100 Years On: Why the Titanic Still Matters
Introducing the ‘Ship of Dreams’
It had ... and still has ... all the ingredients of a legend. Imagine a 46,000 gross ton British luxury ocean liner, 11 stories high and four city block long, the largest ship of its kind at that time. A technological wonder, it also replicated society as a whole since it was, in essence, a floating city. Of course, there were the poor Irish peasants at the bottom, hoping to have a new start in the New World. Yet the rich and famous also booked passage on the maiden voyage: the Astors, Guggenheims, Morgans, and other high society folk. They would lose none of their opulent creature-comforts: bone china, the finest sterling silver, crystal chandeliers, and carpets so thick you felt you were on velvet quicksand. Prestigious French cafes graced the top decks, instead of the minimal number of lifeboats. Indeed, many consider this ship a ‘work of art.’
More impressive was the part that no one saw. It was double-hulled with 16 watertight compartments. So confident were the designers of its extraordinary design and durability that they pronounced the ship ‘unsinkable.’ It was supposed to sail many times for many years, worldwide. One man even bellowed that ‘God Himself could not sink this ship!’ For this reason, there were only twenty lifeboats for the up to 3,000 passengers this ship was capable of holding. Why clutter the deck with puny unadorned little lifeboats when this ship was one big lifeboat itself?
The Dream Turns to A Nightmare
This liner set sail from Southampton, England en route to New York City. On the fourth day of its maiden voyage, it was approximately 650 kilometers south of Newfoundland, Canada, sailing at the rather speedy pace of 22.5 knots. At around 11:40 P.M. on Sunday night, 14 April, 1912, while some passengers slept and others danced the night away, the crew spotted a sinister looking object coming out of the dark. On closer inspection, they discovered it was a 30 metre high iceberg and the ship was heading for a collision. Using every tool available, the crew did everything they could to avoid a head-on. When it appeared that they succeeded, then it happened: boom!
The ship and the iceberg met with a bang. What actually happened was open to speculation ... was the ship sideswiped, or did it have a well aimed puncture? The results, however, were beyond dispute. After impact, while the iceberg floated back into the darkness and into history, the ship was seriously stricken. Indeed, the unthinkable happened: the ‘unsinkable ship’ was about to sink!
There were only 1,178 boat space to service 2,224 passengers, there had been no drills, and so chaos was about to ensue. ‘Murphy’s Law,’ which says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, came into play.
• A ship called the Californian was nearby and could have rescued everyone. But the telegraph operator was sleeping;
• The ship received six ice berg warnings ... and ignored every one of them;
• There were lifeboats ... but lack of space and lack of drills meant they would only be half filled;
• The ship Carpathian did come to the rescue ... but it arrived at the scene one hour and twenty minutes after the stricken liner sunk;
• The watertight compartments were plentiful and strong ... but they were not high enough and, perhaps, one compartment too many was hit;
• Had the iceberg been sighted sooner, or later, or had it been hit some other way, it would have been okay ... but it wasn’t.
Yes, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. In less than 3 hours, at 2:20 AM on Monday morning, 15 April 1912, the ‘unsinkable’ Ship of Dreams broke into two parts and sunk in the frigid dark waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. The ship rested 3,950 meters on the ocean floor with the two parts of the ship separated by a kilometre of littered seabed. Its fatal voyage cost of 1,500 lives. Only 700 survived. What’s more, death was so egalitarian: not only did the poor passengers below get washed out immediately. Rich men like Isidor Strauss, Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor IV (richest man on board) also went down with the ship.
Why It Matters Today
“See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, 26 whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, "Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven." --Hebrews 12:25,26
This ship, of course, was known to the world as the Titanic. If the Titanic seduced the world while it was still afloat, its untimely, unthinkable sinking captured the imagination of generations, as few events could. Since wreckage of the Titanic was covered by Dr. Robert Ballard in 1985, people had parted with $30,000 and risked lawsuits, just to explore those quiet ruins in the deep undersea canyon.
While this maritime disaster has all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy, the Titanic is iconic, having inspired philosophers, scientist, screen writers, and, yes, preachers too. As we observe the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 2012, it is a story that matters a lot to our world. The reason: the Titanic is a parable of the ‘last days!’
Several reasons are offered. First, it makes a fitting starting point of what Hebrews 12:25-26 describe as the ‘great universal shaking of the last days.’ God ‘promised’ in Haggai 2:6, as well as Hebrews 12, that one more time, He would shake the earth and heavens. The purpose is to wake up the ‘sleepers’ (I Thessalonians 5:7) and remove the temporal realms in order to make room for God’s unshakeable kingdom.
Prior to the sinking of the Titanic, there was relative peace and prosperity. The western world was prosperous, complacent, self-sufficent, and arrogant. After April 15, 1912, the shocking news that the unsinkable ship had sunk was like a ‘wake-up call’ of even greater tremours to come. These ‘tremours’ included World War I (1914-1918) with the deaths of 25 million people; the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-1919) with the deaths of 50 million people -- think about it, more people died in peacetime than in the war1; the Great Depression (1929-1939); World War II (1939-1945) with the deaths of 55 million people; the Cold War (1945-1989); and now our current yet-to-be named era of postmodernism, war on terror, new world order, etc. This catalogue of woes is unprecedented in human history. Just 2011 alone had enough ‘shakings’ to set new world records, including the ‘Arab Spring,’ ‘Euro Zone crisis,’ and a multitude of natural disasters that cost $10 of billions in damage.
In Jesus’ famous last days discourse of Matthew 24:37, He says ‘like the days of Noah, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.’ It speaks of intensity of living which is carnal and careless; it ends with sudden disaster, swift disappearance, and complete separation of the righteous and unrighteous. Could the Titanic, its pre-voyage publicity and cautionless sailing been an example of this in part? Like the shutting of the door of the Ark, once the Titanic hit the iceberg, the whole world suddenly changed. In less than 3 hours, she was gone for good. Is that how the ‘end of the world’ will be? Read Matthew 24 for yourself and see.
Despite the dire description, there is one note of hope. The most neglected element became the most priceless of all: the lifeboats. Yes, the Titanic lifeboats: unadorned, limited and ignored; they nevertheless became the only means of safety to anyone who was able to get in. The simple yet powerful gospel of Jesus Christ also presents people today with the opportunity to escape the kosmos, world order, which is led by Satan and, like the Titanic, is stricken and doomed to destruction. Evangelism is the sincere attempt to get as many people off this Titanic-like kosmos and into the life-boats of salvation? Far from being some arrogant, exclusive, intolerant rant, evangelists are people of love on a mission of mercy to fill the life-boats to the brim. If we can bear this parallel in mind, then perhaps the victims of the Titanic, who met the dreadful and dramatic end 100 years ago, did not die in vain.