Polytheism and philosophical absurdities By Jack Kettler
In this study, we will seek to understand polytheism. First, is it biblical? Second, is it a coherent metaphysical philosophy? As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, commentary evidence and confessional support for the glorifying of God in how we live.
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
Definitions from two sources:
Polytheism is the belief that there are many gods. Breaking the word down, “poly” comes from the Greek word for “many,” and “theism” from the Greek word for “God.” Polytheism has perhaps been the dominant theistic view in human history. The best-known example of polytheism in ancient times is Greek/Roman mythology (Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Poseidon, etc.). The clearest modern example of polytheism is Hinduism, which has over 300 million gods. Although Hinduism is, in essence, pantheistic, it does hold to beliefs in many gods. It is interesting to note that even in polytheistic religions; one god usually reigns supreme over the other gods, e.g., Zeus in Greek/Roman mythology and Brahman in Hinduism. *
The teaching that there are many gods. In the Ancient Near East, the nation of Israel was faced with the problem of the gods of other nations creeping into the theology of Judaism and corrupting the true revelation of God. Baal was the god of rain and exercised a powerful influence over the religion of many pagan cultures and even into the Jewish community. This is so because rain was essential to survival. Rain meant the crops would grow, the animals would have water, and the people would be able to eat. If there was no rain, death prevailed. Such visible realities as rain, drought, crops, and death often carried the spiritual character of the nation of Israel into spiritual adultery: worshiping other gods. The Bible does recognize the existence of other gods, but only as false. **
In contrast, Monotheism:
The belief that there is only one God in all places at all times. There were none before God and there will be none after Him. Monotheism is the teaching of the Bible. **
Scripture teaching against polytheism:
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39 ESV)
“For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the LORD made the heavens.” (Psalm 96:5)
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
From the Pulpit Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:4:
Verses 4-25. – THE FIRST AND GREAT COMMANDMENT. “In the fear of Jehovah all true obedience is rooted (vers. 2, 3); for this is the first and most intimate fact in the relation of Israel and Jehovah (Deuteronomy 5:26). But where the supreme fear of Jehovah hinders men from allowing self to preponderate in opposition to God, there will be no stopping at this renunciation of self-will, though this comes first as the negative form of the ten commandments also shows, but there will come to be a coalescence of the human with the Divine will; and this is love, which is the proper condition of obedience, as the ten commandments also indicate (Deuteronomy 5:10)” (Baumgarten). Verse 4. – Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord. This is an affirmation not so much of the moneity as of the unity and simplicity of Jehovah, the alone God. Though Elohim (plu.), he is one. The speaker does not say, “Jehovah is alone God,” but “Jehovah our Elohim is one Jehovah” (comp. for the force of אֶחָד, Exodus 26:6, 11; Ezekiel 37:16-19). Among the heathen there were many Baals and many Jupiters; and it was believed that the deity might be divided and communicated to many. But the God of Israel, Jehovah, is one, indivisible and incommunicable. He is the Absolute and the Infinite One, who alone is to be worshipped, on whom all depend, and to whose command all must yield obedience (cf. Zechariah 14:9). Not only to polytheism, but to pantheism, and to the conception of a localized or national deity, is this declaration of the unity of Jehovah opposed. With these words the Jews begin their daily liturgy, morning and evening; the sentence expresses the essence of their religious belief; and so familiar is it to their thought and speech that, it is said, they were often, during the persecution in Spain, betrayed to their enemies by the involuntary utterance of it. (1)
Sh’ma Israel Yehovah Eloheinu Yehovah Echad. These words can be translated into English as, “Hear, O Israel, Jehovah [Yhvh], our God [Elohim], is one [echad] Jehovah [Yhvh].”
“I am he: before me there was no God formed. Neither shall there be after me, I, even I, am LORD, and beside me there is no Saviour.” (Isaiah 43:10)
“I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.” (Isaiah 44:6)
From Barnes’ Notes on the Bible on Isaiah 44:6:
And I am the last – In Isaiah 41:4, this is expressed ‘with the last;’ in Revelation 1:8, ‘I am Alpha and Omega.’ The sense is, that God existed before all things, and will exist forever.
