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.