© Anthony E. Larson, 2002
Armageddon in the Atomic Age
Try to name all of the changes that the atom bomb and technology brought to our world in the middle of the last century. It certainly changed warfare; even populations far from any battle could be held hostage to annihilation. It changed politics and diplomacy; nuclear capable countries became overnight “superpowers.” It changed science; nothing since Newton’s laws of gravity or Copernicus’ heliocentrism has so profoundly effected our views of the universe.
In reality, it’s hard to find some aspect of our lives that hasn’t changed in one way or another, due to the advent of the atomic age.
In fact, as unlikely as it may seem to the average Latter-day Saint, the atom bomb even changed our view of the scriptures and prophecy. Today’s Mormons, and Christians in general, have a radically different view of scriptural prophecy than their ancestors, thanks largely to the advent of the atomic age.
Historically, from the days of the primitive church up until the restoration, prophesied destructions of the last days such as those uttered by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, the Apostle John in his Revelation and even the Savior himself were viewed as the acts of an all-powerful God. The pronounced tumult and cataclysm in the heavens and on the earth, predicted to occur prior to the Savior’s second coming, were seen by Christians as the forces of nature responding to the commands of their creator.
The founder of this dispensation, Joseph Smith, also foresaw the calamities of the last days as a series of natural disasters. So, that’s how Mormons saw it, up until the middle of the 20th century.
All that changed the day the first A-bomb was detonated in July 1945. “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent,” recalled J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the A-bomb, who witnessed the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. The awe-inspiring power of that blast reminded Oppenheimer of a line from the Hindu sacred book, the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death: the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer wasn’t the only one to see mankind in a new, world-destroying light. From that point on, Christians began to see the atom bomb as the embodiment of God’s prophesied wrath. From Herbert W. Armstrong’s “World Tomorrow” radio ministry of the 1950s to Hal Lindsay’s book and movie, “The Late, Great Planet Earth” in the late 1960s, Christian ministers began to interpret the fantastic imagery seen in prophecy as immensely powerful super-weapons, nuclear weapons being the cornerstone of their exegesis–Armageddon.
It’s easy to see why. The bomb’s mushroom cloud looked like the pillars of “fire and smoke” envisioned in prophecy, its shockwave became the “blast from heaven,” the soot and ash from its fallout darkened the sky, as in prophecy, and the long, deafening roar and rumble it produced became the “sound of many waters.” Given its remarkable similarity to biblical “fire and brimstone,” and the effects of nuclear radiation exposure from fallout to the “sores, boils, blains, blights and murrains” of prophetic scripture, the A-bomb was seen as the tailor-made fulfillment of prophecy.
What’s more, the 20th century brought with it the development of extremely sophisticated machinery that completely replaced the crude weapons of yesteryear. Thanks to the development of airplanes, missiles and rockets, modern warfare expanded into an entirely new realm: the skies above us. Technology brought us jet airplanes and missiles that “roar upon the tops of the mountains,” tanks and attack helicopters with a “sting like scorpions tails,” and a multitude of other high-tech weapons such as missiles and lasers whose effects seem similar to the extravagant imagery of prophecy.
Then, the space age took man and his technologically advanced weapons into the very heavens themselves. Once the sole venue of God’s prophesied vengeance, the heavens were now mankind’s domain as well. Man could now wield god-like power both on earth and in the heavens.
All this technological development brought about a revolutionary revision in biblical interpretation in Christianity and among Mormons as well. These astounding technical advances and these super-weapons had a profound effect on the thinking of the Christian clergy as they read and interpreted prophecy. A whole new breed of millennialists appeared who saw the fulfillment of latter-day prophecies in the technological advancements of mankind. Religionists now proclaim that man with his super-weapons, not God, will be Apollyon (Abaddon), the destroyer, as noted by the apostle John in his Revelation. Mankind now had the power to single-handedly fulfill all prophecy of the last days and bring about Armageddon all on his own.
