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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: When the God of the Bible Is Rejected

Don Stewart :: What Is Polytheism?

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What Is Polytheism? (The Worship in Many Gods)

When the God of the Bible Is Rejected – Question 9

In the ancient world most people were polytheists. The nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, was living in the midst of nations who were polytheistic in their beliefs. This being the case, it is important to know what polytheism is and how it differs from the biblical view of God.

1. Polytheism Defined: The Worship of Many Gods

Polytheism is the worship of many gods. It comes from the word poly meaning, “many” and theism where we get the word “God.” People who are polytheists accept the idea that many gods exist. Furthermore, they worship more than one particular god. These gods can be either immaterial spirits or some type of god that supposedly has material or physical existence. A number of important points need to be made about polytheists. This includes the following:

2. Polytheists Spread around the Worship

Polytheism is based upon the idea that the universe is governed by more than one force. Therefore, there may be such personages as a water god, a mountain god, a desert god, etc. Each of these gods must be appeased. Consequently, these different forces receive some type of worship.

3. The Biblical World Was Polytheistic

In the world in which the Bible was written, polytheism was the rule. Ancient religions are characterized by the worship of a number of gods. The founder of the Hebrew race, Abraham, was called out from a polytheistic culture by God to be a witness to the one, true God. Joshua recounted this when Abraham’s descendants entered into the Promised Land.

And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from the other side of the River, led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac.’” (Joshua 24:2, 3 NKJV)

The worship of many gods was the norm in the ancient world.

4. The Bible Is Monotheistic: There Is Only One God Who Exists

In the background of a world that believed in, and worshipped, many gods, the nations of Israel was unique. Scripture, from beginning to end is monotheistic. A monotheist believes only one God exists; no other so-called gods have any real substance.

Isaiah the prophet recorded God saying the following:

“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22 NIV)

The God of the Bible is the only God which exists.

5. The God of Scripture Is Unique among the So-Called Gods

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth he emphasized that the God of Scripture is different. Indeed, He is unique among the other so-called gods. Paul explained the difference between the God of the Bible, which does exist, and these other gods, which do not exist:

According to some people, there are many so-called gods and many lords, both in heaven and on earth. But we know that there is only one God, the Father, who created everything, and we exist for him. And there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom God made everything and through whom we have been given life. (1 Corinthians 8:5, 6 NLT)

These other gods which people worship are not real. Indeed, they have no substance. There is only one God which truly exists. This is the God revealed in the Bible.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and compared the false gods to the true God. He made the following comment:

For they themselves report about us what kind of reception we had from you: how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God... (1 Thessalonians 1:9 HCSB)

In contrast to idols there is the living and true God.

Paul wrote to Timothy that only one God exists, and there is only one way humanity can approach God. This is through Jesus Christ.

There is one God. There is also one mediator between God and humans—a human, Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5 God’s Word)

This is the united message of Scripture; only one God exists. The New Testament makes it clear that this one God can only be approached one way.

The Bible says that no one can be compared to the Lord, the living God of the Bible. We read the following in the Book of Exodus:

“Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11 NIV)

There is no God like the God of Scripture.

Consequently, there is no doubt that Scripture presents the truth that there is only one God who exists. This one God cannot be compared to the non-existent gods of the other nations. He alone is God.

6. The Mission of Israel: Testify to the One, True God

The mission of the nation Israel was to witness to the world about the only God who existed, and who can save people from their sins. The prophet Isaiah records the Lord saying the following to the nation:

“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the LORD. “And you are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God; there never has been and never will be. I am the LORD, and there is no other Savior.” (Isaiah 43:10, 11 NLT)

Israel was to testify to the existence of the God of Scripture. Their message was simple: there is no other God who exists and there never will be. Thus, worship belongs to Him alone.

When the true God was rejected, people invented their own objects of worship. Rather than worshipping the one true God who is Lord over all things, they divided up the power and worshipped a number of forces. In other words, they became polytheists.

Paul wrote to the Romans about this rejection of God and the replacement of Him with worthless objects of worship:

...because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:25 NRSV)

Worship of the Creator was substituted with worship of the creation.

Polytheism was indeed prevalent during biblical times. However, we should not assume that polytheism was only practiced then. Indeed, today we find polytheism in many cultures such as those who worship the spirits of their dead ancestors.

The Problems with Believing in Many Gods (Polytheism)

We now come to our evaluation of polytheism. As we will discover, there are a number of problems with believing in many gods. They include the following:

1. Polytheism Undermines God’s Character and His Claims

To begin with, the idea that many gods exist undermines the character of the God of the Bible. Instead of being the only God who exists as the Bible says, He is now one of many. His uniqueness is lost.

Isaiah the prophet records the following words of the Lord which refute this idea of many gods existing:

“Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me.’ (Isaiah 44:6 NASB)

As the only God who exists, the God of the Bible shares His glory with no one. No other object in the universe is worthy of worship.

2. There Is a Lack of Power among the Gods

There is also the problem of power. The gods in any polytheistic system lack the power to do everything. By definition, in a world that believes that many gods exist, the power among them is shared. Not one of these many gods is able to do everything. Therefore, each one of them is subject to limitations of power. In the system of polytheism, there is no god who can ultimately save, no god which people can ultimately trust.

3. Worship Has to Be Spread Out

Because more than one god supposedly exists, worship must be spread around to all the different deities. This does not allow any one god to receive the worship of everyone. Furthermore, one would never be certain as to which of these gods truly deserved their worship. None of them can be of help all of the time because none of them is all-powerful.

Therefore, polytheism, with its belief in many gods falls short in couple of ways.

First, it is in contradiction to the God of the Bible. These so-called gods just do not exist. They only exist in the minds of people.

In addition, those who are polytheists cannot have any confidence in the gods they are worshipping. Ultimately, nobody can know whether they are giving their worship to the right god or if that god can truly do anything for them.

Therefore, polytheism, as a system of belief, should be soundly rejected.

Summary – Question 9
What Is Polytheism? (The Worship of Many Gods)

In the ancient world there were no atheists. Ancient religions worshipped many gods instead of the one, true God. The worship of many gods is called polytheism while the worship of one God is called monotheism.

Polytheism distorts the true picture of God. Indeed, it undermines His character. Polytheism creates many gods, but misses the one true God. It contradicts what the Scripture says about the God of the Bible; He is the only One who exists.

In addition, the gods in the polytheistic system lack absolute power. There is no single god which has the ability to save. Power is shared among them. In a polytheistic system no one can be certain if the god they worship is powerful enough to grant their desires.

Furthermore worship must be spread among these various gods. This being the case, humans would never have assurance that the god they are worshipping deserves their worship or that this god can truly do anything for them.

Consequently, those who are polytheists can have no real security in their beliefs. What a contrast to the God of the Bible! Those who trust in Him can have security in the fact that He is the only God who exists and that He is in complete control of all things.

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