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Why do people worship false gods?

Published: 7 October 2017 (GMT+10)

Today we look at two questions—one asking about idol worship depicted in Scripture, and the second from a person interacting with people who worship a false god today. B.C. from the US writes:


I want to say thank you for many wonderful faith-building articles, especially those addressing the ancient people. You took the position that the ancients were intelligent and how we’ve simply lost the knowledge they had (and in some cases, regained it after we learned how to retain and pass on the knowledge).

However it still bothers me regarding the ancient religions; if they were so intelligent, how could they possibly fall down before silent idols? Nowadays, it is rare to see someone fall down and worship the nature or things; even though they might commit idolatry but the worship in same form don’t happen nowadays.

Consider Moloch - they demanded child sacrifices. I want to understand how could they have agreed to go with this perversion. In Judges, we have the story of Micah worshipping a silver idol he made himself and hiring a priest. Wouldn’t they have known better? I would like to understand how their worldview permitted them to worship what they worshipped.

Lita Cosner responds:

Even today, we see ‘intelligent’ people who worship false gods, or who deny God’s existence entirely. In fact, the ‘intelligent’ seem even more likely to do this!

Usually, the idolater believed that the idol was a sort of vessel for the invisible spirit of the god they worshipped. For instance, the people who bought idols of Artemis (Acts 19) didn’t all believe their idol actually was Artemis, rather, it served as a focus for worship and devotion. That doesn’t make it any less false or foolish, but it does explain how people could worship what are obviously dead, unresponsive objects. In fact, prophets like Isaiah (Isaiah 40) and Elijah (I Kings 18) mocked idolatry based on the nonexistence and powerlessness of false gods. But this polemic goes back to the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:21).

Regarding Micah and the silver idol, of course he was supposed to know better, and the priest he hired certainly would have. But even though Israel was commanded to worship Yahweh alone and they were told that idols were not gods, Israelites were continually prone to ‘hedge their bets’ by adding devotion to Baal, Asherah, and even Moloch while still performing sacrifices to Yahweh. This faithlessness ultimately culminated in their exile to Babylon, which seemed to cure them of the temptation to such overt idolatry.

You ask why people would go along with sacrificing children to Moloch—we might equally ask why children are killed on a much larger scale for the false god of Convenience through abortion.

But it is easy to talk about idolatry that happened way ‘back then’ and which we don’t see commonly today. It is harder to examine our own tendency to idolize money and the things which it can buy, celebrity, youth, and health, just to name a few. Just because our idols aren’t statues doesn’t mean it’s less dishonoring to God when they receive the devotion we should be giving to Him.

Philip T. from Australia writes:

Hi. I am witnessing to a JW.

Does the tetragrammaton appear in existing copies of the Septuagint. I could find claims online that it does, but I don’t know the trustworthiness of the site.

Lita Cosner responds:

The tetragrammaton is the four Hebrew letters which correspond to the English YHWH. As such, the tetragrammaton only exists in Hebrew properly, and is translated in other languages. Because of later Jewish superstition regarding pronouncing the name of God, readers of the Scriptures would substitute the Hebrew word Adonai in place of Yahweh, and to remind them to make the substitution, the vowel points for Adonai were placed on the tetragrammaton. Pairing the consonants with the tetragrammaton with the vowels for Adonai is what created the pronunciation ‘Jehovah’.

Now, the word Adonai means ‘master’ or ‘lord’, so the Septuagint (translated by Alexandrian Jews starting in perhaps 300 BC) used kyrios most frequently to translate the tetragrammaton, but they also used theos (God) sometimes. The LXX usage of kyrios is also why the NT quotes of the OT have kyrios (Lord) where the Hebrew originals have the tetragrammaton, and it’s why English translations have Lord where the Hebrew has the tetragrammaton.

A few unusual Septuagint manuscripts seem to have the tetragrammaton written in paleo-Hebrew, but they are very unusual and I wouldn’t make any major theological points from their mere existence.

