Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Modern Paganism”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

If you read these articles often, you may remember a recent one entitled “Modern Idolatry” (Vol. 1, No. 33, September 13).  You may then ask, “what is the difference between idolatry and paganism?” They have a lot in common, but in the simplest terms, idolatry is the worship of a stand-in for God, whereas paganism is the worship of things that are not God.  Often, those go hand in hand, but the first case focuses on the substitution, while in the second case worshipping some other object is the whole point.

We live in a society with very little reverence.  All around the country, and bleeding into other parts of the world, statues have been torn down at an alarming rate recently.  Most of these are historical in nature, but some have also been religious.  Whether many of them should ever have been constructed in the first place, is a different matter, but the standards being applied now are laughable.  For example, destroying a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that he held slaves, certainly holds emotional appeal, and the same goes for George Washington.  But when one delves into the laws of the times, and the actions of those men both in general and with regard to the their slaves, their destruction becomes less satisfying.  It’s even less clear why statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass should be torn down, supposedly in the service of the same cause.  None of us is perfect, and your worst sins definitely preclude anyone from making a statue in your honor, don’t they?  But the statues were never intended as a blanket stamp of approval, to say these individuals were perfectly righteous.  If that were the case, no statue could remain, except those representing the one who was perfectly righteous, Jesus.

Oh look, they’re tearing down statues of Jesus, too.  One was at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Miami in July, another at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in El Paso in September.  Even under the Law of Moses, God made it very clear that he hates idols, even ones intended to represent him, saying, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (De 12.4).  That hasn’t changed, and we shouldn’t be putting statues of Jesus in a place of worship.  But it’s unlikely that was the motivation behind either of these being toppled.

The past few months in this country are hardly the only time statues and monuments were destroyed in the name of righteousness.  It’s common enough that we have a technical term for it, iconoclasm.  ISIS destroyed ancient relics at Palmyra, Iraqis destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, the Russian Revolution destroyed both religious and royal statues, and the Romans destroyed images of the emperor Commodus after he was assassinated, and it happened many other times.

We even see it in the Bible!  Moses destroyed the golden calf (Ex 32), Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal (Jdg 6), God himself destroyed the image of Dagon (1Sa 5), Jehu destroyed the temple of Baal (2Ki 10), and Josiah destroyed all the idolatrous images to be found in Judah at the time (2Ki 23).  Clearly, sometimes it’s good to destroy the images and statues men have made.  Other times, it’s bad—God punished the Babylonians for destroying his temple and its implements.

When people do this, they’re generally trying to tear down an opposing religion.  In the cases from the Bible, this is pretty clear, but when we consider the way it’s been done today and through history, we’ll see it’s all the same.  There is a legend, myth, and cult around the founding of our nation.  Not everyone who likes this country has turned it into a religion, but some have.  Others have turned the Confederacy into an object of worship.  Still others have devoted their souls to a particular racial identity, or a political ideology, or even an individual, in much the same way that the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Roman emperors were venerated as living gods (right up until they were assassinated, that is).

Everyone worships something.  It may not be overt, but everyone has at least one god.  Paul makes this point in Romans 6.16:

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” 

God has narrowed it down to two choices for us: serve him, or serve sin.  But within sin are many different options.  God specifically warns against some of these.  Chapter 13 of Revelation portrays a great, evil beast, who is worshipped by the people of the earth.  It’s not a perfect one-to-one matchup, but the beast basically represents the Roman state.  It is an idol, and while Rome is long gone as a world power, the beast is alive and well, seen in government and politics around the world today, with strong hints that most of its worshippers are in it for their own personal gain.

He also warns us, “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1Ti 6.20-21).  The pursuit of knowledge is good; the worship of knowledge is not.  The absurd aspect of this religion is the jump from is to ought.  Those who worship science have decided that they can extract morals from their understanding of nature, which is already wrong.  But worse, they don’t seem to notice or care that their fundamental understanding of nature keeps changing!  The moral demands must be coming from somewhere though, and it seems to be from within the worshippers’ own selfish desires.  This, too, has replaced God in the hearts of many today, to the extent that we’ve heard serious suggestions from mainstream voices, that hurricanes, wildfires, and pandemics are Mother Earth’s way of punishing us for our sins against her.  Funnily enough, the prophets’ prescriptions for averting Gaia’s wrath look strikingly similar to the prophets’ own Christmas wish lists.

There are more, unfortunately, but what they all have in common are the same things the ancient pagan cults had in common: sacrifice, adherence to a code of conduct, and an elaborate ritual that obscures the idol in the center.  But when you look past all of the distractions and get a good look at the idol, and especially if you remove its outer shell, you’ll find that the image hidden within it looks an awful lot like you!  Paganism boils down to self-worship, self-service.  Yet, “it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’” (Lk 4.8).

Jeremy Nettles