Titanic. The name has conjured up powerful images and emotions since the ship’s fateful voyage. Dozens of books and several major films have recounted her tragic story. The 1997 blockbuster Titanic, already one of the top-grossing films of all time, is getting a theater re-release.
Although April 15 marks a century since the sinking of the Titanic, we are still fascinated by her story. The magnitude of the disaster seems unthinkable: More than 1,500 passengers and crew lost their lives in the icy North Atlantic while only just over 700, mostly women and children, were saved.
Many of us have heard the “what if” questions: What if the ship’s lookouts had seen the iceberg in time to turn and avoid it? What if Titanic had struck the iceberg at a different angle? (Had she hit head on, the ocean liner would have been severely damaged, but likely would have survived.) What if her crew had heeded the warnings of ice in the area and slowed down rather than continuing her course near top speed? What if she had carried enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew? What if the SS Californian, only 10 miles from the dying Titanic, had heard her frantic distress calls?
Perhaps part of our grim fascination with the doomed ocean liner is the profound sense of unease it creates in us. After all, Titanic had everything going for her. She was likened to a luxurious floating palace, one equipped with the most advanced engineering and safety features of her day. Her captain was one of the most respected and experienced men in the White Star fleet, making one last voyage before his planned honorable retirement.
It’s been reported that an employee of the White Star Line remarked at Titanic ‘s launch from its Northern Ireland shipyard on May 31, 1911, “Not even God himself could sink this ship.” Others have attributed a similar statement to a Titanic crew member at the start of her maiden voyage nearly a year later. It may be a myth fabricated after the disaster, but the word “unsinkable” had been associated with the vessel, the White Star brochure stating that “as far as it is possible to do so,” she was “designed to be unsinkable.” No guarantees in that, but those behind her construction were certainly brimming with confidence.
The White Star Line’s managing director even made it a point to join her on her maiden voyage. Some of the wealthiest men in the world chose her to travel from Europe to the United States. Several hundred less-wealthy passengers in the third-class section looked forward to building a new life in a new country. But it was not to be.
What should we learn from this disaster?
History shows that a series of small errors and miscalculations compounded to create catastrophe. Everything that could go wrong did. The best of human intentions, engineering skills and construction methods proved powerless to avert disaster. Man and woman, rich and poor, young and old alike, met a common fate.
It’s fitting at this anniversary to recount Titanic ‘s tragic tale. But we should also ask an urgent question: What lessons should we learn from this catastrophe?
With a measure of apocalyptic fervor surrounding the year 2012, there is rising interest in what the future holds for planet Earth—as well there should be regardless. Although the Bible makes no connection between the year 2012 and Christ’s return, its prophecies have much to say about the end of this age of man and the dawn of a new age to come.
The Bible makes it clear that although we cannot know the exact time of events that are prophesied to happen, we nonetheless have a distinct spiritual obligation and responsibility. In Luke 21:36 Luke 21:36Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
American King James Version×, after describing the earth-shaking events that would precede His return, Jesus Christ warns His followers: “But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (New American Standard Bible, emphasis added throughout).
He tells us to be vigilant in getting and keeping our spiritual house in order that we might be prepared for that time: “Be on guard , that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day [of Christ’s return] come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth” (verses 34-35, NASB).
Let us, then, look again at what happened to the Titanic and consider some important lessons this terrible disaster provides. Most especially, let us not be like the ship’s ill-fated crew and passengers, racing forward in the darkness while ignoring the signs of danger gathering around us.
No cause for alarm?
On April 10, 1912, the 882-foot-long British luxury liner, the largest passenger steamship of her day, set out on her maiden voyage from Southampton in southern England, bound for New York City. But she would never reach her destination. For on the cold, clear night of April 14, about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, disaster struck. And by early the next morning, the great ship Titanic would be lost to the deep—with less than a third of those who’d been on board surviving.
Earlier on the fateful day, as passengers enjoyed a relaxed party atmosphere, radio messages were received from a number of ships in the vicinity warning of icebergs. Titanic ‘s captain Edward J. Smith—highly experienced and now on his final voyage before retiring after 38 years of service—still maintained near maximum speed, as was common practice at the time. He did adjust course slightly to the south, though, and as night came the crew maintained a careful lookout.
By conventional thinking, collisions with icebergs could do serious damage but were not typically disastrous. In fact, five years earlier Smith in an interview had stated that he couldn’t “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” Of course, the night’s events would prove that thinking sorely mistaken.
