Parable of the capsized cruise ship

This is a new iteration of a story I’ve used in talks and in earlier informal compositions.

The Bible will strike most objective readers as odd, very odd.  Why?  Because it has so much gross content: sin, arrogance, murder, incompetence, hatred, brazen betrayals, and much more.  The startled reader who takes up the book without having a prior faith commitment is likely to ask, “Is this the best God can offer us as his own ‘Word’?”

It’s a fair question, given that evil erupts in just the third chapter of the whole and is finally resolved with just two chapters to spare at the end.  As those who take God to be the ultimate communicator and who treat the Bible as the written venue for his sharing his heart with us, what do we make of this downbeat approach?

The answer comes by reversing a single mistaken expectation that many readers bring to the Bible: the book does not intend to present a godly world.  Instead God let’s sin happen and then traces its outcomes.  In the Bible God lets the blame for sin rest on humans.  He allows sin but does not cause it.  He never perpetrates evil yet we find that in his remarkable mercy he often rescues sinners.  In fact he freely offers mercy and rescue from the beginning to the end—and his own son is the agent of rescue though it costs him his son’s life.

One insight is uniquely important: God confronts evil by letting evil expose itself as evil once and forever.  A better day will come.  In the meantime God allows every heart real freedom—even the freedom to hate him.  Only then are we truly free to love him.  The heart cannot be coerced to love: it is always free either to love or to hate.  The Bible is a story of these two options expressed as human history. 

Let me try to make the point with a parable.

The Strange Cruise

The builder of the greatest of all cruise ships, after the final work of fitting out, turned over command to the captain to begin her inaugural cruise.  The ship was crowded with cheering passengers who lined the railings as the crew threw off the mooring lines.  A harbor pilot was present to guide the great boat out of the harbor—a harbor with only one jagged shoal to avoid—to the open sea and on to the gala cruise.

The propellers stirred up a full wake and the ship began to make good headway when the pilot whispered something to the captain.  He nodded and then, to the amazement of all those on the bridge, ordered “full speed ahead.”  The ship’s heading was directly towards the shoal!  It took only a few minutes—with all protests stifled by the captain’s glare—for the ship to reach the terrible threat.  She shuddered as a massive gash was torn under the waterline, the rocks easily ripping through the double hull.  As the ship plunged forward her many bulkheads were breached one after another until the flooding waters caused her to list heavily.

Most of the startled passengers raced for their cabins, some for security and others to collect precious possessions.  But the damage was too severe for any delays.  The great liner shuddered, rolled suddenly and was fully capsized in just moments.  The harbor was deep enough that those who fled within the boat’s belly were now captives in the interior cabins, kept alive by air pockets and able to see only by means of their dim emergency lights.

Yet within minutes the terror felt by the passengers was replaced by new emotions.  Some wondered if this was some sort of “reality” experiment and began to smile as they looked for hidden cameras.  Others began to search for rooms that were less flooded and, once in place, restacked the furnishings so that the former decks became the new overheads, and vice versa.  Ceiling fans were draped with bedspreads to serve as tables of a sort.  The upside-down quickly became the right-side-up.  The idea that this was a grand game show grew stronger and stronger.  Yet as time passed some crew members appeared telling everyone to move to areas in the hull where rescue divers would be likely to arrive.  But they were not welcomed—“you’re lying!”

Some even formed a Cruise Committee made up of the most confident and imposing proponents of the extreme reality show theory.  Their first act was to round up and imprison crew members who were trying to ensure a fair and proper distribution of salvaged food and drinking water.  As days passed those who had better emergency lights began to offer their cabins as tanning booths—for a price.  Fights also broke out between those with dry rooms and those whose rooms were partly flooded. 

Those who wanted to take over the better rooms depended on the Committee for Security to help them drive out the former occupants—for a price.  Others who already had dry spaces soon realized they needed to guard their cabins by investing in the Security Committee.  Within a week of the capsizing all those who were aligned with the Committee were thriving and a special banquet was planned.  The Committee Director assumed that some of the reality show hidden cameras were certain to be in the Grand Room, so everyone gathered there, pushing aside soggy debris to provide a dance floor on the former ceiling.

As the party was well underway some shouting broke out.  A few crew members who had managed to avoid capture came into the great upside-down hall, accompanied by a man in an orange wetsuit.

“I’ve come from the surface!” he called out.  “We have a set of rescue chambers now attached to the hull ready to get you out of here.  On the surface we have a ship waiting to take you on board.  You’ll be safe if you follow me!”

Those passengers who had not joined the Committee for Security began to cheer, but only for a moment.

“Stop him” the Director thundered.  “He’s lying!  He’s a plant by the crew and he’s just trying to interrupt our cruise adventure!  Only true believers can win the jackpot!”

In just moments the man in orange and his crew member companions were all captured and dragged away.  Then the party resumed. 

But some passengers who believed that the capsizing was real—and not part of a strange reality game—began to look for a rescue capsule.  That group, a small minority, found the capsule and were rescued.  But the others preferred their cruise, even as the air turned toxic, the food and water ran out, and the battery-powered lights died.  So did the passengers.

For those who were rescued a remarkable banquet was held the following noonday in the brilliant sunshine of the beautiful harbor hotel.  It was sponsored by the builder of the capsized cruise ship.  His son had been lost during the rescue efforts, but he still gave himself freely to the survivors, delighted that they were alive and well.


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