No Greater Love


On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:40 am MSD (Moscow Time), Aleksandr Akimov pressed a button to re-lower the fuel rods of the RBMK reactor at the Chornobyl (Note: Ukraine prefers this spelling over the Russian, Chernobyl) nuclear plant in Ukraine SSR in the Soviet Union. The rods should have lowered seven meters but hung up at 2-2.5 meters. At 1:23:44 am, the reactor exploded, releasing deadly radioactive emissions. The time in Abilene, Texas, showed 5:23 pm on a warm Thursday afternoon. The temperature showed 84 degrees on a partly cloudy day. No one would know for several days that an event had happened almost 6,000 miles away that could potentially endanger the welfare of over 60 million European residents. Nearby the nuclear plant, the people of Pripyat heard and felt the explosion and could see the glow of the fire in the early morning darkness. In less than forty-eight hours, the nearly 49,000 residents of Pripyat and surrounding towns would evacuate their homes, never to return. The evacuation would continue later, with another 68,000 people uprooted. The cleanup of the disaster continues today. The reactor has been covered with a massive sarcophagus and will remain radioactive for the next 20,000 years.

Several men would die trying to contain the problem, others would become ill, and others would face imprisonment for what happened. There would be those proclaimed heroes and honored in life and death for their courage. Chornobyl would reopen again and then shut down for good. Pripyat remains a ghost town, still showing the results of radioactivity. 

A few days after the disaster, concerns grew over the heated radioactive material and the chance of it burning and connecting with some tanks that contained water. The results could be a catastrophic explosion that could send radioactive materials deep into Eastern Europe, endangering the lives of 60 million people. To prevent the explosion, they needed to drain the tanks; however, the valves were inside the contaminated buildings. Volunteers would be required to enter the contaminated area and open the valves. The journey would likely be a suicide mission.

Three men stepped up to the task, knowing their fate could likely be one of a final sacrifice. Mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko, senior engineer Valeri Bespalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov volunteered to enter the facility and attempt the job. On May 4, 1986, dressed in wet suits, they searched for the valves in knee-deep contaminated water through the tunnels. Under a stressful, almost impossible task, they found the valves in the basement and opened them, releasing thousands of gallons of water. They exited as heroes to their fellow workers but soon forgotten as the Russian media attempted to downplay the incident.

John records these words of Jesus in chapter fifteen of his gospel account, “Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Caring for someone so much that you are willing to give your own life for them represents true love for our fellow human beings. Even greater love becomes evident when people give their lives for people they don’t know. The scriptures command us over and over to love one another. Almost all apostles gave their lives so others could hear the gospel. The Hebrew writer tells of many unknown people who gave their lives so that later generations would know Jesus. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” Hebrews 11:37-38 (NASB) He reminds us that these people died for us and didn’t even know us.

Today, men and women worldwide give their lives to proclaim Jesus. They smuggle Bibles into countries that would imprison them if caught. They preach about Jesus secretly, knowing they could be executed or imprisoned if discovered. Living in a country with the freedoms we enjoy makes it challenging to comprehend what others must endure. Most people who proclaim Jesus around the world, especially in places where they could face persecution, do it not for money but their love of Christ and their fellow man. 

I’ve often thought, “Would I have the courage to put myself in a life-giving situation for Jesus?” How about you? Would you put yourself in a position where you could lose your life for Him? How about dying for someone you don’t even know? We might be willing to sacrifice ourselves for family, but would we for someone we didn’t know and would never meet? 

The three men who stepped into the contaminated waters at Chornobyl didn’t know the millions of men, women, and children they were saving from contamination. They didn’t have to volunteer but could have walked away and saved themselves. Instead, they chose to sacrifice themselves for the millions they did not know. Fortunately, they lived through the ordeal. It would be over thirty years before the men would receive the proper recognition for what they did. In 2019 the government of Ukraine recognized them as “Heroes of Ukraine”, two personally and one posthumously. 

Take time today to be thankful for those people around the world who literally show “No Greater Love” than to put their lives on the line for others to know Jesus. They are true “Heroes of the Faith.”

Danny Minton is an Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ

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