And besides me there is no God – This is repeatedly declared (Deuteronomy 4:35, Deuteronomy 4:39; see the note at Isaiah 43:10-12). This great truth it was God’s purpose to keep steadily before the minds of the Jews; and to keep it in the world, and ultimately to diffuse it abroad among the nations, was one of the leading reasons why he selected them as a special people, and separated them from the rest of mankind. (2)
“Is there a God beside me? Yea, there is no God; I know not any?” (Isaiah 44:8)
“And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he.” (Mark 12:32)
“As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers says this about 1 Corinthians 8:5 regarding “gods many”:
(5) For though there be. . . .—This is an hypothetic argument. “Be” is the emphatic word of the supposition. Even assuming that there do exist those beings which are called “gods” (we have a right to make such a supposition, for Deuteronomy 10:17, Psalm 105:2-3, speaks of “gods and lords” of another kind), the difference between the heathen, “gods many” and the “lords and gods” of whom the Old Testament speaks, is that the former are deities, and the latter only a casual way of speaking of angels and other spiritual subjects and servants of the one God. This is brought out in the following verse. (3)
1 Corinthians 8:5 is a favorite proof text in support of multiple gods by a large Utah based religion. As seen, Ellicott’s comments refute this idea.
“Who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” (2 Thessalonians 2:4 ESV)
Paul explains in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 clarifies what he means in 1 Corinthians 8:5. The gods mentioned in Corinthians are false gods and not gods at all.
The next passage from James has tremendous apologetic value in defense of monotheism.
“Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” (James 2:19)
James says even the devils believe in one God. The devils are not polytheists. What does this say about people advancing the idea of many gods? The devils faith in one God is not saving faith, yet it is a true confession much like the demons that would acknowledge Christ when he cast them out of the possessed. See Luke 4:41. If you are advancing the idea that other gods exist, woe is you, do you really want the devil’s minions to be a witness against you?
Consider Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible on James 2:19:
Thou believest that there is one God,…. These words are a continuation of the address of the man that has works, to him that boasts of his faith without them, observing to him, that one, and a main article of his faith, is, that there is one God; which is to be understood in the Christian sense, since both the person speaking, and the person spoken to, were such as professed themselves Christians; so that to believe there is one God, is not merely to give into this article, in opposition to the polytheism of the Gentiles, or barely to confess the God of Israel, as believed on by the Jews, but to believe that there are three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, and that these three are the one God; wherefore this article of faith includes everything relating to God; as to God the Father, his being and perfections, so to Christ, as God, and the Son of God, and the Messiah, &c. and to the Holy Spirit; and to believe all this is right:
thou doest well; for that there is but one God, is to be proved by the light of nature, and from the works of creation and providence, and has been owned by the wisest of the Heathens themselves; and is established, by divine revelation, in the books both of the Old and of the New Testament; what has been received by the Jews, and is well known by Christians, to whom it is set in the clearest light, and who are assured of the truth of it: but then
the devils also believe; the Arabic version reads, “the devils likewise so believe”; they believe the same truth; they know and believe there is but one God, and not many; and they know that the God of Israel is he; and that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are the one God; they know and believe him to be the most high God, whose servants the ministers of the Gospel are; and they know and believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God, the Son of God, and the Messiah, Acts 16:17.
And tremble; at the wrath of God, which they now feel, and at the thought of future torments, which they expect, Mark 5:7 and which is more than some men do; and yet these shall not be saved, their damnation is certain and inevitable, 2 Peter 2:4 wherefore it follows, that a bare historical faith will not profit, and cannot save any; a man may have all faith of this kind, and be damned; and therefore it is not to be boasted of, nor trusted to. (4)
Polytheism by systematic theologian Charles Hodge:
“As the word implies, Polytheism is the theory which assumes the existence of many gods. Monotheism was the original religion of our race. This is evident not only from the teachings of the Scriptures, but also from the fact that the earliest historical form of religious belief is monotheistic. There are monotheistic hymns in the Vedas, the most ancient writings now extant, unless the Pentateuch be an exception.
The first departure from monotheism seems to have been nature worship. As men lost the knowledge of God as creator, they were led to reverence the physical elements with which they were in contact, whose power they witnessed, and whose beneficent influence they constantly experienced. Hence not only the sun, moon, and stars, the great representatives of nature, but fire, air, and water, became the objects of popular worship. We accordingly find that the Vedas consist largely of hymns addressed to these natural elements.
These powers were personified, and soon it came to be generally believed that a personal being presided over each. And these imaginary beings were the objects of popular worship.
While the mass of the people really believed in beings that were “called gods” (1 Cor. 8:5), many of the more enlightened were monotheists, and more were pantheists. The early introduction and wide dissemination of pantheism are proved from the fact that it lies at the foundation of Brahminism and Buddhism, the religions of the larger part of the human race for thousands of years.
There can be little doubt that when the Aryan tribes entered India, fifteen hundred or two thousand years before Christ, pantheism was their established belief. The unknown, and “unconditioned” infinite Being, reveals itself according to the Hindu system, as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva,—that is, as Creator, Preserver, and Restorer. These were not persons, but modes of manifestation. It was in this form that the idea of an endless process of development of the infinite into the finite, and of the return of the finite into the infinite, was expressed. It was from this pantheistic principle that the endless polytheism of the Hindus naturally developed itself; and this determined the character of their whole religion. As all that is, is only a manifestation of God, everything remarkable, and especially the appearance of any remarkable man, was regarded as an “avatar,” or incarnation of God, in one or other of his modes of manifestation, as Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. And as evil is as actual as good, the one is as much a manifestation, or, modus existendi, of the infinite Being as the other. And hence there are evil gods as well as good. In no part of the world has pantheism had such a field for development as in India, and nowhere has it brought forth its legitimate effects in such a portentous amount of evil. Nowhere has polytheism been carried to such revolting extremes.
Among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans polytheism assumed a form determined by the character of the people. The Greeks rendered it bright, beautiful, and sensual; the Romans were more decorous and sedate. Among barbarous nations it has assumed forms much more simple, and in many cases more rational.
In the Bible the gods of the heathen are declared to be “vanity,” and “nothing,” mere imaginary beings, without power either to hurt or to save. (Jer. 2:28; Isa. 41:29; Isa. 13:17; Ps. 106:28.) They are also represented as δαιμόνια (1 Cor. 10:20). This word may express either an imaginary, or a real existence. The objects of heathen worship are called gods, even when declared to be nonentities. So they may be called “demons,” without intending to teach that they are “spirits.” As the word, however, generally in the New Testament, does mean “evil spirits,” it is perhaps better to take it in that sense when it refers to the objects of heathen worship. This is not inconsistent with the doctrine that the gods of the heathen are “vanities and lies.” They are not what men take them to be. They have no divine power. Paul says of the heathen before their conversion, “ἐδουλεύσατε το̂ις φυσει μή οὐ̂σι θεοι̂ς” (Gal. 4:8). The prevalence and persistency of Polytheism show that it must have a strong affinity with fallen human nature. Although, except in pantheism, it has no philosophical basis, it constitutes a formidable obstacle to the progress of true religion in the world.” (5)
Polytheism not only includes the worship of other gods, it includes the mere belief that multiple gods exist. Monotheism and polytheism are irreconcilable.
Not only is polytheism unbiblical, its ethics and metaphysics lead to unanswerable absurdities:
1. Are the gods finite, infinite, corporeal or incorporeal?
2. Did the gods evolve? Have they always been?
3. Are they like men?
4. Are they like the Greek and Roman gods?
5. How do the gods communicate with men?
6. Are they omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent?
7. If the gods are not omniscient, are they surrounded by ultimate mystery and contingency?
8. Are all the gods associated with this planet?
9. Are the gods scattered throughout the cosmos and other planets?
10. Are there laws or a law structure in the universe?
11. If so, where did these laws come from?
12. Did the gods create these laws?
13. Is the law structure higher than the gods are?
14. If so, what are the implications?
15. Is the law structure god?
16. Do the gods ever get together and vote on what the standards for men should be or for their own standards?
17. Do they have some kind of debating forum?
18. If they are like men, how do they travel? A space ship?
19. Do the gods communicate with each other? If so, how? An intergalactic phone service?
20. How do the gods define things like good and evil?
21. Do the gods define it, or is a law structure above the gods the source for definitions?
22. Can concepts such as good and evil exist in raw matter? In other words, do concepts like good and evil have to exist in a mind?
23. If concepts such as good and evil must exist in a mind, and many gods exist in the universe, would not the definition of good and evil be very subjective, since there are many minds?