When dealing with JWs, it’s important to get off the subject of the name of God to the Person of God, namely, that Jesus Christ is not a created being, but is God the Son who took on human flesh to live a sinless life and then to give His life willingly as a sacrifice for sin so that all who call on Him might be saved then rise.

One useful instance I point to in witnessing to JWs is where Hebrews 1:10–12 applies Psalm 102 to Jesus. Hebrews 1:10–12 is clearly talking about Jesus, and Psalm 102 is clearly talking about Yahweh. So Jesus is identified as Yahweh. Another passage very important for salvation is Romans 10:9–13—if we confess Jesus is Lord and believe He is risen from the dead, we will be saved—because it then makes it clear that this “Lord” means “Yahweh” by quoting Joel 2:32—“And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

I hope these few thoughts have been helpful. If you have further questions I would recommend asking your pastor, as I personally rely on my church and pastors for encouragement and support when doing this sort of witnessing.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Harry B.
A lot of Biblical scholars, Christian and non-Christian both, argue that the JW New World Translation presents many errors in its teaching, for instance Colossians 1:16 has had the word 'other' added to it to make it read "Christ created all other things" instead of "Christ created all things."(My paraphrase) This is an attempt to deny the deity of Christ. And yet the Bible says very clearly God and God alone is the sole creator, a claim he himself makes more than once. The Bible also makes it equally clear Jesus is the creator, so how can Jesus not be God? The teaching of the JWs also make it clear they deny the Holy Spirit is also God, instead claiming he's just an active force - but I assure you from experience that once you've felt his touch, you'll know for certain there's no way a mere active force can touch you quite that way. It takes somebody with a heart, and someone who knows your heart, to do that. Bring it on, Holy Spirit!
Hakan S.
I'm afraid that the reasonable answer of using the Hebr 1/Ps 102 and Rom 10/Joel 2 parallels is neutralized by the New World Translation (NWT), the translation used by JW. In that translation "Jehovah" conveniently replaces "the Lord". Thus the parallels come to nothing by eliminating references to Jesus Christ.

There is a special appendix in the NWT on the issue of the Divine Name in the "so called New Testament". It states that the Hebrew Tetragrammaton (YHWH) was used even in Greek texts (like the Septuagint), but were later modified. This is probably one of the main points where the NWT should be challenged.
Jenny Y.
I sometimes ask J.W.s if they know there are two Hebrew words for 'one'. (They never do!) Yachad is used of something which is whole in itself, so cannot be sub-divided without losing its identity -for example, God asking Abraham to sacrifice his ONE and only (yachad) son.
Echad is used for 'one' when that 'oneness' is made up of more than one component - for example Genesis 3:24, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and be united to his wife, and the two will become ONE (echad)'.
I then turn to Deuteronomy 6:4, 'Hear, O Israel, the LORD (YHWH) our God, the LORD is one', and ask which of the two Hebrew words they think is used there.
Of course, the answer is echad. (Sh'ma, Yisrael, Adonai [YHWH] Eloheinu, Adonai echad!) In other words, YHWH (Jehovah, as they say) is a ONE, but that ONE is made up of more than one component - which we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Peter L.
Thank you for this article. Could I add some references, all from Revelation... Rev 1.8, 2.8, and 22.12-13, are all references to the First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, yet the first one is clearly referring to Jehovah God, while the second and third are clearly referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. These verses make it impossible to interpret John 1.1 in any way other than how it is clearly stated.
Chris H.
Who is the First and the Last?
Note that "the Alpha and Omega" of something, in Greek, translates as an extremely emphatic "be all and end all" - even today.
Rev 1v8
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Rev 1v17,18
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. (18 I am the Living One; I was dead,...)
Rev 22v13
13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
Also, who is coming soon?
Rev 22v12; Rev 22v7; Rev 22v20
Lionel T.
"Why do people worship false gods?" asks the people who worship a book that endorses slavery, legitimizes racism, and celebrates genocide. Oh the irony!
Lita Cosner
We don't worship a book, we worship the God who gave us a book that helped to end slavery, gives the only answer for racial reconciliation, and calls us to self-sacrificial love of our enemies even to the point of death for the Gospel.

