Which mountain? Everest, of course, the world’s highest peak. Death? Yes, over and over again, as yet another group of climbers pays the price and perishes on its icy slopes. It is reliably reported that no fewer than 168 people have died while scaling Everest. Perhaps the deadliest day in the history of Mount Everest came on May 10, 1996, when a freak storm hit two commercial expeditions high on its slopes, and eight lives were lost. One of those was Rob Hall, a New Zealander who refused to leave a dying American client, less than 100 vertical meters from the 8,800 meter summit, and as a consequence was unable to save himself. As hopes of rescue faded, and life kept ebbing away, he continued to talk by radio via satellite link to his pregnant wife in New Zealand.
Rob Hall was well known as New Zealand’s most experienced organizer of expeditions to the Himalayas, and in 1994 had climbed Everest at least four times. He was also the first guide ever to take paying clients to the top on three separate occasions. On a previous climb he had stayed with a Belgian member of an expedition who had succumbed to snow blindness. Rob remained with him on the South Col for more than two days, despite a severe deterioration in his own physical condition for staying too high too long. On that occasion he made it safely back.
Is there morality on the mountain, then? One Japanese climber of Mount Everest was questioned why, when encountering three stricken Indian climbers, his expedition had ignored them, and continued with their bid for the summit. He is reported as saying that an altitude of 8000 meters up a mountain “is not a place where people can afford morality.”1
The upper slopes of Everest are known as the “death zone,” with only about one-third the oxygen concentration at sea level. This dulls the wits of even well-acclimated climbers, reducing their ability to make judgments critical to their own safety. Even bottled oxygen only delays the onset of this process, and does not prevent it.
What about Rob Hall then? Was his staying with his client the result of mental deterioration? Was his commitment perhaps out of a sense of professional duty? After all, he was being paid a substantial amount to take his client to the summit and back again. Was it fellow-feeling for a climbing friend and comrade? Or could it even be described as love?
There are two Greek words for love used in the New Testament. The word phileo is sometimes translated “brotherly love,” and refers to “an affection characterized by constancy.”2 It is from this word that Philadelphia, a city in Pennsylvania, USA takes its name. Non-conformist believers escaping from religious persecution in England took refuge by emigrating here in the eighteenth century, and sought to build up a caring and loving community.
The other word agape suggests something more than this – a love of the will more than of the feelings, a reflection of a divine attribute, expressing God’s essential nature. “God is love,” and this needs to be emphasized, because it is important (1 Jn. 4:8). This “agape” love is a self-giving love, known and recognized by what it does, rather than what it feels, and finds its perfect expression in Jesus Christ.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, although for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8 NIV).
The word for love in this passage is the strong Greek word agape. God demonstrated his own love for us in the giving of His Son, Jesus Christ to die for us. At the time of greatest need for mankind, when nothing else would help, Christ showed that same love in giving his own life for the ungodly, those who had no thought of God in their minds whatsoever, and refused to acknowledge His claims on their lives.
Regardless of what we may think, God’s timing is always perfect. His salvation came at exactly the right moment in history. His love came into the world and was displayed in Jesus Christ, “who loved us and gave Himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2).
We will probably never know the inner motive which lay behind the sacrifices of such men (and women) as Rob Hall. There have been many occasions, especially during warfare, when acts of conspicuous bravery have occurred. Men have risked their lives for their comrades, and in some cases have paid the supreme price for their heroism. They have shown their willingness to die for their comrades on the battlefield. But they are doing this for good friends, for fellow-countrymen of decency and honor. Christ voluntarily laid down his life for those who were not his friends, for those who were neither just nor good, but were in fact ungodly sinners.
This lifts the sacrifice of Christ to an entirely different plane. He died for His enemies, those whom Paul refers to as “enemies in your mind because of your evil behavior” (Col. 1:21). This is true “agape” love, not an emotional love based on feelings, but an intense compassionate love which must give itself totally and utterly in action, on behalf of those in need. Agape love is love which does not just “stand there,” but love which “does something.” What more could Christ have done than give up His own life, that ungodly men and women should become godly saints, living for the glory of the Father.
When considered in this light, the love of Christ must not simply be seen as rare and remarkable; it is incomparable and unique. In the words of Thomas Kelly’s majestically simple hymn:
|God is its blessed source;
Death ne’er can stop its course;
Nothing can stay its force
Matchless it is.3
1. “Death on the Mountain” (Sept. 13, 1997), The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.
2. Vine, W. E., Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, McLean, VA: McDonald.
3. Hymn 143, verse 3, Spiritual Songs (1978), Wooller: Hammond Trust.
By Ian Livingstone
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.