An idol is a substitute for God. It is the exchanging of the truth of God for a lie.1 All idols belong either to nature or history. There are no other areas to which man can turn in order to find a substitute god, for all creation ultimately falls into these two groupings. Consequently, idols that are not artifacts of the natural world are constructs of the social world (or history). As such, they serve no other purpose than to facilitate the worshipping and serving of the creature rather than the Creator.2
Furthermore, idolatry may be seen as a category depicting unbelief that is highly sophisticated, drawing together the complexities of motivation found in psychology, sociology and demonology. Of these, demonology is the most familiar, and most obvious. As this aspect of idolatry has been given extensive treatment over the years, I will not spend time with it here. Suffice it to say that the Bible teaches there is an unseen spiritual dynamic at work behind idolatry,3 and although this is an important theme in the Bible, it is often neglected and misunderstood by many Christians.4 In this study, however, I want to concentrate especially on the psychological and sociological aspects of idolatry.
In Genesis 1:27-28, the Bible says God created man in His own image.5 By virtue of his creation in the image of God, man lives out his life in two directions: (1) upward toward God, as he trusts Him as his Sustainer and Creator, and (2) downward in dominion over the rest of creation. Trusting in God, man is to subdue and exercise dominion over the earth and its creatures. This is the way God made us, and deep down inside us all, this is the way we are. In other words, these upward and downward directions of our lives are part of our psychological nature. When we understand this truth, we will be in a much better position to recognize idolatry in all its various manifestations. But before we can proceed any further, it must be made clear that something happened that sorely affected man’s psychological nature.
Genesis, chapter 3, records the rebellion of Adam and Eve, along with the awful consequences of that rebellion. As a result, the world is no longer a safe place to live. Our plans to cash in on the good life are constantly being frustrated by disease, accident, theft, bankruptcy, rust, decay and, finally, death. Every graveyard stands as proof that instead of us subduing the earth, the earth now subdues us. The trust we place in this world is regularly betrayed as we pursue our illusions with extravagant expectations that are seldom, if ever, fulfilled. Finally, forced to live in an environment marred by sin, we are no longer strangers to anxiety and disappointment.
Sin did not eliminate the built-in psychological drive to worship God and exercise dominion over the rest of creation. It did, however, pervert it. Satan’s seduction of Eve, and subsequently Adam, was through the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes,” and “the pride of life.”6 Thinking “the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise,”7 Mother Eve believed the Tempter’s lie which said she could successfully be her own God, deciding good and evil.8 As a result, she erected in her own heart an idol to SELF. Adam, on the other hand, was not deceived. Instead, he chose to follow his wife’s lead,9 erecting in his heart an idol of his WIFE. In the fall of these two people who were the prototype of the entire human race, the centrality of God was replaced with egocentricity. In short, the world no longer began and ended with God; instead, it ended with themselves.
As we think about the nature of Eve’s rebellion, it helps us in our study of this subject. Her rebellion happened, at least in part, below the level of her own perception, in that she was, as the Bible says, “deceived.”10 This demonstrates that idolatry is not always as overt as some seem to think. It also alerts us to the deadly danger of self-deception that lurks in all forms of idolatry.
Because of his psychological nature, man is going to worship something, even if it is himself, as he tries to subdue or exercise control over creation. Therefore, when he engages in God-avoidance, rebelling against the Lord’s moral precepts, the Bible makes it clear that he will inevitably turn to idols.11 He will not just eliminate knowledge of the true God from his thinking, he erects substitute gods in His place. The Bible calls these substitutes “idols.” Noting this, G. K. Chesterton observed that when we “cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.” In other words, when we refuse to worship the true God, we are busy building the shrines and temples of the substitute gods.
Although the Christian rightly rejects the Calvinistic doctrine of inherited depravity, he must nevertheless recognize that our acquired, sin-sick natures predispose us to act independently from God (i.e., to be laws unto ourselves). Exercising our own autonomy, we do exactly what we want to do without considering His Word. And, if we had not been originally created to be in a personal relationship with God, we could have dismissed once and for all the whole religious dimension of life and lived happily ever after, eating, drinking and being merry.12 But made, as we are, in the image of God, and having an innate psychological need to worship and exercise faith in Him, we, when we manage to pervert ourselves with sin, try to deny our guilt feelings by eliminating in our minds the true concept of God, which in turn creates a vacuum in our hearts.
