Unfortunately, a comparison of modern Christianity and ancient pagan idolatry yields far too many similarities. Indeed, the contemporary church may even be said to worship Jesus, the pagan god, instead of Jesus, the almighty God. The Bible is the story not only of God’s saving people from His justice but also of His requiring them to reject all other gods and false religions. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to shun the polytheistic pagan idolatry of their neighbors—the Canaanites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and others. The New Testament repudiates both the pagan idolatry the Roman Empire inherited from the Greeks and the false religion of the Pharisees, the important Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day.
Every system of religious belief contrary to the Bible has three common characteristics—myth, magic, and ritual—each of which corresponds to a false view of reality. Myth arises from an erroneous foundational religious belief in the nature of God; magic, from a flawed attitude regarding a person’s relationship to God; and ritual, from misguided actions intended to demonstrate belief and attitude. In the Old Testament, God abhorred myth and magic, but He actually prescribed certain biblical rituals for the Israelites to perform. The New Testament, while not commanding Christians to perform rituals, allows for rituals according to cultural practices; and yet, like the Old Testament, it rejects both myth and magic. Unfortunately, comparing the polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East with contemporary Christianity reveals the sad fact that our churches are more pagan than Christian. We will examine the three characteristics of false religion to see how this is so.
The first characteristic of ancient religions that God despised was their mythology—their belief in many gods and the fabricated stories of conflict, deceit, intrigue, and occasional goodwill between them. For example, the Canaanites believed that the most active god in their pantheon, Baal, the storm god, played a crucial role in a series of cyclical events that caused the seasons. Every year, Baal battled Mot, the god of death, who killed and then imprisoned Baal in the underworld where he could not carry out his storm-god responsibilities: to bring the rain necessary to grow food and thus ensure the survival of the people. And every year, Baal’s fierce, warrior-goddess wife, Anath, destroyed Mot in turn, cutting him up like corn. With Mot dead, Baal revived and supplied rain again. Thus the Canaanite’s believed their myth that Baal’s death brought winter and his resurrection after Mot’s death brought spring and its welcome rains.
But although the Canaanites believed that the gods’ actions impacted the natural world, they also believed that Baal, Anath, Mot, and the other gods were not much different from human beings; the gods were simply more powerful than people, and they inhabited a spiritual rather than a physical realm within the creation. In other words, the pagan gods of the Canaanite myths were superhuman, but they were not transcendent like the God of the Bible. Although the gods were an integral part of the creation, they did not create the creation. Their status as destructible and less-than-almighty beings thus limited the gods’ power and influence.
The Jesus many contemporary Christians proclaim as “Lord and Savior” is not much greater than Baal; their Jesus is more powerful than they are, but he is essentially a pagan god and not the incarnation of the transcendent God the Bible proclaims Jesus to be. Just as Old Testament authors adopted the name El from the Canaanites to refer to the one, true God, Christians rightly borrow the English term God to refer to Jesus. But many do not understand Jesus to be the God of the Bible; rather, they view Him more like the El of the Canaanites—that is, a being who exists strictly within the universe and is only slightly more influential than humans. In contrast, the Bible proclaims Jesus to be the man whom the true God became; and throughout the Bible, this God declares and demonstrates Himself to be the transcendent and almighty Creator of all reality—definitely not just superhuman. The Bible declares God to be so far beyond human, or even superhuman, that nothing and no one compares to Him (Isaiah 40-46, Job 38-41).
Unfortunately, much of modern Christianity removes transcendence from its understanding of God. Jesus, who broke into the cosmos as God incarnate, is not only our savior through His death, but He is also our eternal Creator. Many Christians, however, proclaim His name in the same way that the ancients spoke of Baal—believing him to be powerful but not absolutely sovereign, exalted but not unfathomable, and helpful but not the very source of our existence at every moment. For these Christians, Jesus is only the great superbeing in the sky, not the incarnation of the transcendent Creator beyond the universe. Christians must return to a full understanding of the God of the Bible in order to avoid merely copying the ancient, myth-centered religions and relegating Him to simply a fellow dweller of the cosmos—a notion God loathes.
The second characteristic of ancient religions that God detested was belief in magic, which the ancients’ attitude toward their gods manifested. The people firmly believed that by their actions they could manipulate and control the gods. In other words, rather than the gods’ being sovereignly in control of people, people were in control of the gods. Furthermore, rather than the gods’ always initiating relationships with people, the people had to initiate relationships with the gods.
