In at least the Evangelical circles I'm involved in, we often suggest that "modern idolatry" is idols of the heart - things we put before God - and is described as the same as idolatry that is described in the Bible. Often it is defined as "elevating good things to God things" or "putting something in the place of God."

As an illustrative example, we often say that an "idol" of Americans can be the "American Dream." Or work. Or marriage. Or whatever, you get the picture. We often say that what we "put our thought toward," "seek comfort from," or "place our trust in" might be signs that we have an idol of the heart.

The supportive explanations I've heard mostly center on commonalities between "modern idolatry" and idolatry of the Bible ("graven images"); both replace God with something (your source of comfort, what you desire, etc). However, it strikes me as odd that the Bible explicitly talks about graven images... I can't imagine our "modern idolatry" is really new; I'm sure the Israelites had things that they put before God that weren't graven images. If that (and I'm not saying it is) is the only support; I'm sure we could create commonalities in a lot of things to defined sins if we tried. I also find it concerning to redefining something if God has defined it a certain way.

My question then is how do we, Biblically, come to the conclusion that this is idolatry? What is the Biblical basis for it? Have I overlooked some important verses?

  • You seem to be pushing for a point of view in an argument instead of leaving your question open. Generally speaking: In Judaism the first law is Exodus 20: 2 with verses 3 + 4 the second. Protestants + Catholics etc holds that verse 3 is the first law and 4 the second. (Idolatry is one thing and making graven images another.) Your Evangelical circles are therefore correct if they follow the protestant view that idolatry has nothing to do with graven images and everything with what people regard as being important while you push for the Jewish view. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:06
  • 1
    Actually, my question is wide open, and I genuinely want to know (in fact, I'd like to see Biblical basis for this interpretation of idolatry for more than a couple reasons). However, I would like the Bible to speak for itself. I am not in favor of either view, however as I see it the burden of proof is on those that are making the claim that idolatry extends beyond what is apparently defined in the Bible.
    – xtraorange
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:37
  • As far as the 10 commandments thought: Exodus 20 only suggests that you shall have no other gods before Him (so think other religion's gods) and no carved/graven images. It says nothing about idolatry in verse 3 (though it could be argued that it IS idolatry). Incidentally, Jews and Catholics agree that the no other gods/idolatry commandment is one commandment; protestants differ.
    – xtraorange
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:46
  • Since you ask the question it would only be fair that it is answered from your perspective. So what do you regard as the First Commandment, the Second, and the Third?(Arguing about what the Catholics believe serves no purpose.) Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 15:13
  • 1
    I think you might find my answer here interesting. See the addendum at the end, especially.
    – user3961
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 7:27

5 Answers 5


If we face the question squarely this is a loose 'application' of the command against idolatry applied to countries that have for the most part ceased from idolatry due to the high numbers of Christians even within the Government of those countries. Biblically idolatry is not greed or lust or pride, there are words already for those other sins. Idolatry must direct ones 'worship' and doctrine of God to a concept lower then the dignity of God.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (NIV, Rom 1:21-24)

As a result of idolatry one may fall into various other shameful sins but putting yourself before God, putting your career, money, leisure, or whatever before God but this is greed, lust, etc. and not idolatry.

If one were to try and apply the command against idolatry more biblically to those who have never practiced any it would be closer to apply it to various cults and groups who substitute false doctrines for the gospel. However even in this instance although it is very close to the spirit of idolatry they had false teachers back then as well who did not practice idolatry.

I live in Asia and there is a lot of actual idolatry here. Evangelical circles, which I belong to sometimes pass around cop-out sayings that overly simplify scripture into bit-sized cliches that make it easy for the laziest of preachers to apply everything in the Bible to a middle-class westernized conservative social group, but this is a little silly for a serious person.

