As modern evangelicals, it is tempting to treat idolatry as a relic from the ancient past. Who, after all, bows down before golden calves or worships images of Nebuchadnezzar anymore? In “Here Are Your Gods”: Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times, Bible scholar and Langham Partnership international director Christopher J. H. Wright stresses that idolatry is alive and well, even if it often operates outside our conscious awareness. Freelance writer and editor of The Worldview Bulletin Christopher Reese spoke with Wright about idolatry in the Old Testament and resisting its lure today.
How did the authors of Scripture understand pagan gods and idols? Did they believe other deities existed?
In one sense, the answer is clearly no. Compared with Yahweh, the only true and living God, all other so-called gods are actually “not-gods.” That is the clear teaching of Isaiah 40–55 and some psalms. And yet, for all who worshiped them (whether pagans or Israelites themselves), those other “gods” clearly affected the whole world of personal, social, economic, and political life. So yes, they exist—but not as God, only as human constructs to which people attribute power and authority.
You trace all human idolatry back to the events of Genesis 3. Can you elaborate on that connection?
Genesis 3 portrays a moment when human beings choose to distrust God’s goodness, disbelieve his warnings, and disobey his instructions, instead defining for themselves what counts as good and evil. Having dethroned God, they end up submitting to entities, either material or spiritual, within the created order—or else they assert their own moral autonomy.
And it all ends in tears, as Paul makes clear in Romans 1. The personal and societal mess he describes is not so much God’s judgment on our sin as the symptoms of God’s judgment already at work in a world where he gives us over to the idols we have chosen. Paul derives all human sin and disorder from this fundamental wrong turn.
Are the temptations to idolatry faced by God’s people in the Old Testament the same ones Christians encounter today?
Obviously, we give the idols different names. But as you analyze Baal worship in the Old Testament, comparisons aren’t hard to find.
Baal was the god of fertility, of both women and the land itself—the things on which one’s wealth and social significance depended. And Baal worship involved ritualized sexual prostitution to ensure such fertility. Of course, it also produced babies, but you could sacrifice them for added benefit. The sacralizing of sex and the sacrificing of babies led to a civilization so debauched that God “vomited” out its inhabitants (Lev. 18:25). These sins remain very much with us today, even if they tend to take different forms.
Baal was also the god of business deals, the kind a greedy king like Ahab and his Baal-worshiping wife Jezebel could invoke to bypass the land laws that protected Israel’s ordinary farmers. It is hard not to see their land-grabbing example reflected in the idolatry of greed and excessive wealth accumulation today, alongside growing inequality and dispossession of the poor.
The Old Testament exposes idolatries of greed, sex, arrogance, and abuse of political and economic power, and there is much that gets replicated right up to modern times. From the Book of Judges onward, it points out the consequences of idolatry with painful repetition—as if God were saying, “Don’t you get the message yet?”
Are there idols that evangelicals are particularly prone to embracing?
Idolatry often involves the perversion of something good in itself, like family, work, beauty, or sex. There are even many good things about evangelical history and identity that can easily turn nasty. Take, for instance, the individual conscience. Luther was right to champion the individual’s right to stand by his or her own conscientious understanding of Scripture, even against the tradition of the church. But this easily degenerates into the kind of denominational tribalism that has blighted Protestantism or a form of “rugged individualism” that rejects all legitimate authority.
Or consider the authority of the Bible. This was a Reformation watchword, and it must be affirmed. But it easily degenerates into an idolatry of my interpretation of the Bible (or that of my denomination, or my favorite church leader or blogger). The Bible itself can be weaponized for an agenda at odds with its own intended message.
Then there’s the importance of true doctrine. We of course need to defend gospel truth against false teaching. But doctrinal systems can become idolatrous shibboleths or slogans. Even the truth can be used as a shelter for apostate and idolatrous behavior, as when the people of Jerusalem kept proclaiming “the temple of the Lord,” believing this kept them safe in spite of their gross unrighteousness (Jer. 7). It is sadly common for some evangelicals to claim true doctrine while living un-Christlike lives.
You contend that many Western nations will likely face God’s judgment due to histories of violence, increasing poverty, and inequality, and other transgressions. Should we also give the West credit for its positive contributions, like the rule of law, human rights, freedom of conscience, and upward mobility?
We should certainly thank God for everything you mention. But should credit go to “the West,” per se? In one sense, yes, because many of those accomplishments happened during the centuries of the rise and global expansion of European peoples. But the forerunner to that was a steady permeation of the continent by the Christian faith—not always in its purest form—which fueled the development of these positive ideals. The irony is that many Western secularists now stridently critique Christianity on the basis of these very ideals, unaware of how they emerged from a distinctly Christian worldview.
In the end, this double list is hardly surprising. All people are simultaneously God’s image-bearers and fallen sinners. All cultures therefore reflect the same duality. Every major civilization has great achievements that bear witness to the dignity of human creativity, rooted in our Creator God. But they also bear the fingerprints of Satan and human rebellion.
You talk about praying both for political leaders and against them. What principles guide you in deciding which way to pray?
The principle for the first kind of prayer is Paul’s command, in 1 Timothy 2:1–4, to pray for those in authority. Political leaders are human beings, sinners like the rest of us. We long for their salvation as much as anyone else’s (v. 4). And whether or not that happens in God’s providence, we long for them to rule in a way that fosters a stable society in which Christians can live in peace (v. 2).
The principles for the second kind are woven throughout the Psalms and the books of the Prophets. When the prophets saw politically, economically, or religiously powerful people being unjust, corrupt, or excessively violent, they prayed and spoke out in protest. They saw governments passing laws that increased poverty (Isa. 10:1–2). They saw courts stuffed with crooked judges (Amos 5:10, 12). They saw priests and prophets who provided no moral check on wicked rulers (Jer. 6:13–15; Ezek. 22:26–29). They saw the wealthy exploiting and trampling on the poor (Amos 2:6–7; Mic. 3:1–3). And they pleaded with God to restrain such evil, for the sake of his own righteousness.
When it comes to wicked leaders, we pray for their repentance and salvation, but against their policies and practices. The Bible gives us every encouragement to do both.
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