Many modern Christians display the same attitude in their relationship with the one, true God. For example, while saying many helpful things in his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren promotes a magical attitude toward God when he says, “God waits for you to act first” (page 175). God does indeed respond to human beings, but the Bible constantly reminds us that He is always the initiator and the Creator of all reality (Isaiah 45:6,7; Romans 11:36; I Corinthians 8:6, 11:12; Ephesians 1:11). In his books, Dallas Willard also adopts this same magical mentality, even while trying to avoid it. In The Divine Conspiracy, Willard claims to believe that God is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; but when he speaks of what we need in order for us to do what is right, he relegates God to the position of standing on the side lines waiting for us to do what is necessary. Thus, in Renovation Of The Heart, Willard states that our choice to obey God “comes from nothing else but us” (page 144, [italics his]) so that our obedience is “up to us” (page 165, [italics his]). But we cannot have our cake and eat it, too. We cannot say that God is the Creator and then claim that He only responds to us, that He is not actually the one producing every aspect of our movements toward Him—or even away from Him. The transcendent God is either the Creator of all reality “bringing about all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11) or He is just a pagan god who requires that we manipulate Him through magic.
The biblical view sees God not only as the one whom we worship but also as the one who always initiates our relationships with Him, even when He responds to our worship. In other words, His response follows His having created our worship in order that He might respond. We cannot, as the Canaanites believed, stir our God to action by magic or any other means; rather, He stirs us to action. Otherwise, God is no more than a superhuman being within the cosmos instead of the sovereign, almighty Creator of the entire cosmos at all times.
The third characteristic of the ancient religions—and the only one God incorporated into the prescribed worship of the Israelites—was ritual. The label `ritual’ applies to the religious actions worshipers perform. Believing Israelites correctly understood these to be responses to God’s love, grace, mercy, and commandments whereas the Canaanites erroneously understood rituals to be the necessary means to stir to action gods who otherwise would remain inactive on the Canaanites’ behalf. The Canaanites believed ritual made their magic work. Just as they believed the processes of nature resulted from the interactions between gods and goddesses, they also believed that ritually imitating the gods would stir the gods to action on behalf of the worshipers. If a Canaanite farmer wanted Baal and the goddess of fertility (Astarte, another of Baal’s wives) to increase his crops, then he only had to imitate the divine, sexual intercourse between Baal and Astarte that the Canaanites believed produced increased harvests and made cattle more fertile; therefore, to increase his crops, the farmer engaged in sexual intercourse with a sacred prostitute from the temple of Astarte. In effect, then, the Canaanites believed they could manipulate and control Baal’s rain production by performing sexual rituals.
While modern Christians would never be so crass as to believe that sacred prostitution would motivate God, nevertheless many seem to believe that their relationship with Jesus, God incarnate, works on the basis of magic and ritual. Thus they can manipulate (although they would not use this word) Jesus if they pray to Him, sing to Him, perform a moral act that He will “honor,“ have a quiet time, or perform some other spiritual discipline like fasting or solitude; thus they believe their religious actions can—and must—stir Jesus into action. This mentality can be described in legal terms as quid pro quo—an equal exchange: I do something for Jesus, and then and only then does He do something for me. This description also defines legalism, which Jesus encountered amongst the Pharisees and for which He cursed them (Matthew 23:13-36). This ritualistic, legalistic mentality can be as evil as sacred prostitution if it demonstrates a refusal to believe the truth of God’s complete transcendence and sovereign, ongoing creation of all reality.
Even Christians who trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation, which sought to repudiate the magical practices of the Roman Catholic Church, have succumbed to this mentality. They characterize the Lord’s Supper as a “means of grace,” which becomes just ritual magic: if, they say, we perform the Lord’s Supper, God will infuse us with His grace—quid pro quo. Thus Christians treat Jesus like a pagan god and not as who He is—the almighty Creator God become flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14). Although rituals are not wrong in and of themselves—after all, God commanded the Israelites to perform all sorts of rituals in their worship of Him—rituals become a problem when we approach them (even the Lord’s Supper and baptism) with an attitude of magic, believing that by our religious actions we can get God to work on our behalf.
Christians must abandon myth, magic, and ritual and return to the biblical view of God, who needs no ritual in order to respond to us but considers our worship always to be a response to Him. Thus we prevent our viewing Him as just another pagan god and retain instead our view of Him as the almighty Creator who became the man Jesus that He might rescue us from eternal condemnation, move us to a life of belief and obedience, and grant us eternal lifeall three strictly on the basis of His sovereign and constantly initiating grace.