We then try to fill this vacuum with idols. As I’ve already mentioned, we do this by inflating things in nature and history to religious proportions. Therefore, an idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero—anything that can substitute for God. It can be riches, pleasure, fame, power, et cetera. An idol can be things that, in and of themselves, are good, like work, recreation, family, et cetera, but when used incorrectly, cause us to disobey God out of our loyalty to them. An idol can be something as seemingly harmless as wanting to be well-liked, a perfectly legitimate and natural desire, if wanting to be liked means we never risk disapproval or criticism. Even something as good as foreign evangelism can be an idol, if the one engaged in it is willing to circumvent Bible authority to get the job done, or if he should be so presumptuous as to make his work the litmus test for foreign evangelism.
Idolatry always involves one in self-centeredness, self-inflation and self-deception. It starts with the counterfeiting of God, for it is only with a counterfeit god that one can remain the center of his life and the autonomous architect of his own future. Then, when such rebellion is complete, some thing or person is idolatrously inflated to fill the God-shaped vacuum left in the heart. Of course, the idol, whatever it may be, is not the real thing. It is only a counterfeit—a lie that promises the blessings of the so-called “good life;” but in the end, produces a debased and reprobate mind that spawns even more sin and degradation.13
In his fallen and sin-sick condition, man no longer trusts God; but as Chesterton pointed out, this does not mean he no longer trusts in anything. In order to authenticate his life and feel secure about himself, fallen man still feels the need to trust in something, whether it be a thing, idea, institution, or another person. This trust, divorced as it is from a proper faith in God Almighty, is perverted into overdependence on a thing, an idea, an institution, or another person, even when these things continually betray his trust. Nevertheless, out of his desperate need for authentication and safety, he desperately clings to his idols. In conjunction with this, the God-given, and therefore legitimate, need to subdue and exercise dominion over the creation is perverted by fallen man into domination, something quite different from what God originally intended. To enjoy the “good-life,” sin-sick man thinks he must manipulate and dominate those around about him. This inevitably involves the controlling of certain key variables (often people) in his life and surroundings. All this (both overdependence and dominion) is engaged in to assuage the anxiety created by fallen man’s perverted psychological needs—needs that are, in turn, derived from the God-given needs to trust in God and exercise dominion over the rest of creation.
Idols Always Come In Pairs
Because this duality (viz., to trust in God and subdue creation) is so deeply imprinted in the human psyche, idols seem to always come in pairs. An idol, remember, is a counterfeit of the true God. It does not just substitute God’s existence, but it can also exist as a counterfeiting of His attributes and characteristics. With this understood, it should be realized that God’s transcendence can be made into one idol and His immanence into another. In the informative book, No God But God, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel, Richard Keyes wrote an excellent chapter entitled “The Idol Factory,” in which he calls these two counterfeits “the faraway idol” and “the nearby idol.”14 These designations are not so much spatial as they are psychological. The far-away idol, who is intangible and therefore always inaccessible, serves as an overarching idea that gives meaning to all of life. On the other hand, the nearby idol, who is much more accessible and tangible, allows the idolater to manipulate his world so he can get what he wants. This construct is classic to idolatry, and is not just the key to understanding idolatry, but is essential to understanding the occult, as well. We’ll explore this nearby idol first.
The Nearby Idol
When one has alienated himself from God, the nearby idol is a substitute for God’s immanence. Because he is no longer dependent upon the blessings of his Creator to help him exercise stewardship over his environment, the idolater seeks a sense of well-being through control. The nearby idol, whatever the idolater conceives it to be, permits him to exercise this control. It is, of course, a delusion.
