The HBO miniseries Chernobyl is a fantastic historical drama, with rich production and high-calibre performances. It chronicles the tragic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant found in modern-day Ukraine, and the subsequent radiation catastrophe that killed or shortened the life of thousands, and continues to plague the surrounding area to this day.
Over its five-episode span, this series tells the whole story of the disaster, splendidly portraying the cultural setting, the human players, the extreme measures taken to mitigate the damage, the investigation into the causes, and of course the repressive political context. The glaring swath of failures and inadequacies of the Soviet government, and communism in general, are perhaps the main message of Chernobyl. It vividly demonstrates how a system built on the perception of power and held together by coercion, invariably compromises the truth when the truth would show the powers that be in a bad light. It is the classic human problem of needing to protect one’s image above all, but in this case, at the cost of the country’s population. It is the picture of a dark nation indeed, when the government is composed primarily of people hungry for internal promotion, terrified of the ruthless oversight of the KGB, and who therefore toss away respect for human life if it means protecting their own name.
But there is another message that emerges in HBO’s storytelling of Chernobyl – one that reaches even deeper into the heart of humanity. In the fourth episode we meet a squad of soldiers tasked with eliminating the animals, mostly pet dogs, remaining in the evacuated quarantined zones. This is required because all the animals have become radioactive. Bacho is the battle-hardened leader of the group, an alpha-dog with a tough-as-nails persona. Pavel is the new recruit, barely an adult, introverted and greener than a spring meadow, knowing nothing of life as a soldier. As tough as Bacho is, he is also fiercely protective, and takes Pavel under his wing. As they progress through Pavel’s first day on the job, Pavel finds it extremely difficult to shoot the dogs, who by all external accounts, seem perfectly happy and healthy. After avoiding it at first, he eventually shoots one, but it eats him up inside. At lunch, Bacho, knowing the turmoil Pavel is in, tells him this story:
“This happens to everyone their first time. Normally when you kill a man, but for you a dog. So what, there’s no shame in it… …My first time – Afghanistan. We were moving through a house and suddenly a man was there and I shot him in the stomach. Yeah that’s a real war story. There are never any good stories like in the movies, they’re shit. Man was there. Boom. Stomach. I was so scared, I didn’t pull the trigger again for the rest of the day. I thought, ‘well, that’s it Bacho, you put a bullet in someone, you’re not you anymore, you’ll never be you again’. But then you wake up the next morning and you’re still you. And you realize, that was you all along – you just didn’t know.”
When the final line is shared, it carries with it the weight of authentic human experience – the innocent finding themselves in situations where they are unable to remain in the comfort of their preferred identity, and finding they can do things they never thought possible. It should assault the modern day sensibility that says we are basically good people, but it doesn’t – rather, it resonates with us. Sure a person can say, ‘well if your country asks you to go to war, and if it is for good reasons, it is not wrong to kill in those circumstances’. But that is not Bacho’s point – we clearly see him acknowledge that it is the act of killing a fellow human being that is suspect – he worries that it taints or even removes one’s soul (“…you’re not you anymore…”) and that resonates too. Why is this? It certainly begs the question: even though humans have long had their reasons to fight and kill, why at some level, has it always felt.. wrong. Somehow a sense of this wrongness remains, even when we can come up with righteous reasons for it to be done. Evidence for this can be seen in the entrenched availability of counseling for police officers when they’ve had to kill a perpetrator. (Of course we know there are valid reasons for society to have public servants who are able to take up these tasks, but that there is often associated psychological trauma, is telling.) This aversion can be seen as the inbuilt moral sense of the wrongness of taking the life of something that God has placed eternal value on. Jesus believed that humans were made in the image of God and are meant to be an outworking of His glory – to end a life, therefore, is a violation of the divine. God has wired this sense into us, (not that we can’t use our free will to act against it, deadening this sense, if we continue in a contrary direction). So we all recognize that killing is wrong – that’s a good thing about us, right? Well, it would be, if that were the only state of affairs, but the really unsettling part, as Bacho surmises, is that “killing” is inside us already. (“…that was you all along – you just didn’t know.”)
How did this precarious state of inner confliction come about? It’s easy to see why God would have built in the sense of wrongness of certain things, but why the wrong things themselves? This darker side of the coin has come about by humanity’s rejection of God through the preferring of our own knowledge and ways (this having occurred both in the first human, and in each of our own lives), and our subsequent loss of connection with God. God intended to sustain the good motivations within us, but with God out of the picture, we have hearts that are at the mercy of their own selfish motivations. Now, rather than exclusively producing the good desires God intended (desires like loving others, peace, patience, joy, etc.), we have a completely mixed bag. This story of the human condition is described by Jesus in Matthew 15:9-10: “ For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person..” Bacho is agreeing with Jesus’ assessment given two thousand years earlier, that murder (among other things) now resides in the human heart in the form of desire, however occasional, to do it – and this taints (defiles) us. It may not work its way out in actual murder, but even the thought – the inclination towards evil – making its presence known, reveals the truth about us: we’re beings that have the kernel of evil hidden somewhere inside. Most humans in our culture the way it is, would never kill for their own benefit – but if the situation was different, the chips stacked against us, with no one looking.. It is a frightening thought experiment. Regardless, Jesus goes as far as to say that even “simple” hateful acts, like cursing at someone is, at some level, as bad as murder, because it is the same root (Matthew 5:21-22). It is an uncomfortable indictment against the nature of each and every human.
Thankfully, it is this shocking state of affairs that Jesus came to remedy. By bringing us peace with God through His own sacrifice, Jesus paved the way for humanity’s reconnection with God, but not just that – also the promise of a new heart – for each and every person who honestly trusts in Christ’s accomplishment (Ezekiel 36:26). This new heart is Jesus’ heart: pure, inclined only to do good, without the least “spark” to do evil – a heart that loves and values everyone, even those disagreed with. Ultimately, God cares more about whether a person has the “spark” to evil within them, and not only about how many evil acts are committed. Why? Because He’s making a new society that will be perfectly peaceful and safe. That means no such “sparks” can exist there. Even an inclination to act harmfully is dangerous to a society, because that’s how acts start. But Christians still sin, right? Yes, the old selfish motivations are still trying to persuade, through the memories of the old ways and the enduring free will (believers can choose to accept God’s internal help to keep proper motivations or not). God has chosen to work in His followers organically. We have all made our “room” messy with sin, and instead of immediately zapping it all clean, Jesus says He’ll help us clean it up – His return to the human heart, His proper domain, is the only hope to flush out all the improper old patterns, and He does it, step by step. (I, for one, testify to this internal progress and strength.) Those who stick with Jesus are promised that the old patterns of sin will be fully removed before the transition to the next life. Awesome news, and a future that He wants for every person!
This brings us to one last parallel with Chernobyl – the dogs. It didn’t matter how happy, well-behaved, or lovable they were – they were radioactive, so they could never safely be part of a normal society again – meaning their future was sealed. In a starkly similar way, humanity’s leanings to sin are radioactive to the environment God ultimately wants for us. We humans are certainly loved by God, we may be well-behaved, but unless we can safely get the “radioactivity” out of these bodies, tainted with their inclinations as they are, we simply cannot be part of the new world God has planned. Thankfully, because God is rich in mercy and goodness towards a rebellious creation, He’s made a way that we can! Trust in the gift, receive Jesus and the promises, and let life with the new heart begin! Thank you Lord!