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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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).
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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
    6. 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? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.


Check out more from Reasons to Believe

    1. Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 275.


About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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