The Surprising Truth About the Evolution of Idolatry

In the previous post, I explained how humanity’s most fundamental problem is our struggle to “see” beyond our physical senses, and how this failure leads to our most significant problem: a distorted view of GOD, which in turn, leads to idolatry.

Let’s expound on how idolatry results from a failure to see GOD as He is and, in turn, how idolatry has evolved over time.

Welcome to part 3 of my series on rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these articles build on each other, if you’ve not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts.

Update: Since writing this post, I have learned a lot more about the spiritual realm and the origin of the worship of other gods.

While I am not revising this post, and recommend you read it and continue this important series on eschatology, I also recommend watching my 3-part video series on Re-Thinking the Spiritual Creation, Rebellion & Judgment.

What is idolatry?

Idolatry is defined as:

  1. The worship of idols.
  2. Extreme admiration, love or respect for someone or something.

When we think of the word idolatry, we may picture someone bowing down before carved images. But idolatry is more broad than this.

For example, the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians that greed (covetousness) is idolatry (see Col. 3:5).

In order to properly grasp the full concept of idolatry, we need to look at its history in Scripture and beyond.

With regard to this first definition of idolatry, “the worship of idols,” let’s analyze what occurs with this form of idolatry.

As believers know, the truth is that there is one GOD, Jehovah, and that He has specific character traits and thoughts and behaviors. For example, GOD is spirit and is therefore invisible to human eyes though always present with us.

We know these things to be truth because He revealed them to us in His Word, confirmed by significant historical evidence, eyewitness testimony and miracles.

GOD existed before humans and no one predates GOD.

By contrast, idols are the product of human invention.

An idol or false god is invented when someone falsely mentally ascribes supernatural character to something or someone.

Once an idol exists—even if its existence is confined to a person’s imagination—idolatry then manifests itself in the obedience to the imagined or supposed will of this god.

Humanity, Meet Idolatry

Now, if we broaden our scope to consider the second definition of idolatry above—extreme admiration, love or respect for someone or something—consider this question.

What was the first human act of idolatry?

The answer is that Eve, when tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, idolized wisdom.

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
(Gen. 3:6 NIV)

Recall Paul’s aforementioned statement in Col. 3:5 that covetousness is idolatry? Well, Eve coveted wisdom because she desired what Satan offered—that she would be like GOD, knowing good and evil.

Eve rebelled against GOD’s command not to touch or eat the forbidden fruit.

To GOD, rebellion is as the sin of idolatry.

As Samuel told King Saul:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
(1 Sam. 15:22b-23a NIV)

We know how the story unfolded.

Adam and Eve sinned and sin entered GOD’s perfect creation, and for generations, the world descended into evil. GOD destroyed all but 8 souls with the flood in the days of Noah.

Idolatry at Babel

Shortly after exiting the ark, we read how GOD told the descendants of Noah to spread out and populate the earth. Instead, they began constructing a tower, the Tower of Babel.

Genesis has little to say about the people’s motivations behind Babel, but the first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus provides additional detail:

1. Now the sons of Noah were three, – Shem, Japhet, and Ham, born one hundred years before the Deluge. These first of all descended from the mountains into the plains, and fixed their habitation there; and persuaded others who were greatly afraid of the lower grounds on account of the flood, and so were very loath to come down from the higher places, to venture to follow their examples. Now the plain in which they first dwelt was called Shinar. God also commanded them to send colonies abroad, for the thorough peopling of the earth, that they might not raise seditions among themselves, but might cultivate a great part of the earth, and enjoy its fruits after a plentiful manner. But they were so ill instructed that they did not obey God; for which reason they fell into calamities, and were made sensible, by experience, of what sin they had been guilty: for when they flourished with a numerous youth, God admonished them again to send out colonies; but they, imagining the prosperity they enjoyed was not derived from the favor of God, but supposing that their own power was the proper cause of the plentiful condition they were in, did not obey him. Nay, they added to this their disobedience to the Divine will, the suspicion that they were therefore ordered to send out separate colonies, that, being divided asunder, they might the more easily be Oppressed.

2. Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it was through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!
(Antiquities of the Jews, b1, c4, v1-2)

If Josephus is correct—and nothing he says here is inconsistent with Scripture—then these people under the leadership of Nimrod were guilty of idolatry.

They rebelled against GOD’s commands and ascribed their prosperity not to GOD’s blessings, but their own hard work.

(Josephus’ explanation of why they wanted to build the tower so high makes sense to me, especially given its proximity to the global flood.)

From Noah to Carved Images

As we continue moving forward in time, ten generations after Noah, we come to Abram (Abraham). Recall that Abraham moved from Ur in Babylonia, northwest to Harran in Mesopotamia, and eventually to Canaan.

Once Isaac was grown, Abraham sent his servant back to his own people to find a wife for Isaac. One more generation later, Jacob fled back to Paddan Aram (northwest Mesopotamia; modern day Syria or Iraq).

After 20 years (per Gen. 31:38), GOD told Jacob to return to Canaan. In the course of these events, we discover that an unfortunate societal trend has developed there.

On the way out, Rachel stole her father Laban’s household idols (see Gen. 31:19).

This is the first mention of carved images in Scripture.

So we learn that Laban and family were idolaters.

Interestingly, a bit later, we see that Laban does know of the one true GOD (Elohim) and that Laban’s father and grandfather also had a close relationship with GOD, for he refers to “the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father…” in Gen. 31:53.

