Are All Idols Equal?

Are All Idols Equal? January 18, 2014

Are All Idols Equal?

Christians believe there is only one true God—the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). All other “gods” are false; they do not exist. John Calvin said that apart from faith in Christ the human mind is nothing but a factory of idols. Many Protestants, especially, agree with him about that. Karl Barth, the most influential modern Protestant theologian, argued against all forms of natural theology and saw every notion of God outside of Jesus Christ as false and useless. Apart from faith in Christ, apart from God’s Word, “man’s search for God” is hopeless, leading only to idols.

Can one agree with Calvin and Barth and still think not all idols are equally bad? Are some idols better than others?

This might sound like a strange question, but I think it has very practical implications. One example is personal and civic virtue. Theology traditionally appeals to common grace to explain why it is possible for unbelieving, even rebellious, human minds to create great art, culture and good government. But do some false notions of God promote personal and civic virtue better than others?

Another example is bridges to faith in the God of Jesus Christ. Do some false ideas of God provide better points of contact for faith-inducing conversation than others?

Let me approach the question from a slightly different angle. Suppose (imagine, hypothesize) that you have a loved one or friend who absolutely will not accept Jesus or believe in the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ. Would you prefer him or her to be an atheist or a deist or are both equally bad so it doesn’t make any difference?

Yet another way of approaching the question is this: Is there any value in arguing against atheism even if so-called “proofs for the existence of God” fall short of creating true faith? If someone is an atheist and you think you can show them that atheism is irrational (e.g., inconsistent with other things they believe), is there any point in doing that? Would you rather they remained an atheist or that they come to believe in one god, maker of heaven and earth even if that belief is no more than deism?

Here’s an example. The late great atheist philosopher Antony Flew came to believe in the existence of one god through studying intelligent design theory. But, so far as anyone knows, he never embraced Christian faith. His “god” was probably something like that of deism. Was the world possibly a better place because Flew believed in a supreme being? Was he possibly any better off because of it?

Well, of course, that begs the question of what “better off” might mean in such as context. Here I mean something like “having a reason to not be a nihilist.” Fleshing that out a bit more: “Having a reason to believe in objective right and wrong.” Possibly also “Having a platform for moving on to faith in the God of Jesus Christ.” (C. S. Lewis and Mortimer Adler both became Christians partly by means of an intellectual path that brought belief in God first. Augustine testified that he became open to his mother’s Christian faith through reading the books of the Platonists.)

I do not agree with those who argue that deists, for example, are no better off (or that society is no better off because of a prevailing deism) than atheists. I would rather a person became a Bahai than become or remain an atheist. In my opinion the Bahai faith is largely false, but its moral monotheism is better than atheism—for civic and personal virtue. (I am not here equating Bahai faith with deism! I am only saying that non-Christian monotheism is better than atheism or polytheism.)

Let me use a biblical illustration to support my case. When Paul the Apostle went to Athens he used the monument to the “unknown god” as a platform for talking about Christ. He didn’t use any other idol or monument to a false god; he used that one for a reason. Clearly, so it seems to me, Paul preferred people to believe in the “unknown god” than the other gods honored in the same place.

Now I’ll turn to post-apostolic, early Christian “fathers” to make my point. Many of the second century Christian writers known as apologists thought Greek monotheism was better than Greek (or any other) polytheism. Not because salvation could be found through it but because it was closer to Christianity’s belief about God.

Finally, turning to the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas thought Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” god was better, closer to Christianity’s God, than, say, Zeus in Greek mythology.

My argument is not that these other gods are true; they are at best pale reflections of God—what C. S. Lewis called myths that hide some truth that, if captured, can point toward the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ.

What do you think and why? Please offer thoughtful responses with reasons; don’t just state an opinion without any effort to explain or support it.

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