Sitting stationary for the night about 10 miles away, the SS Californian radioed a last warning at around 11:30 p.m. of more ice in the area. But Titanic ‘s radio operator Jack Phillips was in the middle of his job of relaying personal messages from the passengers to the relay station at Cape Race in Newfoundland. “Shut up! Shut up! I’m working Cape Race,” he sharply told the Californian, stating he already knew of the ice. In reality, he didn’t understand the gravity of the situation and failed to pass the warning on to the captain.
In the calm, moonless night, there was no ocean swell to help the lookouts atop the ship spot nearby icebergs. So danger wouldn’t likely be seen until just before encountering it—especially traveling at high speed.
At 11:40 the lookouts spotted an ominous mass just ahead and telephoned the bridge to report that a collision was imminent. The ship’s course was immediately altered, but avoiding the iceberg was impossible with impact only seconds away.
And then it happened. Passengers felt a faint shudder or jarring but there was no major jolt—no apparent cause for concern. Most passengers concluded it must not have been important.
Soon afterward, though, the ship’s engines stopped. This was noticeable, and a number of passengers walked out to see what had happened. Stewards told them there was nothing to worry about—that they’d struck a little ice but all was well.
On the ship’s bridge, however, the full horror of what had happened began to sink in. Capt. Smith, Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line, and Thomas Andrews, the ship’s builder, were in disbelief.
The iceberg had scraped the ocean liner’s hull on the right side beneath the water line, buckling steel plates in places and popping out rivets for a length of nearly 300 feet. The ship was designed to withstand a certain amount of flooding. With its double-bottomed hull divided into 16 watertight compartments, it could remain afloat if as many as four of these were completely flooded. But the iceberg had opened the first six compartments to the sea. What this meant was that the ship was going to sink. As stated in the movie Titanic, it was “a mathematical certainty.” An estimate was given of one or two hours.
At 12:05 a.m., now April 15, the order was given to uncover the lifeboats. There had been no prior lifeboat drills, warnings or preparation. And tragically, as all aboard would soon learn, there were not nearly enough lifeboats for everyone to be rescued.
In directing passengers to safety, there were no bells or alarms. First-class stewards went cabin to cabin asking first-class passengers to go up on deck and put on life belts. At first there was some joking, the passengers being completely unaware of the seriousness of their situation. People from second and third class came later, with less chance of making it onto a lifeboat.
Yet those with the least chance of rescue were men—even those of first class. This was particularly true on the port or left side of the ship. An order had been given to board women and children first. The person in charge of launching lifeboats on the starboard or right side, First Officer William Murdoch, took this order to mean that for each boat women and children were to be seated first—and if no more women and children were present yet, men could then fill up the vacancies and the boat would launch. But Second Officer Charles Lightoller, in charge of loading lifeboats on the port side, took the order to mean that no men could board lifeboats at all, except for pilots, until all women and children on the ship made it into lifeboats.
Titanic’ s band began to play on deck to help calm the passengers, who now faced anguish, fear and sorrow as the loading of lifeboats continued. There were tearful goodbyes as husbands, fathers and brothers were left behind. And some wives decided to stay with their husbands.
Help would not come in time
On the bridge, continual attempts were made to signal for help. A few ships did respond. The Carpathia, 58 miles away, promised at 12:25 to get there as fast as she could. Even the Olympic, Titanic ‘s sister ship 500 miles away, responded. Yet no ships could make it there in the short time Titanic had left.
The only vessel within range was the Californian. Yet its radio operator, rudely cut off earlier by Titanic ‘s radio operator, had called it a night and was sound asleep. Starting at 12:45 and for the next hour, Titanic ‘s crew fired distress rockets into the air. Crew members on the Californian, seeing the rockets, took them to be ongoing festivities on Titanic ‘s celebrated maiden voyage. It never dawned on them that the great ship was sinking and that what they were actually seeing were desperate pleas for rescue. So they didn’t wake up the radio operator to find out what was going on.
By 1:55 the last lifeboat was lowered to safety, these craft carrying just over 700 of the more than 2,200 people who had been on the ship. More than 1,500 people were left aboard with nowhere to go.
The deck had been tilting more and more as the front part of the ship filled with water. Soon the stern of the ship would be lifted completely out of the water. Some people jumped overboard and swam toward the lifeboats. But most never made it.
Finally there was a great roar as the ship was torn asunder, and at 2:20 a.m., 2 hours and 40 minutes after colliding with the iceberg, the great ship Titanic sank into the ocean depths.
