Saints and Monsters
Look more closely at the two kinds of statues. The Hindu statues are strange and frightening. Some of the pagan gods are nice—like the cheerful, blue skinned god Krishna. Some are cute like Ganesh, the elephant god. But more often the Hindu god is a beast of some kind. It is likely to have the body of a man and the head of a monster or a monkey. The Hindu statue might be a representation of the goddess Kali—a fearsome demon with eight arms. She is black, with a blood red tongue stuck out, and she wears a necklace of skulls. Consider the ancient pagan gods of Babylon, Egypt or Caanan. They are nightmarish hybrids — Wolf-men, bull-men, falcon-men. Think of the idols of primitive tribes: they are gruesome, bewildering and bizarre, and although the pagan statues represent ‘gods’ we know they actually represent those fallen spiritual beings otherwise known as demons.
Now look again at the statues in a Catholic Church. They simply are not the same thing at all. These are the images of real people. There’s Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth. There’s Mary, his wife. There is Francis, the beggar saint from Assissi, and over there is Theresa—the teenaged French nun looking like the fresh faced girl next door. Look, there is Peter, stern and brave, and over there is Anthony—ready to preach the word. These are not images of fearful demonic beings who demand your worship. These are not frightening demi-gods who will devour you if you do not please them. These are images of ordinary people who have become extraordinary because they have given everything to God. These are God’s advertisements for a special free gift called grace. These are our friends, our mentors and our role models. These images are more like a family portrait gallery than a chamber of horrors full of demonic gods and goddesses.
Comparing the two types of statues makes us realise that the differences between two types of religion are more important than their similarities. The pagan images are images from hell. The Christian images are images from heaven. The pagan images portray demons who set themselves up as false gods. The Christian images portray saints who worship around the throne of the one true God. The pagan images are gruesome. The Christian images are awesome. The pagan gods are the fallen beings of the underworld. The Christian saints are those who have been raised up to the highest heights.
No Graven Images
Some years ago I was poking around a medieval church in England with an Evangelical friend named Tom. We were both interested in the dusty old history of the place. I was caught up in the sense of holiness in the ancient house of prayer, but I sensed that my friend was not totally happy. Suddenly Tom stopped and pointed with a snort of dismay. Over the door he had spotted a carved medieval image of St Michael battling the devil.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘Second commandment’ he said.
‘Thou shalt not make unto yourself any graven image.’
Immediately he left the church and refused to visit any more of these temples for idols.
Can the Old Testament commandment, ‘Thou shalt not make any graven images’ really mean that no images are allowed in churches at all? Its impossible that this is the true meaning of that commandment since later on in the Book of Exodus God actually commands Moses to make a graven image for worship. In Exodus 25.18-20 Moses is told to make two great cherubim out of wood. They are to be covered with gold and placed over the Ark of the Covenant. In Exodus 26.31 the veil in the tabernacle is meant to woven with images of cherubim and in Numbers 21.8-9 God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent so that the people, who were smitten with snakebite, might look on it and live. Furthermore, when you read about the temple that Solomon built, there are beautiful and powerful images all over the place. The great basin to wash the sacrifices sits on the back of twelve bronze bulls, (2 Chronicles 4.4) images of cherubim were woven into the veils of the temple (2 Chronicles 3.14) and magnificent statues of cherubim were made for the Holy of Holies (2 Chronicles 3.10-13)
According to the Bible itself, the commandment against graven images is not a blanket condemnation of all religious images. Instead the second commandment (according to non-Catholics) is a commandment against two things. Most importantly, it is linked with the first commandment that the Hebrews are to have only one God. That’s why Catholics read the two commandments together. The law to have just one God is the most important part of this first commandment. All the other cultures around the Jews were polytheistic. They worshipped a whole range of gods. The first commandment to the Jews is the simple one that, despite all the cultural pressure, they were to worship only the Lord. The second reason for the commandment against graven images is, in order to help the Jews focus on their one Lord, all the false idols were to be destroyed. So they wouldn’t fall back into devil worship, they were not to make any new images of demons.
Made in the Image of God
There is an even more profound reason why God told the Jews not to worship images of demons. Not only were images of the demonic beings forbidden, but they were also forbidden to make any images of their own God—the Lord. This is because theywere created in the image of God. The astounding truth is that the true image of God was there amongst them in their crude camp in the Sinai desert.
Each of their brothers and sisters was a son or daughter of Adam and Eve, and so each one of them was also created in the image of God. The pagan wolf-men, falcon-men and bull gods were just a lot of bull. They were false gods because the real images of God were real men and women. It took a while for this amazing truth to sink in because, although the Hebrew men and women had been created in the image of God, that image had been terribly wounded and soiled by sin. Nevertheless, God didn’t forbid images because images of God were impossible, but because people had been tempted to look to the wrong images. If we have the wrong answer to a problem sometimes that wrong answer has to be hammered out of us to make room for the right answer. The reason they were not to have images of God was because they were the image of their God—a God who was called Emmanuel—God is with us.
God wanted the Hebrews to be aware that they were created in his image for a very important reason. Each of them were a pointer to an even more marvellous part of God’s plan. This reveals the most amazing reason for the prohibition of false images. False images were outlawed because God wanted the people to look beyond themselves, created things and monster gods for something better. False images of God were banned because the true and perfect image of God was yet to come. From the time of Adam and Eve’s bad decision God was planning for a time when he would send forth his son born of a woman. First he prepared a perfect image of woman in Mary, and when she said ‘yes’ to God the way opened up for the perfect image of God and the image of perfect Man to be revealed for all time.