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In an atomic test lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico, one day in 1946, scientist Louis Slotin was carrying out a daring experiment. Insiders called it “tickling the dragon’s tail.”

To determine the amount of uranium necessary to sustain a chain reaction (scientists call it a “critical mass”), he was pushing two hemispheres of uranium together. He had performed the experiment many times. Just as the mass became critical, he would push the spheres apart with a screwdriver, instantly interrupting the imminent chain reaction. But this day, the screwdriver slipped from his heavily gloved hand! The hemispheres came too close together, and the dragon breathed a roomful of fire—a dazzling bluish haze of death.

Instead of ducking behind a lead protected wall and possibly saving himself from irradiation, Slotin tore the two hemispheres apart with his hands. By this heroic action, he saved the lives of several others who were in the room with him, but he received a fatal overdose of radiation.

As he stood outside, waiting for an ambulance to take him to hospital, he said quietly to a companion, “You’ll come through alright, but I haven’t the faintest chance myself.” Nine days later, Slotin died in agony, the victim of his exposure to the dreaded radiation. The twentieth century “dragon” turned out to be tragically real.

Prehistoric dragon

The Bible also talks about a dragon. It introduces him as the “great dragon . . . called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9).

Originally named Lucifer, he was the most powerful angel in heaven. The story of his revolt against God is described by the apostle John in Revelation: “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was .  . hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (verses 7–9).

Then Revelation warned, “Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury” (verse 12).

Satan’s part in tempting earth’s first parents to disobey God and the story of their exile from Eden is told in Genesis 3.

When Jesus came to earth to become a man and to restore humankind to the eminence from which it had fallen, the dragon renewed his attack on his Foe, who appeared so vulnerable. What he had not been able to accomplish by starting a war in heaven, he now tried to achieve through guile.

Showing Jesus the kingdoms of the world, which he now claimed as his own, Satan said, “All this I will give you . . . if you will bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9; emphasis added).

When deceit and bribery did not work against Jesus, the dragon breathed fire.

A willing sacrifice

Slotin would have understood, and his description of the encounter would probably be something like this: Knowing that the fate of the universe depended on His actions, Jesus grappled with sin’s concentrated radiation. He came to earth when the hemispheres of sin had reached critical mass.

He who made the atom permitted wicked men to trigger the chain reaction that climaxed on a cruel device we call “the cross.” To interrupt the chain reaction of sin, to stop its radiation, Jesus willingly and selflessly gave His own life. The Son of God threw His own body across the fury of sin’s chain reaction and forever broke its power. His hands will bear the marks of that encounter throughout eternity.

The Bible puts it simply and eloquently: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

When Jesus was crucified—when the dragon breathed fire—the universe saw what the dragon really was, “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

What a confrontation! The dragon and the Lamb. One a murder, the Other a Savior. Two governments, one based on love, the other on hate. And the universe was in the balances.

His love, our fault

Disobedience to God’s law leads inevitably to death. It is not something God wants, but it is the natural order of things on our broken planet. However, to restore our happiness and our lives, the Son of God paid our penalty for lawbreaking. What an incredible demonstration of love!

Angels of might would have surrounded Calvary that day, awaiting but one word of command to unsheathe their flaming swords, freeing the powerful God they worshiped and loved. Instead, they heard only, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Some years ago, my little girl was hurt. If you could see her today, you would notice a scar near her eye that was caused by a playground swing. I took her to the hospital emergency room and held her on a table as stitches were put into her face.

I saw the look of helpless terror in her eyes as a covering bandage was put over them, shutting her father from her view. As the doctor worked and the needles pierced and the blood gushed, I felt her little body straining under my hands, desperately seeking release. And I heard her voice, “Daddy! Daddy!

There was a world of meaning in those words: “Why are you holding me here? Why have you forsaken me? I hurt, Daddy. Where are you?”

And my hands held her there.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried as He hung dying on the cross (Mark 15:34).

And our sins held him there.

Your sins. The sins of His children of all ages held Him there. Not His sins, for the Bible says that He who knew no sin was counted to be sinful in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21). It was our sins that killed Him. We held him there and crushed out His life.

So real are these contenders in this universal conflict that no one can truly understand the purpose of existence and the part they must play in the great drama of the ages until they meet the Lamb, and through His strength conquer the dragon.

When the Dragon Breathed Fire

by Roland Hegstad
From the April 2012 Signs