Summary: The actions of those on the Titanic who volunarily gave up their seats in the lifeboat to others illustrates the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for sinners.
This morning, I’d like to tell you the story of the sinking of the Titanic. At 11:30 p.m., on April 14, 1912, the ocean liner Titanic, the pride of the White Star cruise line sailing on her maiden voyage, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and sank less than 2 1/2 hours later, taking with her the lives of over 1,500 people. And today, almost ninety years later, this tragedy still fascinates the public. The most recent example is the 1997 theatrical blockbuster "Titanic", the highest-grossing movie of all time, but this is only the latest. There have been literally hundreds of books written about the Titanic, and dozens of films and documentaries. Here’s the question: Why? There have been other disasters with a greater death toll or damage to property; for instance, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, or the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. What was special about this particular event? What accounts for the continuing interest people have in this doomed ship?
Well, first of all, the Titanic was not just another ocean liner. It was unique. Consider first its gargantuan size. It was 883 feet long and 92 feet wide; almost a football field in width and three football fields in length. It was eleven stories high. It had 159 coal burning furnaces powering four huge steam engines. Not only was it the largest ship ever built, it was the largest moving object of any kind ever constructed. In addition, the Titanic was the most luxurious ship ever built, with a gymnasium, a squash court, a Turkish bath, a swimming pool, a grand ballroom, and an elegant dining room with white-gloved waiters and expensive crystal. First-class tickets ran as high as $55,000 in today’s dollars. It carried the wealthiest of the wealthy, the royalty of society in their spacious cabins on the upper decks. The awe-inspiring nature of the ship can be seen in the fact that over 100,000 people came to see her launched.
Second, the sinking of the Titanic was not just another disaster. It was a shock to the system, a slap in the face to a world that had grown overconfident in the progress of science, and the mastery of mankind over the forces of nature. As Douglas W. Phillips writes in his book, "The Sinking of the Titanic,"
"It is difficult today to truly appreciate the impact this event had on the public psyche in 1912. There really are no modern comparisons. She was the first truly international tragedy. The reports caused men and women on three continents to weep and despair. News of her demise brought the entire Western world to a standstill for a period of days. . . The dreams and confidence of an entire generation sunk with the great ocean liner. Her very name was destined to become a metaphor for arrogance and doom."
However, in the midst of arrogance, foolhardiness, tragedy, and death on a massive scale, the sinking of the Titanic also provides us with an inspiring example of courage and self-sacrifice. The evidence for this part of the story is a simple statistic: of the 1,513 passengers who lost their lives, 1,352 were men; only 161 were women and children. Here’s another way of looking at it: while 80% of the men perished, only 26% of the women lost their lives. Curious, isn’t it, that the survival rate of the women would be three times that of the men. What accounts for this discrepancy? Were women quicker at getting into the lifeboats? Were they more perceptive; did they realize sooner than the men that the ship was going to sink? Did they perhaps trick the men or bribe them into giving up their seats? Could they have forced their way onto the boats by brute strength? No. In fact, it was their weakness, and not their strength, which secured their positions in the lifeboats. The men voluntarily gave up their opportunity to escape the sinking ship in order to give their seats to women and children.
Now you might speculate that this was simply due to the love of husbands and fathers for their wives and children, but the statistics won’t permit that interpretation. Men outnumbered women four to one. So at most, one-fourth of the women were traveling with their husbands. The rest of the men gave their lives for the wives and daughters of other men. Theirs was a completely selfless love. Why did they do this? What would motivate a man to willingly choose death over self-preservation? Were they madmen? fools? No. They believed that the strong must care for and sacrifice for the weak, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives.
And where did they get this idea? They belonged to a society which was shaped, fundamentally, by the Christian faith, a faith whose central event is the greatest act of self-sacrifice ever recorded: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for sinners. A faith which is summed up in these words,