The annual recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize is immediately bestowed with global recognition as a champion of peace. Although the choices are often controversial—and though the prize is one of more than 300 miscellaneous peace prizes handed out each year—the Nobel Peace Prize is considered by many to be the ultimate earthly honor. 

Praised as sages, moral guides and symbols of goodwill and purity of heart, winners suddenly realize unrivaled fame for their causes. As the winner of the 1984 prize, Bishop Desmond Tutu, later reflected, “No sooner had I got the Nobel Peace Prize than I became an instant oracle. Virtually everything I had said before was now received with something like awe.”

Established to encourage “fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” the first Nobel Peace Prize was presented in 1901. In 2014, a record 231 individuals and 47 organizations were nominated for the prize for their contributions to humanity. 

At Nobel announcement time, people like to recite the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but has the Nobel Peace Prize led to real peace? Or has it been an expensive bauble illustrating mankind’s elusive quest?

Who was the man who prized peace?

Alfred Nobel, born in Stockholm, Sweden, on Oct. 21, 1833, was the fourth son of an entrepreneurial and engineering genius, Immanuel Nobel. At the age of 9, the frail, sickly Alfred moved across the Baltic Sea to the international metropolis of Saint Petersburg, Russia, to join his father, who rebounded from business bankruptcy to fortune by manufacturing munitions—primarily underwater mines—during the Crimean War.

He was given a top-tier education where he exceled in both the humanities and the sciences. Alfred Nobel spoke five languages fluently, and he developed into an outstanding chemical engineer. He went to work for his father at the Nobel & Sons Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop designing explosive mines. His torrent of ideas eventually earned him 355 patents.

Nitroglycerin, which had been created and abandoned earlier due to its inherent instability, became Nobel’s passion. Despite the death of his brother Emil in a nitroglycerin explosion, he carried on. By 1866 he tamed and harnessed nitroglycerin by discovering the process whereby it could be formed into sticks that were safer to handle. He called the new product dynamite, borrowing from the Greek word for power—dynamis.

The middle of the 19th century brought an unparalleled boom in the building of massive public works projects on both sides of the Atlantic: harbors, bridges, tunnels, dams, great canals and transcontinental railroads. The power of dynamite to dislodge and pulverize rock—to literally move mountains—made such building projects possible. 

Dynamite became one of the great constructive inventions of the century, but also the chief component of some of the most destructive weapons of the time. As militaries rapidly found uses for it, the so-called dynamite king made a handsome profit selling his sometimes murderous creation in major European conflicts—often to both sides.

The reclusive Nobel detested celebrity and was ambivalent toward affluence, but his business empire grew to 93 factories in nearly two dozen countries. Nobel, “Europe’s richest vagabond,” never married, seemingly preferring workshops to friendships. 

Reading his own obituary

{image_1}A bizarre incident occurred in 1888, when his brother Ludwig’s death was erroneously reported as his own. Nobel had the unique perspective of seeing his legacy as he read the piercing headline, “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.” His premature obituary scathingly depicted him as a war profiteer “who became rich finding more ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”

Following his actual death in 1896, the opening of Nobel’s will attracted worldwide attention as it revealed that the bulk of his enormous fortune would be used to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Prizes were to be awarded in the fields of chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature—and peace.

Peace through the weaponry of war

Many feel that Nobel established his peace prize out of guilt—a reparation or posthumous repentance. Even Albert Einstein, in a speech following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, weighed the dilemma of scientific discovery in relation to peace and concluded that Nobel’s situation mirrored his own. 

“Alfred Nobel,” he said, “invented an explosive more powerful than any then known—an exceedingly effective means of destruction. To atone for this ‘accomplishment’ and to relieve his conscience, he instituted his award for the promotion of peace.”

In reality, Nobel was proud of his inventions, focusing on their great constructive utility. While Nobel had a visceral opposition to conflict, as Jay Nordlinger, author of Peace, They Say, explained, “he often cast a jaundiced eye toward peace associations, peace congresses and peace-makery in general” (2012, p. 17).