This is illustrated in the rebellion of the Jews who fled into Egypt contrary to the Lord’s command.15 It had been their custom, even when they were back in Judah,16 “to burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her.”17 Of course, they were not doing this for nothing. In fact, they were deluded into thinking they were being blessed by their manipulation, through their sacrifices, of this counterfeit god.18 They were wrong, of course. It was actually God who had been blessing them due to His longsufferingness. Finally, though, they started to experience God’s punishment for their idolatry. However, it just so happened that this punishment coincided with the Jews ceasing to sacrifice to their false god. In turn, they mistakenly came to think they were no longer enjoying blessings because they had quit offering cakes to their idol, the queen of heaven. Grossly deluded, they believed their nearby idol allowed them to experience a certain leverage over the important forces that control life. Consequently, they were convinced that their fertility goddess was able to give them good crops, more livestock, and more male children. This nearby idol was all they needed to enjoy the good life, they mistakenly thought, but their devotion to this counterfeit god ultimately caused them to be consumed by the famine and sword of God’s wrath.19
Although idolatry can’t really deliver, polytheists/occultists believe that their rituals and sacrifices permit them to tap into, or connect with, invisible powers that will allow them to exercise control over the visible (or natural) world in which they live. To these devotees, the nearby idol, whatever it might be, is a means to some desired end, and to accomplish this end they are willing to genuflect to their substitutes gods and goddesses.
America’s Carpet God
The nearby idol for many Americans is Carpet. “And what,” you might ask, “is Carpet?” Carpet represents the comfortable home with its decorations, color combinations, furniture, appliances, and video/audio systems. Carpet is the “nice home” so many Americans think is essential if one is to experience the “good life.” A multitude of Americans have bowed to Carpet. In doing so, they have demonstrated that they will sacrifice anything they have for the comfort Carpet promises. For example, think of the millions of “latchkey” children who come home to empty houses every school day who must fend for themselves because mommy and daddy are too busy sacrificing to Carpet. These children are, in reality, a blessing from the true God who has, in turn, obligated the parents with certain responsibilities. Consumed with Carpet, multitudes of American parents ignore their God-given obligations to their children, but who cares? Unfortunately, not even some who call themselves Christians. Yes, they shudder at the thought of ancient Israelites sacrificing their children to Molech,20 but then they turn right around and leave their children in the hands of perfect strangers or, worse yet, they cause them to fend for themselves while they both go off to work so they can obediently worship at Carpet’s totem. It is most unfortunate that while the divinely ordained family structure is being offered up on Carpet’s altar, many Christians just don’t seem to care. Worse yet, some Christians are themselves worshipping in the shrine of this cruel and ogreish god. Like all idols, Carpet promises much, but is unable to deliver on anything of real value. The messages of the idols are all lies, and Carpet’s message is no different. It promises safety and comfort from the troubles of life, but when trials and tribulations finally come, and they will, the Carpet god is completely powerless. Carpet cannot comfort us when we lose a loved one; it cannot be our friend when we are alone; it cannot help us when we are dying. Nevertheless, many believe Carpet’s lies and, in turn, sacrifice everything, even their children, to worship at its altar. The Bible, which pulls no punches, says that covetousness, which is personified in Carpet, is idolatry.21
When we consider the nearby idols to which men bow, it is not hard to see the devastating effect they are having on our society. However, it is now time to turn our attention to the faraway idol.
The Faraway Idol
The faraway idol, which is a substitute for God’s transcendence, is usually not very well defined. It is fashioned to give some overarching and ultimate meaning to life. Man, of course, was originally created to trust in God, but in his fallen condition, he creates a force or idea (an idol, if you will) that rules the universe in God’s stead. When we listen, we can hear people saying that they believe there must be something, or someone, ultimately responsible for the way things are. Ask them what this is, and they are unable to describe him, her or it with any specificity. This, then, is the faraway idol.
Some say their god, because he is a loving god, could not send people to hell for an eternity. Again, this is a faraway idol, a construct that takes the place of the Sovereign of the universe who has said that He will, in fact, consign the disobedient to hell if they reject His gracious offer to save them through the blood of Jesus Christ. The true God is, of course, a God of love, as 1 John 4:8 makes clear, but the creator of this false god has made Love his faraway idol—the standard by which everything is to be judged.
