What is idolatry and does it still exist today?

What is idolatry and does it still exist today?

In our day and age, it appears as if we take the concept of idolatry for granted, it was something done long ago in the age of Pantheons and the height of pagan religion. Or at the very least we see it as a casual annoyance for God as he watched over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Through our modern desensitization to the overall idea of idolatry it is no wonder then why we have lost the theological and moral implications of these actions. In his book We Become What We Worship G.K. Beale has set out to remind contemporary readers of the dangers, consequences and power that idolatry held over the Israelites. Not only that he sets out to demonstrate how even Christians today who claim a better covenant are still susceptible to this corruption of the heart and relationship with God. Therefore, we shall delve into how G.K. Beale understands not only the core of idolatry but how it applied to the Israelites and modern Christians through his core thesis of “what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”[1]

What is Idolatry

The Act of Idolatry

            At its core “idolatry is the ultimate expression of unfaithfulness to God and for that reason is the occasion for severe divine punishment.”[2] Therein lies the danger and the allure of idolatry as whatever idol or source is set above God becomes the foundation of a person’s life. In essence idolatry can be expressed as “whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security.”[3] Throughout his book, Beale examines this topic primarily through Isaiah’s appointment, Isaiah’s prophecies in chapters 40-66 and through the episode of the golden calf at Mt. Sinai. These prophecies and events are presented as the backbone of Israelite idol worship which was the attempt by the nation to find security, fulfillment and purpose outside of God.

            These idolatrous actions and attitudes of the heart are not just an absence of devotion in a person or nation but rather the corruption of it since there is no neutrality in this process. The cost of idolatry then is great as:

when we worship something in creation, we become like it, as spiritually lifeless and insensitive to God as a piece of wood, rock or stone. We become spiritually blind, deaf and dumb even though we have physical eyes and ears. If we commit ourselves to something that does not have God’s Spirit, to that degree we will be lacking the Spirit. We will be like ancient Israel.[4]

This insight by Beale forms the backbone of his theology, for as Israel followed their idols to a greater degree the more the people resembled those idols. This transformation did not bring them the life they hoped for but instead left them blind, deaf and dumb spiritually. It left them spiritually deficient which is no wonder why the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah were in the minority for much of Israel’s history.

What is an Idol?

            Understanding the action of idolatry then begs the question of what exactly is an idol and how can this hunk of stone or wood have so much power? At its core, an idol “is anything worshiped in place of the true God,”[5] it is a physical representation of a spiritual force or idea which draws the devotion of a person or nation. In the era of the Old Testament “an idol or image contained a god’s presence, though that presence was not limited to the image.”[6] This can be seen in Israel through the Asherah poles or even the statue within the temple compound during the ministry of Jeremiah. These images ranged from giant statues to small household statues like the one Rachel stole from her family. While these were prohibited in Israel, they were prevalent throughout Israel’s neighbors for they believed that each idol was a connecting point between the gods and the people.

Connection Between Idols and Demons

            Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 32 and 1 Corinthians 10 make it clear that behind many of these idols were fallen spiritual forces who were opposed to God. People believed their idols were tied to real spiritual forces and the testimony of the Scripture was that while they did “exist” they were all beneath YHWH. Beale presents idols in this light as a means to emphasize the severity of idolatry as the people were worshipping fallen creatures rather than the creator.

Various Israelite traditions connect this idea with the worshipping of the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, as even Paul’s discourse in 1 Corinthians is “parallel with the targumic traditions that see the activity of Satan working through the golden calf idol to influence Israel to be spiritually identified with the idol.”[7] Furthermore Paul “interprets sacrifices to idols to be also sacrifices to demons, which necessarily entails ‘becoming a sharer in demons,’ who indwell the idol.”[8] This is a revelation which was true centuries ago and while controversial still applies to modern times as behind many ideologies, contemporary idols and other matters lie spiritual forces who lead people against God and his purposes for humanity.

            By understanding these aspects of idols and the act of idolatry it becomes clear that the heart of this issue is a rejection of God, his rulership and his nature. There is only worship of God or rejection of him in favor of idolatry, there is no grey area in between and this is “why half-heartedness is a template of idolatry. When someone wants to embrace both (cf. 11:19, 21), it invariably leads to whole-scale apostasy.”[9] Jesus warned his followers about being double minded for this very reason, and it is why he used the language of those not understanding his teaching being blind or deaf.

Becoming What You Worship

            Idolatry is the action of endorsing and supporting any spiritual being, ideology, person, tradition, attitude or action which stands in opposition to God. Through this consignment to opposing forces the idolater assumes the heart and nature of whatever they have chosen in place of God, this is Beale’s core idea of “becoming what you worship.” We can see this idea go all the way back to the garden of Eden as “Adam’s allegiance shifted from God to himself and prob-ably also to Satan, since he comes to resemble the serpent’s character in some ways.”[10] Beale describes how this happened through Adam not trusting in God’s words and in Eve’s misquoting those same commands.

            This pattern then repeats itself throughout the history of humanity, but on a theological and historical level it reached a climax at Mt. Sinai. There the people grew impatient with Moses and created a new god, or a new embodiment of God for themselves. Another option is that “a calf or bull was among the most important of the Egyptian animal images that represented Egypt’s gods,” [11] specifically Ptah. God subsequently judged the people for these actions of rejection and Moses destroyed the original commandments, and this is where most people stop with the story. However, Deuteronomy 29:3 states “But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear” (ESV). Through their idolatry and spiritual stubbornness God had allowed Israel to resemble what they truly worshiped, and it left them spiritually blind. “Just as idols had eyes but could not see and ears but could not hear, so Isa. 6:9–10 describes apostate Israelites likewise to indicate figuratively that what they revered they had come to resemble.”[12]

This episode of the golden calf Beale points out is the origin of the language of Israel being “stiff-necked” like a wild young ox, language which repeats itself throughout the Old Testament. “To understand this is also to understand the way idols subverted Israel’s security. YHWH was the sworn protector of Israel. As he had made them, so he would be with them.”[13] Yet despite all of this the Northern Tribes still erected their own golden calves in defiance of Jerusalem and the people continued following these and other gods until the exile. The judgment they faced from the Assyrians and the Babylonians becomes more understandable as God was treating the people as he would treat their idols. Especially when we consider places such as Isaiah 9 where “idolaters are compared to cultic trees and their judgement is suitably depicted as cultic trees being burned.”[14]

How Does Idolatry Warp the Image of God?

We have seen how “all idolatry is human rejection of the Goodness of God and the finality of God’s moral authority,”[15] yet this corruption goes far deeper into the core of humanity. It could be argued that idolatry obscures the image of God within people, as it directs our love and attention away from God our true source and forces us to take in counterfeit life from another. Beale elaborates this point as to how, “Those who are not ‘loving God’ and consequently, not being ‘conformed to the image of God’s Son’ are loving some other earthly object of worship and, consequently, being conformed to that earthly image.”[16]

Humanity’s Nature and Purpose

One of the great tragedies of idolatry is that it goes counter to the purpose of God creating humanity, that is to be an image or a physical representation of God within the Earth. In this twisting of nature the ones who are in the image of God have instead chosen to reject that assignment and worship other creatures. When humans sinned they chose “not to conform their life to God’s image but to the image of the serpent’s sinful and deceptive character.”[17] A decision we continue to live with today as while the image of God is innate in all people it is visible in only a few who are willing to forsake their idols and reclaim their position as imagers of God through Christ. These are those who work towards “the penultimate goal of the Creator was to make creation a liveable place for humans in order that they would achieve the grand aim of glorifying him.”[18]

Idolatry Changes our Source

In the story of the fall “There also seems to be an element of self-worship in that Adam decided that he knew what was better for him than God did, that he wanted to advance himself at all costs, and that he trusted in himself, a created man, instead of in the Creator.”[19] Adam changed the source of his life and ideology in exchange for a forbidden wisdom that he desired so he could be like God. A great lie for Adam since he was already in the image of God, meaning he already was to a degree like God. Therefore, Adam’s source changed from life to death, he exchanged God’s glory for entropy and futility and from this place the meaning and mind of humanity began to drift. We could look at this change as if humanity had altered its operating system or even replaced it, such as replacing Windows with iOS. However, humanity was not compatible with that change of source and operating system so it sought to either find new gods for themselves or to submit to other spiritual forces who were determined to make humans suffer despite promises of health, wealth and joy. No longer did humans look to God for fulfillment but instead turned to other sources for happiness and security. This is the lesson of Adam who “stopped being committed to God and reflecting his image, he revered something else in place of God and resembled his new object of worship. Thus, at the heart of Adam’s sin was idolatry.”[20]

Idolatry in our Contemporary Age

From the lessons of ancient Israel who trusted in idols such as the golden calves, Baal and Asherah more than God we move on to our more “civilized” age where we claim to no longer follow these idols. When in actuality our gods of wood, stone and metal have been replaced by the gods of Self, Money, Ideology and Tradition.