A steely realist, the complex Nobel ironically proclaimed that “good wishes alone will not ensure peace,” and he mocked “the absurd and futile efforts of windbags who are capable of thwarting the best of aims.” He instead believed in the deterrence value of horrible weapons and overwhelming force, writing, “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

He considered himself a pacifist; and conflicts of any type, whether between individuals or nations, had always been repulsive to Nobel. Advocating conciliation even when it entailed personal loss, he once wrote, “I avoid disputes like the plague, even with people who give me every reason” to quarrel. He also loathed armed hostilities between nations, calling war “the horror of horrors and the greatest of all crimes.”

What type of peace is being championed?

The Nobel Peace Prize has a checkered history, but there have been examples of “fraternity between nations.” The 1978 award shared by the formerly sworn enemies Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel and the 1953 prize conferred on George Marshall—who had both confronted evil and then bolstered the peace in Europe through the European Recovery Act (or Marshall Plan)—stand out as highlights.

Other Nobel Peace Prizes, in retrospect, sometimes seem silly or downright fraudulent. The 1929 award to former Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, whose name was on the famous Kellogg-Briand Pact, which claimed peace by “outlawing war” but did pitifully little to stop the century’s bloodshed, looks awfully naive. 

Nobel’s original vision was tarnished early on, as nominees for the prize have included a laundry list of the world’s most violent despots, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe. 

Peace has become so subjective in recent years that the awards have increasingly gone toward aspirational, liberal causes (Al Gore for environmental awareness), celebrities (Barack Obama, nominated just 12 days into office) or politicized institutions (the United Nations in 2001 and the European Union in 2012), rather than to those with tangible accomplishments toward an elusive peace. 

Nominees for 2014 range from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pope Francis I, from document leakers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (the imprisoned transgender veteran) to Malala Yousafzai (the 17-year-old Pakistani campaigner for women’s education reform).

As for where the prize is headed, “many have worried, or despaired,” according to Jay Nordlinger, “that the committee has made the definition of peace far too elastic. They will stretch it, some fear, to fit basically anything. Sometimes the committee seems to say, ‘We admire you, we support you, you are our flavor of the month. Therefore, we will reward you. And we’ll call it peace.’ 

“How might the committee expand its definition of peace in the future? What will the next frontiers be? It would not be shocking to see the committee award animal-rights activists, or campaigners for gay marriage. Whatever they are, there will be new frontiers” (Peace, They Say, p. 103).

A future with true peace

The Nobel Peace Prize is being handed out even as one of the world’s leading measures of global peacefulness shows that, of the 162 countries covered, just 11 were not caught up in war or internal conflict in 2014 (Institute for Economics and Peace: Global Peace Index 2014). Worse yet, the study concluded that the state of peace in our time is “slowly but steadily decreasing.” 

The prophet Jeremiah addressed just such a time of confusion when national leaders would be proclaiming, “‘Peace, peace!’ When there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11). The apostle Paul also predicted that people would say, “Peace and safety!” prior to sudden destruction climaxing in the coming Day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:3).

Peace, while a glorious concept, has become one of the most abused words today, repeated so often that it has become a trite and vapid term with no concrete meaning. 

The Bible contains some 400 references to peace, often stressing mankind’s failure to admit, or even recognize, the impossibility of true peace without knowledge of our Creator: “The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isaiah 59:8).

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, the 1906 winner for mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War, but also called “the most warlike citizen of these United States,” caught a glimpse of truth when he eloquently said in his acceptance speech, “Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness.” 

Jesus Christ promised a peace different from what mankind can offer (John 14:27) because it will be a peace brought about through righteousness. He will bring it when He returns to the earth as the “Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice form that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

The good news

While the remarkable efforts of some to bring peace have been noteworthy, sadly, in retrospect, the prizes that Nobel established have accomplished little in the quest. 

The good news is that through Jesus Christ, the author and creator of peace (Isaiah 45:7), a foundation of peace will be established during a 1,000-year peaceful reign (Revelation 20:4-6). In it, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the returned Jesus Christ, will wield unchallengeable power and authority. Only then will the nations be able to craft the instruments of war into the implements of peace (Isaiah 2:2-4). 

As the world awaits the peace that Jesus will bring, we are given His command to “repent, and believe in the gospel” of His coming Kingdom (Mark 1:15). Those who choose this way of life will live by the mandate to “depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). To learn more about how you can respond to God’s desire for you, see the Life, Hope & Truth article “The Way of Peace.”

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