When somebody in the neighborhood has put something on the grill I invariably think, “Boy, that smells good!” So, my initial reaction when I read passages of Scripture like those in Leviticus which describe how pleased God is with the burnt sacrifices from the Israelites is, “Of course God liked that, it was just a big barbecue!” But some reflection makes me realize that I have missed the point of what is actually a very powerful metaphor.
When scripture describes God as smelling smoke from burnt offerings, it is not trying to convey that God has a nose and olfactory receptors, and has the ability to detect a scent. Rather, it is conveying God’s full response to human activity and relating it to our own sense of smell. When our sense of smell is activated, a lot more is going on than simply identifying an odor.
A number of years ago, I had an interesting experience walking into the public library which was located inside a high school. Once inside the school, I was suddenly awash with a number of memories from my own high school days. This was unusual because I was not walking into my high school. I account for this experience because this particular high school was built at the same time as my high school using the same architectural plans and materials. Even though it had distinctive differences in appearance compared to my high school, it nevertheless smelled the same. Those familiar smells were able to trigger the memories of my own high school experience.
Smell has been underrated as one of our five senses. According to a recent study reported in Nature, the nose, with around only 400 olfactory receptors, can detect potentially up to a trillion different odors! Realize that much of what we call “taste” is actually “smell”. Sensitivity varies depending on the size and types of molecules which find their way up our noses, but humans have been shown to smell as well or better than their mammalian competitors in these studies. With this level of acuity and sensitivity, it is no wonder that odors can trigger specific memories and emotional responses – it is a full mind and body experience.
I think it is this association between the sense of smell and our thoughts and memories which is in play in the scripture passages that make reference to aromas, smells and fragrances. It is not the scent of these burnt offerings alone which was pleasing to God. We know this because this fragrance from burnt offerings was not always pleasing to God. Elsewhere, God tells Israel that, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts, I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” (Isaiah 1:11)
God’s displeasure did not result because they were burning something different on the altar. What makes the fragrance of sacrifices pleasing to God is not just the sacrifice itself, but its association with genuine contrition of heart for sins committed and an earnest desire to seek and follow God in all his ways (Ps 51:16-18). In the days of Isaiah, the disobedience of the Israelites caused the scent of these burnt offerings to be a stench.
In another place, God tells the straying Israelites that if they will return and follow Him, that God will be “like the dew to Israel” – like water to a plant. When they take up the dew – put their trust in Him and follow his ways – they will have the “fragrance of Lebanon.” (Hosea 14:5-7) Specifically, this refers to the cedars of Lebanon: imagine what it is like to walk through a pine forest and be enveloped with the fragrance of the trees. To me, this is refreshing and invigorating. This is how Israel, in their righteous living, will “smell” not only to God, but to all the surrounding nations.
It is this same idea that the apostle Paul uses when addressing the Corinthians about the fragrance of Christ which is being spread through their ministry (2 Corinthians 2:14-17). He recognizes first of all that they are the “aroma of Christ to God” – that is, Christ is the pleasing sacrifice which goes before God on the behalf of believers. This same fragrance – the gospel of Christ – goes not only before God, but to all the people they meet. It is imagined as the scents one might smell during a victory parade which pervade the surrounding area. To some it is a fragrance of life, but to others it is a fragrance of death – accepted by some, rejected by others.
I recognize that for some non-Christians, they find Christianity distasteful because of previous experiences with the church, and certainly this is of concern. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians.” Paul exhorts Christians to be wise in how they speak and act among non-believers – “always full of grace and seasoned with salt” – in the hope that those will also believe and be saved (Colossians 4:5-6).
While Christians should be concerned about how we represent Christianity to the world as Christ’s ambassadors, this is not at the heart of why Paul refers to the gospel having the fragrance of death. Paul recognizes that it is the truth claims of Christ which people find repugnant – the gospel by its very nature is offensive. It “smells bad” because it is counter to the sinful nature of man. It calls people to recognize their failure to please God in their actions – they have, in fact, offended God. Further, the gospel is very narrow in specifying how it is possible to resolve this sin problem.
Perhaps in an effort to make the fragrance of Christ more palatable to others, some have chosen to change the “smell” by changing the gospel. Most recently branded under the name “Progressive Christianity”, these folks begin by denying the authority of scripture: the apostles who were nearest to Jesus and his teachings were immature in their enlightenment, and we have since come to obtain a greater truth. They dispense with the notion of sin: the guilt you feel for your sin is nothing more than a self-imposed sense of shame which you need to talk yourself out of – in doing so, you can realize the divine within you. All this dispels the importance of Christ’s atonement: his death on the cross was merely a sad turn of history.
Progressive Christianity is yet one more attempt in human history to earn God’s favor through human effort. Whether it be worshipping idols, espousing “secret knowledge”, or steeping oneself in meditative states, all human efforts to appease the Creator God are a stench in His nostrils. Rather than striving in human effort, people need to rely upon what God has already provided for a restored relationship with Him, namely, Christ’s death on the cross. This requires people to set aside their pride – their sense of self-sufficiency – and accept the free gift of grace offered in Christ. That is a pleasing aroma to God.
 John P. McGann, Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth. Science, 12 May 2017: Vol. 356, Issue 6338. DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7263
 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove, IL; IVP, 2006), 27.
 A recent book by Alisa Childers, Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity (Tyndale, 2020) provides more details about and refutation of this movement.
 Check out this video for a more complete presentation of the gospel message: https://vimeo.com/92948552