Watching Oppenheimer with Bulgakov: American Prometheus or American Adam

The lesson of Genesis 3, proven in human history, is that knowledge of the good or the depth of insight into God’s good creation, is tied to evil manipulation of this insight. More than this, as in the original deception, the knowledge of good and evil was and is taken as spiritual insight (a step toward becoming god). Through the elements of the world man presumes he can ascend to deity, but the “fruit” of this insight is deadly. The fundamental elements are used by Cain to bludgeon his brother to death so that he might displace Abel in the spiritual hierarchy. Having penetrated the depths of the knowledge of good and evil he descends into the world, imagining he is ascending to deity. As Sergius Bulgavov describes the fall: “Thus the deception of Satan was a grandiose ontological provocation,” in that material means are presumed to gain spiritual ends and spiritual death is presumed to be entry into spiritual life.[1]

This might be illustrated in the history of war and science. The course of human history has been shaped by warfare (with some historians claiming history can be written in terms of decisive battles) and warfare has been shaped by technological and scientific innovation. Mathematics, engineering, metallurgy, astronomy, chemistry, navigation, have each contributed simultaneously to civilization and to warfare, with progress in the former being synonymous with the latter. This is clearly illustrated in the case of physics.

Three-hundred years of research into physics revealed in the past century that the physical universe is relative to an observer, that there is an uncertainty principle or the sense in which the universe is not a determinate structure, but is impacted by observation. The universe is not a machine, and the laws of the universe are open, pointing to atomic freedom. The indication is that there is an incompleteness to the atomic world and that there is room not only for human manipulation, but divine care. On the other hand, the culmination of three hundred years of physics, and the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics, resulted in the atomic and hydrogen bomb.

The list of those working on innovation in theoretical physics is nearly synonymous with those who turned to working on the bomb, while those who refused this work can be counted on one hand (including, Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission, and Isidor Rabi, who served in a limited way at Los Alamos and was Robert Oppenheimer’s close friend). This raises the question of the connection between good and evil, in that those who peered deepest into the truth and goodness of the universe, instead of developing deep moral and spiritual sensitivity, were responsible for creating weapons of mass destruction.

We recently saw the film, Oppenheimer, about Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” who oversaw its production or invention at Los Alamos New Mexico, and its explosion at Alamogordo. The book, upon which the film was based, is entitled American Prometheus, and both the book and film convey the moral contradictions and struggle faced by Oppenheimer (brilliantly portrayed by Cillian Murphy). Maybe one of the premiere intellects of his generation, not only an outstanding scientist, but cultured and well read in a number of fields, nevertheless he may not have resembled Prometheus so much as the first man, Adam. Prometheus, the god that would civilize man by sharing fire from the sun, may be the wrong image, as Oppenheimer fails to break the bureaucratic and moral prosaicness (the whisperings of the earth-bound serpent) by which he is grounded.

As Bulgakov writes,

Prometheus symbolizes the struggle with metaphysical “petit-bourgeois” mediocrity, (this is man with a conservative imagination) with the self-satisfaction of this world. He misses the higher principle of life, the kingdom of God. The usual Luciferian “petit-bourgeois” interpretation of this symbol reduces it to the level of a struggle for the immanent empirical values of this world, whereas it actually summons man to a higher vocation, to the kingdom of God. It is this “petit-bourgeois” (conventionalism, conservatism) spirit that perpetuates good and evil in their interdependence as the sole path of life and ascent. The fallen state of man with the possibilities that it contains is therefore considered to be the supreme and unique state.[2] 

Rather than struggling against the petit-bourgeois values of his contemporaries (Bulgakov’s picture of Prometheus’ symbolism), Oppenheimer displays “satisfaction” with “immanent empirical values.” As Bulgakov notes, “Evil first presents itself before man in the guise of the natural world.” The serpent arises from the earth to engage the humans in an earthy, earth bound, and return to the earth dialogue. They confuse this earth-wisdom for spiritual insight. “The beginning of evil in man is therefore connected not with revolt or usurpation, but with misunderstanding, naivete and ignorance. Our progenitors did not know how to recognize or to terminate the poisonous conversation with the serpent.” [3] The serpent arises from the earth and speaks and returns to the earth, the earth seems to indicate he can serve as his own deity. There is a gullibility and curiosity – yet the knowledge of good and evil – continues to raise its head.

Oppenheimer is content to filter his scientific genius into building a bigger rock or larger weapon. He thus perpetuates the conventional spirit of “good and evil in their interdependence as the sole path of life and ascent.” This one, we might expect to be among the spiritually enlightened and morally adept, channels his imagination along the rut carved out by the progenitors of the race. Like Adam and Cain, Oppenheimer would employ the elementary particles to play god (as one of his contemporaries accuses). Rather than breaking free of the dance between good and evil, Oppenheimer embodies and proves the principle. Who, more than the father of the atomic bomb, demonstrated that human fallenness is as good as it gets in the petit-bourgeois value system.

So, we might picture Oppenheimer, as the American Adam, rather than as Prometheus. The knowledge of the good, of God’s good creation, is tied by Oppenheimer and his generation of physicists, to the worst sort of conventional evil. Though Oppenheimer has his doubts, and will later lay moral responsibility on the politicians, he never hesitates in building the bomb and agrees the bomb must be used on Japan (even helping in the selection of targets, and despite the fact his colleagues questioned the decision). Instead of imagining total freedom, which is one of the implications of high energy physics, Oppenheimer and his generation pick up where Cain left off. Using the most fundamental elements of the world, they bludgeon their brothers (along with their children and their wives) to death.

Instead of an enlightened, intelligent, freedom, what we get is completely devoid of this freedom.  In man is born the thought that through the elements of the world he is capable of ascending to the highest levels of spiritual life and knowledge. His consciousness of his spirituality has grown dim and the equilibrium between his flesh and his spirit has been disrupted.[4]

The universe at its core indicates both a guiding intelligence and an atomic ground for freedom but this spiritual freedom is not through the elements of the world. The descent of modern physicists into apprehending the elemental particles, the stuff of the universe, while it provided insight it also demonstrated instability or the possibility of disrupting, splitting, or exploding the world with death. Man can interfere with the world at its atomic level, but what he finds is not ascent into the spiritual. He does indeed find a gap indicating the universe marks his presence. The observer is reflected in the observation. The experimenter has to take account of himself in the experiment. But this also introduces the possibility for splitting, implosion, chain reaction and the infection of all with mortality.

The great insight into physics which is tied to most modern innovations is also tied to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the possibility of world destruction. The battle between good and evil, their necessary mutual implication is captured in Oppenheimer. The man is torn between the depth of insight into the good, and the recognition that with this knowledge he has the power of the sun – atomic power – to become the destroyer of the world. The image of the mushroom cloud over Alamogordo, and then duplicated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bears with it the image of skin melting off thousands, and hundreds of thousands of victims. People are still dying of radiation poisoning and cancer in New Mexico, and surrounding states. And every year the number of dead killed by the atomic bombing in Japan continues to increase.

Man, Adam, has the capacity for depth of insight, but this capacity for truth comes with the simultaneous capacity for destruction. God called man to be fruitful and to multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it, and (to) have dominion (Gen. 1:28). But with this power to dominate and manipulate arises the power not only of good but of profound evil. The universe is such that humans can feed into it, manipulate it, control it, and destroy it. Where God brings forth the universe out of the nothingness of the Big Bang, we recognize humans can reverse the process. Man has the power to return the world to the nothingness from out of which it came, and nuclear explosion perfectly illustrates the point.

Thus, Oppenheimer’s reflection upon the success of the Trinity test is fitting: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” Oppenheimer, in the spirit of the first command, subdued the earth and took his place of dominion, but he too reduced it to thorns and thistles. The thorn of nuclear holocaust and the thistle of atomic power threatens to choke all life out of the world. The American Adam, like his progenitor, turned from the task of cultivating and extending the kingdom of God, to displacing it with the kingdoms of this world.

In this sense, the film Oppenheimer captures the biblical proportions of the human struggle enacted in Robert Oppenheimer and his race.


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition) 162.

[2] Ibid, 189-190.

[3] Ibid, 162.

[4] Ibid, 162.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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