Without God's Word, why not enslave and kill others who aren't just like you? I mean, if it's all survival of the fittest, why should I get all sentimental about human beings who aren't part of 'my tribe'. Christianity gives us the only basis for caring about all humans, because we're all closely related via Adam and Eve, and Christ died to save people of every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Ray S.
God hates idol worship as indicated throughout the Old Testament. Every one has to have a god, as we were created that way. It goes without saying that people wil worship idols. As to not seeing idol worship now days doesn't mean it's not happening. My mother in law is catholic and her house, not to mention her church, is full of them. She prays to the queen of heaven, even though God expressly condemns it on the o/t. Can't see it for the life of her. Many other religions, countries and people are full of idolatry; it's everywhere and is spreading as the world gets further from the true and living God, Jesus Christ. The whole world will soon run after the idol shepherd. Such is the human heart!
Bob J.
Consider - Isaiah 42:8;48:11 Jehovah declares that He does not share His glory. John 17:5 - "And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world 1:14.
John 6:18-21 Jesus walks on the sea; Matthew 14:25 cf. Job 9:8 - "He alone spreads out the heavens, and treads on the waves of the sea." cf. Isaiah 43:16.
He calms the storm - Matthew 8:26 cf. Psalm 89:9 - "You rule the raging of the sea; when it's waves rise, You still them." cf.93:4.
Hebrews 1:8 The Father calls the Son God. Hebrews 1:10 The Father calls the Son Lord.
Jehovah in Isaiah 10:20-21 is called 'eel gibboor - Mighty God. Isaiah 9:6 calls the Son Mighty God. This word 'eel most of the time speaks of the true God and when not, refers to a false god or an idol.Isaiah 9:6 is obviously calling the Messiah the true God. He wouldn't be prophesying a false god!
John 1:1 is a direct statement regarding the deity of Christ. The Jehovah Witnesses claim that there is Jehovah and Jesus is a lesser god. If this were so it not only contradicts Scripture - Isaiah 43:10-11 ..."And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, nor shall there be after Me. I, even I, am the Lord, and beside Me there is no Savior cf. Acts 4:12; Titus 1:4. Also when the JW's say this they are guilty of polytheism - One true God plus one lesser god!
His enemies couldn't convict Him of sin - John 8:46 cf. Hebrews 7:26 II Chronicles 7:14 cf. Mark 2:5-7; Luke 5:20-21; John 8:1-11.And He forgives sin!
Had the signs of the Messiah Isaiah 35:5-6 cf. John 10:25,37-38; Matthew 11:4-5.
It's interesting to compare Old Testament with the New regarding the one true God - Father, Son & Holy Spirit - Isaiah 44:6; 48:16;Matt.28:19
Creation - God alone Is.44:24 cf. Jn.1-3.
king T.
Having recently had a run-in with an atheist colleague at work I've wondered how to address the issue of his staunch belief that science has provided all the answers. One issue I thought that might have to be addressed is what is the definition of a god since atheists don't believe in such. The other being what is the origin of life?
This reminded me that I once asked this same question on biologos, pointing out that their common questions section does not address that question directly. So I went to have a look and now they have revamped their website and put in an answer. One that clearly illustrates where idolatry arises. ("Isn't the origin of life highly improbable?").
In my opinion, whoever or whatever gives rise to life as we know it is our god or God. So when one reads on biologos that "...But this does not mean that supernatural activity is the only possible explanation...", one can only ponder the incredible implication of that statement. The article at least acknowledges that the "scientific" position has no answer.
On another question of whether the long lives or 900 plus years shown in the early genealogies are literal or symbolic, the answer is that the statements are not to be taken literally as understood in modern English. This is of course because if done so then it represents a monstrous problem for evolution. So the resolution is to indulge in complicated modern numerology which requires the high priests of science to clarify: Reinterpret the words as posed to fit in with evolution.
Thus Abiogenesis and Evolution have become the new gods - that which gives rise to life as we know it. The modern idolatry is subtle, coming in as a lamb amongst the flock, but equally deadly in its outcome.
David M.
Thank you Lita for your biblically based response. I found it interesting for you to mention Deuteronomy 32:21 in the polemic against the false gods, as this verse is quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 10:19. If we can diverge just a little and think of the second part of the verse and Hebraic parallelism (not sure if that’s the correct term) to help our understanding of the first part then we might appreciate that according to Paul the “no people” of Deuteronomy 32:21, that were to make Israel jealous were not non-existent people, but as he explains later in Romans 11:11, the “no people” who were to make Israel jealous were the Gentiles. That is the Gentiles were at that time, considered by the Jews, “not a nation” or “a foolish nation”, explained further in 1Peter 2:9-10 – Once … not a people … now … a chosen race … a holy nation. A well known but somewhat crude example in our modern idiom would be to think of actor Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee – “that’s not a knife”.

