NAGASAKI, JAPAN-IF YOU'RE EVER FEELING PROUD and thinking you know how God works His mysterious will, try to fathom the mystery here.
On Aug. 9, 1945, according to a plaque at Nagasaki's central point of mourning, a B29 bomber "flew toward Kokura, an industrial center on the northern coast of Japan's Kyushu Island and the primary target for the world's second atomic bombing. When the airplane reached the sky over Kokura, however, cloud cover prevented visual sighting. After circling three times it changed course for the second target: Nagasaki."
This city almost escaped destruction. As a display in Nagasaki's A-Bomb Museum notes, "At 10:58 a.m., with visibility poor over Nagasaki, the crew considered a return to base because of dwindling fuel." But a slight break in the clouds allowed spotting of the Mitsubishi Nagasaki Arms Factory at 11:02 a.m. Japan time, and the B29 dropped its bomb. Of Nagasaki's population of about 240,000 at the time, about 74,000 died from the blast and another 75,000 were injured.
Maybe we think we know why the second atomic bomb had to be dropped. Japanese leaders, even after the Hiroshima bombing on Aug. 6, still maintained their hope of fighting on. An invasion of Japan would have taken far more lives than the two terrible bombs did.
We can see how the path toward war began early in the 20th century. An apologetic Nagasaki monument erected in 1979 notes Japan's forcible annexation of Korea in 1910: "Here we apologize to Korea and the Koreans for the immeasurable suffering that we inflicted upon them during those tragic years, threatening them with the sword and gun, colonizing and annexing their peninsula, bringing them against their will and abusing them in slavery." Japan went on to invade China, and was pushing to enslave all of eastern Asia.
We can see how tyrants started the war but civilians initially cheered, particularly after Japan's sneak attack at Pearl Harbor gave it temporary dominance of the western Pacific. Museum photos with captions such as "Citizens bid army recruits farewell" and "Students do bayonet drills" show how our sinful human nature makes aggression seem good as long as it produces victories.
But why did Nagasaki, the city "where Japanese students gathered to draw from the well of western knowledge," have to be destroyed? From the 1540s to the 1590s Nagasaki was the point of entry for missionaries, whose work was rewarded with thousands of conversions. Torture-laden persecution over the next 50 years seemed to eliminate almost all Christian influence, but when Japan's ban on Christian worship ended in the 1860s and 1870s, thousands of descendants of the Christian pioneers were found to have retained aspects of belief and practice.
More joined them, and-as a sign at the A-Bomb Site relates-"These faithful people began to build a church, placing one brick upon another. Their labors bore fruit with the construction of the grandest church in East Asia in 1914," until the bomb in 1945 "reduced the church to a hollow shell of rubble."
The overall terror of the atom-bomb drop, while sad, is at least understandable: Those who live by the sword die by the sword. This does not eliminate the gross sadness of tens of thousands dying, but we might ask: Why Nagasaki's Christians, many of whom did not buy into the Shinto sentiment that underlay Japan's war fervor? Why did God give people the grace to believe in Him through persecution and torture, and then have their descendants (and their descendants' architectural tribute to Him) wiped out in a moment? Why couldn't God have maintained the cloud cover over Nagasaki for a few seconds longer?
Of course, if He had, then 100,000 residents of Kokura, the primary site, might have died the next day. Chapter 8 of Romans tells us that God is spiritually faithful to all He calls, but the Bible gives us no guarantee that when a country goes to war the Christians within it will be spared. We could begin analyzing the political and spiritual compromises that Nagasaki Christians made, but that again would lead us to pretend that we know more about God's ways than we do. What we do know is that Christians in Nagasaki died next to non-Christians. Those who stayed out of politics died alongside those who were heavily involved.
I came away from the museum with two conclusions. First, no man is an island; Christians in the United States are part of American society, and separatist notions will be ultimately unsuccessful. Second, we see through a very dark glass, and need to rely on what the Bible teaches: that the Judge of the whole world does what is right.