  • I appreciate your response, which largely echoes the thoughts I've had (in a much more articulate manner). I'll leave the question open for now to see if there are opposing opinions that float in.
    – xtraorange
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 0:55
  • 1
    Great post Mike. I remember my first time in Thailand. I went to see the sites and one of them was the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon (Golden Buddha). I was amazed at first, until I started noticing the pilgrims kneeling and praying around it. I only stayed a few more minutes before I felt like I should leave.
    – user3961
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 7:12

There are two different passages in the New Testament, both in Pauline epistles, in which greed is seemingly equated with idolatry. Since the way in which the phrases are translated can affect their meaning, as it applies to this particular context, I'll quote them each in several different versions:

Col 3:5


Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.


Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.


Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.


Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

Eph 5:5


For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.


For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.


For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.


For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Given these two passages, it seems likely that the Apostle Paul regularly taught that greed and covetousness were a form of idolatry. Since he, unfortunately, gives no further explanation for why he equates the two, we can assume that either his teaching on the matter was already well known by the audiences, or he felt that the reason for the deduction should be obvious to any audience. If his reasoning for the deduction was well known at the time, that is no longer the case today, so either way we are left with the task of surmising the reason.

It is not a terribly difficult problem to solve. Idolatry is wrong because you are worshiping, loving, and giving devotion to some object rather than to God. Greed is also wrong because you are loving and giving devotion to some object rather than being satisfied with what God has already provided for you. Therefore, greed is a form of idolatry because you are making stuff more important than God. Once that Biblical reasoning is established, the reasoning you cited, as being popular among evangelicals, is not difficult to justify.

  • Great thoughts, I appreciate it. I actually came across the Colossians passage while researching this answer, and it comes to mind that there was an argument to it, but I don't recall from the top of my head. I will try to think of it because I would love to get your take.
    – xtraorange
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 23:20
  • The only real argument on Colossians, of which I am aware, is that greed, in that context, is possibly referring to a sexual desire rather than greed in the more general sense. Either way, I think it's safe to reach the same general conclusion, especially when combined with the verse from Ephesians. Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 1:06

The general and simple answer is a yes, but most folks get it backwards.

But, the Bible doesn't need to define this in detail for us. It uses terms the Jews were familiar with, terms that we're familiar with. It simply has to say, don't make idols or don't have other gods before me, and we can readily infer the meaning.

An idol is simply an image or a form of something which one worships. Idols were representations of gods, which themselves are personifications of natural forces, virtues, and vices, often in dramatic form. And etymologically, worship is "worth ship" or "worthiness", the act of giving worth. Manifestations of worship entail an "offering" of time and resource.

An idol is a representation of a "thing" to which one assigns worth. In ancient times, the "things" idols represented were personified in poetic form and overtly worshipped in a personal manner through crafted images. Idols brought the distant object of worship into worshipping distance -- into one's village and home.

In modern times, the distinction between the gods and the idols is hard to nail down, partly because the secular culture doesn't prefer to put things into those categories. So, to us the terminology is foreign and more pagan sounding than it really is. But also, we mass produce our images and routinely conflate them with our gods. And we deny that our worship is worship our that our ritual is ritual.

Modern gods are elusive, hybrid creatures: They're somewhere between the things we worship and the people who embody those things. Modern idols, as with ancient idols, bring the gods into worshipping distance. So, wherever we draw the line around a god, the "things" that bring said god into worshipping distance are idols. In the modern world, we're copiously surrounded by potential idols (it's a matter of purpose and usage).

  • A person who exhibits or evangelizes of an esteemed quality
  • A person who otherwise displays "deep knowledge" of an esteemed quality via their work
  • A photo, artistic rendering, symbol of an esteemed person or quality
  • A book, magazine, photo, sculpture, film, or other work
  • A modern "gospel" (prosperity gospel, LinkedIn's blog reel, democracy, etc.)
  • A piece of technology
  • A fashion
  • A logo, an overt devotion to a company because "it's cage-free" or "not made in a sweatshop" ...

... Other things I can't think of.

