A few years ago I had the privilege of traveling around the USA speaking in Revive America Seminars as a part of the Impact World Tour.
One of my messages was on the subject of idolatry–something we don’t think much about in the Western World because we associate idols with altars and statues.
One Sunday in Hastings, Nebraska (it happened to be Super Bowl Sunday), I gave a message on idolatry which led to hours of repentance and confession. Many pastors even came forward to admit to their people that they’d gotten swept up in the sin of idolatry.
So what are the gods of the Western World and where are they leading us? How do I know if I’m personally involved in modern forms of idolatry?
Five thousand years of recorded human history reveal mankind’s penchant for worshipping idols or false gods:
- The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia are the world’s first recorded civilization (at least 2800 B.C.). Each Sumerian city was ruled by local priests who sacrificed to the gods of nature (sun, moon, rivers) and also fertility (Ishtar).
- The Egyptians were famous for their statues to the sun god (Ra) and numerous other deities. In fact, nearly all of God’s judgments upon Egypt during the Exodus were judgments against their idolatrous worship of false gods (Exodus 8-14).
- The Greek and Roman Empires ruled the known world from the ninth century B.C. to the 5th century AD. The Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-425 BC) claimed that the gods of the Greeks had been adopted from Egypt, and many modern scholars agree. Classical scholar C. Kerenyi lists 370 Greek gods that might have gone by 646 names.
- During their zenith, the Romans accepted and expanded the Greek pantheon. This led the Apostle Paul, sharing the Good News of Jesus in Roman-occupied Athens around 60 AD, to remark: “I notice that you are very religious” (Acts 17: 22). He was talking about idol worship.
- The Mayas and Aztecs, as reported by Father Bernardino de Sanhagun in the Florentine Codex, worshipped the forces of nature and supernatural and human counterparts. What stunned the Spaniards upon their arrival in the New World were the immense ritual slaughters that were taking place—human sacrifice—at regular festivals averaging 2,000 victims a day, and on special occasions, exceeding 20,000.
Those are a few glimpses of ancient idol worship. Gods and idols everywhere and even gross human suicide/murders to the idols of the day.
There is still a plethora of ancient idol worship in the modern world, especially in Africa (animism) and Asia. “Folk Hinduism” lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s largest idol-worshipping religions involving possibly 330 million gods. (That’s nearly one for every three people in India.)
John Noss explains how it works in many parts of the sub-continent:
“The ordinary villager, who in his everyday life takes no thought for the morrow of a subsequent existence, is content to worship the village gods to whom he looks for rain, bountiful harvests, and escape from plague…There are, as it were, two religions: a work-a-day religion to meet the requirements of everyday existence and a higher religion…which the ordinary man does not attempt to understand.”
I’ve been to many Hindu and Buddhist temples in that part of the world. Hundreds of millions of people in the 21st century still bow before idols and offer incense and food offerings to the gods.
Idolatry is both ancient and modern.
Here’s an important point to ponder: Human beings are the only part of creation that worships or creates idols. Land animals don’t make idols. Sea creatures don’t worship idols. No other part of animate or inanimate creation give themselves in love and devotion to gods.
It’s as if we were uniquely made to worship someone or something.
The Bible tells us this Someone is not the sun, moon and stars, or any part of the created world. We were designed to worship the True God who made it all. He is our Creator and also our Savior (from sin).
This brings us to the fundamental definition of idolatry: Giving supreme time, attention and affection to anything that takes the place of God.
Human beings were created with a God-shaped vacuum inside. We can either give God his rightful place in our hearts and lives (Matthew 22:37-40) or we can fill that space with other things.
In the Western World, under the guise of science and progress, most people do not worship ancient gods and idols. Most of us don’t frequent temples and burn incense nor do we bow to pieces of wood.
But because man will worship, we have our own set of gods or idols.
One New Testament verse is the key to understanding the idols of the Western world– 1 John 2:15-17:
“Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts. But the one who does the will of God abides forever.”
“Do not love…the things in the world.” In other words, worldly things. That’s the definition of secular–being worldly rather than spiritual minded.
Polytheistic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and animism produce “spiritual” idols or false gods. The religion of atheism or secularism doesn’t tout spiritual things, but because of the God-shaped vaccuum in every human heart, worldly people are driven toward secular idols or gods.
Let’s call it secular idolatry. The West is full of it–and according to 1 John 2:15-17, I believe the secular idols of the West center around three (though there are many more).
1. The Idol of Sex (lust of the flesh)
Can anyone honestly deny that sex in all its forms is one of the supreme obsessions of worldly people? It is a multi-billion dollar industry on the Web and nearly half of American men admit to being addicted to pornography. What are the supermarket tabloids luring you towards? What is becoming increasingly mainstream on television and in the movies?
Sex. This secular idol’s primary “temple” is the movie theater with supermodels and movie stars being the temple prostitutes. Of course, it’s not a new form of idolatry. The Greek and Roman bathhouses were full of fornication, homosexuality and adultery during their day and a significant number of Roman citizens were bi-sexual. As pointed out by Bill O’Reilly in his best-selling book Killing Jesus, Julius Caesar was the poster child of sexual indulgence with homosexual escapades and numerous adulteries (e.g. Cleopatra).
Secularists fill their God-void by “lusting after the flesh.” Erotica is a primary god in current Western civilization.
2. The Idol of Entertainment (the lust of the eyes)
The second Western secular idol is the god of entertainment which primarily involves the eyes. We have gone from being a “giving” culture (Judeo-Christian) to a “getting” mentality which focuses on pleasure. 2 Timothy 3:1-14 says that worldly people are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
Pleasure comes in many forms, but entertainment is high on the list. People want to “feel good” and being entertained fits the bill in many forms including music, television, movies, and sports.
In fact, probably the most obvious temples to modern gods in the West are sports stadiums and rock concert halls.
I remember when Christians used to be called “fanatics” and sports people were “fans.” (Obviously, the first label is worse than the second.) Today, it’s reversed. Look at the people in most sports stadiums on Sundays and you will see people that really love their gods (fanatics). They wear special costumes, dye their hair, paint their faces, and shout their lungs out.
If only Western churchgoers (fans?) had such passion for the True God.
3. The Idol of Money (the boastful pride of life)
The final idol of the Secular Trinity is the one that makes everything possible–wealth or money. If personal pleasure rather than pleasing God is the emergent god of the West, then money is the ticket to its fulfillment.
Money is the substance which allows us to boast about our lives. We are keeping up with the Joneses! We have made it because we have a good job which makes us look good and provides wealth to purchase the “things” that make us happy.
Money is the new American Dream. Tony Campolo amplifies: “We want more and more of what we need less and less of.” It’s what most Westerners live for–a comfortable lifestyle fueled by wealth that allows them to pursue hedonistic pursuits.
Generations ago American towns and cities were built around churches i.e. the centrality of worship to God. The cathedrals of today are not churches (they’ve been buried by the skyscrapers). They are shopping malls, areas of commerce, and high-rise temples of Wall Street finance.
And you thought that Europe and America had become irreligious? Abandoned all gods?
Nope. People will worship. It’s just that the gods have changed. They’re not made of wood or stone. They’re made of flesh, celluloid and paper and we lust after them with our bodies, eyes, and bank accounts.
Of course, it their proper place, all these things are fine. Sex is wonderful in a godly marriage; We all need some restful entertainment at times; Money can be used to serve God and bless people. But when these things become supreme desires, affections, and time wasters, they turn from being tools into idols.
The Super Bowl is a great example of Western idol worship. You have great athleticism (entertainment), promoted by by scantily-clad cheerleaders (sex), raking in billions of dollars in advertising (money). No wonder it’s the most watched Western TV extravaganza each year.
All three Western idols are involved.
One of the clearest truths of the Bible is that God judges all false gods or idols. He doesn’t want people to hurt themselves by worshipping things that don’t satisfy them or bring Him glory.
And where are the idols of the Western World leading us?
- Consuming sexual lust is multiplying venereal diseases and destroying the family unit.
- The opiate of entertainment is making us fat, passive and uninformed.
- The love of money is leading us to a debt-laden financial collapse of biblical proportions.
What must we do?
The book of 1 John ends with these words (1 John 5:21): “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”
That includes Western ones.