Whether we admit it or not, we often think that we are smarter, more moral, and better than our ancestors. We should not be so sure.
My son recently completed his first year in engineering at Virginia Tech, and found himself surrounded by highly accomplished and intelligent faculty and students. These people differed on religion, politics, lifestyles, interests, backgrounds, and almost everything else. Yet they agreed on one important opinion: people today are smarter, more virtuous, and perhaps even better overall, than people of yesteryear.
The origin of this tacit belief is multifactorial. Standardized test scores have been generally improving over the past century, technology has rapidly advanced, and our ancestors have had great moral failures, whether slavery or racism. Many hold the quasi-Darwinian view that everything gets better adapted to the environment over time. Finally, the belief that moderns are better than ancients is seasoned with a heaping tablespoon of the salt of human arrogance.
C.S. Lewis called the belief in the superiority of moderns over their ancestors “chronological snobbery,” and noted that it does not survive challenge well. Students are certainly getting better at taking standardized tests, but that does not necessarily mean that they are smarter. Technology is improving, but the technology of today was invented yesterday…by our predecessors. Our grandparents and great grandparents had grievous moral failures, but it is hard to argue that ours are less bad. And though we may wish that evolution will make us better, evidence is hard to find. Mankind today is probably no worse than 100 or 1000 years ago, but also probably no better.
Christians are not immune to “chronological snobbery”, and often we find our supposed superiority in the fact that we are not idolaters. More than one Sunday School denizen has puzzled over how people in the Bible could literally bow before wood and stone, gold and silver. Such perplexity is often followed by a smugness that would make a Pharisee proud, saying “thank God that I am not like them (Luke 18:11).”
In truth, ancient idol worshippers did not believe that the wood or stone that they carved into an idol and could destroy at will was a god. Rather they believed that the spirit of the unseen god came to inhabit the idol. Whether wood, stone, gold, or silver, the idol was merely the physical manifestation or the carrier of the spirit of the deity. This belief is widespread today, especially among Hindus.
The sin of idolatry is not in the worship of the physical manifestation, because people generally don’t do that. Rather it is found in four factors that we shall examine below. The story of the Philistines is a good example.
The Philistines emigrated from Greece to the Levant around 1200 BC, a little later than the Israelites themselves came to the Promised Land. They inhabited five cities in southwestern Palestine, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. Able fighters, the Philistines are portrayed in the Old Testament as relentless foes of Israel. Along with the Canaanites, they are also seen as Godless idolaters. 1 Samuel 4-6 tells the story. It is best to read it directly from the Bible, but I have provided a brief summary here.
The Philistines had oppressed the Israelites for many years. The Hebrews rebelled and the two armies met in battle. The superior armament of the Philistines carried the first day. Desperate, the Israelites brought the Ark of the Covenant, their holiest object, the one that they believed contained the power of their God, into the fight on the second day. The talisman failed. Israel met disaster, and the Ark of the Covenant was taken by the Philistines to Ashdod, to the temple of their god, Dagon.
In the morning, the keepers of the statue of Dagon found it prostrate before the Ark of the Covenant. They set it back up, but the same thing happened the next day. Not only had the statue fallen, but its head and hands had broken off. Simultaneously a plague broke out in Ashdod, killing many. The description of the symptoms, including “tumors in their secret parts,” and the mention of mice suggests bubonic plague or anthrax. The plague may have been carried by the Israelites to the Levant. Relatively new to the area, the Philistines must have lacked the immunity that the Israelites possessed. The Philistines tried to abort the epidemic by moving the Ark to Gath and then to Ekron, but only succeeded in spreading the infection. Ultimately they sent the Ark back to Israel.
Let us consider the evidence of idolatry in this story. Let us also consider how we do the same thing.
Self, not God, is lord
The goal for both the Philistines and the Israelites was personal success, not the glory of God. Both sides assumed that their god wanted the same thing that they wanted; victory in battle. After their initial defeat, the Hebrews did not ask the Lord why He had let them lose, but asked each other (1 Samuel 4:3). Then they came up with a solution that had no bearing on the military situation. Israel hoped to use the Ark as a combination good luck charm and “revenge weapon,” as Hitler used his Vergeltungswaffe (revenge weapons) three millennia later. In battle on the second day, the Philistines initially feared the Ark. Soon however, their martial aptitude carried the day.
