In this segment, we'll consider the question--How many gods are there?
That may sound odd, but remember, in this series we're starting over again with Christianity, and so if we start over, we need to go back and reconsider some of the most basic beliefs.
Back in the first segment, we saw that Christians believe in the existence of a deity called God. We defined a deity as some kind of being that exists outside the physical universe that people worship because they feel it exerts some kind of control or influence over their lives. A deity is a supernatural being that exerts some kind of power or influence in the physical universe.
So the question is--Is the God that Christians worship the only supernatural being that exists outside the physical universe and exerts some kind of power or influence in the physical universe? In other words, is God the only spiritual power out there?
Most people would immediately assume Christians would answer "yes" to that, because after all, Christianity is what's called a "monotheistic" religion. If you look up the word "monotheism" in the dictionary, chances are you'll find a definition something like--the belief in only one God, or the belief that there is only one God.
That's an interesting definition. It seems so simple, yet it's easy to get the wrong impression from it. Most people think it means the belief that there's only one spiritual power out there, but if you look closely, you'll notice that's not what the definition says. The definition says, "the belief in only one God." Whether you take that to mean only one spiritual power exists depends on how you define the word "God."
While the word monotheism means the belief in only one God, it does not necessarily mean the belief that only one spiritual power exists. There are different types of monotheism. What's called "exclusive monotheism" does indeed mean the belief that only one spiritual power exists. However, there are other types of monotheism. One is monolatrism. It is a form of monotheism that says more than one spiritual power exists, but only one is God with a capital G; that is, one is at the top, supreme, the most powerful. There may be many gods with a little g, but only one God with a capital G—the supreme God.
People might not think of that as being monotheism, but it is. So, what kind of monotheism is Christianity? If we take the Bible to be the only real source we have available for Christian beliefs, we should go to the Bible and see what it says.
First, let's think about the Old Testament. The Psalms say some interesting things related to this. Take Psalm 135 which says, "For I know that the Lord is great, and our Lord is above all gods." Psalm 136 says, "O give thanks unto the God of gods." There are a number of other Psalms which say something similar. Another interesting verse is found in Exodus 18 which says, "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods." First Chronicles 16 says, "You must fear God more than all the other gods." There are a number of other Old Testament passages from other books which say something similar. In fact, you find this idea in many places in the Old Testament.
People have different ways of dealing with this. Some say it’s proof that the Hebrews, and then the Jews, were originally polytheistic; that is, they worshipped many gods, and it was only later that they developed exclusive monotheism. The way this idea goes, most all religions begin as polytheistic, worshipping many gods, and then evolve, or develop, into exclusive monotheism--the belief that only one spiritual power exists. So according to this idea, those passages we looked at in the Old Testament that talk about other gods represent a vestige of the past, back before monotheism developed in Judaism.
Other people reject that idea and say that although many places in the Old Testament talk about other gods, the Old Testament authors did not mean to imply that those other gods exist. What they were really saying is that those gods do not exist; they are just figments of peoples' imagination.
Neither of those explanations hold up, though, when you consider another type of reference in the Old Testament to a plurality of spiritual powers that’s found in the book of Genesis. Before God made human beings, God said, "Let us make man in our own image." Then, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden, God said, "Man is become as one of us." Later, in the episode about the Tower of Babel, God says, "Let us go down and there confound their language." Notice the “us.” God is speaking to others, but to whom?
A somewhat specious explanation has been offered for this by some Christians—that "us" in these passages refers to the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are talking to each other in those passages. This explanation falls short when you consider that the passages specifically say "God" or "the Lord God" said these things, not that "the Father" said these things. I don’t think the idea that the Trinity was talking to itself here adequately explains the use of “us” in these passages.
But at any rate, we have seen that there are multiple passages in the Old Testament that refer to gods plural, in the sense of spiritual powers—plural—existing outside the physical universe.
The same thing is found in the New Testament. First Corinthians 15, speaking of Jesus, says this, "For He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet." This does not describe who these enemies are, and for that reason it may be tempting to think it's talking about people--people who are enemies of God. But if that's the case, the thing about "He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet" doesn't really sense. This reigning until He has put all enemies under His feet is still going on, since the conclusion of it will be the Second Coming of Jesus, which hasn't happened yet. So Jesus is still reigning, trying to put all enemies under His feet.
That’s the problem with saying these enemies are people—it's not like there's one group of people that Jesus has been trying to put under His feet for the last 2000 years. There have been many, many generations of people. A new generation of people crops up every 20 years or so. Every 20 years or so, there’s a new generation He has to put under His feet. If that’s the case, then He’ll never succeed, because just as soon as He might put one generation under His feet, along will come another. So I don't think this passage refers to people. It refers to some kind of spiritual powers; some kind of supernatural powers.
Another passage is from Ephesians 6 which says, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." This one makes clear it's not talking about people. It specifically says it's not talking about "flesh and blood." It makes clear it’s talking about spiritual powers; some kind of supernatural powers.
There are other places in the New Testament that have the same idea. One that immediately stands out is the numerous references to Satan, demons, and unclean spirits throughout the Gospels. Obviously, these are not people; they are spiritual, supernatural powers.
Satan, unclean spirits, and demons play a large role in all four Gospels. There is no way to interpret this other than that there are spiritual powers besides God, and they are opposed to God. This presents a problem. Why are they there? Where did they come from? The way these references are usually dealt with is to say something like, "Well, yes, there are other spiritual powers out there, but they were all created by God. God was the original spiritual power, and then He created the others."
This leads back to what some in Christianity will tell you is the origin of evil. The idea is that Satan was originally an angel, created by God, who at some point rebelled against God. Other angels joined Satan in his rebellion, and this is where demons and unclean spirits came from. I don’t see any real, convincing scriptural support for that, though.
Plus, that idea has a major problem. If God is good, 100% good, as Christianity says He is, then what God created must have been good. Surely a good God would not create evil. And, Genesis itself says that what God created was good. So if God created only good, where did the bad come from? Some people say it came from Satan, but if Satan was created good, where did his impulse to rebel come from? Doing evil in the Bible is associated with temptation. So who tempted Satan? This idea, while it may seem attractive on the surface, runs into a brick wall.
So let’s take a different route. Let’s consider a passage from Exodus chapter 12. God says, “I will execute judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” This passage, like the other passages in the Old Testament that refer to other gods, obviously talks about them as if they really exist. You would have a hard time with this passage if you try to say the Old Testament implies these other gods don’t exist, because it obviously talks about them as if they do indeed exist.
And so why don’t we consider—just consider—that these other gods—these other spiritual powers—do in fact exist? Let’s see where we can go with that.
If you read the New Testament and then read the Old Testament, one thing you’ll notice is that Satan plays a big role in the New Testament, but there’s not much about Satan in the Old Testament. There are a few references to Satan in the Old Testament, but those few references talk about Satan in a different way than he’s talked about in the New Testament.
Christians have always been aware of that. The way it’s usually dealt with, especially in modern Christianity, is to say that the belief in Satan developed during the period between the Old and New Testaments. In other words, this idea says that the character of Satan was made up during the period between the Old and New Testaments. That’s a popular idea today, because as we’ve already seen in other segments, it’s popular today to say that many things in the Bible were made up.
But if we want to look for a different explanation other than that Satan was made up, we can consider something else. Let’s think about the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, one of the major problems is that people worship other gods. We see this first with the Hebrews, and then with the Jews. They don’t just worship God, they worship other gods. That’s a major theme found in the Old Testament prophets—people worship other gods.
But in the New Testament, we don’t see that. We see hardly any mention at all of people worshipping other gods. What we see instead is that people follow evil. While in the Old Testament, people worship other gods, in the New Testament they follow evil, follow Satan.
So let’s think for a minute. The Old Testament talks about other gods, other spiritual powers than God with a capital G. A major problem is that people worship these other gods instead of just worshipping God with a capital G alone. The New Testament talks about Satan, demons, and unclean spirits, other spiritual powers than God with a capital G. A major problem is that people follow them instead of God.
That does represent a change from the Old Testament to the New, and it can be seen as a development. The development is that during the period between the Old and New Testaments, these other spiritual powers, which were called other gods in the Old Testament, came to be called Satan, demons, and unclean spirits in the New Testament.
That’s perfectly reasonable. Maybe the way it is is like this: There is God with a capital G—the supreme spiritual being, more powerful and mighty than any other. But there are also other spiritual beings, lesser spiritual beings than God. These operate in opposition to God. In the Old Testament, they’re called other gods. In the New Testament, they’re called the powers of evil—Satan, demons, and unclean spirits. Using this idea, the Old Testament and the New Testament both talk about the same thing; they each just label it differently and describe it differently.
These other spiritual powers in opposition to God are labeled as other gods in the Old Testament. In the New Testament they are labeled as the forces of evil.
But if that’s the case, where did these other spiritual powers come from? We have no idea. It’s just like the question—where did God come from? Traditionally, the way Christianity answers the question of where did God come from is to say that God has no beginning—God didn’t come from anywhere, because God has always existed. So maybe the same is also true of these other spiritual powers. We just have to leave it at that. It actually presents no bigger problem that not defining where God came from.
You can’t say God created these other spiritual powers, because if you say that, you are saying God is the creator of evil. And you can’t get around that by trying to say that Satan came up with evil on his own, because if God created Satan, then God must have created the impulse to do evil that was in Satan. If God didn’t make it, where did it come from? If Satan did evil, he must have had that impulse in him, and if God created him, then God had to have created that impulse, so in the final analysis, God created evil.
Now of course some Christians do say God created evil. They say God created it for a purpose. But I don’t see any scriptural basis for that. You have to make a lot of twists and turns with Scripture to come up with that.
But if you can allow yourself to consider that these other spiritual powers might exist independently of God, then you don’t have to see God as the creator of evil. Where did God come from? According to Christian beliefs, God has no beginning. God didn’t come from anywhere. God just is—always was and always will be. You can apply the same thinking to these other beings. They didn’t come from anywhere. They just are. Always were and—always will be?
No. Because remember, they whole idea behind Christianity is that one day, God is going to defeat and totally destroy these other powers that are against Him. God is the good spiritual power. The others are evil and in opposition to God. And so God destroys the others, and then things are totally good.
I know this is difficult to accept, because it goes against so much of what Christians have been told they should believe, but it solves so many conundrums in Christianity the way it’s usually thought of.
Think of natural disasters like hurricanes, for example. Think of the horrible diseases that people suffer and die from. Think of the wars that have gone on throughout human history and how people have suffered from those. Think of all the horrible dictators the world has seen that have made life miserable for many people. Think about how hard life is for so many people.
Christianity, as most people think of it, can’t explain all this. It gets bogged down and ends up saying something like, “Oh, we can’t understand God’s plans in all of this, but God has a plan for it all.” That’s easy to say if you’re not touched by these things, but if it’s your child who is kidnapped, tortured, and horribly killed and dismembered, can you imagine what kind of God would use that in His “plan”?
Trying to say that God is the only spiritual power out there leads to blaming all the bad things that happen in the world on God. Yes, it might be someone’s personal decision to kidnap and murder a child, but whose decision is it when a child gets killed in a tornado?
The only thing that makes sense is to realize that there are other spiritual powers out there, opposed to God and opposed to us. They are trying to wreck havoc on us. They are trying to destroy us. But God is working against them.
God is trying, right now, to defeat them. And He’s doing that for us, because He doesn’t want to see us destroyed.
So I think we have to say that there are other spiritual powers out there. We find the Bible stating this in both the Old and New Testaments.
But yet it’s something that Christianity today, for the most part, dismisses. But I think if we really want to start over again with Christianity, we have to take it seriously. And I think this is the biggest key to starting over again with Christianity—we have to accept that God is not the only spiritual power out there. We have to accept that there are other spiritual powers—powers that are hostile to God, to us, and to everything we would call good—and that they are active in the world.
I know this is not a “scientific” viewpoint. I know something like this sounds so out of place in the modern world. And it also sounds out of place in most versions of Christianity. Do you really expect people today to take seriously the belief that there are spiritual powers opposed to God, and that they actually operate in the world? Well, if our Christian faith is going to be based on what we find in the Bible, then we do have to take it seriously, because the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, talks about them.