A point of clarification needs to be made here. For the purpose of this study, I will continue to talk about the faraway idol, even though the faraway idol is not normally thought of by its adherents as an idol. This is because we normally think of an idol as something tangible, and the faraway idol is neither tangible nor visible. The following excerpt from the Roman author Cicero is an example of this kind of thinking:When we behold the heavens, when we contemplate the celestial bodies, can we fail of conviction? Must we not acknowledge that there is a Divinity, a perfect being, a ruling intelligence, which governs, a God who is everywhere and directs all by his power? Anybody who doubts that may as well deny there is a sun that lights.... For this reason, with us as well as with other nations, the worship of the gods and holy exercises of religion increase in purity and extent every day.22
As we can see, the polytheism of Cicero’s day embraced the faraway idol, which was a single transcendent “ruling intelligence,” as well as the many nearby idols (“gods”), who were associated in the minds of their adherents with the different functions in the tangible, visible world. This clearly reflects the two levels of religious allegiances I’ve been discussing—the nearby idol, which is more accessible and which is directed toward power and control, and the faraway idol, which is far more inaccessible, but which provides meaning or legitimacy. Both of these (the faraway idol and the nearby idol) are representative of a universal trait that runs through all idolatry. And as idolatry is but the attempt to counterfeit the true God, it ought not to surprise us to hear Him asking His people in Jeremiah 23:23, “Am I a God near at hand...and not a God afar off?”
We can observe this faraway/nearby paradigm in the Canaanite pantheon. According to these people, “El the Benign,” the Creator/Father/King, was the chief deity. As such, his mildly benevolent persona served, in the background, as the overarching presence in their religion. But even so, he was not thought to be nearly as effective in delivering concrete help as Baal, who was described in cult texts as one of the sons of Dagon, the national god of the Philistines. Baal became the Canaanites’ fertility god, representing the powers of rain, fullness of life, and fertility. By the use of magic, incantations, rituals and priestcraft, they believed they could exercise control over the forces of nature. Their worship of this nearby god was orgiastic and sensual, according to 1 Kings 14:22-24. Obviously, then, it was a religion enthusiastically pursued by its adherents. The Bible called the things these idolaters practiced “abominations,” and those who practiced them “perverted persons.” But it was not just that Baal worshhip authorized sexual license, although this was a powerful incentive, there was a much higher logic to it than this. The fertility gods and goddesses were thought to be voyeuristic. Consequently, it was believed that it was only through the sexual activity of humans that the fertility gods and goddesses were stimulated to lust after and pursue one another. Seduced by the human sexual activity they observed to engage in sexual intercourse themselves, they produced, it was believed, fertility on earth.
Paul’s Mar’s Hill Address
In his famous Mar’s Hill address, delivered in the great city and seat of learning that was Athens, the apostle Paul systematically refuted the nearby and faraway idols with four alternating strokes, replacing them each time with the truth of God’s transcendence and immanence. The points he makes, which are found in Acts 17, may be summarized as follows:
- First, he teaches that the one true God is not a faraway idol that is unknowable (verse 23).
- Then, he refutes their nearby idols by pointing out that God does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor does He need man’s help in anything (verses 24-25).
- Next, he assaults the faraway idol by teaching the truth that God, although transcendent, is not far from any of us, for it is “In Him we live and move and have our being” (verses 27-28).
- Finally, he negates the nearby idol again by arguing that if we are truly God’s offspring, then it makes absolutely no sense to think He can somehow derive His being from us. In other words, the one true God is not made of gold, silver or stone, and fashioned by human design (verse 29).
It seems clear that Paul directed his criticisms of the Athenians to the classic dual-nature of their idolatry. They had counterfeited the true God’s transcendence with their faraway idol, “THE UNKNOWN GOD,” and His immanence with the many nearby idols in their pantheon. With each criticism of their idolatry, Paul did not hesitate to make positive affirmations about the one true God. According to him, and this is consistent with everything else written in the Bible, the true God, although He is transcendent, is also very knowable (verse 23), in that He has revealed Himself to us in the holy Scriptures. Once he’s made this point, he then proceeds to tell the Athenians about this one true God who is knowable. As the Creator, He is Lord of heaven and earth (verse 24). Consequently, He gives life to all people (verse 25). He made “From one blood” all nations that live on the earth, and He wants them to seek after, and find, Him (verses 26-27). Finally, He is, as the Creator, our source, in that we derive our existence from Him, not the other way around (verse 29).
As Paul argues, the one true God is, and all at the same time, both transcendent and immanent—i.e., He is both “far off” and “at hand.”23 In doing so, he conveys the ultimate moral challenge of this one true God, namely, “God...now commands all men everywhere to repent” (verse 30). And why is this? Because He has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained (verse 31). And who is this man? He is Jesus of Nazareth, in whom dwells “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”24 In fact, it is the incarnation of Jesus Christ that serves as the final blow to the dual-idolatry pattern that has plagued man down through the ages. The divine Logos, who was Himself the transcendent God of creation, according to John 1:1, became a man, as reported in John 1:14, the epitome of immanence, and did it all without ceasing to be God. In other words, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.”25 The God of the Bible, the only true and living God, is a God who is “at hand,” as well as “afar off.”26
Unfortunately, and even though they ought to know better, some New Testament Christians fall victim to idolatry’s dual pattern as they try to formulate their various Christologies. This is demonstrated in the classic heresies of Arianism, which denies the Lord’s divine nature, and Docetism, which denies His human nature. By failing to appreciate the full meaning of the Immanuel (or “God with us”) of Isaiah 7:14, both of these isms fall far short of the truth revealed in the Bible. Yes, and there must be no mistake about it, Jesus was a man, and His need for resurrection is proof of this. But, He was not just a man, as some among us are claiming, and His resurrection is proof of this, as well. If He were not a man, He could not have died and then been in need of resurrection. On the other hand, if He had not been “God manifested in the flesh,” as He claimed to be in 1 Timothy 3:16, then the “one God and Father of all”27 would certainly have not validated Jesus’ claim by resurrecting Him from the dead.28 Thus, any effort to separate the Lord’s transcendence and immanence (i.e., His deity and humanity) will lead one down the path to self-sufficiency and idolatry.
The Jesus who is “a man, just a man, just an ordinary man like you and me” is an idol constructed by those among us who believe it may still be possible for a mere man to live perfectly and, therefore, earn his salvation. But such self-sufficiency is impossible, not because man does not have the capacity not to sin (viz., free will), he does; it’s impossible because man wrongly exercises his free will. It is just here that some become confused, so please pay close attention as I say this once more. Man is a free will creature and, because he is, he does not have to sin. We are not made, contrary to Calvinistic doctrine, morally flawed or depraved. However, the rebellious story of mankind is that although we do not have to sin, we do—we always have and we always will.
The only man who ever lived perfectly here in this life was Jesus. Even so, He suffered and died. Why? Because, in His suffering and death, the Lord paid the penalty for the sins of all mankind. In doing so, He made it possible for all who had sinned, and this includes all of us, to be reconciled to God through obedience to Him. All of us—every last one of us—have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.29 So, when Jesus “died for all,” it was because “all died.”30 This means that all human beings who reach the age of accountability will sin. It also means that even after being saved from our past sins by obedience to the gospel, Christians did not live perfectly without sin.31 Consequently, the perfectionists among us who believe it is actually—as opposed to theoretically—possible for one to live without sinning, and have created a mere-man Jesus to prove it, teach a self-sufficiency that is anti-biblical, and worship an idol that is both anti-God and “antichrist.”32 It is my sincere prayer that these false teachers will come to their senses in a pigsty moment,33 repent, and adhere to John’s warning to keep themselves from idols.34
As we can see, idolatry is still an ever present problem for New Testament Christians. We must not allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking that idolatry is a sin reserved just for pagans—it’s not. Today, as in times past, the dark and dynamic forces behind idolatry35 have arrayed themselves against us.36 Drunk with the wine of modernity, many who make up the Lord’s church in the 21st century believe the war is over and that it has actually been over for almost two thousand years now. This sort of thinking, as I hope to point out in the next section, has had devastating consequences for churches of Christ.
Next month I’ll be talking to you about The Sham Gods Of “Orthotalksy.”
Allan Turner is a preacher, writer, editor who lives in Corinth, MS. He has his own web site located at http://allanturner.com and is the editor of this on-line magazine. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.