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    marchers in London protesting nuclear war

    Will History End in Nuclear War?

    If you are reading this, there is still time to reconsider.

    By Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

    May 20, 2022

    If you are reading this, we have probably avoided an all-out nuclear war over Ukraine.

    Barring a cessation of hostilities, then, our prevailing immediate concern should be the suffering of Ukrainians in the face of a brutal invasion by Russia, rather than speculation about what this means for nuclear weapons, arms control, and disarmament. With actual bullets flying and actual war crimes being committed, how much attention should we give to the potential use of nuclear weapons, which knowledgeable people acknowledge to be possible but still mercifully unlikely?

    As I type these words, the corners of Twitter where news breaks before it hits the homepage of the New York Times or CNN have just exploded with rumors of Russian chemical weapons being used against holdouts in the city of Mariupol. “This HAS TO BE the red line for NATO!” the replies proclaim, and I shudder to think that the national security reply guys, these keyboard Clausewitzes, might get their way: if the reports are confirmed, it may feel like a red line for intervention, for the NATO-enforced no-fly zone that extraordinarily reckless people demand.

    But it can’t be. Because avoiding a hot war is exactly the reason why the United States and Russia’s thousands of nuclear weapons were built in the first place – not to mention the hundreds aboard British and French submarines. Any direct conflict moves us several links farther down the chain of causes leading to the end of the world.

    If you’re reading this, though, maybe we’ve dodged that bullet. I note the span between my writing and your reading explicitly to draw your attention to the most salient fact about nuclear war not happening, which is that if you’re reading, we still have “the gift of time” (I borrow this phrase from the late Jonathan Schell) – no matter how unspeakably awful the situation in Ukraine might be. Your reading means we still have time to do something different. It means time hasn’t run out for us yet.

    marchers in London protesting nuclear war

    An anti-war protest in central London, March 6, 2022 Photograph by Alisdare Hickson

    Don’t get me wrong: time is a terrible gift, in much the same way that scripture describes God as terrible, because it is awful and unrelenting. When you read this, time may have given us the revelation of what the Russian army did to the people of Mariupol, and how the battle for eastern Ukraine played out. Time will have given us the suffering of people who are alive as I type but dead as you read.

    But as awful as time is, it’s still a gift. In addition to events of geopolitical significance, time will also have given us every stubbed toe and job interview and lovemaking and missed bus and hot pizza slice between me writing and you reading. Time gives us everything. That’s the new mercy of God that comes with the sunrise, as the prophet wrote (Lam. 3:22–23); a sun that shines on the righteous and wicked alike, as the Messiah said (Matt. 5:45). Under that light, sustained in equal measure by God’s common grace, we make of each day what we will, shaping it into quotidian beauty or banality or horror.

    It’s time that makes nuclear weapons categorically different from conventional weapons, no matter how destructive the latter might be. Nuclear weapons – at their current levels of proliferation and deployment – threaten to eradicate time itself with the eradication of human beings, who may be the only time-perceivers in the universe. Although our current cultural moment is plagued by existential dread, with climate change as its chief focus, nuclear weapons are unique in posing the possibility of full-blown, immediate, and self-inflicted human extinction.

    The United States (3,600) and Russia (4,400) possess between them about 90 percent of the nuclear warheads in military stockpiles worldwide. The remainder are unevenly distributed among China (350), the United Kingdom (225), France (290), India and Pakistan (around 160 each), Israel (90), and North Korea (20). Most of the American and Russian arsenals are strategic, which is to say permanently threatening. They can be launched from silos in the Great Plains or from submarines and hit targets around the world fifteen minutes later. In the event of a suspected attack, this means a vanishingly small window of time for a country to decide whether to retaliate by launching its own warheads, which are otherwise sitting ducks in their silos. Since land-based missiles, as well as those carried by long-range bombers, could be destroyed by a preemptive strike, the nuclear policy of both the United States and Russia amounts to “use them or lose them”; that is, it is biased toward use. There have been many false alarms that nearly resulted in accidental nuclear war.

    A recent study modeled the outcome of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, with the exchange of 250 weapons. In addition to the 100 million men, women, children, and babies who would be immediately killed, the study also found that the climatic effect of that much soot in the stratosphere would be unprecedented global famine. That’s a relatively “small” nuclear war, in the eldritch categories that nuclear theorists posit. If the United States and Russia found themselves in direct nuclear conflict, the nuclear postures of both countries lean toward pressing the button. The outcome would almost certainly be the end of the world in any humanly meaningful sense – the end of our history and of human life itself.

    As long as nuclear weapons exist in significant numbers, then, our ongoing survival is constantly at risk. And it’s this outcome, the potential end of time, that makes nuclear weapons theologically significant.

    I’m not talking here about the theological ethics of nuclear weapons – why they shouldn’t be used, their irreconcilability with the just war tradition, etc. (I’ve argued elsewhere that the effects of nuclear weapons mean that they are illegitimate instruments of state power.) No, the theological distinctiveness of nuclear war is that it makes the complete termination of humankind into an immediate outcome of human activity. Nuclear weapons mean that some entirely contingent, time-bound, ego-driven political goal – like Russian president Vladimir Putin wanting to erase Ukraine – can be the first causal step toward everyone being dead.

    This was not the case before nuclear weapons. Genghis Khan killed forty million people in the early thirteenth century, a literal decimation of the global population at the time, but there was no chance that he was going to kill everyone. As horrific as World War II was, it was never going to result in the elimination of human life. But at a certain level of proliferation – definitely at the Cold War height of 70,000 weapons and probably with today’s arsenals – the end of humanity is precisely what nuclear war would mean.

    This makes nuclear weapons uniquely awful, but it also makes them a particularly thorny theological problem. The promise of the Christian gospel includes a final rectification that, while open to interpretation as to its specifics, does not seem to include human self-extinction. The Bible concludes with a city devoid of evil because it is full of people who don’t need the sun; God is their light. All-out nuclear war would mean the sun rising and falling on cities devoid of evil because everyone is dead. That’s just not how the story of Jesus Christ ends.

    So, theologically speaking, a nuclear war that ends all human life is not supposed to be possible. Leaving aside perennially fringe millenarianisms, from Joachim of Fiore to The Rapture Index, the orthodox theological view of history has been that we live in a sort of parenthesis, a spiritual waiting between the Lord’s ascension and his second coming. Big things happen, empires come and go, but none of these events affect the final outcome of history, which has been fixed by God. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man” (Matt. 24:36).

    The specific events of history since Pentecost are thus theologically inconsequential (this is not the same thing as calling them unimportant), contrasted with the theologically determinate history of Israel recounted by scripture. In this sense, history is supposed to be a bit like a child’s birthday party at a bowling alley, when they raise those guardrails that keep kids from throwing gutter balls. Balls careen between the rails and eventually hit the pins. A nuclear war is like a ball breaking through the guardrails and rolling into the dark void at the lane’s end. Party over. This is a bit of a pickle, to put it mildly, with no obvious way out. I am convinced that most Christians persist in their faith by never considering the problem in the first place.

    There are only a few possible theoretical resolutions. One is to imagine that the de factopossibility of human extinction-by-nuke makes it de jure part of God’s plan, and that these terminally destructive devices give us a technical imagination for eschatological mechanics, which was denied to prenuclear believers. Call this the Hal Lindsay option.


    Another possible resolution is to suppose that this is not what God has in mind and that he thus will not let it happen; Billy Graham once said something to this effect, and I suspect it’s where most Western Christians would land, if pushed.

    A third possible resolution, put forward by the late Harvard Divinity School theologian Gordon D. Kaufman in his little-remembered Theology for a Nuclear Age (1985), is that the human superagency epitomized by nuclear weapons requires a complete rethinking of human responsibility and divine providence, with no confidence in the latter. It’s just us, left to our own devices, and we’d better get it right.

