It is always risky to try to identify a fundamental problem in society, but I will hazard the risk of stating that there is one great tragedy among people today, and the fault lies with the church.
The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is the story of Solomons backsliding. A wise king with absolute power and unlimited wealth, the envy of the world around him, allowed his heart to be turned away from God. According to Ecclesiastes 2:4-9 he tried everything as a substitute for God and yet he discovered that his life was empty and meaningless. The more he left God out, the more miserable he became.
Man was originally created in the image of God and in friendship with God, and the first recorded conversation between man and his Creator concerned matters of morality and eternity: "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Gen. 2:17).
This is because, as Solomon soon came to realize, God had "set eternity in the hearts of men" (Eccl. 3:11). This gift is part of the uniqueness of man. Unlike the animal world around him, man is aware of eternity. For this reason there are very few real atheists in the world because atheism is a hard religion to believe in; it runs contrary to that voice within man that cries out to him that there is a God and an eternity and a judgment to come. It is this gift that accounts for the fact that wherever we find man, we find him worshipping; he must worship because he has "eternity in his heart."
Sense of Eternity Ousted
The tragedy of modern man is that he has, with great effort and by careful practice, squeezed this sense of God and eternity out of his mind. An age of mind-blowing scientific achievement, colossal consumer choice and a soft luxury beyond imagination a few decades ago has all helped modern, Western man to convince himself that there is no eternity to worry about.
Christ Emphasized Eternity
During His ministry on earth, Christ spent much of His time turning the minds of His hearers to eternity. Many of His parables were about heaven and hell, like the vivid story of the rich man and Lazarus. Other parables spoke of the suddenness of death, like the rich fool and his barn. The parable of the tenant farmers taught about rewards and punishments, and the parable of the talents pointed to a day of judgment. And the list can go on.
The terrifying thing about modern man is that he no longer feels afraid, or feels anything about eternity. To tell him that Christ came into the world to save sinners invites the question: "To save sinners from what?" And when we reply, "From judgment and hell," the response is invariably, "Oh, is that all? I thought you had something important to say."
To describe hell as a Christless eternity is an irrelevancy to modern man. He lives all right without Christ now, so why not in eternity? Man has lost his uniqueness today. He has lost a mind filled with a sense of eternity. And, contrary to what we are often told, there is not a world out there just waiting to respond to our good news if only we will get onto the streets and tell people. Any face-to-face visitor will tell you that people simply do not want to know. Eternity is not in their minds.
Church Soft Pedaling Eternity
And when society no longer thinks about eternity, it almost goes without saying that it is because the church no longer thinks that way either. Our lives as Christians, and our worship when we are together, impress the world with our love of this life. There is little about us to convince the world that we are motivated for eternity rather than for time. People do not touch eternity in our meetings. They rarely hear of it in our conversation and they certainly do not see it as the priority of our lives.
Of course, it glances off our gospel here and there, but we are not passionate about heaven and hell or the Second Coming of Christ, and we have lost a sense of accountability to God.
Revival Reawakens Eternal Issues
One thing revival does, and it always does it, is to reawaken, in both Christians and the community around, a sense of the reality of eternal issues. One observer described the eighteenth century as "Stomach well alive, soul extinct." How did that change? God sent a revival that swept across the nation until hundreds of thousands knew that God was real.
When 40,000 people gathered in Kennington Common in London in the mid-eighteenth century, they had not come to watch the West Indies play the MCC; they had come to hear George Whitefield preach the Gospel of eternal things.
In 1737, when Whitefield was only twenty-two years old, he was preaching to crowded churches in London and thousands were turned away because there was no room; he had not yet begun preaching in the open air. At this time he said of the congregations, "They were all attention, and heard like people hearing for eternity."
Interestingly, this is exactly the same description that Alexander Webster used five years later during the revival at Cambuslang in Scotland: "They hear as for eternity...."
When God comes in revival, whole communities are aware that there is a God and that eternal issues really matter. Not everyone will believe, but everyone will be made to think.
In 1859 when God swept Ulster with revival, the October meeting at the Maze racecourse attracted less than 500 race-goers instead of the usual 10,000. Clearly some people were being made to think seriously about eternity. Here is a description given by a minister in Comber, a small town in County Down, just nine miles from Belfast:
"The whole town and neighborhood were roused. Many did not retire to rest the first night at all, and for several days great numbers were unable to attend their usual vocations, but gave themselves almost unceasingly to the study of the Scriptures, singing and prayer: and for the first month, with about three exceptions, I did not get to bed till morning, such was the anxiety of the people for pastoral instruction and consolation."
In Wales in 1904, whole towns were stirred, and everybody was talking about God and eternity. The North Wales Guardian for 20 January 1905 carried the following reports:
"In consequence of the revival the annual eisteddfod arranged to be held on Friday January 27th at Llansantffraid near Oswestry has been postponed. The secretaries who have widely advertised the postponement, discovered that the usual eisteddfod enthusiasts were devoting themselves to the revival gatherings, and that choirs have been unable to obtain accommodation for practice.
"At a Football Association meeting at Chirk, when the draw for a charity cup was made, it was deemed useless to fix a match at Rhos, as the Black Park Club secretary announced that in a recent match Rhos vs. Black Park the gate receipts only amounted to 9s."
It was not that people considered either the eisteddfod or football as sinful, but their minds and lives were gripped with something far more important. In revival God puts eternity back into mens minds, not just as individuals, but as whole communities. Another newspaper in Wales, reported "a pervading and overwhelming solemnity, convincing even the most stoical that eternal realities had come into intimate contact with the men and women present."
Duncan Campbell recalls the same thing happening in the Isle of Lewis in 1949: "News of what was happening in Barvas spread faster than the speed of gossip
Within a matter of days the whole neighborhood was powerfully awakened to eternal realities. Work was largely set aside as people became concerned about their own salvation, or the salvation of friends and neighbors. In homes, barns and loom sheds, by the roadside or the peat stack, men could be found calling upon God...."
The population of New England in the eighteenth century was probably around 340,000, and it is estimated that the revival there brought up to 50,000 to salvation. If fifteen percent of the population is converted in a short time, almost everyone has to think about eternity!
When revival spread from Lowestoft in 1921 right up to the Scottish fishing ports whole communities were changed. One newspaper reported that in a small town of 1,500 inhabitants, no fewer than 600 professed faith in Christ; the paper also commented that gambling disappeared and tobacco was destroyed.
So powerfully did God work in a revival in Birmingham in 1834 that the bars and beer shops were left "vocal with lonely grumblers." A community cannot avoid thinking about eternity when things like this take place.
When Hezekiah came to the throne he did not begin by analyzing the disastrous effects of the rampaging Assyrian army. He called to the Levites to "Consecrate yourselves now and consecrate the temple of the Lord" (2 Chr. 29:5). He knew exactly where the problem of the nation really lay.
If we start here, we have hope for revival. But we must start now!
Take Eternity Seriously!
Whole books can be written analyzing what is wrong with the church today, but there is hardly a need for this. We must simply admit that we are not an eternity-minded people. We live like the world we are supposed to be saving: for the things of time rather than for the things of eternity.
Our priorities are world-related rather than heaven-directed. Our treasure is on earth. Revival always begins by putting eternity back into the minds of the Christians, and only when the church takes eternity seriously can we expect the world to do so.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon