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What’s wrong with worshiping idols?

What is idolatry? Basically, it involves ascribing divinity and/or granting worship to something created instead of the Creator Himself. There are two types of created things that idolaters worship: (1) things created by God or, (2) things created by human beings. It is often an attempt to relate to the infinite, invisible, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and perfect God by identifying him with something finite, visible, incapable of knowledge, devoid of power, confined to one place and imperfect. Often, this involves a statue, image, or picture representing a being thought to be divine. This is such a terrible misrepresentation of who God is.

Eleven Categories

Idolatry can be divided into 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, stars, or the earth itself; (4) Worship of the forces of nature like wind, rain, or fire; (5) Worship of deceased ancestors; (6) Worship of imaginary, 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. Even covetousness—lusting for material possessions that belong to others—is described as idolatry in Colossians 3:5. 

Many ancient religions, like those associated with the Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman cultures and empires, boasted a pantheon of deities that were often represented by idolatrous images. Hinduism is the largest living religion promoting this practice. With a pantheon of 330 million gods and goddesses, there can be just as many deity forms to represent them.

Of the eleven, main, living religions, three prohibit idolatry altogether—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Three more—Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism—began as reform movements that originally taught against the idolatry so all-pervasive in Hinduism. Ironically, though, Jainism and certain Buddhist sects have devolved into worldviews that once again accept this practice. Also, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as a few other Christian groups, allow the use of images and icons representing the Lord Jesus Christ, Mary, and various saints who are reverenced. At times, votive candles are placed before these statues and pictures to honor the ones represented and to seek their help and intercession. This are non-biblical practices that misrepresent true Christianity and are a transgression of the commandments of God in this area. 

A large gathering worshiping the popular Hindu deity Ganesh

In India and other areas with a large Hindu populace, idolatry abounds. Many shrines, both large and small, contain pictures, images, and deity forms adoringly viewed by a daily stream of worshippers. Often those ‘gods’ portrayed 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 Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant, but the body of a human.

On one of my trips to India, I saw hundreds of deeply sincere devotees of Ganesh walking down dark country roads all night long to attend a special festival to Ganesh taking place about 100 miles away. They were walking because attendees were not allowed to use any other means of travel to get there. Not only that . . . they had to walk to the festival barefoot. Since the roads were extremely hot during the day (it would have burned their feet), they had to walk all night long and sleep during the day. Many of those who were poor slept in the woods, under the bushes, or on the sides of the street. My heart broke for them. I wept. I was awestruck that they displayed such loving commitment, such sacrificial devotion, to a god that does not even exist. (If you are unfamiliar, research the myth of how he was given an elephant head and you will agree with me—it’s just another mythological drama). At the festival, they would feel quite privileged and blessed if they were able to view the lifeless idol paraded through the streets. Oh, if they only knew how to enter a relationship with the true God who is alive forevermore!

At Hindu temples and private altars in homes, idol-gods at times are bathed, dressed, adorned with jewelry and flowers, ‘fed,’ and even tucked into bed at night. Most of those participating in these rituals have probably never questioned the myths associated with these deities. The stories are just handed down from one generation to the next and blindly accepted. I was guilty of the same kind of naïve acceptance during the time I studied under an Indian guru (1969-1970). Then I received the revelation of the true nature of God. I praise Him every day for His grace. 

Hindus Who Don’t Believe Still Often Tolerate

Some Hindus do not embrace these traditions, but they often show tolerance for fellow Hindus who do. According to the Far Eastern worldview, every expression of worship, no matter how primitive, is considered 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 more mature teachers of Far Eastern doctrine insist idolatry is an inferior approach based on myths and false assumptions, yet they often claim = 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. However, this view begs the following questions:

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?

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 often say, sincerity is not always an indication of veracity. 

The Biblical View of Idolatry

Directly opposite to any tolerant view is the strong and unmistakable mandate spoken by the God of the Bible from the top of Mount Sinai (Yahweh). 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, and it helps simple people, so I will allow it at times for them.”

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 does not 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 demons. Their purpose is to impersonate those ‘gods’ being worshiped and mislead the religious devoted to them, thus hindering them from obtaining a relationship with the true God. For these and other reasons, Paul commanded Christians to “flee from idolatry.” (1 Corinthians 10:14, 20) 

This admonition should be heeded by Roman Catholics as well who give undue reverence to Mary and various saints, praying often before their iconic images, petitioning them to intervene in their behalf. Don’t light a votive candle before a lifeless statue; come before God with on-fire devotion and praise. 

Breaking the Curse  

In Deuteronomy 5:6-10 Moses expanded on the original Ten Commandments, pronouncing a curse that would pass down from one generation to the next of those who worship idols:

“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. 

Of course, at any given time a person can repent of idolatry and this curse can be broken and dissolved, not only for that repentant person, but for future generations. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham’s father was an idolater; worse than that, he was an idol maker. But when Abraham entered a covenant with the true God, the curse that should have passed to his children was removed, and a line of blessing was installed instead (see Genesis 12:1-3). So, if someone has been involved in the worship of false idols, I urge him or her to repent and declare“The curse ends with me”because it does.

You may think that guiltiness in this area is primarily to be found in those who blatantly promote a polytheistic worldview, but it is often discovered in more subtle forms. Many years ago, I sent a copy of my book, In Search of the True Light, to every yoga teacher in Los Angeles County, as well as some in several neighboring counties. Among those who responded was one yoga teacher who had a studio in that area. She invited me to visit there and share the Gospel in greater depth. When I walked in her studio, I noticed she had a picture of Jesus on the wall alongside pictures of several famous gurus including Yogananda—offering equal, worshipful respect to all of them. I immediately shared with her my sentiments, bluntly explaining, “You are breaking the first two commandments by placing these mere men who claimed to be gurus on the same level as Jesus, who as the only begotten Son of God. However, they all died and are still in the grave. On the contrary, Jesus rose again and lives forevermore. To treat them as equals is idolatrous and blasphemous.” She immediately realized her error, humbled herself before God in repentance, and soon after that, shut down her yoga studio. The curse was broken.

A Powerful New Testament Scripture

There is no stronger statement concerning idolatry in the New Testament than Romans 1:20-23:

For since the creation of the world [the Creator’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 

Such prohibition of idolatry makes many customs and traditions in Far Eastern religious groups unacceptable to a Christian who embraces the biblical worldview—especially when it comes to worshipful reverence being offered to fellow human beings.

The Namaste Greeting and the TM Initiation

When I was involved in yoga, we often used the common greeting “Namaste” offered to others with a slight bow. In essence, it means, “I bow to the divine in you.” In other words, it is a monistic acknowledgement of a divine essence in all people, an idolatrous affirmation that all are manifestations of God.

Another glaring example of even more excessive reverence being offered to a human being is seen in the initiation ceremony for those aspiring to practice TM (Transcendental Meditation—the organization founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and endorsed by the Beatles). The opening ritual, 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:

Guru in the glory of Brahma, guru in the glory of Vishnu, guru in the glory of the great Lord Shiva, guru in the glory of the personified transcendental fullness of Brahman, to him Shri Guru Dev, adorned with glory, I bow down.”

Advocates of Transcendental Meditation do not consider Guru Dev an avatar (a full manifestation of God or a god in a fleshly form). However, in Far Eastern religions and new age spirituality, every person is said to possess this ‘spark of divinity,’ so the argument is presented that such worshipful actions toward Guru Dev are not wrong, because devotees believe he attained a higher state of consciousness (awareness of his own divinity).

In Christianity, though, we find the teaching that we are all separate from God prior to salvation and devoid of the presence of God until Jesus comes to dwell within our hearts (when we repent of sin and believe on his substitutionary death). Only Jesus, the spotless, sinless Lamb of God was Divine. He was God manifested in the flesh. He was not just an ordinary human being who attained “Christ consciousness.” He was the eternal Son of God prior to his birth and was born of a virgin. The Spirit of God created a body within Mary’s womb to dwell in. Moreover, though tempted in all ways that we are, he never sinned. All other human beings have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

So. the practice of saying “Namaste” and involvement in TM are both completely unacceptable for Christians. The gods mentioned during the initiation ceremony, Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, are presented in various myths as having human-like vulnerabilities, weaknesses and limitations, subject to demonstrations of bad and even evil behavior (for instance, Shiva angrily cut off one of Brahma’s five heads and ignorantly decapitated Ganesh making it necessary to replace his normal head with the head of an elephant). These ‘deities’ are fictitious; they are the product of human imagination. They do not exist. (See Acts 14:1–18.)

Conclusion: Idolatry Is Wrong for Eight Main Reasons

The Parthenon, dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, will eventually, completely crumble into ruins–and so will all the idolatrous shrines erected through the millennia, as well as the humanly created deities they represent. Only the true God will remain–forevermore.

So, participation in idolatry is wrong for seven main reasons: (1) it misrepresents the true nature of God; (2) it robs sincere but misled worshipers of a real relationship with the true God; (3) it is a horrible waste of time, because prayers cannot be answered by deities that don’t even exist; (4) it opens the door to demonic invasion in an idolater’s life; (5) it is degrading and insulting to the true God; (6) it hinders the progress of truth in the world; (7) it brings a curse; (8) it is a sin.

All the polytheistic religious systems that have existed from time immemorial have boasted a pantheon of gods and goddesses to which they built impressive shrines, to which they entrusted their souls, and through whom they hoped to escape the final closure of death. That trust and that hope will crumble like the shrines that have been built to these imaginary beings. The only hope for mankind is the true God, the One who visited this earth in the form of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:2)

1 The World’s Great Religions (New York: Time Incorporated, 1957) p. 16.

Copyright © 2021 Mike Shreve

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Written by Mike Shreve