I come from an area where idols (as a physical representation of a god, or a material focus of worship) are rare at best, but we find them more here in the Philippines in different forms. As Christians, what do we do with them?
Some suggest they should be destroyed, noting I Corinthians 10:20 (and Deuteronomy 32:16-17, and more) that at least implies that there are demons associated with physical idols. However, there are a lot of verses that emphasize that physical idols have no power at all (outside of the faith placed in them). Perhaps the truth is that any act that rejects God’s supremacy and worthiness for worship is demonic… rather than that idols themselves are demonic.
Some retain them as cultural works of art. If idols have no power of themselves, then they are simply the physical form of a symbol… and symbols have no intrinsic meaning, only what meaning is given to them. When the symbol of the material idol is divested of its religious meaning, it can be reinterpreted with its cultural meaning. I will leave that for others to decide… however in general if Christians reject everything that has ever had a historical link with paganism or other false religions, there would be little left (even within Christianity) that could be acceptable.
Even if one believes there are demons associated with material idols, that does not mean they are forever tainted any more than a person oppressed by demons is irredeemable.
BUT LET’S TAKE A BIGGER VIEW OF IDOLS, understanding that any activity, concept, or object that takes the place of God is, functionally, an idol… or functionally our god. Christopher J.H. Wright speaks of four.
1. That which inspires awe. The sun, moon, and stars, are common objects of idolization… but not alone. Aspects of the cycle of seasons or fertility have also become objects of worship. Or perhaps “science” or “beauty.”
2. That which entices. We are enticed by wealth. We are enticed by power. Money. Popularity. Drugs. Sex. They draw and seduce us. That can easily become idols.
3. That which we fear. Much of paganism seeks to fight dangerous spirits, or hold off natural disasters. In fact, all of us have that tendency to worship what endangers us. Personality cults (whether religious or secular/governmental) often lead to a form of worship— sometime based on their personal charm, but as often by the power they have over the people.
4. That which we trust. This is an obvious response to what we fear. If we worship (or respond with religious fervor) to what we fear, we equally and similarly respond to what may protect us from that fear.
So what do we do about these idols? Do we destroy what we have awe for, what we fear, or what we trust? Doesn’t seem like a good idea. Do we make them cultural artifacts? Again, in many cases, this is not practical. In missions classes many talk about power encounter… sending in God to battle the “gods.” That may have some relevance in paganism where power projection is a major component of the belief system(s). But again, that seems pretty limited and does not take into account the different types of idols. So lets consider the options:
1. That which leaves us in awe. Commonly, this is nature. But it can include concepts or human constructs as well. What do we do with such idols? We redirect to the ultimate source. The heavens declare the glory of God.
We don’t destroy nature or that which inspires awe… we direct people to the ultimate source of that awe.
2. That which entices. The lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh. For many, these idols (money, popularity, power, and so forth) are the most dangerous. These are the one’s that need to be dealt the most unambiguously. They may not need to be destroyed. If beauty entices, the solution would not be to make things ugly. But the things that entice must be revalued— and replaced with God as the highest.
3. That which inspires fear. God declares Himself at times with expressions of fear… but typically in terms of fear as it comes to issues of obedience (like “fearing” one’s parents and so obeying them over one’s buddies). For these idols, I believe they should push us towards that which inspires trust. Because of who we trust, we don’t need to idolize fear.
4. That which inspires trust. God chooses to express Himself to us in terms of trust: A good shepherd, a loving father, a righteous king. Often what entices becomes what we trust. Again, what inspires trust, other than God, needs to be recognized as heavily limited.
But let’s take this further. I believe that all need to move towards number 4. God as a center of awe is great. As such He may be transcendent, but also objective and abstract. God must be relational and loving and personal. As such, God must be the center of our trust, not merely center of our awe (or fear or desire).