Many who had jumped from the ship were still alive in the icy water until they quickly succumbed to hypothermia and exhaustion (although one lifeboat did go back and rescued three people from the water).
The Carpathia, steaming at full speed, arrived at 4 a.m. Her crew picked up the survivors from the lifeboats. But the mighty Titanic was gone, with more than 1,500 of her more than 2,200 passengers and crew dead.
It didn’t have to happen
One of the most tragic aspects of the Titanic saga is that it did not have to happen. False assumptions were made about the invincibility of the ship’s engineering and technology. Warning signs en route went unheeded—and there was a glaring lack of proper provision and preparation for such a scenario. When the accident happened, most had no idea what was going on. And even as they learned of their predicament, people were slow to accept the reality of the situation. All of this, of course, presents important spiritual lessons for us today.
As outfitted as she was with technological advances and remarkable amenities for passengers to enjoy, she was not outfitted for what she truly needed—the survival of all on board in the event of dire emergency.
While Titanic could hold more than 3,500 passengers and crew, her lifeboat capacity was only 1,178. That’s because out of the 64 wooden lifeboats she was built to carry, she carried only 16 (the minimum required by law based on outdated standards, and perhaps above the minimum by certain legal exceptions). With four additional collapsible lifeboats, Titanic carried 20 in all.
Planners assumed it to be unlikely that lifeboats would ever need to hold everyone from the ship at once—since what seemed more plausible was a breakdown of the ship with lifeboats ferrying a few passengers at a time to waiting rescue vessels in the busy North Atlantic sea lanes. A full complement of lifeboats would also require more experienced sailors on board to pilot them—deemed a useless manpower increase since they probably wouldn’t be needed. And it was also felt that, should major calamity strike, getting more than 16 lifeboats away would be difficult enough anyway.
This faulty reasoning, and a desire to cut corners, ultimately cost a huge number of lives. By the lifeboat capacity, no more than half the people on the ship would be able to survive in the event of unforeseen disaster.
Even then, many of the lifeboats themselves ended up well short of capacity—especially early on. Only a little over 700 people escaped to these craft, when they could have carried nearly 470 more. Why?
One factor was the delay in launching the lifeboats. After hitting the iceberg, it took an hour to assess the damage, recognize that sinking was inevitable, start informing passengers and then start lowering lifeboats. This left less time for lifeboats to be loaded and sent off.
Another contributing factor was the reluctance of passengers to board the lifeboats initially. Things still looked safe on the ship—more so than floating away in little boats on the icy Atlantic at night. And the “women and children first” protocol required married couples and families to split up—the men perhaps being left to perish—adding to the reluctance.
Furthermore, while first- and then second-class passengers came on deck relatively soon, it took much longer for those in third class to hear about what was going on. Many had no idea how to even get to where the lifeboats were, having to be led there by crew—and many never made it there at all.
Clearly, in hindsight, there was in all of this a lack of foresight and proper planning —as well as misplaced confidence and refusal to accept reality until it was too late.
Lessons for our day
We can draw clear comparisons with modern society. Ours is a technologically advanced age filled with more luxuries and conveniences than any time before. And we have faced serious challenges before, always managing to come through them with little lasting impact. We’re quite sure of our ability to meet any difficulty, surmount any obstacle.
Yet we are speeding headlong into the darkness, oblivious to the growing danger—with most people unaware of the very real possibility of complete catastrophe from several directions, any of which could send civilization plunging into the abyss.
Make no mistake. The Bible says it’s going to happen. Human society, despite its marvels, will founder and plunge into collapse because it’s built on the wrong foundation. It rejects God and His laws—following the way that seems right but really leads to death (Proverbs 14:12 Proverbs 14:12There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×; 16:25).
Jesus Christ was asked by His disciples in Matthew 24 about the end of the age and the signs that would lead up to it. In His outline of coming events, He spoke of a time of great trouble so bad that nothing like it has ever happened—and explained that if that period were allowed to run its course without divine intervention, no one would survive. But, He went on to say, for the sake of the elect—God’s chosen people—that time will be cut short (verses 21-22).
As with the Titanic, some will be spared from the coming disaster that will engulf the entire world.
In Revelation 3:10-11 Revelation 3:10-11 10 Because you have kept the word of my patience, I also will keep you from the hour of temptation, which shall come on all the world, to try them that dwell on the earth.
11 Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which you have, that no man take your crown.