Modern man is no different. We say that “God didn’t work for me,” “I don’t need God,” or “God wanted too much from me.” When Napoleon asked Pierre LaPlace why there was no mention of God in his scientific treatise, LaPlace answered “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Anton LaVey’s Satanists bluntly declare that Self is Lord. Most other people are more subtle, but the message is the same; Self is god.
We go to church for what we can get out of it, to be inspired, to enjoy friends, or whatever, rather than for what we can put into it. We want personal peace and affluence instead of a chance to expend ourselves to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our chronological snobbery is itself evidence of our pride; that we put ourselves above God. We are modern day idolaters.
Put God into our box
Since the Philistines had beaten the Hebrews, they reasoned that Dagon was more powerful than Jehovah. Happy with their choice of the mightier deity, they put the Ark of Jehovah at the feet of Dagon. The more perceptive of the Philistines would have recognized the chain of logic implicit in these actions but few would have admitted it.
- Dagon had served the Philistines by giving them victory over Jehovah and the Hebrews.
- The Philistines rewarded Dagon by putting Jehovah at his feet.
- As Dagon was by right over Jehovah, so Philistia was by right over Israel.
In the afterglow of victory, the Philistines developed a conception of the world which put them at the top and Israel at the bottom. God’s place in the world was with the loser people, the Hebrews. The victory and subsequent thought patterns were used to justify whatever Philistines did to the Israelites, including oppression, rape and even murder.
If moderns acknowledge the Lord at all, we limit His impact on our lives. We attend services for a specified time each week (or month or year) and give Him a specified amount of money. We think about Him, read about Him, talk about Him, and act in His service within firm limits. We demarcate the areas of our lives that we want Him to enter, and everything else is off limits. We might want God to make us stronger, richer, and more beautiful, but we don’t want hard work, suffering, or humility. These limits are dictated by the chain of logic that we apply to God and our lives. Even more, they are dictated by what we want to do. We are modern day idolaters.
When things go wrong, make your reality fit your preconceptions
No man-centered chain of reason survives its first encounter with the God of the Universe, and this Philistine chain of reason was no exception. When the statue of Dagon fell twice before the Ark of the Lord, and it broke to pieces the second time, they could have reasonably concluded that Jehovah was Lord over Dagon. If so, the men of Ashdod could have become followers of the true God. Philistia could have followed the Law of Moses and become a great and prosperous people under the Lord. They did not; probably because they had beaten the Hebrews in battle but more probably because they did not want to. Their cultural god was Dagon, and to change that would have been hard. Worse, admitting the supremacy of the Jehovah would have undercut their entire justification for oppression. Therefore the Philistines came to a conclusion that had nothing to do with the situation – that the threshold of Dagon’s temple was especially holy.
If we fast forward to 2016, we find that nothing has changed. One Indian writer wrote a hatchet piece against Christians saying that despite their hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, and food kitchens, Jesus’ followers were to be reviled. He could not accept the work of the Church in sharing the love of Christ as the blessing that it is, and bent his reality to fit his preconceptions. The British news magazine the Economist does the same regularly.
All of us, however, are guilty to some degree. Students who were troublesome in grade school get labeled by their teachers, and these students can rarely shake the label no matter how good they become. The same thing happens to coworkers and others. One friend was investigated for sexual harassment and later exonerated. To judge from some articles and search engines, however, he is a criminal in the first degree. We are modern day idolaters.
When God gets troublesome, send Him away
A plague broke out among the Philistines, killing many. They attributed to the plague to the anger of Jehovah and tried the half-measure of sending Him to other Philistine cities. In their minds, this would enable them to maintain power over Jehovah and His people, the Hebrews, while aborting the epidemic. Their plan failed, and the Philistine leaders were forced to send the Ark back to Israel.
When a loved one gets sick or dies, when we lose our job, and when other trouble arises in our lives, what do we do? Do we reaffirm our faith in the God of the Universe or do we abandon our faith? Do we trust in His enduring goodness despite the circumstances or do send Him away? We send God away by skipping church, avoiding Christian friends, and rejecting Bible study, prayer, and the other spiritual disciplines. We deny Him by neglecting the sick, the hungry, the widow and the orphan. We send Him away when we fail to give Him glory for creation and for the amazing things that He has done. We are modern day idolaters.
Contrary to so many opinions, there is no real evidence that man today is better intellectually, morally, or in any other way better than his forebears. This is true in religion as well. To varying degrees, people are still inveterate idolaters; as well as being chronological snobs. What can Christians do? Ask the Lord for deliverance from the four marks of idolatry noted above. Also, humble ourselves, pray and seek His face (II Chronicles 7:14).