Why so many gods?

“Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man – and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-23 NKJV).

Travelers to Kathmandu typically visit the expansive Hindu and Buddhist enclaves where they view hundreds, if not thousands, of images, temples, stupas and other shrines and icons of those polytheistic religions. Many westerners accustomed to faith in one God wonder why anyone would be attracted to an immense pantheon of lesser deities. Surely monotheism is a superior and more desirable faith, since it honors one Almighty, All-wise, Ever-present Being.

Paul suggests in Romans 1 that idolatry and polytheism got its beginning from humanity’s unwillingness to submit to such a transcendent and inescapable deity. In the words of David,

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:6-7).

David was crushed beneath the power and knowledge of the supreme being until he was able to submit in trust and obedience (Psalm 139:13-24).

As far as any appeal of polytheism, I would suggest two obvious attractions.

First is the human desire to see and touch that which he values. Idols present gods as approachable and “real.” Their followers do not have to trust in what some would call “blind faith” (2 Corinthians 5:7). The passage in Romans suggests a further extension of this appeal, that humans desire equality if not superiority to their gods. If we make them with our own hands, can we not control them?

This is somewhat related to the second motivation: the appeal of choice. In a pantheon of gods, one can choose (or have chosen for him) a particular deity to represent himself, his family, or his region or group. Each home may have its particular shrine or idol which the family worships and to which it sacrifices. The reader of the Bible will remember the pride of the Ephesians in the goddess Diana and her temple which was in their city. Theologically the city belonged to the goddess; practically the goddess belonged to the city and its citizens.

In a pantheon each particular god or goddess is believed to have a special set of powers and responsibilities. There are gods of creation, and those of destruction. Some rule over fertility, others over death. To choose a god / goddess is also to choose a particular realm of activity which the worshipper values. So there were (and are) gods of wine and revelry, gods of the sea, and gods for every area and activity. The farmer or shepherd typically sacrifices to the goddess of fertility, hoping for abundant crops, while the sailor honors the god of the sea, praying for safety in his journeys. One’s choice of a particular god often reflects his world view – that is the things or places that are particularly meaningful to him.

One obvious weakness to such a system (besides the patent contradictions of exalting inanimate idols to such status – See Isaiah 44:9-17) is that no one can know or worship the vast number of gods demanded by such religions. The farmer has other interests and needs than those pertaining to his crops. The sailor does not spend all of his time on the ocean. If I am dependent upon many gods to ensure my well-being, how can I be sure that I have properly appeased all of them?

The Greeks of Athens responded to this impossibility by building an altar to “the unknown god,” lest they offend a being whose existence and nature they knew nothing of (Acts 17:23). That is akin to the reported deathbed prayer of a noted atheist: “O God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” Neither is exactly a devout statement of faith.

The Christian response is to assert boldly that there is One God, the Creator of all things, who is Almighty, All Wise, All Present, and Eternal (1 Timothy 1:17). God, being Spirit, is invisible and unapproachable to humans in any physical sense. But also being Love (1 John 4:8), he has revealed himself through his son Jesus (Colossians 1:15) by whom he has redeemed us from sin and death. There is only one God. One is enough.

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