American King James Version×, Jesus says that He will protect faithful servants “from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world.” Earlier, during His physical ministry on earth, He made the same promise (Luke 21:34-36 Luke 21:34-36 34 And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares. 35 For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
American King James Version×). We find similar promises concerning the end of this age in Isaiah 26:20 Isaiah 26:20Come, my people, enter you into your chambers, and shut your doors about you: hide yourself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be over.
American King James Version×and Zephaniah 2:3 Zephaniah 2:3Seek you the LORD, all you meek of the earth, which have worked his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be you shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger.
American King James Version×.
But far greater than the promise of safekeeping through coming travail is God’s promise of eternal salvation—granting the gift of eternal life in His Kingdom to those who follow Christ and submit their lives to His rule now. This will not be a matter of physical wealth, looks or societal connections, but who you are on the inside. The selection applies to those called by God who respond in the right way and continue to do so—remaining faithful to God and His way of life.
An earlier ship and earlier catastrophe
The book of Genesis records the story of another great ship—yet this one did not sink but was itself a quite literal lifeboat when human civilization then sank beneath the waves of the Flood.
The patriarch Noah, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5 2 Peter 2:5And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly;
American King James Version×), lived in stark contrast to the world around him. At that time, people lived life spans of centuries cut off from God, becoming more and more corrupt and evil. Indeed, things were so bad that God determined to destroy mankind altogether, except for Noah and his family, to give the human race a fresh start.
Many scoffed at Noah as he followed God’s command to build the massive ark. But when the rain came and the waters began to rise there was no more laughter. Like the people who remained on the Titanic, the people of that day were trapped with nowhere to go—and they all drowned.
Jesus went on in Matthew 24 to point out that before this age comes to an end at His return, conditions will strikingly parallel the time of Noah (verses 36-42). And when the wayward ship of human society collides with destiny and goes under, God will provide a way of escape for those whom He chooses. Yet sadly, many will be unaware that anything is really wrong until it’s too late.
God won’t turn a blind eye forever to the rising corruption encircling the globe. Nor will He forsake those who perpetually cry out to Him against the evils of society. A day of reckoning is coming—a time when society will be judged and those who follow God will be delivered.
If God brought judgment on the wicked and spared the righteous in the days of Noah and at other times, we can trust that now also “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment” (verses 9-10). Just as God delivered Noah, so will He do the same for the righteous of this end time—those who resist the sinful ways of this world.
A world caught unaware
In Luke 17 Jesus warned, “And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man [the time of Christ’s return]: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all” (verses 26-27).
So the end of the age will catch most people unaware—they will be going about their lives as normal, oblivious to reality—just as those aboard the Titanic did not immediately realize when calamity struck that their time was up. This passage shows the tendency of people to assume that the longer something has been so, the longer it will stay that way. The Word of God, though, labels this a faulty assumption. The people of the prophet Ezekiel’s day made the same mistake. One notion put forward was: “The days are prolonged, and every vision fails” (Ezekiel 12:22 Ezekiel 12:22Son of man, what is that proverb that you have in the land of Israel, saying, The days are prolonged, and every vision fails?
American King James Version×). Another stated, “The vision that he sees is for many days from now, and he prophesies of times far off” (verse 27).
It was apparently this way in Noah’s day too, with some thinking the judgment wouldn’t happen and others thinking it wouldn’t happen for a long time—that is, “until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came…”
The people needed to take God’s warnings seriously—as people need to take His warnings seriously today. God’s justice is sure. It will come. And there are many signs to let us know that the time for its coming is near—that we are now in the last days of this evil age.
Furthermore, we must not place undue confidence in man and human civilization (Jeremiah 17:5 Jeremiah 17:5Thus said the LORD; Cursed be the man that trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the LORD.
American King James Version×). Cracks are evident throughout society. And we must not ignore them thinking they mean nothing. For like a bulge in a wall that’s come to be ignored because it’s been there so long, its “breaking comes suddenly, in an instant” (Isaiah 30:13 Isaiah 30:13Therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking comes suddenly at an instant.
American King James Version×).
We don’t have to be those who fail to heed the warnings. We know the ship is going to sink. The signs are everywhere. The hull’s integrity is compromised. And the water is about to come flooding in.
Society at large will go on ignoring the evidence, thinking civilization unsinkable—until it sinks. But we don’t have to go down with the ship. For God will provide a way of escape and ultimate salvation to those who will fear and obey Him through Jesus Christ.
So whenever you look around at the wondrous advances and amenities of modern civilization—and of the seeming stability of your own nation and the world order—just remember the mighty Titanic 100 years ago. The great ship seemed unsinkable. But all was not as it seemed.