Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Oppenheimer.
Atop a desk in a university classroom sits a poisoned apple. The person responsible: a disgruntled physics student named J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), who’s injected his tutor’s apple with potassium cyanide as payback for an earlier slight. That night, the young man awakes in a panic, guilt-ridden over what he’s done. It won’t be the last time he holds life and death in his fingers—or that we witness the power of God colliding with the choices of Man.
Oppenheimer is filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s latest tale of dark ambition. It revolves around the true story of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ initiative to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. At the helm sits Oppenheimer, at that point a renowned theoretical physicist. His success on the project would make him—in the words of his colleague and rival, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.)—“the most important man who ever lived.” The goal of the Manhattan Project is not only to produce a weapon of mass destruction, but to do so before America’s enemies can and to deploy it in the hopes of ending the war.
“The father of the atomic bomb” would later openly oppose the proliferation of even stronger instruments of war. Soon after he appears on the cover of Time magazine, he loses his job and reputation in large part due to his objections to developing a hydrogen bomb (described in the film as “a weapon of mass genocide”). What does it mean to seek out the almighty destructive power of God, only to have a change of heart once you’ve found it? Perhaps it is the change that matters most, for through it, Oppenheimer is reminded of the value of mercy. While it’s easy to see sweeping destruction as the epitome of power, this view overlooks a broader message about that power, especially from a biblical standpoint. God's demonstration of mercy throughout scripture may help us redefine that power and serve as a model for the rest of humanity to follow.
Perhaps the most famous biblical tale of divine destruction can be found in the flood narrative of Genesis, in which God decides to punish “the wickedness of the human race” through diluvial retribution. As the flood rains fall, “every living thing . . . birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind . . . every living thing on the face of the earth [is] wiped out. . . .” It is proof early in the Bible that, just as easily as God breathed life into the world, he could snuff it all out at his discretion.
This act of eradication is referenced later in 2 Peter 3, which contains this warning: “By the same word, the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” The ensuing description of that day—when “the heavens will disappear with a roar” and “the elements will be destroyed by fire”—brings to mind a terrifying spectacle akin to that of an atomic blast.
To wit, when Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema recreate the first nuclear bomb test (codenamed Trinity), the result is a furious tower of flames reaching thousands of feet into the sky—“a terrible revelation of divine power,” Oppenheimer calls it. The explosion inspires awe and reverence in those who bear witness to it. Having successfully stolen proverbial fire from the gods, Oppenheimer, the “American Prometheus,” stands triumphant on the shoulders of his team, absorbing their adulation while the United States flag waves in the distance. As they celebrate, the team seems to ignore the implication of their achievement. Physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) recognizes that something has changed, however, and offers this prophetic observation: “This isn’t a new weapon. It’s a new world.”
But exactly what will this “new world” look like?
TC Podcast: Oscars 2024 (Oppenheimer, American Fiction, The Zone of Interest)
As the flood narrative concludes, God declares, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” Dissuaded from his initial displeasure with humanity, he makes a new covenant, promising “never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” We too need to be willing to choose mercy, particularly in light of whatever power we may wield over others. God’s mercy is about more than his restraint in using his power against humanity; it’s about giving humanity the opportunity to turn toward righteousness, even when it appears too late to do so. The same should be true for our own acts of mercy, as well as our displays of power.
In 2 Peter 3, we’re reminded that “the Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” When faced with the prospect of our own destruction, we are called “to live holy and godly lives . . . [and] be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.” While Oppenheimer is not seen living a “godly” life before or after he creates the bomb, he does make an effort to ensure that the world changes for the better following his discovery.
Once the United States actually drops its bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer is haunted by the sights and sounds of what he’s ushered in: fear and panic; nuclear winter; charred victims and grieving survivors, sick with radiation poisoning. He later laments, “I feel as though I have blood on my hands,” and spends the years immediately following the Manhattan Project attempting to slow the development of the world’s nuclear arsenal. He seeks to “secure international cooperation” and broker a commitment not to escalate matters with a hydrogen bomb—or worse. What he wants is to give everyone involved the chance to make the right choice: to lead with mercy and strive to preserve life, rather than destroy it.
It’s a choice that we’ve been given since the beginning. The apple in the Garden of Eden proved just as dangerous as any flood or fire. And the choice made surrounding that apple has had far reaching effects on the world that followed; it literally embodied the difference between life and death. As for young Oppenheimer, he comes to his senses in time to discard his own forbidden apple. We don’t need traditional weapons to hold another’s life in our hands. The question is: What will we do with that life, as well as our own, and what kind of world will we leave behind?