So what does that have to do with idols and the idea of non-existent false gods? Perhaps I could recommend that those interested begin by reading your useful review of “The Unseen Realm” by Dr Michael S. Heiser in the Journal of Creation, Volume 30, Issue 2, Published August 2016 [] and also Psalms 136:2-3.
Richard L.
Hi B.C.,
Re how the ancient Israelites foolishly worshipped idols, we should note that many current scientists / intellectuals share this foolishness, by (implicitly) worshipping the inter-relationships (laws of nature) acting between created objects, rather than the objects themselves. This is subtle idolatry. It is also an example of localized mind-dulling (Rom. 1:18-25) in otherwise brilliant analytical people. Such scientists have to believe that in spite of the clear inadequacy (already addressed by CMI) of those maintenance-conservation / dissipation laws to create the universe.
The ultimate expression of such foolishness—beyond that of the ancients—exists within atheists. Science is the search for true causation of natural phenomena. The prerequisite search for adequate causation narrows the search for true causation. The ancients did have some science activity (Isis [U of Chicago], Dec. 1992—an edition devoted to science in ancient societies). Almost certainly, their wrong belief in many within-nature gods was a wrong attempt to seek out adequate causation, while rightly acknowledging true intelligent design within nature. Atheism is worse, stuck (as Macarthur points out) with “Nobody and Nothing made everything”—vividly failing the adequacy test.
Presumably seeing Pharaonic scientists insist on the “scientific” existence of their false gods, ancient Israelites—from every biblical evidence—bought into that false obligation. Not trusting God re the harvest, they bought an extra insurance policy from the Moloch people—with horrifying results.
We Christians are also vulnerable. Lyellian teaching captured me, at age 8. I mentally dulled, re scientific and corrective biblical data I couldn’t process, until Henry Morris (the Genesis Flood) freed me.
Christian R.
I also use other verses to talk about the deity of Christ, leaving JW puzzled: Rom 9:5; Tit 2:13; Tit 3:4-6 (how many Saviours are there??); Rev 22:1-3 (how many thrones, how many persons, and serve who??). In the old testament, we also see how God says there is no other God (Is 45:5-6, 25, 18), he created heavens and earth, as inCol 1:15-19.
A. H.
The article by Dominic Statham called BBC sexual perversion September 12th, 2012 particularly the section 'the Dark Gods' contains relevant ideas.
False Worship involves occultic union with demons particularly when sexual elements are involved. It is little wonder that so much degradation is involved. Clearly the fact that angels cannot reproduce makes our ability to reproduce a particular target for the Kingdom of Darkness. C.S.Lewis in his Screwtape Letters gives some of the strategies regularly used.
Troy M.
While most believe intelligent people do not worship false gods, one only need visit a science museum and observe. On a recent visit to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science museum or a better title would be the Dallas Science Temple, I observed priest guiding adults and children to the various worship chambers teaching them how the universe was formed, how life began and evolved, everything from single-cell organisms to complete ecosystems. Then there is display of the prophets Darwin, Dawkins, et al. You will not find God in this temple. The irony is that each visitor, adult and child, know that the temple was designed and constructed by a designer. They know it could not possibly have come about spontaneously, no matter how much time elapsed. Yet, the visitor is taught that the universe and life, which is infinitely more complex, just happened.
Bob J.
