People were created to be worshippers. That’s one way of defining the image of God in human beings. Humans are also fallen worshippers. Thus, our religious-based tendency to worship has expressed itself in distorted ways in human history.
Recently I was asked a question about how to understand the pagan gods of the Old and New Testaments and human idolatry. Here’s the question:
I’ve always dismissed other “gods” in the Bible as nothing more than imaginary to the people back then, and that they were prone to worship them as an excuse to live in sin. Recently, I’ve rethought my quick dismissal of these gods. Could they be fallen angels that were visible to people? How could people seriously worship, in the form of statues and temples, false gods unless at some point they had actually been real?
Pagan Gods and Human Idolatry
I think that accounting for the pagan gods of the Bible from a Christian perspective would involve the following biblically based factors. I offer them as a biblical explanatory model of this common religious phenomenon in human history.
- All people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–28) and are recipients of general revelation (Psalm 19:1–4; Romans 1:19–20) and common grace (Matthew 5:45). Thus, all human beings as finite creatures have a knowledge of God and are made to be worshippers by nature because God made them that way. While secular people claim not to worship anything, in reality all people pursue an ultimate purpose in life and reflect a type of religiosity. This secular-based religiosity often takes the form of ideas such as politics or environmentalism but also includes personal and private devotions to sex, money, and achievement. This powerful religious tendency has led some to define human beings as homo religiosus: “religious man.” While defining man as a fundamentally religious creature is somewhat controversial, the biblical claim that all people were made with a religious impulse carries significant explanatory power.
- The Bible proclaims that people were made by God for God, but something has gone deeply wrong. The biblical narrative asserts that because of the fall of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, into sin (Genesis 3:1–14), that fallen nature (original sin) has been passed on to all of their ancestors (Job 14:14; Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12–20; 1 Corinthians 15:22). As a result, human beings naturally suppress the truth of God (Romans 1:18) even as they engage in idolatry (Romans 1:21–22, 25). Despite rejecting the true and living God, it seems the inner impulse to worship cannot be completely curtailed and thus the sin of idolatry is ubiquitous (Leviticus 19:4).
- The Bible speaks of God creating angelic creatures and that some of them have rebelled against their Creator (Ezekiel 28:12–18; Isaiah 14:12–15; Jude 1:6). Scripture appears to indicate that these demons energize and stand behind idolatry and false teaching (Galatians 5:19–21; 2 Corinthians 4:3–4; 11:14; 1 John 4:1–3; Revelation 9:20). Thus, there is an illicit spiritual allure connected with devotion to these false deities. Whether or not fallen angels appeared to humans and evoked worship, such an idea is not inconsistent with the biblical witness.
- God sharply forbids idolatry and promises to punish misguided devotion to other gods (Exodus 20:3–6; 1 Corinthians 10:14; 1 John 5:21 ). Idolatry is a great sin because it constitutes a basic unfaithfulness to one’s Creator God and offers to finite and temporal entities devotion that is rightly due only to the infinite and eternal God.
- Some of the gods of human devotion take on human qualities and attributes. It has been proposed, for example, that the Greco-Roman gods were made in the image of human beings. Thus they reflect such human flaws as promiscuity, jealousy, and pride. World religions specialist Huston Smith offers this moral comparison of deities: “Whereas the gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans.”1
- Through his historic life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ offers spiritual liberation and forgiveness to people who are caught in the terrible bondage of idolatry (Matthew 8:28–29; 1 John 3:8). In his public ministry Jesus proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). In Christ, God comes into the world to reveal the rightful object of humanity’s devotion and worship.
I think these six biblically derived points help explain the false gods of the Old and New Testaments and why people engage so easily and frequently in idolatry of various kinds. Our task as fellow image-bearers is to redirect all idolatry, including our own, to rightful worship of the triune God of the Scriptures (John 4:24).
Reflections: Your Turn
Can you identify modern-day forms of idolatry?
- Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012).
- Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
- Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 275.