The fascination with the Titanic draws its power from the Gospel

“Gentlemen, I regret to say that the Titanic sank at 2:20 this morning”. This was the announcement made by Philip Franklin, vice president of the White Star Line in New York, referring to the sinking of the luxury liner that resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 of the 2,200 passengers aboard on 14 April 1912. A hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic, this horrific event still has a gripping fascination for millions of people, myself included. The new exhibition just opened in Belfast seems destined to attract thousands of curious visitors and tourists, who by imagination will try and enter into the horror of that unforgettable night.

One of the secrets of the magnetism of the Titanic episode is its parallels with the Gospel. So many of the events on that fateful night mirror the spiritual peril that faces a world seemingly oblivious to where it is heading. Even after the Titanic struck the iceberg, the crew couldn’t persuade passengers to take to the lifeboats when they had paid enormous sums of money for luxurious accommodation. After all, only days earlier the ship’s builders had boastfully told reporters that “God Himself couldn’t sink this ship”. The Titanic symbolised the world’s sense of achievement, enterprise, invincibility and arrogance. Confidence in human ability and technological prowess convinced people to believe in the ‘unsinkable’ rather than the ‘unthinkable’. As a result, many of the ship’s lifeboats that were designed to hold up to 60 people left the ship with only a quarter of that number aboard.

The blockbusting move “Titanic” captured the imagination of the world 15 years ago with the poignant themes of beauty, tragedy and redemption. Jack dies so that Rose may live. It’s ironic that Hollywood seems to know the human heart better than the church does. Easter proclaims the message that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provided the lifeboat for us all to climb aboard. To miss that lifeboat is to die, or in the words of the Bible, to perish. This is the essence of the Gospel, and it seems vital to me that the church recaptures the significance and urgency of that saving message for a world which is currently on the same course as the Titanic.

One of the contrasts the movie “Titanic” highlighted was, of course, the massive difference between the first class passengers and their luxurious surrounds, and the impoverished passengers in ‘Steerage’ in very basic accommodation and facilities. However, when the ship went down, the distinctions between people were not based on wealth or fame or importance or achievements. The two categories designated by the White Star Line office in Southampton in the days following were simply “Lost” and “Saved”. It’s a stark reminder that it doesn’t make any difference how the world ranks your status – the one thing that ultimately matters is whether you are saved or lost.

One part of the story that hasn’t rated much attention from the media is that there was a Scottish preacher named John Harper on board the ship. Whether he had a prophetic gifting or some premonition will never be known, but even before the ship hit the iceberg he was warning passengers not to think that they could put God off indefinitely. Interestingly, we now have evidence that there were some who responded, and one man was even converted after the ship had gone down, floating on some wreckage within earshot of John Harper.

The expression “Re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” has become commonplace in today’s parlance. And if the Titanic is a little picture of today’s world, then that is exactly what the majority of people are doing. What happened to the Titanic was a terrible tragedy, but there’s a spiritual parable in the story, and we need to hear the John Harpers of today, who tell us not to assume that this world is unsinkable, but that, in the words of Scripture “The end of all things is near. You must be self-controlled and alert to be able to pray… the time has come for judgement to begin, and God’s own people are the first to be judged. If it starts with us, how will it end with those who do not believe the Good News from God?” (1 Peter 4:7, 17)

The anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking provides a timely warning against the world’s misplaced confidence in its own achievements and failure to heed the warnings of a loving God. According to the designer of the Titanic, the interior furnishings and decorations were meticulously discussed for many hours, whilst the question of lifeboats merited only “five or ten minutes” discussion. The parallels are many, and they are uncomfortable ones, but even Christians should take note and, as Matthew Henry once advised, “It ought to be our business every day to prepare for our last day”. Somehow, I’m not sure that today’s church in the affluent West still sees that as a priority.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol