It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society…. And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign (James Madison et al., “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” June 20, 1785).
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776).
There is ample evidence all around us that when it comes to faith issues many have a tendency to throw critical thinking to the wind. In doing so, they prove themselves to be disagreers rather than critical thinkers. A mere disagreer lacks some of the essential qualities a critical thinker has worked hard to cultivate. For instance, a disagreer looks at individual statements and judges these solely against the backdrop of his own beliefs. In contrast, a critical thinker reads and listens, as the case may be, to everything written or said so as to determine the argumentative structure, diligently looking for statements that justify believing what others are saying. Instead of judging another’s main thesis in isolation and evaluating it on the basis of one’s prior beliefs alone, a critical thinker is not only open to another’s point of view, even when he initially disagrees with what is being said, but receptive to having his viewpoint changed by another’s arguments. Unlike the mere disagreer, the critical thinker is willing to be persuaded by the cogent arguments, if such are produced, of his opponent. Critical thinking, then, involves looking at the reasoning on which a point of view is based and then judging whether such reasoning is strong enough to justify accepting that point of view.
When integrity is added to this mix, it will demand that we not only think of ourselves as willing to change, when the evidence demands it, but that we believe this to be the attitude of our opponent as well. Civil discourse and effective Bible study demand such a disposition. Unfortunately, in this day and age, many have forgotten these critical differences. As mere disagreers, they view any discussion as a means of “winning.” When they think they can no longer win, they turn their attention elsewhere, fleeing the scene much like an assassin trying to make his escape. All of these things evidence a lack of faith in the critical-thinking process. Such was manifested by the words of one who disagreed with me, when he said, “How could we argue with such conviction if we were actually prepared to abandon those convictions?” Clearly, my opponent didn’t even believe in the process. With him, it was a mere contest of wits and not an opportunity to improve his or my set of beliefs. How sad!
Critical thinking makes us uncomfortable. It is, therefore, far too easy to choose the position that is most comfortable or self-serving rather than the one that is the most reasonable. And contrary to what some think, preachers are not the only ones who occupy this self-serving comfort zone. In truth, the tendency affects us all. To override it, we must work very hard at developing our critical thinking. This means that when we learn, through a process of critical thinking, that we were mistaken about something, we must be willing to admit that until then our understanding had been defective. But, and here’s the rub, this is an excruciatingly difficult thing for most of us to do. We don’t want to change our beliefs or learn from someone else, as we already have something invested in being right. But continuing in this attitude will hold us at the level of being a mere disagreer. This is where many folks seem most comfortable. But not me. I believe critical thinking, if I learn to do it well, will permit me to engage in replacing, when necessary, less adequate beliefs with more productive ones. As I’ve already said, I believe this process is most beneficial when I engage in it well. This means that the critical thinker is like an athlete effectively engaged in the activities of his sport, while the disagreer is like a bodybuilder, taking pride in the static features of his body and not in how his body actually performs.
Some think the solution is that we all just love one another, which certainly isn’t wrong in and of itself. In fact, God commands it. However, I’m sure that most of the participants in discussions of this sort believe themselves to be operating under this principle. However, it is sobering to recognize that no one but God has the corner on love, and it really is impertinent of anyone to think otherwise. In order to disregard disagreements, some make a “unity in diversity” plea, which argues, at its core, that truth really doesn’t matter, and it is for this reason that I reject most unity in diversity pleas.
The great apostle Paul “reasoned” with those with whom he disagreed, “explaining” and “demonstrating” the necessary things as he “persuaded” them (Acts 17:2). Should we not try to follow the same pattern? Therefore, when someone who disagrees with us follows this time-honored pattern, let us not see it as an insult, but as the compliment it truly is.
In The Grand Design, in which Stephen Hawking sets forth his theory of how the “multi-verse” (universes) created itself without a capital “C” Creator, he and his co-author said:
According to M-theory [a theory in physics that unifies all consistent versions of superstring theory—AT], ours is not the only universe. Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.
They went on to say:
[T]he multi-verse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law like gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.
So, let me see if I can break this down for you:
- There was nothing.
- Nothing was happening to nothing.
- Then, for no reason. nothing exploded, creating everything.
In the process, a bunch of everything, which had spontaneously generated from nothing, rearranged itself, for no reason whatsoever, into self-replicating bits which, in time, turned themselves into dinosaurs.
Simply unbelievable! And to think that the Atheists have the unmitigated gall to attack us for our faith and alleged lack of reason. Truth is, everything we know about science tells us that something does not come from nothing. Even so, the anti-scientific “spontaneous generation,” “something from nothing” mantra is the foundational tenet of Atheism/Evolutionism.
Although largely missing from the Public Square today, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is still the only theory of origins that makes any real sense.
Paul’s Mars Hill Address
In his famous Mars Hill address, delivered in the great city and seat of learning that was Athens, the apostle Paul systematically refuted the nearby and faraway idols with four alternating strokes, replacing them each time with the truth of God’s transcendence and immanence. The points he makes, which are found in Acts 17, may be summarized as follows:
- First, he teaches that the one true God is not a faraway idol that is unknowable (verse 23).
- Then, he refutes their nearby idols by pointing out that God does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor does He need man’s help in anything (verses 24-25).
- Next, he assaults the faraway idol by teaching the truth that God, although transcendent, is not far from any of us, for it is “In Him we live and move and have our being” (verses 27-28).
- Finally, he negates the nearby idol again by arguing that if we are truly God’s offspring, then it makes absolutely no sense to think He can somehow derive His being from us. In other words, the one true God is not made of gold, silver or stone, and fashioned by human design (verse 29).
It seems clear that Paul directed his criticisms of the Athenians to the classic dual-nature of their idolatry. They had counterfeited the true God’s transcendence with their faraway idol, “THE UNKNOWN GOD,” and His immanence with the many nearby idols in their pantheon. With each criticism of their idolatry, Paul did not hesitate to make positive affirmations about the one true God. According to him, and this is consistent with everything else written in the Bible, the true God, although He is transcendent, is also very knowable (verse 23), in that He has revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures. Once he’s made this point, he then proceeds to tell the Athenians about this one true God who is knowable. As the Creator, He is Lord of heaven and earth (verse 24). Consequently, He gives life to all people (verse 25). He made “From one blood” all nations that live on the earth, and He wants them to seek after, and find, Him (verses 26-27). Finally, He is, as the Creator, our source, in that we derive our existence from Him, not the other way around (verse 29).
As Paul argues, the one true God is, and all at the same time, both transcendent and immanent—i.e., He is both “far off” and “at hand” (cf. Jeremiah 23:23). In doing so, he conveys the ultimate moral challenge of this one true God, namely, “God…now commands all men everywhere to repent” (verse 30). And why is this? Because He has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained (verse 31). And who is this man? He is Jesus of Nazareth, in whom dwells “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). In fact, it is the incarnation of Jesus Christ that serves as the final blow to the dual-idolatry pattern that has plagued man down through the ages. The divine Logos, who was Himself the transcendent God of creation, according to John 1:1, became a man, as reported in John 1:14, the epitome of immanence, and did it all without ceasing to be God. In other words, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). The God of the Bible, the only true and living God, is a God who is “at hand,” as well as “afar off” (Jeremiah 23:23).
Unfortunately, and even though they ought to know better, some New Testament Christians fall victim to idolatry’s dual pattern as they try to formulate their various Christologies. This is demonstrated in the classic heresies of Arianism, which denies the Lord’s divine nature, and Docetism, which denies His human nature. By failing to appreciate the full meaning of the Immanuel (or “God with us”) of Isaiah 7:14, both of these isms fall far short of the truth revealed in the Bible. Yes, and there must be no mistake about it, Jesus was a man, and His need for resurrection is proof of this. But, He was not just a man, as some among us are claiming, and His resurrection is proof of this as well. If He were not a man, He could not have died and then been in need of resurrection. On the other hand, if He had not been “God manifested in the flesh,” as He claimed to be in 1 Timothy 3:16, then the “one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:6) would certainly have not validated Jesus’ claim by resurrecting Him from the dead (cf. Acts 17:31). Thus, any effort to separate the Lord’s transcendence and immanence (i.e., His deity and humanity) will lead one down the path to self-sufficiency and idolatry.
The Jesus who is “a man, just a man, just an ordinary man like you and me” is an idol constructed by those among us who believe it may still be possible for a mere man to live perfectly and, therefore, earn his salvation. But such self-sufficiency is impossible, not because man does not have the capacity not to sin (viz., free will), he does; it’s impossible because man wrongly exercises his free will. It is just here that some become confused, so please pay close attention as I say this once more. Man is a free will creature and, because he is, he does not have to sin. We are not made, contrary to Calvinistic doctrine, morally flawed or depraved. However, the rebellious story of mankind is that although we do not have to sin, we do—we always have and we always will.
The only man who ever lived perfectly here in this life was Jesus. Even so, He suffered and died. Why? Because, in His suffering and death, the Lord paid the penalty for the sins of all mankind. In doing so, He made it possible for all who had sinned, and this includes all of us, to be reconciled to God through obedience to Him. All of us—every last one of us—have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf. Romans 3:23). So, when Jesus “died for all,” it was because “all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). This means that all human beings who reach the age of accountability will sin. It also means that even after being saved from our past sins by obedience to the gospel, Christians did not live perfectly without sin (cf. 1 John 1:10). Consequently, the perfectionists among us who believe it is actually—as opposed to theoretically— possible for one to live without sinning and have created a mere-man Jesus to prove it, teach a self-sufficiency that is anti-biblical, worshiping, as a result, an idol that is both anti-God and “antichrist” (1 John 2:22). I pray such will come to their senses in a pigsty moment (cf. Luke 15:17), repenting and adhering to John’s warning to keep themselves from idols (cf. 1 John 5:21).
As we can see, idolatry is still an ever-present problem for New Testament Christians. We must not allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking that idolatry is a sin reserved just for pagans—it’s not. Today, as in times past, the dark and dynamic forces behind idolatry (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:20) have arrayed themselves against us (cf. Ephesians 6:12). Drunk with the wine of modernity and post-modernity, many who make up the Lord’s church in the 21st century believe the war is over and that it has actually been over for almost two thousand years now. This sort of thinking has had devastating consequences for churches of Christ and must be remedied by an adherence to doctrine and, thus, the development of a biblical worldview.
Idols Often Come In Pairs
Because the duality (viz., to trust in God and subdue creation) mentioned in part I of this article is so deeply imprinted in the human psyche, idols frequently come in pairs. Remember, an idol, by definition (and I’m speaking biblically here), is a counterfeit of the true God. It does not just substitute God’s existence, but it can exist as a counterfeiting of His attributes and characteristics as well. With this understood, it should be realized that God’s transcendence can be made into one idol and His immanence into another. In No God But God, which is edited by Os Guinness and John Seel, Richard Keyes wrote an excellent chapter entitled “The Idol Factory” in which he calls these two counterfeits of transcendence and immanence the “faraway” and “nearby” idols (1992, pp. 29-48). He claims these designations are not so much spatial as they are psychological in nature. The far-away idol, who is intangible and, thus, always inaccessible, serves as an overarching idea that gives meaning to all of life. But it is the nearby idol, who is much more tangible and, thus, accessible, that allows the idolater to manipulate his world to get what he wants. This faraway-nearby construct is so typical of idolatry that it is not just the key to understanding classic idolatry, but essential to understanding the occult as well. With this said, we’ll take a closer look at the nearby idol first.
The Nearby Idol
When one has alienated himself from God, the nearby idol is a substitute for God’s immanence. Because he is no longer dependent upon the blessings of his Creator to help him exercise stewardship over his environment, the idolater seeks a sense of well-being through control. (In the occult world, this control is called magic.) The nearby idol, whatever the idolater conceives it to be, permits him to exercise this control. It is, of course, a delusion.
This is illustrated in the rebellion of the Jews who fled into Egypt contrary to the Lord’s command (cf. Jeremiah 44:1-30). It had been their custom, even when they were back in Judah (cf. Jeremiah 7:18), “to burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her” (Jeremiah 44:17). Of course, they were not doing this for nothing. In fact, they were deluded into thinking they were being blessed by their manipulation, through their sacrifices, of this counterfeit god (cf. Jeremiah 44:18). They were wrong, of course. It was actually God, due to His longsuffering, who had been blessing them. Finally, though, they started to experience God’s punishment for their idolatry which, it just so happened, coincided with the Jews ceasing to sacrifice to their false god. As a result, they mistakenly came to think they were no longer enjoying blessings because they had quit offering cakes to their idol, the queen of heaven. Grossly deluded, they believed their nearby idol allowed them to experience a certain leverage over the important forces that control life. Consequently, they were convinced that their fertility goddess was able to give them good crops, more livestock, and more male children. This nearby idol was all they needed to enjoy the good life, they mistakenly thought. But it was theirtheir devotion to this counterfeit god that ultimately caused them to be consumed by the famine and sword of God’s wrath (cf. Jeremiah 44:27).
Although idolatry can’t really deliver, polytheists and occultists believe their rituals and sacrifices permit them to tap into (or connect with) invisible powers that will allow them to exercise control over the visible (or natural) world in which they lived. To these devotees, the nearby idol, whatever it might be, is a means to some desired end, and to accomplish this end they are willing to genuflect to their substitutes gods and goddesses.
The Nearby Idol For Many Americans is Carpet
“And what,” you might ask, “is Carpet?” It represents the comfortable home with its decorations, color combinations, furniture, appliances, and video/audio systems. Carpet is the “nice home” so many Americans think is essential if one is to experience the “good life.” As a result, many have bowed down and done obeisance to Carpet. In doing so, they have demonstrated there isn’t anything they won’t sacrifice for the comfort Carpet promises. Think, for example, of the millions of “latchkey” children who come home to empty houses every school day who, then, must fend for themselves because mommy and daddy are too busy sacrificing to Carpet. These children, who are a blessing are from the one true God, have placed on the parents certain obligations. But consumed, instead, with the demands of Carpet, parents ignore their familiar duties to children in order to be comfortable, But who cares? Unfortunately, not even some who call themselves Christians. Yes, they shudder at the thought of ancient Israelites sacrificing their children to Molech (cf. Jeremiah 32:25), but then they turn right around and leave their children in the hands of perfect strangers in some daycare center or, worse yet, they cause them to fend for themselves while they both go off to work in order to worship obediently at Carpet’s totem. It is most unfortunate that while the divinely ordained family structure is being offered up on Carpet’s altar, many Christians just don’t seem to care. Worse yet, some are, themselves, worshiping in the shrine of this cruel and ogreish god. Like all idols, Carpet promises much, but is unable to deliver on anything of real value. The messages of the idols are all lies, and Carpet’s message is no different. It promises safety and comfort from the troubles of life, but when trials and tribulations finally come, and they will, the Carpet god is completely powerless. Carpet cannot comfort us when we lose a loved one; it cannot be our friend when we are alone; it cannot help us when we are dying. Even so, many believe Carpet’s lies and, in turn, sacrifice everything, even their children, to worship at its altars. The Bible, which pulls no punches, says that covetousness, which is personified in Carpet, is idolatry (cf. Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5).
When we consider the nearby idols to which men bow, it is not hard to see the devastating effect they are having on our society. With this said, it is time to turn our attention to the faraway idol.
The Faraway Idol
The faraway idol, which is a substitute for God’s transcendence, is usually not very well defined. It is fashioned to give some overarching and ultimate meaning to life. Man, of course, was originally created to trust in God, but in his fallen condition, he creates a force or idea (an idol, if you will) that rules the universe in God’s stead. When we listen, we can hear people saying that they believe there must be something, or someone, ultimately responsible for the way things are. Ask them what this is, and they are unable to describe him, her or it with any specificity. This, then, is the faraway idol.
Some say their god, because he is a loving god, could not send people to hell for an eternity. Again, this is a faraway idol, a construct that takes the place of the Sovereign of the universe who has said that He will, in fact, consign the disobedient to hell if they reject His gracious offer to save them through the blood of Jesus Christ. The true God is, of course, a God of love, as 1 John 4:8 makes clear, but the creator of this false god has made Love his faraway idol—the standard by which everything is to be judged.
A point of clarification needs to be made here. For the purpose of this study, I will continue to talk about the faraway idol, even though the faraway idol is not normally thought of by its adherents as an idol. This is because we normally think of an idol as something tangible, and the faraway idol is neither tangible nor visible. The following excerpt from the Roman author Cicero is an example of this kind of thinking:
When we behold the heavens, when we contemplate the celestial bodies, can we fail of conviction? Must we not acknowledge that there is a Divinity, a perfect being, a ruling intelligence, which governs, a God who is everywhere and directs all by his power? Anybody who doubts that may as well deny there is a sun that lights…. For this reason, with us as well as with other nations, the worship of the gods and holy exercises of religion increase in purity and extent every day (From Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 1:279).
As we can see, the polytheism of Cicero’s day embraced the faraway idol, which was a single transcendent “ruling intelligence” as well as the many nearby idols (“gods”), who were associated in the minds of their adherents with the different functions in the tangible, visible world. This clearly reflects the two levels of religious allegiances we’ve been discussing—the nearby idol, which is more accessible and which is directed toward power and control, and the faraway idol, which is far more inaccessible, but which provides meaning or legitimacy. Both of these (the faraway idol and the nearby idol) are representative of a universal trait that runs through all idolatry. And as idolatry is but the attempt to counterfeit the true God, it ought not to surprise us to hear Him asking His people in Jeremiah 23:23, “Am I a God near at hand…and not a God afar off?”
We can observe this faraway-nearby paradigm in the Canaanite pantheon. According to these people, “El the Benign,” the Creator/Father/King, was the chief deity. As such, his mildly benevolent persona served, in the background, as the overarching presence in their religion. But even so, he was not thought to be nearly as effective in delivering concrete help as Baal, who was described in cult texts as one of the sons of Dagon, the national god of the Philistines. Baal became the Canaanites’ fertility god, representing the powers of rain, fullness of life, and fertility. By the use of magic, incantations, rituals, and priestcraft, they believed they could exercise control over the forces of nature. Their worship of this nearby god was orgiastic and sensual according to 1 Kings 14:22-24. Obviously, then, it was a religion enthusiastically pursued by its adherents. The Bible called the things these idolaters practiced “abominations,” and those who practiced them “perverted persons.” It was not just that Baal worship authorized sexual license, although this was a powerful incentive, there was a much higher logic to it than this. The fertility gods and goddesses were thought to be voyeuristic. Consequently, it was believed that it was only through the sexual activity of humans that the fertility gods and goddesses were stimulated to lust after and pursue one another. Seduced by the human sexual activity they observed to engage in sexual intercourse themselves, they produced, it was believed, fertility on earth.
An idol is a substitute for God. It is the exchanging of the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25a). As Herbert Schlossberg said, “All idols belong either to nature or history” (Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture, 1983 [2nd ed.), p. 11). There are no other areas to which man can turn in order to find a substitute god, for all creation ultimately falls into these two groupings. Consequently, idols that are not artifacts of the natural world are constructs of the social world (or history). As such, they serve no other purpose than to facilitate the worshipping and serving of the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25b).
Furthermore, idolatry may be seen as a category depicting unbelief that is highly sophisticated, drawing together the complexities of motivation found in psychology, sociology, and demonology. Of these, demonology, which is the most obvious, is also the most familiar. As this aspect of idolatry has been given extensive treatment over the years, we’ll not spend time with it here. Suffice it to say, the Bible teaches there is an unseen spiritual dynamic at work behind idolatry (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:19-22), and although this is an important theme in the Bible, it is often neglected and misunderstood by many Christians (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). However, in this study, I want us to concentrate particularly on the psychological and sociological aspects of idolatry.
In Genesis 1:27-28, the Bible says that God created man in His own image. (This, incidentally, is why every attempt to make God in man’s image is idolatry.) By virtue of his creation in the image of God, man lives out his life in two directions: (1) upward toward God, as he trusts Him as his Sustainer and Creator, and (2) downward in dominion over the rest of creation. Trusting in God, man is to subdue and exercise dominion over the earth and its creatures. This is the way God made us, and deep down inside us all, this is the way we are. In other words, these upward and downward directions of our lives are part of our psychological nature. When we understand this truth, we will be in a much better position to recognize idolatry in all its various manifestations. But before we can proceed further, it must be made clear that something happened that had a far-reaching effect on man’s psychological nature.
Genesis 3 records the rebellion of Adam and Eve, along with the awful consequences of that rebellion. As a result, the world is no longer a safe place to live. Our plans to cash in on the good life are constantly being frustrated by disease, accident, theft, bankruptcy, rust, decay and, finally, death. Every graveyard stands as proof that instead of us subduing the earth, the earth now subdues us. The trust we place in this world is regularly betrayed as we pursue our illusions with extravagant expectations that are seldom if ever fulfilled. Forced to live in an environment marred by sin, we are no longer strangers to anxiety and disappointment.
But sin did not eliminate the built-in psychological drive to worship God and exercise dominion over the rest of creation. Instead, it perverted it. Satan’s seduction of Eve, and subsequently Adam, was through the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes,” and “the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Thinking “the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6), Mother Eve believed the Tempter’s lie which said she could successfully be her own God, deciding good and evil (cf. Genesis 3:5). As a result, she erected in her own heart an idol to SELF. Adam, on the other hand, was not deceived. Instead, he chose to follow his wife’s lead (cf. Genesis 3:6a, 17), erecting in his heart an idol of his WIFE. In the fall of these two people, who were the prototype of the entire human race, the centrality of God was replaced with egocentricity. In short, the world no longer began and ended with God. It ended, instead, with themselves.
As we think about the nature of Eve’s rebellion, it helps us in our study of this subject. Her rebellion happened, at least in part, below the level of her own perception, in that she was, as the Bible says, “deceived” (1 Timothy 2:14 and 2 Corinthians 11:3). This demonstrates that idolatry is not always as overt as we sometimes think. It also alerts us to the deadly danger of self-deception lurking in all forms of idolatry.
Because of his psychological nature, man is going to worship something, even if it is himself, as he tries to subdue or exercise control over creation. Therefore, when he engages in God-avoidance, rebelling against the Lord’s moral precepts, the Bible makes it clear that he will inevitably turn to idols (cf. Romans 1:18-32). He will not just eliminate knowledge of the true God from his thinking, he erects substitute gods in His place. The Bible calls these substitutes “idols.” Noting this, G. K. Chesterton is alleged to have said that when we “cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.” In other words, when we refuse to worship the true God, we are busy building the shrines and temples of the substitute gods.
Although the Christian rightly rejects the Calvinistic doctrine of inherited depravity, he must, nevertheless, recognize that our acquired, sin-sick natures predispose us to act independently from God (i.e., to be laws unto ourselves). Exercising our own autonomy, we do exactly what we want to do without considering His Word. And, if we had not been originally created to be in a personal relationship with God, we could have dismissed, once and for all, the whole religious dimension of life and lived happily ever after, eating, drinking and being merry (cf. Luke 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:32a). But made, as we are, in the image of God, and having an innate psychological need to worship and exercise faith in Him, we, when we manage to pervert ourselves with sin, try to deny our guilt feelings by eliminating in our minds the true concept of God, which in turn creates a vacuum in our hearts.
We then try to fill this vacuum with idols. As I’ve already mentioned, we do this by inflating things in nature and history to religious proportions. Therefore, an idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero—anything that can substitute for God. It can be riches, pleasure, fame, power, et cetera. An idol can be things that, in and of themselves, are good, like work, recreation, family, et cetera, but when used incorrectly, causes us to disobey God out of our loyalty to them, not Him. An idol can be something as seemingly harmless as wanting to be well-liked, a perfectly legitimate and natural desire, if wanting to be liked means we never risk disapproval or criticism. Even something as good as foreign evangelism can be an idol, if the one engaged in it is willing to circumvent Bible authority to get the job done, or if he should be so presumptuous as to make his work the litmus test for foreign evangelism.
Idolatry always involves one in self-centeredness, self-inflation, and self-deception. It starts with the counterfeiting of God, for it is only with a counterfeit god that one can remain the center of his life and the autonomous architect of his own future. Then, when such rebellion is complete, some thing or person is idolatrously inflated to fill the God-shaped vacuum left in the heart. Of course, the idol, whatever it may be, is not the real thing. It is only a counterfeit—a lie that promises the blessings of the so-called “good life;” but in the end, produces a debased and reprobate mind that spawns even more sin and degradation (cf. Romans 1:24ff).
In his fallen and sin-sick condition, man no longer trusts God; but as Chesterton pointed out, this does not mean he no longer trusts in anything. In order to authenticate his life and feel secure about himself, fallen man still feels the need to trust in something, whether it be a thing, idea, institution, or another person. This trust, divorced as it is from a proper faith in God Almighty, is perverted into overdependence on a thing, an idea, an institution, or another person, even when these things continually betray his trust. Nevertheless, out of his desperate need for authentication and safety, he clings to his idols. In conjunction with this, the God-given, and therefore legitimate, need to subdue and exercise dominion over the creation is perverted by fallen man into domination, something quite different from what God originally intended. To enjoy the “good life,” sin-sick man thinks he must manipulate and dominate those around about him. This inevitably involves the controlling of certain key variables (often people) in his life and surroundings. All this (both overdependence and domination) is engaged in to assuage the anxiety created by fallen man’s perverted psychological needs—needs that are, in turn, derived from the God-given needs to trust in God and exercise dominion over the rest of creation.