John Calvin described the human mind as a perpetual “idol factory” busily creating things and ideas to capture first place in our affections. There are religious idols and materialistic idols and our world is over-populated with both. We live in cities of idols just as given to idolatry as were ancient Athens or Rome or Babylon. Idolatry isn’t an antique sin from yesteryear or confined to the pagan worshippers of Vishnu in India, it is a challenge for each of us today.
In the great city of Athens, what did the evangelist Paul observe that got him so emotionally worked up?
“Now while Paul waited for them [his assistants Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17:16).
A city full of idols wholly given to idolatry! The sights bothered him. That humans would be ignorant of the One True God, the Father of all, and be caught up in superstitions and foolish ideas was disgusting and disappointing to Paul. Humans made in God’s image behaving like ignorant animals. He saw the contrast of the high glory of Hellenistic architecture and education against the cheap and degrading religious beliefs that prevailed. Contrasts I think we can observe in our lands today.
Athens was no backwater pagan pigpen of witchcraft like you might find hidden among some spooky warrens in Haiti. Athens was the world center for creative thought, philosophy and open debate on the deep issues of the day and the meaning of life itself. Athens was the vanguard of the scientific world of the first century. This was the place of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. How can it be characterized as full of idols? What were Paul’s eyes seeing that got his spirit so on fire that he immediately began to engage in debate with the Athenian intelligentsia.
Paul noted that as he walked about he found the city full of monuments and devotions of all sorts. On his way up Mars Hill, the Areopagus, to address the luminaries of intellectual light he would have seen myriads of temples most notably those of Athena and Poseidon being worshipped among the gods of the Pantheon, Mars, the theater of Dionysus, and he would have seen the unfinished construction of the great Temple of Olympian Zeus.
But Paul understood their idolatry was more than just marble temples, it was of their mind. It wasn’t just idols per se, it included the philosophical idols their minds created. They had fashioned their own religion and declared who their gods were and trusted their philosophy as the source of truth.
Into this rarified setting comes Paul boldly warning these wise minds that they are practicing worthless worship of gods conjured from their own minds. He said further they were ignorant of the most important truth: There is one God who created the world and everything therein and he doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands (vs 24). Paul’s words caused a big stir and some paid heed but most did not, ridiculing Paul as a silly “babbler.”
What would be Paul’s take if he took a similar journey into one of our enlightened cities? Well, you say he would find lots of Christian churches and yes, that is a good thing. But remember Athens had a synagogue which Paul attended and there were “God-fearing Greeks in the city (vs17), yet he still judged that “the city was full of idols.”
What Is An Idol?
A physical idol is a representation of a deity, usually used as an object of worship. It was not regarded as the god itself, but as representing a particular god and if it was a proper, “official” idol then it possessed some essence or spirit of the god within it. Yet idols and idolatry went beyond just molded images of stone, clay, wood, or silver to include the motives of the idol users and the purposes for which they were made.
It is understood in the New Testament that idolatry is putting anything in the place that God alone should occupy as the proper focus of obedience and worship (see Col 3:5). It is placing things, pleasures, addictions and the like as life’s all-consuming desire. This NT expansion broadens out both the sins of idolatry and the reasons why it persists today as a major tool of the Adversary and temptation to Believers. More on this later.
The Biggest Idol on Earth—Belief in Undirected, Random Evolution
While we in the USA have a national motto “In God We Trust” and acknowledge the biblical God in our founding documents and on the walls of our great buildings of government, what is the dominant world view of the origin of everything? The Athenian elite set the table with what was permissible to believe. Today’s intellectual elite also set the table for permissible, credible belief. They are largely the scientific community, the educators and philosophers, the majority of whom are humanists, secular materialists, agnostics, and atheists.
But they are believers! Yes, believers in evolution as the source of everything in the entire cosmos including human life and mind. It is the prime article of faith taken to be fact. God is not to be worshipped as Creator, Designer, Sustainer, of the cosmos for by their theory he doesn’t exist. He doesn’t need to exist for our religion has a god sufficient to do it all, random evolution.