But from these events we see that popular custom had come to include the possession and bowing before carved images.

The key takeaway so far is this: Just because Scripture does not record earlier generations bowing before carved images does not mean idolatry didn’t exist. Idolatry was actually very common.

Idolatry Consumes Egypt and the Israelites

We find a similar situation in Egypt at the time of Joseph.

After Jacob returned to Canaan, his favorite son Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery and ended up in Egypt. Joseph ends up in prison through no fault of his own.

Eventually, Joseph was called upon to interpret a dream Pharaoh had.

Upon revealing Pharaoh’s dream, Pharaoh acknowledged the true GOD (see Gen. 41:39).

Although Scripture says little else about the religious condition of Egypt at this point in time, we are told that:

  1. There were magicians in Egypt who were periodically consulted by Pharaoh (see Gen. 41:8).
  2. Joseph was given Asenath, the daughter of the priest of the Egyptian city of On (a.k.a. Heliopolis), as his wife (see Gen. 41:45, 50). According to Wikipedia, On/Heliopolis was the location of idolatrous worship of Ra the sun god.

After Joseph’s generation died, the Israelites endured 400 years of slavery, during which they were immersed in Egyptian culture.

By the time of Moses, we find that idolatry has spread to the children of Israel, for Moses says to GOD at the burning bush:

“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
(Ex. 3:13 NIV)

Polytheism—the idolatrous belief in multiple gods (having specialized powers or realms)—had become the societal norm.

The true GOD, Elohim, had been forgotten, even by Abraham’s descendants. They were surrounded by so many Egyptian gods, the idea that there would be one supreme God was foreign to them. They did not know Him.

GOD would later tell Moses that, though the plagues, He was bringing judgment upon all the gods of Egypt (see Ex. 12:12).

And for nearly the next 2,000 years, all but a small remnant of the human race believed in multiple gods and worshiped their man-made images.

Polytheism Replaced by Monotheistic Idolatry

Now, fast forward beyond the timeframe of the Scriptures.

As Christianity spread geographically over the centuries, polytheism has widely been replaced by monotheism. Sadly, this did not eliminate idolatry.

Instead, people began to invent their own single deity, essentially just dropping the “s” in “gods.”

Historical examples of idolatrous behavior within Christendom include the:

  1. Worship of the alleged relics of early Christian martyrs.
  2. Establishment of the priestly hierarchy of church officials, culminating in the pope as the supposed representative of Christ on earth, a concept foreign to Scripture.
  3. Worship of Jesus’ mother Mary, as “the mother of God.”
  4. Violent persecution and murder of those whose beliefs were perceived or declared “unorthodox.”
  5. Promise of spiritual rewards or indulgences for pilgrimages, crusades or financial payment.

Monotheistic idolatry is not limited to nominal Christians, however.

Islam, for example, with its imaginary god, Allah, was invented in the 8th century A.D. by the false prophet Mohammed.

And this same thing continues today.

21st Century Idolatry

Today, people tend to act like we’re so much more advanced than our primitive ancestors who bowed down before sticks and stones.

Yes, in the western world and in much of the so-called “developed” nations, humanity has “progressed” *so* far beyond our idiot forefathers. (Sarcasm intended.)

Today, many of us have “discovered” (read: imagined) through “science” (read: wild speculation that doesn’t utilize the scientific method) that there actually is no God and, instead, humans originated millions and billions and fafillions of years ago from a giant explosion that was preceded by nothing.

See, we’re far more sophisticated now.

Others of us have imagined a god that doesn’t care what we believe or do or what religion we follow, as long as we are a morally good person (defined by whatever standard you wish—generally, that you don’t kill people or become a Nazi). All road lead to heaven, man!

Still others have imagined a god who saves anyone who simply believes that he sent his son, Jesus, into the world to die on the cross for their sins. Just pray the prayer and you’re in, man!

None of these idols are the true and living GOD.

The truth is humanity is fundamentally no different than we’ve always been.

We’re still following crazy fancies rather than actually seeking Jehovah.

We’re still inventing gods after our hearts rather than becoming people after GOD’s heart.

Examples of this mentality include the false popular beliefs:

  • God’s biggest concern for me is to be happy.
  • God won’t love someone like me. I’m too far gone.
  • Just accept Jesus as your Savior and you’re saved. There’s nothing you do from then on to separate you from God.
  • God hates black people.
  • God wants me to execute this suicide bombing mission in order to hurt and kill infidels.
  • God accepts homosexuals without expecting them to change.

So What?

Here are three reasons why all of this matters:

Reason #1: Idolatry was the children of Israel’s biggest problem and thus plays a huge role in the Bible narrative. We will explore this further in upcoming posts.

Reason #2: Humanity’s fundamental problem that results in idolatry—our struggle to get beyond that which we can physically sense—has contributed to major misunderstandings of the Scriptures over the centuries which had tremendous negative consequences. I intend to point out many of the ones I’ve noticed and show where we went wrong.

Reason #3: If we are going to please GOD, we must get beyond the physical, and we must be able to recognize modern idolatry. We, too, can be guilty of inventing a god after our desires and thinking rather than seeking and following Jehovah.

Next we will take a fresh look at GOD’s promises to Abraham. Each of these posts introduces important foundational truths which build upon one another.

Thoughts or comments? Share them below. 


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