What is idolatry? Basically, it means ascribing divinity and granting worship to something created: either created by God or fashioned by man. It is usually an attempt on the part of human beings to relate to the infinite, invisible God by identifying him with something finite and visible. Often this involves some kind of statue, image, or picture representing a being thought to be divine.
In the broadest sense, the term “idolatry” can be divided into at least eleven categories: (1) Worship of inanimate objects like stones, mountains, or rivers; (2) Worship of animate things such as animals, trees, or plants; (3) Worship of heavenly bodies like the sun, moon, or stars; (4) Worship of the forces of nature like wind, rain, or fire; (5) Worship of deceased ancestors; (6) Worship of humanly-authored, mythological deities by means of pictures, statues, or images; (7) Worship of angels, demons, or spirit- beings of any kind; (8) Worship of a process of life, specifically sexual reproduction; (9) Worship of any ordinary human being who claims to be divine; (10) Worship of an ideal or some philosophical view instead of the Creator; (11) Allowing anything other than God to become the highest priority of life, demanding one’s full devotion and attention.
Several of the main living religions prohibit idolatry altogether—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hinduism encourages and cultivates this custom. Three primary Far Eastern religions—Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism—began as reform movements teaching against the idolatry so prevalent in the predominantly Hindu culture of the day (though Jainism and certain Buddhist sects now promote the use of idols).
The Hindu people are probably some of the most intensely religious people in the world. (I have grown to respect and love them deeply for this.) In India and other areas with a large Hindu populace, idolatry abounds. Many shrines, both large and small, contain pictures and images adoringly viewed by a daily stream of worshippers. Often the gods portrayed in pictures or statuary are shown to have multiple human parts (four heads, six hands, etc.) or they bear an animal-like resemblance. Consider the popular Hindu god, Hanuman, who has the appearance of a monkey, or Ganesha, who has the head of an elephant, but the body of a human. At Hindu temples and private altars in homes, idol-gods are sometimes bathed, dressed, adorned with jewelry and flowers, ‘fed,’ and even tucked into bed at night.
Though many educated Hindus do not participate in these traditions, they usually react with kindness and tolerance. According to the Far Eastern worldview, every expression of worship, no matter how primitive, is a steppingstone toward Ultimate Reality. The Hindu mystic Ramakrishna explained this perspective with the following analogy: “We see little girls with their dolls, but how long do they play with them? Only so long as they are not married…Similarly, one needs images and symbols so long as God is not realized in his true form. It is God himself who has provided these various forms of worship…to suit…different stages of spiritual growth and knowledge.”1 Even though teachers of Far Eastern doctrine considered more mature admit idolatry is an inferior approach based on myths and false assumptions, yet they infer that it is an elementary step in the right direction. The stories of the activities of the Hindu gods may be fictitious, but on the level of the common people, they illustrate valuable spiritual truths.
Again, I must admit that I admire the spiritual passion that dominates the Hindu culture. Their evident hunger for spiritual realities has warmed my heart every time I have visited the land of India. In some ways it exceeds that which I have witnessed in a predominantly materialistic, and often hedonistic Western world. Yet, as I have said before, sincerity is not always an indication of veracity. Should idols be used in worship? Let me answer that question with a series of questions especially directed toward those religious leaders who promote the practice of idolatry, though they recognize its falseness:
Is it not unethical to promote something that is spiritually false as if it were absolutely true and valid? Does this not constitute a spiritual kind of coercion, a manipulation of the simpleminded multitudes who unquestionably believe? Moreover, how can false methods in seeking God, and false interpretations of the nature of God, ever lead to a true understanding of his attributes?
Directly opposite to any tolerant view is the strong and unmistakable mandate spoken by the personal God of the Israelites from the top of Mount Sinai. The thunderclap of his voice declared, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (Exodus 20:3–4 NIV) Such a blunt, divine edict leaves no room for discussion. God was very plain in instructing his people never to participate in this method of worship. He never said, “It may be wrong, but it is a step in the right direction, so I will allow it for a season.”
Isaiah, God’s prophet to the Jews, urged his listeners to be awakened to the falsehood of this practice. He revealed, “they have no knowledge, who carry the wood of their carved image, and pray to a god that cannot save.” (Isaiah 45:20) A god who cannot hear, see or walk cannot intervene in the lives of ‘his’ or ‘her’ devotees.
Of course, most advocates of this practice would argue that the inanimate idol is only a crude representation of an existent spiritual entity, a literal god. The idol, though lifeless, is actually inhabited by the spirit of a god who is alive and who can hear, see and walk. Just suppose, though— if a particular god is the product of human imagination and doesn’t actually exist—and if there is a spirit inhabiting a wood, stone or metal image of that god—what kind of spirit is it? The New Testament writer, Paul, explained that these spirit-beings are actually demons impersonating those ‘gods’ being sought. This was one of the main reasons he commanded Christians to “flee from idolatry.” (1 Corinthians 10:14, 20)
Such prohibition of idolatry makes many customs and traditions in Far Eastern religious groups unacceptable to a Christian who embraces the biblical worldview. A good example is the initiation ceremony for those making a commitment to practice TM (Transcendental Meditation—the organization founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). The opening ceremony of worship, called a puja, involves a Hindu hymn being sung before a picture of Maharishi’s mentor, Guru Dev. The favor and presence of the Hindu gods are invoked and various offerings, including fruits and flowers, are presented to Guru Dev, celebrating his revered status in the spiritual lineage of this movement. The final prayer begins with a statement of faith concerning this world-famous promoter of TM:
Advocates of Transcendental Meditation do not consider Guru Dev an Avatar. In Far Eastern religions, though, each person is said to possess a divine essence, so such worshipful actions toward a human being would not be considered wrong. This is not acceptable for a Christian, especially considering the invocation of those Hindu gods who according to the Bible are false gods and do not exist. (See Acts 14:1–18.)
1 The World’s Great Religions (New York: Time Incorporated, 1957) p. 16.
Copyright © 2003 Mike Shreve