Nuclear Weapons and God: At the End of the Day

19 August 2022

Speech Delivered on August 19, 2022 for a donor event. 

With Vladimir Putin’s threat to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, we all have been forced to think again about these weapons.

We can look at nuclear weapons from the perspective of environmental or humanitarian impact, in terms of national security, and manifold other ways. What I would like to do, with you today,  is to share how an old preacher from the hills of West Virginia sees all of this. Therefore you won’t be surprised by my title which is:  Nuclear Weapons and God: At the End of the Day.”

My thoughts were shaped a long time ago when (may he rest in peace) Secretary George Shultz – out of the blue – invited me to Stanford to listen to experts speak about nuclear weapons.  I sat quietly on the balcony for two days trying to catch up, take notes, and understand what had been said.  At the end, I happily sat on the balcony glad that my ignorance was not on display.  Then, George looked up on the balcony and said, “Bill, what do you think?”

What I blurted out then – focusing on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - is what I am going to focus on today with you. Yes, the story is a myth. But a myth, while it doesn’t tell us what is historically true, it does tell us something about what is true about history and something about ourselves. So whether we are talking about forbidden fruit in the garden or a nuclear weapon in our arsenal, our responses to the temptations are pretty predictable.

 The serpent entices and says, “Go ahead. Reach for this thing that is forbidden.” And then the serpent gives two classic boasts,  “You will not die” and “you will be like God.” If we take out the apple in the tree and replace it with a nuclear weapon in a silo, what might the serpent be saying to us?   Perhaps, “Go ahead build these weapons, as powerful as you wish.  You will figure out a way not to die from them.”  And perhaps, “Go ahead possess these weapons, and the rest of the world will treat you like God. Will hold you in fear and reverence.”

Nuclear Weapons and God inexorably go together. Why? Because they represent the final claims on the planet Earth.  Nuclear weapons are too big to be categorized as safeguards for national security.  Nuclear weapons are bigger than America or Russia. Too potent to be contained in a moment in time. Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate property dispute between God and “The Other Force.” The serpent might be saying, “in the old days, when you were innocent, God seemed to be the most powerful force in the world.  But open your eyes, embrace the bomb, it now is the most powerful force on earth.  The bomb can be yours and when it is, then you now can be God.” Possession translates to domination.  At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are a theological matter.  Not a military matter.

The serpent might be saying to us, “God, indeed, might have the first word of life.  but you can have the last word of death. There is a way for you to gain equal status with God.”

Whose Earth is this planet?  There is a prayer that says, “Help us to lift the fog of atomic darkness that hovers so pervasively over our earth . . . Your earth.” The ultimate temptation comes from the Garden of Eden, “you will be like God.” But if, down deep, you know that you are not God but an imposter, then an imposter should have a queasy feeling when strutting around with nuclear weapons at the ready. Today, with Ukraine, that queasy feeling has invaded our psychys again.  Earth as “our” planet to destroy is an unsettling prospect.


Now let me focus on nuclear weapons. They are recent. Very recent. Only 77 years old.  On the other hand, the planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Earth, without nuclear weapons, has muddled along pretty well intact for billions of years despite plagues, wars, meteor hits, and the like.

In the 77 years with nuclear weapons, we have come perilously close to starting a nuclear war, only to be spared by a few alert and courageous people and a lot of blind luck. Nevertheless, our nuclear success has caused some experts to assume that Earth is too big to fail and that we are to assume that we are so inventive that we can think our way out of any peril that we created.   

I have the utmost admiration for all sorts of people who have made commitments to safeguard these weapons and others who advocate for disarmament.  For instance, I am thinking of a particular naval officer aboard a nuclear submarine whose job it is to perfectly keep the weapons secure and to make absolutely certain that nothing goes wrong, all the while on supreme firing alert.

I think of all the folks in New York, this month, carrying on the Review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty – whereby 191 nations have agreed to bring about “complete disarmament under strict and effective internal control.” I think of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons . . . the failsafe strategy of the Nuclear Threat Initiative . .  . and myriad doctors, scientists, students, jailed activists, and countless others who have devoted their lives to the abolition of nuclear weapons..  “The hills are on fire” with a great host of serious people who has linked their lives to this disarmament. Do we see them as “idealists” or “realists?” That it is an urgent issue that deserves a clear answer.

A couple of years ago, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations was asked about the disarmament of these weapons.  She said, “There is nothing that I want more for my family than a world free of nuclear weapons.  But . . . we have to be realistic.” Ah, realistic! Here’s a thought:  Just maybe the military, and industrial complex which produces the bombs with the backing of politicians, maybe they are naïve idealists.  For they are wed to the myth that nuclear weapons will save the planet Earth. Maybe the realists are the cartoon characters with long beards on the streets with signs that say, “The End is Near.”

What is real is that our US submarines can launch 400 nuclear weapons and in 15 minutes, totally destroy every large city in Russia.  Imagine a Russian missile called Satan 2 carrying the most warheads ever assembled on a missile, and they are right now aimed at us. When the time comes and the bombs are in the air, words like “realist” or “idealist” will not matter. No words will matter – not “absurd” or “heinous” or ‘blasphemous” because we will be ensconced in the core of evil itself.

Let me give you an updated myth. Far out in space, God and Satan are talking as they watch us handling our nuclear weapons in 2022.  God says, “If they keep this up – ever more powerful bombs, more and more countries with these bombs – they are going to blow themselves up.” To which Satan says, Oh, no they won’t die. I’ll bet you. I’ll bet you a planet, Earth. And God says, “It’s a bet.”

And by the way, if we self-destruct, then the potential for human life might reside in a tree frog clinging today on the bark of a tree in Indonesia waiting to evolve again over billions of years into an Adam or an Eve with plutonium in their garden.

The trouble with nuclear weapons is the choices they force on us.  We – meaning our designated leaders – have to choose the bomb or our family . . . the bomb or Springtime . . . the bomb or music . .  .  radiation or creation. For 4.5 billion years we didn’t have to make such drastic choices. 

But for the past 77 years, the bombs have forced us to listen to the serpent:

“Go ahead and seize the forbidden fruit.  You will not die. You will be like God.”

We are all back in the Garden and the paradise of the vibrant Earth hangs on our decision. We are Adam and Eve. Whom do we listen to? What do we do?

To achieve a world free of nuclear weapons we can: 1 – drop our bombs on ourselves and there won’t be any bombs or 2) we can dismantle all of our bombs, now before it is too late.

2. God      

If we stand- here in the woods - supposedly a long way away from these weapons, the subject of God might not come into focus.  But the closer we stand to the weapons, all of a sudden our minds picture a Divine dimension. Right from the very first atomic bomb, one of its chief architects, Robert Oppenheimer, saw it up close, and quoting Hindu Sanskrit, said, about himself,

“I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy.”

Today, by paying taxes, we participate in the architecture of the creation of vastly more powerful nuclear weapons than Oppenheimer did, but we have grown spiritual cataracts that keep our eyes from recognizing the Divine dimension in our bombs. Convenient astigmatism, lest we paralyze ourselves with the understanding that we have intruded on Divine territory.

The “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb,” Andrei Sakharov, in horror at what he had done, said,

“I wasn’t naïve.  But understanding something in an abstract way is different from feeling it with your whole being, like the reality of life and death.”

The sacred dimension of life and death, the God dimension is certainly understood by all of the religions of the world, religions which have gone on record in opposing nuclear weapons.  But let me ask you a question:

“When is the last time you heard someone in a pulpit preach a sermon about nuclear weapons?”

Anybody here in the last ten years heard such a sermon? Raise your hand. Up at the top of religion, God is against nukes. But in the pews, folks don’t want to hear about it. Nukes are tolerated in the pews.

 In Westminster Abbey, Church of England, services were held to celebrate the sailors who manned the Trident submarines. They were credited with keeping Russia from nuking England. In Westminster Abbey, we could find God and Nukes and Nation at the same time. A positive connection?

In Russia, we could find Patriarch Kirill blessing the nuclear weapons on behalf of God and the Russian Orthodox Church.

In Pakistan, when that country built its first nuclear bomb, I heard people saying,

“India has a Hindu bomb, and now we have a Muslim bomb.”   

Somehow, God and Religion and Nation and the Bomb seem to go together in the real world. For the regular folks in the pews, the strategy of “Deterrence” is quietly tolerated but never addressed. We have no liturgical prayers about nuclear weapons, probably for the same reason, Adam and Eve didn’t have a prayer about the apple.

Deterrence sets up a tough balancing act whose premise is that if we have overwhelming nuclear weaponry and our enemies have overwhelming nuclear weapons, neither side would dare start a nuclear war.  Because if either side did, both sides would be destroyed completely. And I admit, that there is a lot of good to say about deterrence. No nukes used in war for 77 years speaks for itself.

But . . .  deterrence works until it doesn’t work, and then it is too late. It works until Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. It works until weapon modernization by all of the nuclear powers continues for a century or two.  It works until a nuclear accident or a rogue group or unhinged leader stop playing by the Deterrence rules.   It works until human fallibility catches up with the Deterrence plan that rests ultimately on human perfection. Then what? At the end of the day, deterrence is only a fig leaf covering our nuclear nakedness.

In Bob Woodward’s book on General James Mattis, he tells of the general sitting in a meeting with the President of the United States and others on the National Security Team. They discussed the posture of nuclear weapons in the world and the likelihood of nuclear war.  Immediately after the meeting, General Mattis got in a car, went to the National Cathedral, knelt down in the Bethlehem Chapel and prayed. At the end of the day,  the general in charge of the most potent fighting force in the history of the world, he joins Oppenheimer and Sakharov and all of the custodians of Earth-Death Nukes. He prayed to the Source of all life in the Universe. 

Nuclear weapons? “Oh, God!” This language is the only language spoken at the moment of Armageddon. “Oh, God!”

3. “At the end of the day”

This colloquial phrase, “at the end of the day,” sends us to the back of the book for the answer to our weapons problems.  How does all of this nuclear weapons business work out at the end of the day? But what book? The Bible? Obviously, the Bible is replete with the assumptions that this world will come to an end at some point. At least the world as we have known it. But the Bible is as imprecise, historically, about the End as it was about the Beginning. The Bible speaks in the language of myths and visions. Let’s find a more contemporary perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, a small group of folks was talking about these matters when a young lady on the outskirts of the conversation piped up.  She said: “my generation doesn’t think about nuclear weapons. We think about guns.  If all of us can’t get together and establish a few sensible demands for gun safety, how can we expect the same people to come up with a few sensible demands for safety regarding nuclear weapons?”  Let me give you another perspective.

Let me invite you to see this through the lens of the James Webb Space Telescope which – for the past month – is performing a halo orbit around a spot in space called “Sun-Earth 12 Lagrange Point” (about a million miles away). Those looking through the telescope are trying to see, as close as possible, what happened in the Big Bang at the beginning.  They also are seeing vast complexes of constantly expanding galaxies in a constantly expanding universe.

By looking backward and forwards at the same time, we discover something about ourselves. In the end, we aren’t masters of our fate.  We are tenders of our fragile garden.  We aren’t an endless line of warring tribes.  We are kindergarteners in a serious sandbox learning to share or die. As we see dead planets floating around, we will be learning that Earth is not a bottomless boon for exploitation. Human life on Earth can end. This Earth is our first, last, and only chance of sustaining human life. If we give into the bomb, then the bomb determines our destiny. 

Looking through the James Webb Space Telescope, we will eventually see things differently.  Already we have to talk in terms of cosmic time. Pretty soon, we will have to confront cosmic religion. For instance, the 10 Commandments will have to give way to cosmic awareness.  “Thou shalt not kill” might morph into “Thou shalt not kill everyone or anyone.” Or . . .’Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” might morph into “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s nuclear silo.” Cosmic religion will force a choice between streams of living water as opposed to pools of nuclear wastewater.

Looking through that telescope, our most exciting question now is: will we find life, a planet like ours out there, somewhere? Okay, let’s say we do. Let’s say we find a man and a woman there in a garden.  Let’s say that we tell them how to create a nuclear weapon.  Let’s say, we tell them that they will not die from these weapons and they will be like God. 

Wait a minute.  That’s where I came in.  Thank you, George.  Thank you, Family!