Chernobyl and the Corrosiveness of Convenient Lies

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Photo by David McMillan

The miniseries Chernobyl depicts much more than the nuclear fallout from the power plant’s disaster in 1986.

Yes, it includes graphic images of people exposed to the highest levels of radiation. Yes, the camera lingers over eerie playgrounds, schools, and apartment buildings—long evacuated and designated as the “exclusion zone.” And yes, the series lifts up ordinary Soviet citizens who worked heroically to put out the fire and stop the spread of the poison.

But more than all that, the series focuses on the moral fallout—what happens to a society committed to ignoring, suppressing, or rejecting the truth.

In Chernobyl, the villain is not a particular person, but the presence of an evil system—a bureaucracy determined to propound a politically convenient narrative, no matter the risk or cost to those kept in the dark.

‘Going Along with the Lie’

The cultural setting for Chernobyl reminds me of the stories I’ve heard from friends and family members who endured the Communist era in Romania. “Everyone just went along with the lie,” they tell me. Everyone knew the government’s statements were false. They rolled their eyes at the “achievements” spun by the dictator through state news programs. They knew which neighbors were “informers,” ready to report subversive activity—any word or movement or meeting that might surface the truth and expose the lie. But most citizens went along with the lie in public, only to curse it in private. They were good people enslaved to a Great Lie forced upon them from above, and they longed for the day when the waves of truth would break and finally crumble the castle of falsehood.

It is easy to look down on the Soviets for their persecution of truth-tellers, but Scripture tells us the natural state of every human heart is to suppress the truth—to exchange truth for a lie (Rom. 1:21-25). If as individuals we prefer lies to the truth, why should we be surprised when governments and nations use their power to propagate falsehood? And knowing the greed and deceptiveness of the human heart, why be surprised to see people taking advantage of lies for personal gain?

‘Our Truth’

In the final episode of Chernobyl, a Communist party official urges a scientist to go along with the official state story. There’s no need for the truth to get out, the official says. “We have our hero, we have our villains; we have our truth.”

Except, of course, there is no such thing “our truth,” or anyone else’s for that matter.

The authoritarian regimes of the East suppress truth in one way, but the autonomy-loving “free” societies of the West do so in another, by insisting that freedom means the ability to create, sustain, and live by one’s personal definition of reality. You have your truth, and I have mine. It’s important, we say, to speak your truth. But inserting a possessive pronoun before the word “truth” has a corrosive effect on society. In the end, there isn’t my truth or your truth or our truth, but only the truth, which is God’s. We may speak from experience, or offer our testimony from an admittedly limited perspective, but the truth does not belong to us. We do not create truth; we witness to it.

The Oxford Dictionaries made “post-truth” the word of the year in 2016—a nod to journalists and observers who now describe our culture with that label. But in reality, there is no such thing as a “post-truth world” or a “post-truth society.” There are only those who ignore the truth and those who seek to bring themselves in line with it.

Reclaiming the Truth

The Chernobyl disaster reminds us that it is better to accept a hard but unpopular truth than to embrace a soft but seductive lie. “When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there,” the protagonist says in Chernobyl. “But it is still there. . . . The truth doesn’t care about our needs and wants. . . . It will lie in wait for all time . . .”

No culture is immune to the temptation to spread “little lies” in service of a great cause, to produce misinformation as long as it leads to victory for a particular movement or party. But “every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”

And so, in a time when lies and falsehoods radiate from the cultural explosion produced by philosophical denials of truth—when politicians and presidents and parties unashamedly and wantonly spread falsehood in service to their own agendas, when euphemistic jargon fills articles and newscasts in order to suppress the reality of injustice, when Christians pass along reports they are fairly confident contain untruths or misrepresentations (but don’t care, as long as it reinforces their preferred narrative), and when falsehoods upon falsehoods pile up higher and higher to the point that entire segments of society are dedicated to the denial of biological or scientific realities—we must look not back to Chernobyl, but to God’s Word and his people, until we are able to reclaim a courageous commitment to the truth and refuse to surrender to any lie. Otherwise, we may forget the truth altogether, as the words that open the miniseries (paraphrasing Hannah Arendt) explain:

“What is the cost of lies? It is not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

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