Daddy blog

I started this blog when I was following the Life Journal Bible reading plan on YouVersion. (I've since completed that plan.) At that time, YouVersion didn't provide any way for people to respond to my notes, other than to "like" them. So this blog is here to remedy that problem. You may comment on my notes here in the comment section.
I also have a general blog.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fear Not Idols

This article was published in CBC News issue 40 (the newsletter of Community Baptist Church) and an abrdiged version was published in Asian Beacon. For many years, the article was available on the CBC website, but in the recent CBC website revamp, all the old CBC News articles had been removed, so I'm republishing this here.
Here in Malaysia, many Christians fear that idols, pictures of dragons, phoenixes, etc. have evil spirits behind them. I think that these beliefs are based on Chinese traditional beliefs and are contradictory to Scripture, as well as harmful for our Christian testimony.

For example, some Christians fear their family's religious altars might cause them demonic harm, and in exhibiting that fear, cause non-Christians to think our God is not so powerful. Many people have, after becoming Christians, destroyed valuable antiques just because they happen to have dragons and phoenixes decorating them – and hence needlessly giving some non-Christians more excuses to ridicule Christ. In many cases, people destroy clothes and household items that have images of dragons and phoenixes on them, even though nobody has worshipped those items, and there is no way for a non-Christian to make the mistake of thinking that the Christian worships those items.

That said, I have to also keep in mind 1 Corinthians 8:1, "Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." I want to be careful to say this in love and not in a "pride in my own knowledge" manner that will end up being more harmful than beneficial.

There are many injunctions in Scripture that speak against worshipping idols. I have no quarrel with that. But let us examine passages that talk about the nature of idols:

Habakuk 2:18-20
"Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, 'Come to life!' Or to lifeless stone, 'Wake up'' Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him."

Jeremiah 10:2-5
This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good."

Isaiah 44:9-20
All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit him nothing? He and his kind will be put to shame; craftsmen are nothing but men. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and infamy.

The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint.

The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god."

They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, "Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?"

Deuteronomy 4:28
There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.

Psalm 115:4-8
But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

The tone of all these passages is one of derision, not of fear. The idol is portrayed as nothing. In the New Testament, we see, indeed, that Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 8:7 "Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one."

Hence, the reason that Paul advised people not to eat food offered to idols was not because there's any power in idols, but in order not to cause someone to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:7-13.)

Therefore, there is nothing to fear from the presence of a picture of a dragon or phoenix, statues of Kuan Yin, Ang Kong, or Buddha, or a Chinese calendar in the house, except for the caution that it might stumble someone. This is why I have no objections to my parents' statues in display cases – they are clearly shown as objects of artwork, and not as shrines of worship.

Yes, demons are real, and demons do possess people, especially if the person has opened himself up to demonic influence by playing with the occult. But a believer who doesn't worship any idols should have no fear of idols. We should only be sensitive not to cause a weaker brother to stumble.

Chinese traditional belief teaches that the soul of the ancestors reside in the ancestral tablets and altars. This is very similar to the belief of many Chinese-Malaysian Christians' belief that evil spirits are present in idols.

As we have seen from the passages above, the Bible clearly teaches that idols are mere objects – works of human hands that have no power. If you as a Christian think they have power, you must seriously ask yourself, "Did my beliefs in this matter come from the Bible, or from non-Christian Chinese beliefs?"

"But wait," some may say, "how come in 1 Samuel 5 the idol of Dagon fell down before the Ark of the Covenant? Doesn't that prove that there is a demon inside that statue that was forced to worship God in the Ark?" Why should we believe there is a demon in the idol of Dagon? Can God not cause a statue to topple over, demon or no demon? If idols were really houses for demons, why did all the other passages talk of idols in the derisive manner shown above?

Another person may say "God puts His special presence on the Mercy Seat of the Ark. Demons imitate God. Doesn't that mean demons would inhabit idols?" Just because demons sometimes imitate God does not mean they can do everything God can do. In fact, we know for a fact that they cannot do everything God can do. Scripture talks of demons as inhabiting people, and in one occasion, pigs. I know of no Scripture talking about demons inhabiting idols (if you know of any, do let me know), yet I know of many passages that talk of idols as just dumb inanimate objects.

In his book A Biblical Approach to Chinese Traditions and Beliefs, Pastor Daniel Tong from Singapore said:

    The idea that demons reside in idols gives us cause for alarm, and indeed many have gone about destroying idols for fear that if they did not, the spirits would somehow cause them harm.

    ...Note that this thinking is not in line with the teaching of the Bible and only serves to give the wrong impression that the devil is very powerful, while our God and we, the children of God, are weak. The teaching that evil spirits reside in idols is an animistic perspective not supported or encouraged by the Bible, which holds clearly to the perspective that idols are nothing but the work of our own hands. Understanding this frees us from the fear of being confronted with and attacked by demons every time we encounter an idol.

    The Bible teaches that when people make offerings to idols, they are, in fact, making offerings to the demon/s behind the idol (1 Corinthians 10:20). That is to say, the image of the idol serves merely as camouflage to deceive a person into worshipping the devil, something most would not voluntarily do.

    ...When a person is caught up in the worship of the devil in this way, these disguises become for that person an idol, as he sells his "soul" in worship to the devil. Which brings us to the point that it is precisely our worship that the devil is after and if we understand this, we understand that demons are not present in idols but in the hearts and lives of all who bow down in worship to those idols. Idols are nothing. The focus of our worship is everything.1

I see a lot of harm done by this fear of idols, dragons, phoenixes, etc, which, as I have described above, I believe is un-Biblical and derived from Chinese traditional beliefs rather than from God's Word. Remember that "greater is He who is in you than He who is in the world" (1 John 4:4.)

Some people argue that while idols are made of inanimate matter, people worshipping them will give demons the "right" to inhabit them. I don't think this is Biblically sound, but even if it were, it still does not mean that just because an item has a picture of a dragon or phoenix on it that it therefore means that a demon inhabits it.

1 Corinthians 10:25-28
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it. If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' — the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?

We can eat meat that has been offered to idols without question, as long as it won't cause someone to stumble. In the original context, the Pagan saying, "This has been offered in a sacrifice," meant he was basically telling you, "Come and participate in my worship of my idol." That was why the Christian should not eat it for the sake of the other man's conscience: the Christian was free to eat the food and no harm would have come to him. However, he might have caused the Pagan to stumble because he would have thought that the Christian was participating in worshipping his god, and no longer faithful to Christ.

So there's nothing wrong with the meat. We're neither better nor worse off if we eat it (1 Corinthians 8:8). Some people say, "Just say grace before eating any food that may have been offered to idols and you'll be fine," as if saying grace would "disinfect" it of demons (or germs)! But that is not what the Bible teaches.

A similar application can be made to clothing and other items with phoenixes and dragons on them. Some people fear that just because there is printed on a bowl a picture of a phoenix or dragon. We have already shown that there is no reason to fear idols, and this is even less than an idol. "But someone may have dedicated that bowl to a demon before!" Firstly, these items are mass-produced in factories, so it's unlikely that anyone has used them in idol worship. But secondly, even if they had been used in idol worship, so what? The principle from eating meat offered to idols applies here. If it is not likely to cause anyone to stumble, go ahead and use the item!

In fact, sometimes not eating will cause someone to stumble. How many parents have thought that Christianity was against respect for parents and family unity because their Christian sons or daughters suddenly refuse to participate in the family meal because the food may have been offered to the ancestors?

Yes, I know, some parents have adapted, because as the child continues to show respect and love, they have become reconciled and will even provide a "non-offered-to-idols plate" for the Christian. But I also know of others who have been unnecessarily pushed away from Christ by such actions. Remember the principle in Scripture is "do not cause someone else to stumble." The offence of the Cross is enough – let us not add unnecessary offences to hinder people from coming to Christ!

I hope this has been helpful. As I said before, I am very cautious that I don't become one whose knowledge has puffed me up, but rather one who is sharing the truth in love.

1. Appendix D: Images of Worship, A Biblical Approach to Chinese Traditions and Beliefs, Daniel Tong, Genesis Books, Armour Publishing Pte Ltd, Singapore, 2003.

Here are some reviews of this book by Ivan Lee, Maranatha Resource Ministries, and Select Books (Singapore).


  1. Good timing; recently had conversations with someone I know about this point. And I agree that as Christians we should not be affected by traditional Chinese beliefs, and so I share the view that it is not worth the while to be worrying about the presence of idols.

    On a related note, as I have less experience in these matters; particularly, in your opinion, how should a Christian best react when dealing with houses where spirit medium practice is abound, i.e. the medium calls spirits to possess his body regularly? And especially when we are there when the thing is happening?
    Do we do anything to indicate our faith to any evil spirits lurking around in the hope of possessing new persons? How do we witness our faith to the medium or to those believers in such practices?

    1. I've not had to live with a medium before, so I don't have personal experience, but from the Bible, I'd say, the medium could be dealing with real demons as, while the Bible seems to indicate that idols are just dead materials, human beings can be posessed by demons.

      But ultimately Jesus is greater, so pray and possibily fast for him and show him the love of Christ.