God, Atheism and Idolatry

INTRODUCTION: The English word God, wrote Warfield, “is derived from a root meaning to call, and indicates simply the object of worship, one whom men call upon or invoke. The Greek word which it translates in the pages of the New Testament, however, describes this object of worship as Spirit; and the Old Testament Hebrew word, which this word in turn represents, conveys, as its primary meaning, the idea of Power.”[1]

A generation ago the deservedly respected A.W. Tozer pointed out that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.”[2] Voltaire, the famous French satirist is credited with saying that “God created man in His own image and man returned the favor.”[3]

This is not only true of unregenerated thinking, but is an error that God’s people are equally prone to make. In Ps. 50:21 the danger of idolatry is underscored by God Himself—“You thought that I was just like you.” We too must take to heart the warning of 1 John 5:21, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” We fall into this snare when we think of God in our terms or entertain notions that are unworthy of Him. Idolatry, as John MacArthur has written, “is thinking anything about God that isn’t true or attempting to transform Him into something He isn’t.”[4]

Psalm 14 is almost exactly duplicated in Psalm 53. The Apostle Paul makes extensive use of these two Psalms in developing his argument for human depravity in Romans 3:11-18. The fact that this is repeated three times is significant. Dr Boice said, “You would think we might begin to get the message at this point. If God says something once, we should listen to what he says very carefully. If he says the same thing twice, we should give him our most intense and rapt attention. What if he repeats himself a third time? Then surely we should stop all else, focus our minds, seize upon each individual word, memorize what is said, and ponder the meaning of the saying intensely, attempting to apply the truth of God’s revelation to our entire lives.”[5]

I.        THE FOLLY OF ATHEISM

“The psalmist,” wrote Charnock, “first declares the corruption of the faculties of the soul: ‘The fool hath said in his heart.’ Secondly, The streams issuing from thence, ‘they are corrupt’ …the first in atheistical principles, the other in unworthy practices; and lays all the evil, tyranny, lust, and persecutions by men, as if the world were only for their sake, upon the neglect of God, and the atheism cherished in their hearts.”[6] This dismissive attitude towards God is the essence of atheism. It parades around with a great deal of intellectual arrogance, but the last word on atheism is said in Romans 1:22: ‘Claiming to be wise, they became fools’; a judgment vindicated in the sequence ‘What can be known about God is plain to them (19)…And…they did not see fit to acknowledge God’ (28). The Hebrew for fool in this psalm is n~b~l a word which implies an aggressive perversity, epitomized in the Nabal of 1 Samuel 25:25. The assertion, There is no God, is in fact treated in Scripture not as a sincere if misguided conviction, but as an irresponsible gesture of defiance. In the context of Psalm 10:4 it is expounded as a gamble against moral sanctions; in Job 21:7-15 as impatience of authority; in Romans 1:18ff, as intellectual and moral suicide. There are elements of all these in the present passage; already verse 1b shows the outcome of this attitude in relation to the self (corrupt; cf. Gn. 6:12), to God (abominable refers primarily to Godward offensiveness) and to fellow man (none…does good), which are the areas explored in Romans 1, Job 21 and Psalm 10, referred to above. [7]

II.      THE FEATURES OF ATHEISM

The great Puritan divine Richard Gilpin made this observation, “Something of atheism is by most divines concluded to be in every sin, and according to the height of it in its various degrees, is reason and consideration overturned. There are, it may be, few that are professed atheists in opinion, and dogmatically so, but all wicked men are so in practice. Though they profess God, yet ‘the fool saith in his heart, There is no God,’ (Ps. 53:1), and in ‘their works they deny him,’ (Titus 1:16). This is a principle that directly strikes at the root: for if there be no God, no hell or punishment, who will be scared from taking his delight in sin by any such consideration? The devil, therefore, strives to instill this poison with his temptation. When he enticed Eve by secret insinuations, he first questions the truth of the threatening, and then proceeds to an open denial of it, ‘ ye shall not surely die; and it is plain she was induced to the sin upon a secret disbelief of the danger. She reckons up the advantages, ‘good for food, pleasant to the eye, to be desired to make one wise; ‘ wherein it is evident she believed what Satan had affirmed, ‘that they should be as God,’ and then it was not to be feared that they should die.

This kind of atheism is common. Men may not disbelieve a Godhead; nay, they may believe there is a God, and yet question the truth of his threatenings.”[8] Another well-known puritan, Thomas Brooks said that atheism denies God either (1) In opinion, saying there is no God; or (2) In affection, wishing there were no God; or (3) In conversation, living as if there were no God (cf. Rev. 22:12).[9] Flavel declared, “Atheism stabs the soul to death at one stroke, and puts it quite out of the way of salvation; other sinners are worse than beasts, but Atheists are worse than devils, for they believe, and tremble; these banish God out of their thoughts, and, what they can, out of the world, living as without God in the world, Eph. 2:12. It is a sin that quencheth all religion in the soul. He that knows not his landlord cannot pay his rent: he that assents not to the being of a God, destroys the foundation of all religious worship; he cannot fear, love, or obey him, whose being he believes not: this sin strikes at the life of God, and destroys the life of the soul.”[10]

Finally, listen to the words of John Howe, “Is not this the very height of enmity? What further proof would we seek of a disaffected and implacable heart? Yet to all this, we may cast in that fearful addition, their saying in their heart, “No God;” (Ps. 14) as if they should say, O that there were none! This is enmity, not only to the highest pitch of wickedness, (to wish their common Parent extinct, the Author of their being,) but even unto madness itself. For in the forgetful heat of this transport, it is not thought on that they wish the most absolute impossibility, and that, if it were possible, they wish, with this, the extinction of their own, and of all being; and that the sense of their hearts, put into words, would amount to no less than a direful and most horrid execration and curse upon God, and the whole creation of God at once! As if by the blasphemy of their poisonous breath, they would wither all nature, blast the whole universe of being, and make it fade, languish, and drop into nothing. This is to set their mouth against heaven and earth, themselves, and all things at once, as if they thought their feeble breath should overpower the omnipotent word, shake and shiver the adamantine pillars of heaven and earth, and the almighty fiat be defeated by their nay, striking at the root of all! So fitly is it said, The fool hath in his heart muttered thus! Nor are there few such fools: but this is plainly given us as the common character of apostate man, the whole revolted race; of whom it is said, in very general terms, “They are all gone back, there is none that doeth good.” This is their sense, one and all; that is, comparatively; and the true state of the case being laid before them, it is more their temper and sense to say “no God,” than to repent, and turn to him. What mad enmity is this!”[11]

CONCLUSION: Atheism, like idolatry, takes its cue from the heart. In both cases it produces corruption—and makes a fool of the person who embraces this folly. Abandoning belief in God, or turning to idolatry is in the eyes of God an abomination. It is described elsewhere in Scripture as “forgetting God” (Ps. 50:22; Isa. 17:10; 51:13). God’s judgment is certain. The condemnation extends to those who ignore, even if they do not deny, God’s existence, or omnipotence. Jeremiah declares that the intellectual leaders of his day, who swear by the Name (5:2), “have denied the Lord and said he is not” (5:12; cf. Isa. 31:1; Jer. 2:13, 17, 18; 18:13:15). The late John Lennon captured the essence of practical Atheism in the song Imagine. Many people who profess to believe in God (many sit weekly in our Evangelical churches) as they conceive of Him (which is often shaped more by sentimental notions derived from sources other than the Scriptures) but live in complete disregard to His Word.

Over seventy years ago J. Gresham Machen pinpointed our tendency as fallen human beings to fall into practical atheism and idolatry. “We have not idolatry in the narrower sense, but of the making of gods there is no end. Turning from the living and true God, like Israel of old, we have preferred a god who will be content to serve our ends. We have built a fire and roasted roast, and we have promoted religion; and both operations are often on the same low utilitarian plane. Religion, men say, is a useful thing; it must be promoted in the interests of the state or in the interests of the community; God is the servant of man. Instead of seeking God first and testing our plans by His revealed will, we make our plans first and drag God in to help us carry them out. Religion ceases to be an end in itself and becomes a mere means to an end. Instead of the facts about God being the basis of religious experience, religious experience is made the basis of the supposed facts.[12] More recently Os Guinness has written, “Idolatry begins with the counterfeiting of God, because only with a counterfeit of God can people remain the center of their lives and loyalties, autonomous architects of their futures. Something within creation will then be idolatrously inflated to fill the God-shaped hole in the individual’s world. But a counterfeit is a lie, not the real thing. It must present itself through self-deception, often with images suggesting that the idol will fulfill promises for the good life.”[13]

Endnotes

[1] The Selected Shorter Writings of  B. B. Warfield I (P & R, 1973), p. 69. A. A. Hodge made a similar observation, “The English word God is by some derived from “good.” Since, however, its various forms in cognate languages could not have had that origin, others derive it from the Persic Choda—dominus, “possessor.” The Latin Deus, and the Greek THEOS have been commonly derived from the Sanscrit div to give “light.” But Curtius, Cremer, and others derive it from THES in THESSASTHAI “to implore.” THEOS is “He to whom one prays.” Outlines of Theology (rpt. The Banner of Truth, 1972), p.29.

[2] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (rpt. Harper Collins, 1961), p.1.

[3] To Voltaire God was only the result of a train of reasoning, an intellectual necessity—“if there were no God, we would have to invent him” is the way Voltaire frequently spoke. Cf. Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge IV (Funk & Wagnalls, 1891), p. 2466.

[4] J. MacArthur, Jr. God: Coming Face to Face with His Majesty (Victor Books, 1993), p.9.

[5] J. M. Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary I (Baker, 1991), p. 306.

[6] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (rpt. Klock & Klock, 1977), p. 11.

[7] Cf. The extended remarks by Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-78 Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1973), p. 78.

[8] Richard Gilpin, A Treatise On Satan’s Temptations (rpt. Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), p. 82.

[9] The Works of Thomas Brooks VI (rpt. The Banner of Truth, 1980), p. 59.

[10] The Works of John Flavel III (rpt. The Banner of Truth, 1968), p. 204.

[11] The Works of John Howe, I (rpt. Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), p. 224.

[12] J. G. Machen, God Transcendent (rpt. Eerdmans, 1949), p. 25.

[13] Os Guinness, No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age (Moody, 1992), p. 73.

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