One must distinguish between true science (to know) which deals in the real world of laws, physics, chemistry, genetics, etc., and evolutionary science which is a belief system to explain origins without consideration of God or the supernatural. Evolution is the new god of the elite who propose to teach the rest of us. They are the ones entitled to meet on Mars Hill to weave a belief system that somehow undirected random events produced a highly sophisticated and seemingly intelligently designed universe including the unsearchable mystery of life on earth.
To make that tall tale go down takes more faith than you’ll find in any Christian church. Christian faith is based upon evidence. Faith that there will be a resurrection to eternal life is based on the historical fact there was one—Jesus’—which was a point Paul presented to the philosophers on Mars Hill. Evolution has no such evidence, just belief and the coercive force of the elite and their control of much of the scientific and educational establishment.
Does the god of random evolution also have a temple system? Why yes, and a vast one. In America there are thousands upon thousands of attractive buildings on colleges and universities where evolution is taught. That’s fine, teach it. But contrary teaching challenging random evolution’s origin thesis is not allowed in these “temples to evolution.” Will Intelligent Design be allowed to be taught side by side with evolution and then let the students decide which is the more “scientific” and logical theory? No! Not over their dead bodies. Why not? Isn’t the university the place for diversity of ideas and opinions, the place to learn of and test competing theories? Apparently not. Evolutionary science is the only product on the shelves. Only one theory allowed and it is taken for proven fact.
Intelligent Design (ID) is a scientific theory with much more evidence supporting its theory than random, undirected evolution. The problem: ID allows for the possibility of an intelligent designer, for the possibility of a supernatural power to explain the origin of such a complex creation at every area it can be viewed. In the temples dedicated to the god of random evolution there is no room for other gods—including Yahweh, the Creator in the Book of Genesis account.
The problem of a “closed shop” on the most important topic of the origin of life and the origin of the cosmos is one of protecting ignorance by not allowing it to be challenged. This sad dumbing down process starts in the educational pre-school and runs all the way through the university system. Science, distinguished from evolutionary theory, is a wonderful thing and is the product of the intelligent mind of sentient men and women.
But science is not a god yet it seems many today see it as the pagans saw their idols. They expected the gods of nature to protect them, bless their crops, and bring fortune to their lives if proper allegiance is given. Science is everywhere heralded as the “savior” of man, such as that may be, but has proven itself unable to bring man happiness, peace on earth, and a utopian world. It is impotent to improve the character of human beings, it simply improves the vehicles they travel in.
Sad facts sour the happy scientific “savior” idea. The past one hundred years witnessed science reaching its highest achievements in human history and also the bloodiest period of human history with approximately 150-200 million killed in wars all over the globe—some of them originating in Germany, the most “scientific” nation in Europe. Science didn’t cause the wars, but had no positive effect upon the moral character of those who did.
Clearly, science is not the answer to what ails mankind. But a scientific community that bends the knee before the false god evolution is undermining the concept of right and wrong—of sin. Science by embracing evolution is teaching there is no God which in effect is saying we are our own god and can do what we want without an opinion from the God of Scripture. If there is no God, then everything is permitted. Is this the golden age of the scientific man? God have mercy!
Above our centers of learning sits the illogical theory that random, undirected chance events produce the highest order of organization and intelligence. Like a big fat Buddha, evolution squats atop science, suppressing the obvious truth of a Creator under its rolls of worthless fat, yet demanding proper allegiance from all who teach the origins of the universe and life. Evolution is the biggest and most dangerous idol ever to slither out of the pit of Hell.
Paul warned that when the Creator is rejected in favor of foolish theories or images or created things a process of degradation sets in, a moral cancer that leads to depraved minds and depraved actions (see Romans 1:18-32). A day is coming when the smart fools and the dumb fools will be judged for their actions; judged, Paul told the elite in Athens, “by the man he [God] has appointed.” He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead”(Acts 17:31).
About the Second Commandment
The first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” merges with the second commandment “You shall not make for yourself an idol…” (Exo 20:3-4). Whether the commands acknowledge the existence of other gods is not in view in these commands. They simply state that Yahweh is absolute in power and does not share his sovereignty with any gods that people invent. There is no God beside him: “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God” (Isa 44:6). Yahweh’s authority is absolute. There is no way to represent His Majesty, clothed in glory and sun-like brightness, by images of any sort.
The second command is against making idols for worship but does not really prohibit artwork of other “heavenly” things. Consider the artwork of the tabernacle and also Solomon’s temple which was replete with representations of the creation with images of bulls, cherubim, lion, palm trees, and pomegranates (I Kings 7:18, 25, 36).
Idols are disparaged by the prophets as dumb pieces of worthless wood. Yet, Deut. 32:17-21 identifies idol worship as bowing down to demons. “They sacrificed to demons, which are not God [lo-lohim, ‘no-God’].” There exist malevolent angelic powers (demons) which invite god-worship for themselves, but these are not to be compared to the Creator who at one time made them. These vanquished “powers” face annihilation by their Creator at the time of Judgment—they will all die (Ps 82:6-7).
Paul said that “an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ…” (1 Cor 8:4-6).
The subjective reality that the second commandment addresses is the perpetual idol factory that is the human heart. The commandment assumes the depravity of the human race to create and worship their own gods. It reflects the reality of the human condition and is not a theological statement about the existence of other gods. Many other passages plainly teach the core truth of monotheism.
Speaking of an idol factory, did you know that Abraham was in the family business of idol making? We get the back story of Abram’s early life from Jewish tradition conveyed in the commentaries based on the so-called Oral Torah. The Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash, by ancient and medieval commentators give much detail about Abraham not included in Genesis. How much is true is impossible to know, but there is real value in this extra testimony carefully preserved and passed down from generation to generation.
This bit is included in Scripture: Joshua said to all the people,
“This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.” (Josh 24:2).
This account later was included in the story-creed of Israel. Abram grew up in a polytheistic family and later, amazingly, became the world’s first apostle of monotheism. Is there anything God can’t make out of us if we but do what he says?
Abram worshiped other gods and his father was an educated well-known merchant in Mesopotamian society. Terach sold clay figures of human and fantastic animal shapes, lime-washed and colored. David Klinghoffer writes in his fine book (The Discovery of God, Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism) that these idols had value and were sold to be treasured and used.
“They were set in the doorway or buried under the threshold of one’s home, where they protected the inhabitants from the malign influence of demons and other harmful spirits. They were worshipped in private family chapels and set alongside the family’s bodies in the grave” (p 11).
Terach had a license or franchise to make these idols, much like official licensed NFL or NBA gear is protected. People purchasing them could be assured it was the real thing. During the manufacturing process a ceremony of inviting the spirit of the particular god, unique to that idol, into the thing made it a functioning idol.
One of the stories of how Abram broke out of idol worship has him working in his father’s shop and some of the clay idols accidently fall to the floor and break. This contributes to his reasoning that these things cannot have any power and he begins to doubt. About that time the true God calls him to leave his family and begin a journey with the One and Only God and head toward the land of Canaan.
His father, who held a position in the court of Nimrod, was embarrassed and upset. A bounty would be put on the head of the errant son of Terach. The rest of the story we read in Genesis of how Abram fled and how God tutored him to become the father of the faithful, spiritually, and the father of Israel, the nation. From an idol-making polytheist to a man of towering faith serving the invisible God of creation, what a story!
Century Twenty-One Idols
I mentioned earlier that the NT broadens the sin of idolatry to include a lot of things people don’t recognize as being idols. It is time we do. To the Colossians comes this forthright demand:
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature; sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5).
Greed = idolatry? The Greek word for “greed” (pleonexian) is a compound from a root suggesting a desire to have more. This is not a casual desire, but a driving passion for more, a ruthless desire and seeking after material things. In its rapacity it disregards the rights of others in pursuit of pleasure, of owning, of feeding pride with the juicy fruits of goods. The attitude is identified with idolatry because it puts self-interest and things in the place of God.
We accumulate and have and then we end up serving and protecting our things at great effort and expense. We become emotionally invested in homes, stocks, cars, properties, businesses, toys of all sorts, luxuries, etc. Things can own us. We can become their slaves. This can be sin on a small budget or on a large. One does not have to be a millionaire to be greedy, not that all millionaires are such. I’ve seen good old poor boys who put their piece of crap pickup truck and hunting cabin as number one in their lives.
Whatever captures prime affection in your heart can become an idol for it leaves no room for God to be the Lord of your life. The thing, passion, or pursuit sucks up all attention, resources, time, and energy.
The Ephesians got the same message from Paul:
“For of this you can be sure; No immoral, impure, or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (5:5).
How much stronger can it be stated. Idolatry is real and it will keep one out of God’s kingdom. Becoming too attached to things, pleasures, ambitions, escapes, freedoms to do what you want regardless, can be idolatry. Let a man honestly examine himself.
For many abortion, the freedom to kill the helpless innocent unborn, is like a religion. It is an idol. A greedy putting first of personal convenience regardless of the evil it causes. For others homosexuality is an idol, the biggest thing in life, the source of identity, and it too is has become a doctrine of secular religion.
Millions are addicted to various things, pot, hard drugs, prescription drugs, pornography, booze, gambling, the stock market, crime, politics, etc. In many cases these addicted souls are captured and not able to function normally. There are million stories of how a craving, a lust, a quest for power and wealth got out of hand and led to a truly sad state. When you put something other than God as first in your life you are due for disappointment or worse.
We have about us a neo-pagan twenty-first century world where we praise the right to choose to kill babies and bow before the demands of deviants who pervert the Creator’s order for marriage and family. Let’s not throw rocks at those stupid pagans of yesteryear as our own sins pile higher.
The name fits more than just a silly talent show. People are so craving of their things they will wait in line for days for the newest, latest and greatest electronic gadget. They will trample people under foot in malls to get to the buying counter first. People get shot dead fighting over a pair of designer this or that or a simple pair of trendy tennis shoes.
Where does God rank in the affections of people compared to their allegiances to their sport team, politics, music, hobbies, entertainments, boats, cars, guns, homes, etc. The appetite for goods and for more of them is increasing, not decreasing. It seems all would somehow make us happy and make life good. But the opposite is often the truth.
The counsel of God is that contentment and Godliness produce both peace and happiness. The journey God-ward should dominate our passions. Seeking the Kingdom of God first, as Jesus advised, is the secret to eliminating all idols.
Keeping God and his way as priority number one allows no room for idols to lead us off the path. Yet it also leaves us abundant space to enjoy the beautiful world God has given us including the wonderful things available to enjoy.
When it is all evaluated the only thing that survives this world is your God-like character. Bricks and boards gone, cars gone, jobs gone, jewelry gone, adulation from others gone—everything gone.
Abram saw the little idols break in pieces on the floor, worthless things. Later God took him outside his tent at night and showed him the starry array. He realized this was his future and God would bring it about. Paul shocked the Athenian thinkers by saying he was revealing the one God about whom they were ignorant yet was also the only God there is
Jesus had no idols. He worshipped God will all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He asks us to follow him as he follows his heavenly Father. To the disciples he said, “If any of you does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Jesus wasn’t taking up an offering or asking them to end up on the street, but he was asking them to be willing to put every material thing and passion in life second to being his disciple. That leaves no room for idols. Idolatry then is not a problem.