In fine, God was no longer necessary to the fulfillment of prophecy. Mankind would now provide all the elements of prophecy: pillars of fire devastating vast expanses and destroying whole populations, a quaking earth ruptured by super-powerful atomic bombs and the roaring of incredibly powerful and lethal flying machines, ashen skies that turned the moon red and darkened the sun, death from virile plagues and toxic poisons unleashed on a hapless world populace in chemical and biological weapons, a “scorched earth” warfare that would leave a vast wasteland in the wake of advancing armies with super weapons.
God could sit on the sidelines, a celestial spectator, while we would bring about the end of the world all on our own. Deus ex homonum!
Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Clearly, the egotism and myopia of modern man had overtaken the proper view of prophecy.
The problem is that this twisted view of prophecy has been allowed to stand. Nearly every Christian – Latter-day Saints included – see the fulfillment of prophecy in these same terms. But it is a badly flawed view that should be corrected. This kind of myopic, egoistic interpretation is easily demolished when we look to the scriptures as accurate, eyewitness accounts of God’s dealings with his children.
For example, no Latter-day Saint in his or her right mind would suggest that the fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was really an atomic bomb. Early man had neither the technology nor the knowledge to produce such a weapon. It was destruction from God, not man.
And what about the fire from heaven that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice on Mt. Carmel or the blast that destroyed the Assyrian army of Sennacherib as he lay siege to Jerusalem in the days of Isaiah? Ancient man could not have done that, but God could. Recall that “all the face of the land” was changed in the “tempest,” tumult and “darkness” that overtook the Nephites at the Savior’s crucifixion. Was that their doing? Or was it God’s doing?
Was the Exodus’ “pillar of fire and smoke,” bloody water, darkness, earthquakes or plagues due to some super weapon? Or were these the forces of nature obeying the command of their creator?
Why, then, do we allow descriptions of idential latter-day calamities to suggest the cause is other than God-sent?
There is no hint of a role for man in Joseph Smith’s statement about latter-day destructions, “It is not the design of the Almighty to come upon the earth and crush it and grind it to powder.”
The crux of this argument is the strikingly similar language used in the scriptures to describe both ancient catastrophes and those prophesied for the future. This logic is a vital key, axiomatic to understanding the scriptures and the fulfillment of prophecy that every Latter-day Saint should internalize: The calamities of the last days, prior to the Second Coming, will see a return of all the catastrophic types of destruction from the past, enumerated in the scriptures. As an example, compare the “miracles” of Exodus and Revelation for yourself.
Otherwise, why would God use the irresistible forces of nature to do his bidding in the past and not in the future, leaving that to the hand of man instead? Isn’t it more logical to assume that the striking similarities between ancient destructions and those prophesied for our future are an indication that they will be of the same nature, kind and source?
While it is true that “there will be wars and rumors of wars,” fought by man, according to Joseph Smith, the true agents of destruction will be the forces of nature, “signs in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, the sun turned into darkness and the moon to blood, earthquakes in divers places, the seas heaving beyond their bounds.”
Mormons were not immune to the distorted view of scripture induced by advanced technology and the atom bomb, but they should have been. Isn’t this what the scriptures mean when they urge us to reject any reliance on the “arm of flesh?”
We Saints have fallen prey to the delusions of our Christian brethren where interpretation of prophecy is concerned because we failed to heed the teachings of the modern prophets, from Joseph Smith to the present, and because we have failed to study the scriptures.
Perhaps it is time we returned to the proper perspective, rather than the distorted view induced by our myopic, egocentric modern views. Perhaps it is time we took man, his puny and fragile devices out of the equation – puny when compared to the forces of nature at God’s command – by recognizing that God alone will fulfill the promises made by the mouths of his holy prophets. Perhaps this should also remind us of just how widespread, devastating and earthshaking the catastrophes of the latter-days will be – far greater by many orders of magnitude than any man-made calamity – when they do come upon us.