A Culture of Self-Idolatry

The culture of the western world in the past hundred years has been marked by the desire of the individual to rise up above something, anything, in attempt to find meaning and understanding in this world. From this has come consumerism and rationalism which leads people into thinking that their purpose is to take in resources and trust that their finances will grow by 2-5% every year so they can continue the process of consumption. It is a mindset which places us as gods over ourselves as “we know best,” or that we “trust our gut” as the paragon of intuition and guidance.  Leaving people unaware that “the fundamental idolatry described by the Bible lies also at the heart of the varied modern idolatries: the idolatry of the self. The self is set at the center of existence as a god: ultimate significance is found in god-like individual autonomy, self-set goals and boundaries.”[21] Beale highlights this idea in saying, “modern people devote themselves to ‘self’ by taking every expedient in order to insure the welfare of their “self,” ultimately without concern for others or for God.”[22]

We worship the self by indulging in its appetites and through the quest of happiness and fulfillment through the resources of creation. “Consequently, if we try to make ourselves great, then we are actually reflecting our own egos in a greater and greater way.”[23] This is the trap of setting ourselves above God in our own eyes or by rejecting God because he won’t let us have what we want (whether it is a matter of sin or not). When this is done a person might as well bow down to a statue of themselves, or even before a mirror. No matter how hard we try, “Desiring to reflect the idol of ourselves and making ourselves larger can only lead to becoming small, because of judgment.”[24]

A Culture of Financial Idolatry

Beyond the culture of self-idolatry Beale tackles next the issue of financial idolatry which is more than worshipping money in itself but through placing trust, lust and dependency upon the entire system of greed. Beale points out how “The worship of idols likely often involves not only the usurpation of divine prerogatives but self-worship, since people would worship various gods in the ancient world in order to ensure their own physical, economic and spiritual welfare.”[25] This is an issue pointed out in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation as many of the charges against places such as Thyatira concerned their allegiance to trade guilds which participated in pagan practices and idolatry. Even Israel sought security from idols such as Baal the storm god and bringer of rain along with other gods who promised fertility and blessings.

The blunt fact is “greed is idolatry because the greedy contravene God’s exclusive rights to human love, trust and obedience.”[26] It is a religious devotion to acquisition which inevitably forces the worshipper to do so at any cost to themselves but especially to others. This is done in the name of security or “protecting my family” or keeping “investors happy.” These people place “their ultimate security in the excessive trappings of their money, jewels, beautiful clothes, cars, and houses; they place their trust in financial security, which is idolatry, and they literally begin to take on the appearance of the wealth in which they have trusted.”[27] Paul in Colossians 3:5 confirms the idea that greed in itself can be seen as idolatry, not that business or providing for a family is evil, but it is when your life is dictated by those pursuits.

A Culture of Ideological Idolatry

A subject that deserves mentioning but Beale does not touch on is the idea of ideology as being a form of idolatry. Recent examples such as the social justice warrior movement, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, MAGA and a host of other battlelines drawn between liberals and conservatives all invoke a religious and idolatrous connotation. If religious ideology can be a form of idolatry it could be argued that the same can be said about social or political idolatries. Especially in this highly charged and polarized society where in many cases social acceptance is tied to total allegiance to certain ideologies which have become idols in themselves.

In speaking about Proverbs 14:12 Beale comments “The idolaters thought the idols would bring greater life and prosperity, but they would only inherit death and emptiness, which is to become like the spiritually dead and empty idols.” This same sentiment can and should be applied today to various ideologies as people commit to these beliefs out of hope (or fear) that they will bring about health, wealth and security. Often this is “achieved” through the powers of indoctrination, destruction and fear. Therefore, when we trust in ideologies or in “false teaching, which is a false substitute for truth, then we are guilty of idol worship. The church must guard itself from venerating false theology as a substitute for the true.”[28]

A Culture of Christian Idolatry

Perhaps most controversial of all of these modern forms of idolatry is the amalgamation of these idolatries into the operation and expectation of the modern church. One that in the eyes of some is only concerned with growth, finances, collecting people and appealing to people’s base desire for self-fulfillment or uncritiqued worship of self. These matters have been matched by critiques of the church such as “Too many churches of today are market-driven, attempting to meet the need of their consumers’ desires for idolatrous self-fulfillment… Much of the Church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to this idolatry of the self.”[29] On the surface the church can see itself as the dwelling place of God but at the same time be indistinguishable from its surrounding culture. All the while claiming spiritual superiority given its status as the house of God, a claim made by earlier Israelites which was met with judgment from God.

Even the likes of Eugene Peterson spoke out against this alteration of the heart of the church and how it has strayed from its true devotion:

Do we realize how almost exactly the Baal culture of Canaan is reproduced in American church culture? Baal religion is about what makes you feel good. Baal worship is a total immersion in what I can get out of it. And of course, it was incredibly successful. The Baal priests could gather crowds that outnumbered followers of Yahweh 20 to 1.[30]

In many ways then the church itself has adopted an idolatry of growth, financial security, along with an aversion to tackle ideological idolatries of the day and in enabling the continued idolatry of the “self” by many in the congregation.

Restoring the Image of God

Trying to find restoration or relief without first letting go of idols is a fruitless endeavor because “One’s only hope in being delivered from reflecting the spiritually lifeless images of the world is to be recreated or reformed by God into an image that reflects God’s living image, which results in spiritual life.”[31] Any attempt to do otherwise only ends up in people trading one idol(s) for another which may draw them even deeper into the proverbial darkness. Stanley Grenz points out that “according to Paul, the divine glory is precisely what fallen humanity has failed to attain, for sinful humans have refused to glorify God,”[32] therefore the cure to idolatry should be found in glorifying God and more specifically through worshipping and following Christ.

Beale postulates “that the image of God’s son to which Christians are becoming conformed in Rom. 8 is the antithesis to the worldly “image” that unbelieving humanity had exchanged in place of God’s glory in Rom. 1.”[33] Christ as God and man presents us with a new source of being and gives us a path out of the darkness of idolatry, if we are willing to follow him fully. In many ways this offer of cleansing and redirection is even greater than what transpired in Isaiah 6 when the prophet saw the glory of God and received cleansing in exchange for service. For those in Christ the image of God is able to once again reflect the glory and purpose of God as people have the option to no longer trust in themselves or creation but have access to God and his provision and guidance once again.

All of this boils down to whether or not a person will reject their idols and recognize God as being the only true God and source for humanity. Beale points out that when “we love God, and in the process of loving him, we become what God wants us to become. Loving God, paradoxically, is the best expression of self-love, for in loving God we are truly happy.”[34]


Through Beale’s book We Become What We Worship and many of his other works he presents the idea that what people worship they will become. This includes becoming spiritually blind, deaf and dumb as their physical idols and being labeled for judgment for rejecting God as God. This applied not only to Israel in the past but continues today as people worship the idols of self, finances (greed), ideology and even church practices. However, there is a remedy for this corruption of the heart which leads to idolatry. Though Christ people are able to receive cleansing and forgiveness by which they are able to recognize God as God with a clear mind. This then presents a choice to people of, what do they want to become? They in turn answer this by determining what they will place their trust in as they seek for security, blessing and peace. Beale leaves us with the sobering challenge of “whatever work Christians do, they should pray, ‘Lord, cause me to take pleasure in your glory and not in mine.’”[35]

[1] G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 16.

[2] Brian S. Rosner, “The Concept of Idolatry,” Themelios 24, no. 3 (1999): 21.

[3][3] A. Motyer, “Idolatry,” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Leicester U.K.: Inter Varsity Press, 1980), 2:680.

[4] Beale, Worship, 307.

[5] Beale, Worship, 166.

[6] Beale, Worship, 17.

[7] Beale, Worship, 155.

[8] Beale, Worship, 154.

[9] John N. Day, “Ezekiel and the Heart of Idolatry,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164 (2007): 28.

[10] Beale, Worship, 133.

[11] “Calf” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Peter W. van der Horst (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1999), p. 181

[12] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 239.

[13] Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 81.

[14] G. K. Beale, “Isaiah VI 9-13: A Retributive Taunt against Idolatry.” Vetus Testamentum 41, no. 3 (1991): 278.

[15] C. J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 164.

[16] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 376.

[17] G. K. Beale, Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom, ed. Dane C. Ortlund and Miles V. Van Pelt, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 54.

[18] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, ed. D. A. Carson, vol. 17, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL; England: InterVarsity Press; Apollos, 2004), 82.

[19] Beale, Worship, 134.

[20] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 358.

[21] Iain Provan, “To Highlight All Our Idols: Worshipping God in Nietzsche’s World,” Ex Auditu 15 (1999): 33.

[22] Beale, Worship, 138.

[23] Beale, Worship, 297.

[24] Beale, Worship, 140.

[25] Beale, Worship, 138.

[26] B. S. Rosner, “Idolatry,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 575.

[27] G. K. Beale, Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom, ed. Dane C. Ortlund and Miles V. Van Pelt, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 65.

[28] Beale, Worship, 285.

[29] David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 202-3.

[30] Eugene Peterson, “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons,” Christianity Today, March 2005, p. 45.

[31] Beale, Worship, 279.

[32] Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 232.

[33] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 376.

[34] Beale, Worship, 298.

[35] Beale, Worship, 310.

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