Much of the world has responded with “fire and fury” to President Donald Trump’s message to North Korea that continued threats will “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—an unmistakable allusion to using nuclear weapons. Given the gravity of this remark, it seems appropriate for onlookers to be unnerved by America’s apparent stance.
Still, not everyone was troubled by it, with some evangelical Christians actually cheering the President on (more on that in a bit). So we have to acknowledge that Christians are divided on nuclear weapons.
As a study by the Presbyterian Church in America (“Christian Responsibility in the Nuclear Age,” 1987) put it, “Given the dilemma of possible escalation to an all-out nuclear war on the one hand, and the near certainty of enslavement to a totalitarian power on the other, it is not clear that the nonuse of nuclear weapons is an absolute moral obligation.”
And further, “The thought of killing masses of helpless people who are themselves at the mercy of their own government is abhorrent. Only if there were no other way to prevent an even worse catastrophe could nuclear retaliation ever be justified.” The language is nuanced, but the point is clear: The use of nuclear weapons is, in extreme cases, morally just.
Others of us emphatically disagree: Under no circumstances would the use of nuclear arms be justified. Our reasons hinge on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” and the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons. Simply put, they end up killing a great many more civilians than combatants, and therefore, their use violates one cardinal principle of just war: proportionality.
Sadly, every war will entail the death of civilians, but as one summary of just war theory put it, “The violence in a just war must be proportional to the casualties suffered.” Thus, “innocent civilians must never be the target of war; soldiers always avoid killing civilians.”
While we hear occasional reports of civilians killed by US soldiers in the Middle East, our armed forces go to extraordinary lengths to prevent this. For this they are to be commended. But a nuclear bomb—by its very nature—cannot prevent this and will entail the killing of vast amounts of the innocent. We’ve not even begun to consider retaliatory strikes followed by more retaliatory strikes, likely ending in a conflagration that recalls medieval visions of hell.
‘Good for Nothing But Killing’
To be sure, we who repudiate the use of such weapons still haggle over how to eliminate them safely. Christianity Today weighed in on this more than 35 years ago: “But how in our atomic world can we best work to secure these goals? A carefully phased negotiation process—ultimately to encompass all nations, and aiming first at the reduction and then at the repudiation of all weapons, both nuclear and conventional—is the most viable way to work toward these goals.” Our views haven’t changed.
This is not the place to argue the fine points, but it is the place to reiterate that we stand in that stream of Christians who find no justification for the use of nuclear weapons. This is not a politically radical view. Some of the most conservative of Christians and politicians, including evangelist Billy Graham, have also concluded that nuclear weapons are inherently evil or, to not put too fine a point on it, “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization” (Ronald Reagan).