out what a Christian should think about all this is almost impossible
But while that assumption makes it easier to justify the decision to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon, how it was used, on the other hand, is a much larger discussion.
There were a number of less destructive alternatives that were rejected by the US military. As Oppenheimer puts it: “They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it.” And so, on 6 of August 1945 at 8:15am, ‘Little Boy’ was dropped over the city of Hiroshima, Japan.
80,000 were killed instantly or soon after succumbed to the effect of the blast. Final estimates say that the number of people who died as a direct or indirect result of the bomb was approximately 237,000. This alone was not enough to prompt a Japanese surrender so, three days later, US forces dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki.
Let’s consider the alternatives. We’ll never know exactly how many people would have died had Allied forces invaded Japan. But to give you an idea, the battle for the Japanese island of Okinawa lasted ten weeks and resulted in the deaths of over 12,000 Americans, 100,000 Japanese, and perhaps another 100,000 native Okinawans. The Japanese Army mobilised 1,780 schoolboys, aged between the ages of 14-17 years, into frontline service to defend just one small island.
On the one hand, there’s the sixth commandment “do not kill”, given directly to Moses from God and echoed throughout the New Testament. If there was ever a moral absolute, surely this would be it.
But what about when not killing a person will result in many others being killed? Is it justifiable to kill tens of thousands of people if it saves hundreds of thousands more?
At this point we begin to fall back on utilitarianism, a philosophy which Jeremy Bentham, its founding father, described as: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. This can be a useful when trying to make moral judgements but, for Christians, it can present a challenge. As it has no moral absolutes, any act can be justifiable under the right circumstances.
Perhaps the most Christian spin on this concept comes from 20th century thinker, Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher believed people could break conventional moral rules in certain situations, providing it was for a loving motive: “Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely love: nothing else at all,” he said.
Proponents of situation ethics point to Matthew 4, when Jesus is berated by the Pharisees for allowing his followers to eat grain, despite that being illegal on the Sabbath. He replies: “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do” (Matthew 12:3-4).
Not only that, but by healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus plainly flouted what would have been seen as irrefutable law in first century Israel. That said, it is almost impossible to think of dropping the bomb as an act of love; it is an example that stretches situation ethics to breaking point.
Is it justifiable to kill hundreds of people if it saves thousands more?
Wherever you land on the necessity of dropping the bomb (and this film illustrates all the reasons) no-one could emerge from Oppenheimer thinking that any future use of nuclear weapons could be acceptable.
In the closing scenes, Oppenheimer tells Einstein that he believes they have started “a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world”. The thought of nuclear annihilation is undeniably bleak. But, with God’s grace, and the strength of humanity’s collective will, it might just be a chain we can break.
Doing Barbenheimer? Read our review of Greta Gerwig’s smash hit