    All these options are theologically terrible on their own. The first makes a theopolitics out of sinning-that-grace-may-abound. The second turns testing God into a survival strategy. The third disposes of historical Christian hope. I’ve been thinking about this trio for a long time, and I haven’t found a satisfactory theoretical alternative.

    The best I’ve been able to come up with is that they’re all correct, but only simultaneously: that God won’t let extinction-level nuclear war happen, it not being part of his plan; that we also must do everything to ensure that it doesn’t; and that if nuclear war happened, which it definitely could, it would be God’s judgment and also very much our fault. In other words, as President Lincoln reminded a bleeding union in his second inaugural, “Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh” (Matt. 18:7).

    Let me not be that man. I don’t think the power to end ourselves is of God, so that’s what I reject. And if we have the technical capacity to end ourselves, we also have the political possibility of refusing that capacity – of giving the gift of time back to God, appreciatively unopened, wrapping and ribbon intact, since the Father alone knows the hour.

    This means the abolition of nuclear weapons.

    As we consider what to do with nuclear weapons after the Ukraine war, we’re already being subjected to ludicrous historical counterfactuals like, “What if Ukraine had kept the Soviet nukes on its territory?” (They were under Moscow’s command and control and never could have been used.) Or, “What if Ukraine had its own nuclear arsenal?” (As if Moscow ever would have allowed that to happen.) But if the world makes it through the war in Ukraine, the slogan will get out there: only a good guy with a nuke can stop a bad guy with a nuke. So what are the prospects for nuclear abolition after all of this?

    In a word: bad. There’s no meaningful disarmament without the United States and Russia participating, and with Russia’s disastrous conventional losses, nuclear weapons will presumably be even more salient in their effort to keep great-power status. On the American side, the United States has committed itself to a multidecade nuclear modernization process that will cost more than a trillion dollars, and that kind of money will ensure the centrality of nuclear weapons to American security policy. Meanwhile, the lesson many countries will take from this invasion (and the lesson that North Korea took from the examples of Iraq and Libya) is that nuclear powers do not get invaded.

    On the flip side, the invasion has caused a reawakening among the global public to the nuclear threat. Derek Johnson, managing partner at the anti-nuclear group Global Zero, told me that “there’s no more ‘post-Cold-War generation’ oblivious to this existential threat,” given that “88 percent of Americans are worried about nuclear war” over Ukraine. But Johnson also pointed out that the invasion has revealed nuclear weapons as the “free pass” allowing Russian atrocities – a sentiment echoed by Ploughshares Fund president Emma Belcher, who said that it’s precisely Russia’s nuclear weapons that “emboldened Putin to invade another country and commit war crimes.” So the question hangs there, wrapped up in the gift of time: Will moral outrage and the reasonable fear of annihilation manage to find a way through a hardened nuclear status quo?

    Who knows? When have we ever known? Back in the 1980s, everyone was petrified that US president Ronald Reagan would blow up the world, and then at Reykjavik he and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev nearly abolished nuclear weapons entirely. Things change.

    Our task regarding nuclear weapons, I’m convinced, is basically to live out that clause in the compline prayer that asks for “time for amendment of life.”Give us time to fix it. To change. Ourselves. Our politics. To make the abolition of nuclear weapons the shape of our faithfulness, rather than nuclear stockpiles the form of our atheism. Global Zero has an action plan to eliminate nuclear weapons by the 100th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Last year, we saw the entry into force of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by eighty-six nonnuclear nations, which has made nuclear weapons at least technically illegal. The norms are changing.

    So nobody knows what’s next.

    What we know is this: I wrote. And you’re reading.

    So there’s still time.

    Contributed By TylerWiggStevenson

    The Rev. Dr. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is Associate Priest at St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto. Tyler is originally from San Diego and has lived in Toronto since 2011. Prior to entering Anglican ministry, Tyler was an ordained Baptist and worked in the faith-based charity sector, most notably as the founder of the Two Futures Project for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He is also the author of several books and holds degrees from Swarthmore College, Yale Divinity School, and the University of St. Michael’s College. Tyler and his wife have three young daughters and live in Toronto’s East End.

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