24. Do all the gods in the universe interpret things in the same way?
25. How could you know?
26. If you pick a particular god to follow, how do you know that this god is interpreting ethical ideas properly?
27. How do you know evil is not good? Can the gods help explain this?
28. Will the gods ever defeat evil in the universe?
29. Why have not the gods defeated it yet?
30. Are there evil gods in the universe?
31. If so, could they destroy or defeat the good gods?
32. The terms evil and good are relative in a universe populated with multiple gods, since not all gods may agree.
33. Can the gods articulate a coherent theory of knowledge?
34. Are the gods’ empiricists, rationalists?
35. How do the gods solve the “one and many” problem?
36. Is a counsel of multiple authoritative infallible gods logically coherent? How so?
37. In the world of men, can anyone know anything with certainty about the gods?
38. Are promoters of polytheism engaging in speculation or pure guesswork when making any declaration about the gods?
39. Are assertions about the gods verified, empirically, rationally, by a vote, just believe the assertions, a holy man from India knows, listen to him or doing yoga (yoke with Brahmin) or mediate long enough to learn the answers?
In polytheistic systems, there can be no certain standards. Ethics, logic and science would be relative to the authority of each different god or a group of god’s alliance. Polytheism cannot escape manifesting itself in multiple contradictory definitions in regards to ultimate reality. In trying to ascertain answers to the above questions, it is apparent that polytheism is absurd and can say nothing with certainty in the area of science, logic and ethics. Polytheism therefore is irrational.
In contrast, Christian Monotheism solves “The One and Many Problem”:
The “One and Many Problem” is another dilemma for polytheists. Is reality ultimately one or many? If reality is ultimately one, this can manifest itself as communism or a total state. If reality is ultimately many, this can lead to political anarchy. Eastern polytheistic philosophy contradictory comes down on the side of the many and at other times the one manifesting itself as pantheistic monism. Polytheism has never produced a system guaranteeing individual rights. Likewise, Communism answered the question as noted in favor of the one or total state and it likewise never produced any protection for property rights or individual freedom.
The monotheistic Christian worldview, on the other hand, has produced a balance of individual freedoms and a basis for the state and church authority. This is accomplished because of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Christian God is the ground and explanation of all reality. God is one and yet more than one, with a plurality of persons within the one God. Politically and religiously this manifests itself by giving due authority to the state or church and a proper place for individual rights and the basis for appealing abuses of the state or church by the individual.
Why is the polytheist unable to articulate a coherent theory of knowledge that can justify the use of science, ethics and logic? The polytheist uses logic and talks about ethics. They do so without justifying or demonstrating how their worldview can account for these things. In other words, they beg the question. In addition, mind you, when you point out this question begging on their part, you will experience many ad hominem attacks, which serve as a smoke screen to cover-up the bankruptcy of their worldview. Moreover, the polytheist or any non-Christian steals from the Christian worldview that can explain and justify the use of such things to attack the Christian’s presuppositions. When informing the polytheist of their theft, get ready for emotional responses or ad hominem attacks.
Christians have a biblical foundation for seeking knowledge and obtaining it. God-given revelation is objective. Ungodly men reject biblical revelation; they suppress the truth that God has revealed to them through creation (Romans 1:18). God has spoken in the Scriptures, i.e., God’s special revelation to humanity concerning what is required of them.
Greg L. Bahnsen explains the Christian’s worldview ability to talk intelligently like this:
In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. When the perspective of God’s revelation is rejected, then the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the preconditions of knowledge and meaningful experience. To put it another way: the proof that Christianity is true is that if it were not, we would not be able to prove anything.
What the unbeliever needs is nothing less than a radical change of mind – repentance (Acts 17:30). He needs to change his fundamental worldview and submit to the revelation of God in order for any knowledge or experience to make sense. He at the same time needs to repent of his spiritual rebellion and sin against God. Because of the condition of his heart, he cannot see the truth or know God in a saving fashion. (6)
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Deuteronomy, Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p.118.
2. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Isaiah, p.1049.
3. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, 1 Corinthians, vol. 2, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 315.
4. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, James, 9 Volumes, Romans, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, pp. 39-40.
5. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing), p. 243-244.
6. Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready Directions for Defending the Faith, (Atlanta, Georgia, American Vision), p. 122.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics