“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
When thinking about the topic of idolatry, we can sometimes get confused. Most people think idolatry is to just bow down before some ancient statue. And while that may be true in Eastern traditions, both ancient and modern, it doesn’t seem too relevant our Western culture. Bow down before an actual statue? Talk to something that has eyes but can’t see, or has ears but can’t hear? We would never do such a thing. So we think.
Think about it: what are the idols that our present in our malls, schools, media, homes, and even churches? What is it that people are really worshiping? Idolatry happens when we exchange good for evil, and evil for good; where we take a good thing, make it a god thing, which becomes a bad thing. Or where we take something that’s evil, and we now treat it as something good and valuable.
But when you consider the ancient idols of the past, there are some striking similarities to our culture’s common idols. Take the time to read this helpful comparison by Mark Driscoll (1). In it you will see how the idols of the past are just as foolish as our modern-day idols:
In ancient cultures social life revolved around sanctuaries, temples, and stadiums. There, various gods and goddesses were worshiped as people gave their time, talent, and treasure as sacrifices to the adoration of their deity. Even the buildings themselves were built as acts of worship.
Today, little has changed. The temple of Ra, the sun god, has now been replaced with warm weather resorts and tanning salons where worshipers pay homage to their bronzing god. The temples of Ptah, the god of craftsmen, are today hardware stores and Craftsman tools. The Temples at Nemea, Olympie, Delphi, and Isthmia included stadiums, which have now been replaced with soccer fields, baseball parks, football stadiums, and basketball arenas where pagan fans dress up—like they always have—as birds and animals to cheer for their gods as they score points. The healing cults of Asklepios, with sanctuaries at Epidaurous and Corinth, have now been replaced with holistic health spas.
The Oracular gods often had sanctuaries near fresh water sources that we refer to as beaches, campsites, golf courses, and fishing holes. At the temple of Apollo, prophetic pronouncements about the future are given; these have now been superseded by speculating newscasts and blogs as sort of digital divination by which the future can be predicted. The temple of Thoth was where the god of writing and knowledge was worshiped, and he is now housed in local libraries and universities. Monthu, the god of battle, was worshiped at Armant but is now more commonly found at war and veteran monuments along with appearances in violent video games and cage fights.
Min, an early fertility deity, was worshiped at Coptos but today is present at medical fertility clinics. Hathor, the goddess of motherhood, was worshiped at Byblos in ancient days but has relocated to birthing centers. The temple of Neith in the Delta was connected to medical education, which is presently found in medical schools and research centers. The temple of Aphrodite in Corinth were sex was part of worship has now gone global with strip clubs and porn. The small shrines that filled ancient homes and required homage and financial sacrifice have long since been upgraded with home entertainment systems and high-speed internet connections. Finally, Paul once said that our god is our stomach, and that god is worshiped by the gluttonous and obese at all-you-can-eat buffets.
Indeed, when our culture is considered through the lens of worship and idolatry, primitive ancient paganism seems far less primitive or ancient. This is because everyone everywhere is continually worshiping, and idolatry is, sadly, seen more easily when we examine other cultures rather than our own. This is because we often have too narrow an understanding of worship and do not see that idolatry empowers our sin.
(1) Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 337-338.