Regarding the worshiping of idols and false religions - I have often thought about this in relation to Israel many years ago when God delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians and through the Red Sea. After witnessing all the miracles that God did through the hand of Moses etc. When Moses was on the mountain and they thought he had been there too long they made a golden calf and worshiped it! Exodus 32 - v.8 they even said regarding the golden calf "...this is your god, o Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" The Scripture answers our questions as to why - Isaiah 26:10 - "Let grace be shown to the wicked, yet he will not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he will deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the Lord." cf. Job 22:18; Isaiah 64:6; Genesis 6:5;Romans 1:18-32 etc. I Corinthians 1:18 "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 2:14 "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him;neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." Anyone without the Spirit of God, does not belong to God - Romans 8:9. This is the reason for the cultists who come to our doors today - II Corinthians 11:3; 13-15. II Corinthians 4:3-4 - "But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, Who is the image of God, should shine on them." It shows the total depravity of man's heart! I have no problem understanding this, but what I have a problem with is how Christians can replace the literal truth of Scripture with their own ideas! In Christ - Bob J.
Frank B.
May I suggest another useful one - John c12 v41. Ask whose glory is being referred to?
Malan G.
Good article, thanks. Just one more thing, perhaps, is to explain that the LXX is the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT. The word YHWH, therefore, will not appear in the LXX. One can look in e.g. the King James Version and find every place that the word LORD is written all in capital letters--like this; LORD--not like this; Lord. Those places where the word LORD [all capital letters] is found in the KJV, is where the word YHWH is found in the original Hebrew.
Richard L.
Re Lita’s noting of Deuteronomy 32:21 as an anti-idolatry “polemic” by Moses, this verse is a clear-enough review summary by Moses. Please also note all of Deuteronomy 4—most of it a massive anti-idolatry polemic—especially these verses: the scientific-analysis stupidity of idols (4:28) and, twice, the explicitly stated non-existence (not just illegitimacy, but also non-existence) of false gods (4:35,39). The latter verse is prefaced by “know… lay it to your heart!” God also boosts the intensity of the latter statement by prefacing it with its explicit scope: “in heaven above and on earth beneath”—i.e., no exceptions, no loopholes! God here emphatically—with crystal clarity—refutes the existence of false gods. All this is later summarized in 32:21. And it is still further expanded on and argued repeatedly by Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah. The latter 2 prophets do this at a formal scientific-argument level—using material-science data and tight logic in argumentation. (So, yes and amen to what Lita says.)

In light of their very recent encounter with Deuteronomy 4—all of that book being said or sung to them, in one speech event—the entry-generation Israelites had no excuse not to clearly understood 32:21 when they heard it. Contrary to what some theologians (e.g., Peter Enns) say, God was never ambiguous about the non-existence of the false gods—and the resultant foolishness of worshipping idols of them.
John C.
Another 'argument' can be pairing John 1:3 (Jesus as the maker of all things); and Heb 3:4 (He who built all things is God). If He who builds all things is God, and Jesus built all things, then Jesus is God. This ties the person of Jesus also directly to His creative record. The pairings are endless, because the truth is timeless. Of course, the most important thing we can do for those in error is to love them. Nothing will convince someone you care about them more than if you actually do! Blessings.
Hans G.
False gods: They are the clay.

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