The notable characteristics of an idol are not confusing or ambiguous. An idol is the visible or "accessible" proxy for worship. And we have plenty of them. We have more of them than the ancients did.

This strictly physical nature of an idol was sort of extended very early in Christianity to entail any "image", including conceptual images, to which we proxy our worship of non-God. This isn't necessarily inconsistent with the strictly physical notion of an idol. Rather, it more clearly distinguishes between holy images, whose ultimate object is YHWH, and real idols. Hence, something like money, even when reduced to a concept, can be an idol.

And in general, an underlying object of worship is a god. The ancients had the good dramatic sense to personify their gods. The modern analytical mind conjured some weird idea that the ancients thought these gods were real persons, not just personifications of real virtues, passions, and truthfully powerful forces. So, we depersonalized them.

Our gods are boring. But, we still have gods -- things to which we assign worth. Things that we believe to be even more powerful than the silly ancient gods!


We have idols and gods aplenty. But, we tend to get them backwards. We often say "TV is your god" and "you're making an idol out of entertainment!" More strictly speaking, it's the exact opposite.

Entertainment (pleasure) is a god. TV is an idol.

But, for the purposes of their sermons, the distinction is generally irrelevant. The point is, God deserves all your love. He's the only "thing" of true worth. Anything that displaces your worship of God is a false god. And false gods cease to exist without idols. And, we readily create those.

  • "And etymologically, worship is simply the act of assigning worth." I think you should cite/source this.
    – user3961
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 7:29
  • 1
    @fredsbend The etymology was in the linked Wikipedia page, which is consistent with other sources and talks I've encountered. But, I've edited the answer to make it more clear my interpretation is supported by Wikipedia (and wherever Wikipedia got it's info!).
    – svidgen
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 13:45
  • What a fantastic, well thought out answer. I will definitely need to reread and process this. Many thanks for your input.
    – xtraorange
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 23:16

To quote from The Shorter Catechism, A Baptist Version, questions 52-55 are helpful:

What is the second commandment?

The second commandment is, You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. {Exodus 20:4-6}

What is required in the second commandment?

The second commandment requires the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has appointed in His word. {John 4:24, Deuteronomy 32:46, Matthew 28:20, Acts 2:42, Deuteronomy 12:13-14, Deuteronomy 12:32, Mark 7:6-8}

What is forbidden in the second commandment?

The second commandment forbids the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in His word. {Deuteronomy 4:15-19, Leviticus 10:1-2, Deuteronomy 12:30-32}

What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?

The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, His ownership of us, and the zeal He has to His own worship. {Psalm 95:2-3,6, Psalm 100:2-3, Exodus 34:13-14, Psalm 106:19,21,23}

From the catechism (and supporting passages for each answer), the thrust of the commandment is that anything we use whereby we attempt to worship God incorrectly, or anything we miss when worshiping God is a violation of the command.

Technically, putting something else in front of God or in the place of God is a violation of the 1st Commandment - it MAY also violate the 2d, but the force of the 2d is built atop the base of the 1st.

  • Thanks for your thoughts! With respect, I'm not sure I followed the connection you drew from the catechism. It seems (and I may have totally misunderstood you, so forgive me if so) that you're interpreting the interpretation. Have I misunderstood you?
    – xtraorange
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 23:25
  • @xtraorange - you have misunderstood me: I've quoted and summarized the catechism answer(s) :)
    – warren
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 3:06

There appears to be some contention here as what Idolatry means so let's see if we can better understand what God meant when he gave the ten Commandments to Moses.

From the King James translation:

Exodus 20:2 through 5 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

From the Orthodox Jewish Bible:

Exodus 20:1 through 6 Then Elohim spoke all these words, saying, I am Hashem Eloheicha, Who brought thee out of Eretz Mitzrayim, out of the bais avadim. Thou shalt have no elohim acherim in My presence. Thou shalt not make unto thee any pesel, or any temunah of any thing that is in Shomayim above, or that is in ha'aretz beneath, or that is in the mayim under ha'aretz. Thou shalt not tishtacheveh to them, nor serve them; for I Hashem Eloheicha am an El kanna, visiting the avon Avot upon the banim unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; But showing chesed unto thousands of them that love Me, and are shomer over My mitzvot.

