It is said that the American evangelist, Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), would pronounce these words when he arrived in a new town to preach: “I smell Hell!” And, much like the other revivalists of his era, he would find a place to set up and he would preach to whomever would listen. And indeed, people would come to listen. That was the culture in America during what people sometimes refer to as the “Second Great Awakening” or what others would simply call the close of the “Great Awakening” in America. Dates and labels I will leave to other historians to catalogue.
What I find to be a sad testimony as to the nature of the culture is that the language of preaching has changed. If Cartwright were alive today, his message might sound more like Billy Graham’s, “God wants you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior,” or even worse, like Joel Osteen’s, “God wants you to be happy and to have the desires of your heart!” Whatever the popular preachers and evangelists may sound like, it seems that wrath and hell, fire and brimstone, and repentance from sin has been all but forgotten — or is only mentioned in passing and not stressed. Indeed, people want a God who will love them just as they are, not a God that is angry with them as a result of their sin.
Yet, what people want and what the Bible teaches in this case are two different things — surprise, surprise. Yet, rather than be a steward of the oracles of God, the church has largely become a steward of modest worldly blessings and blind promises. G. Campbell Morgan used to say that it is the duty of the church to correct the spirit of the age rather than to follow it; sadly, too many congregations look around at dwindling numbers and opt to follow the spirit of the age, watering down the message of the Gospel until it is no Gospel at all, in the hopes of drawing more people in with a “more loving” message.
Folks, if someone defines “more loving” as being warm and fuzzy, tell them to go buy a nice sweater or a dog. A friendly Alaskan Malamute or an over-sized turtle-neck sweater from Alpaca wool will give you all of the warm, fuzzy loving that you need at a fraction of the cost and inconvenience of going to a popular church service or crusade meeting. But if that was truly love, then you wouldn’t need either God or the Bible.
Love is being told how to see the world accurately and in a way that is eternally truthful. Love is being made aware that there is a judgment coming one day and that unless we approach the Father through Jesus Christ the Son, we will be eternally condemned to righteous torment and wrath. Love is being told clearly that our works cannot make God happy with us and they amount to little more than dung in the eyes of a holy God. Love is telling a person that unless they repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ, nothing but sorrow will fill their lives, but if they do, even the greatest joys of earth cannot compare to the joy of heaven. Love is being honest and clear that if you were able to smell it, you would smell Hell on every American street corner and that most people have gotten so accustomed to it that they do not even notice.
Cartwright and I might disagree on a number of points of our theology and we also might disagree on our approaches to evangelism (he used a number of high-pressure tactics rather than trusting in the Holy Spirit for true conversion), but we are agreed on this starting point. Hell is in our midst and it is in the midst of our churches. The kind and culturally accommodating approach to evangelism has not done anyone any favors. Indeed, God will still call his own to himself despite their methodology, but ought not we seek to hold fast to the Gospel as presented in the Scriptures? Ought we not say that there is no way to the Father but through Jesus Christ the Son? Ought we not proclaim that unless you repent and believe in Jesus you will perish eternally? And ought we not trust the Holy Spirit to prepare soil in men and women so that they will bear the fruit of repentance in their lives? Ought our message not begin with vague promises or warmth and love, but instead be warnings to repent and believe? Like Cartwright, when I look at the world around me, “I smell Hell.”