From Smiths literal translation:

Exodus 20:3 through 6 There shall be no other God to thee to my face. Thou shalt not make to thee a carved image, and every appearance that is in the heavens above, and that is in the earth beneath, and that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not worship to them, and thou shalt not serve them: for I am Jehovah thy God, a jealous God, striking the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth, to them hating me; And doing kindness to thousands to them loving me and to them watching my commands.

unless otherwise stated Scripture quoted is from the King James Translation:

There are two commands here, one has to do with false gods, of which we whether rightly or wrongly; assert to be the god's of other nations.

Genesis 35:1 through 4 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother. Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.

The supremacy of God to the gods of other nations was not new to the Hebrews. God had given them ample proof of his majesty in telling them:

Exodus 12:12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.

It is imperative that we understand that the Hebrews had been in slavery in Egypt for 400 years at this time, and had long ago abandoned the one true God for the worship of Egypt's gods. God was therefore having to reinstitute their true religion, and he was doing this through the teaching of Moses. However, they like all people, without strong leadership tend to revert to their old and comfortable way of life.

Exodus 32:1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

Then God knowing that Satan had once again interfered to turn their hearts from God said to Moses;

Exodus 32:7 through 10 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.

That gives some insight into God, let's look at what God actually said.

for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt.  God is so incensed  
at their rejection of him that he no longer refers to them as his people, but is now
not only calling them Moses people, and is even willing that Moses be given all the
credit for is magnificent feat.

God then offers Moses;

I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me
alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will
make of thee a great nation.  God was so inflamed at the Hebrews, that he is willing
to alter all of his plans to complete his master plan and annihilate the Hebrew Nation
and start all over with the descendants of Moses.

they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it. This is actually the second
command God gives in  worshiping other gods, that they are not to substitute any 
manmade image in the worship of God as a portrayal of him.

We become more aware of

that when we consider the phrases in Smith's literal translation;

' There shall be no other God to thee to my face.'

and in the Orthodox Jewish Bible;

' Thou shalt have no elohim acherim in My presence.'

From these and many other Scriptures that I have studied, It is my opinion whether right or wrong that the idolatry which vexes the Lord is our dedication to anything which we will allow to pre-empt our true and heartfelt worship of him.

Jesus himself probably said it best:

John 4:23 and 24 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

This illustration may explain my point better than anything I can say.

I live in East Texas, and in this area the Dallas Cowboys football team is the subject of a fanatical following. During the season there are Cowboy signs, shirts and etc. everywhere, and during their games almost everything comes to a halt as people watch the games. I have known some, who struck me as devout Christians, who missed Church on Sunday to watch the games. I have even known people who placed a tiny earphone in their ear connected to a hidden radio, in order to keep up with the game during the sermon. I make sure to sit as far away as possible from them just in case.

That illustrates my point about anything that draws our worship away from God and also the concept of it being in the face of God. I have often wondered why God does not vaporize some people for the boldness with which they taunt him, after all he killed a man for just touching the Ark of the covenant to keep it from falling.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate it. It seems the issue of contention (and really what began this question) is can we reinterpret "gods" to apply to things other than what the beholder considers a god. When simply reading it as it lays, He never alludes to anything beyond graven images or gods. Can one assume he means that a god is anything we devote our attention to, even if it's not a god? And I think this is the issue, because it seems like we may be creating a metaphor where there may be only a literal statement. Am I communicating the issue I see?
    – xtraorange
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 23:29
  • @xtraorange Perhaps I did not completely explain myself, check out my edit it may give you some more perspective on what I was trying to point out.
    – BYE
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 13:10

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