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What is polytheism?

"Polytheism" is a technical term for belief in many gods. For most of human history, polytheism—or spiritism, which is sort of the same thing—was the dominant worldview. Ancient people mainly believed in a number of separate deities. Typically, a polytheistic system believes that each god has a special sphere of influence and/or their own unique powers. Some polytheistic systems involve only a few deities. Some believe in hundreds. Some forms of polytheism, like Hinduism, believe in millions.

When modern people living in Europe or the Americas think of polytheism, what comes to mind is usually Greek mythology. This includes Zeus (sky), Poseidon (sea), Hades (death), Hera (marriage), Apollo (light), Athena (wisdom), Hephaestus (industry), Aphrodite (love), Ares (war), Hermes (messengers), Dionysus (wine), and so forth. Yes, that’s a lot of different gods, and those aren’t even all the gods included in the ancient Greek religion. There are countless polytheistic systems scattered throughout history.

In virtually all forms of polytheism, a key point is that these deities don’t always get along. They bicker, fight, lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate. They have different goals, choose different sides, and often work against each other. Human beings must pick sides “for” one god and “against” certain others, and the gods do the same in human conflicts. Oddly, polytheistic religions may have one god who presides over the others, but this god may or may not have actual control over other gods.

For the typical person, this kind of polytheism means “the gods” aren’t reliable, consistent, or predictable. We can only watch as the gods do their thing. And if this were true of the gods, then life and nature wouldn't be reliable, consistent, or predictable either. We couldn't expect to know how or if anything would happen. What a scary existence!

However, thinking there are many “gods” not only makes life uncertain, but it's an outright mistake. And that’s partly proven by what happened when belief in a single God became the dominant worldview...

Because Science!

Ancient history is filled with examples of cultures that were wealthy, stable, powerful, brilliant, and long-lasting. This includes the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Inca, Persians, among others. Some of those cultures existed for centuries and produced phenomenal evidence of their intelligence. But none of them developed what we now think of as “the scientific method.” Why? Largely because they had many wrong assumptions about reality—such as polytheism.

The scientific method assumes that nature is consistent, knowable, purposed, and rational. Compare that to the assumptions of polytheism (or spiritism). No matter what your IQ, if you don’t believe the universe is inherently knowable or consistent or predictable, you cannot approach science the way we do in the modern world. Once civilization started seeing the world the way it really is—as intentionally designed and created by a single Being—we were able to progress more rapidly in knowledge of how the world works.

No longer did nature's or life's events need to be attributed to random acts of the "gods." With the wisdom of knowing the universe is an orderly construct with its own rules (e.g. physics, thermodynamics, etc.) created by one intelligent God, we can begin to learn, discover, and draw conclusions about our world that make logical sense.

Seeing the Light

Polytheism makes it easy to pick and choose a god that suits your preferences. Polytheism allows us to explain away the negative consequences of our own actions by blaming someone else (such as an angry god). Even when someone isn’t being that blatant, polytheism always means treating gods as if they were people. Polytheistic deities have almost always been fallible, limited, incomplete, and forever in conflict.

This is why Scripture makes such a big deal about there only being One True God. Any time the Bible refers to "gods" (plural) it is alluding to false gods and idolatry (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 10:17; 13:2; Psalm 82:6; Daniel 2:47). When God talked to Moses out of the burning bush, He used the description “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). The real God is not one of many or the product of other gods. He just IS and HAS to be.

Part of the point of the Exodus—all the plagues and miracles—was God proving that Egyptian polytheism was false (Exodus 3:20). The New Testament describes Jesus as “the Word,” meaning He is the single meaning and message of the Creator (John 1:1).

2 Corinthians 4:6 illustrates the importance of rejecting polytheism: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

Everything men seek, whether it’s Hebrew moral light, Greek knowledge, Roman glory, or anything else, can only be met in a single way: through a face-to-face relationship with the One who “just IS.”

TL;DR

"Polytheism" literally means “many gods.” It’s the belief that there are several—possibly millions—of deities and spirits. The Bible disagrees, making many statements that there is only One True God (Exodus 3:14). Science—our understanding of nature—only exploded when civilization broadly accepted that the universe was created by a single, intelligent Being. That's a handy evidence that it’s the truth! As much as we’d like “the gods” to be just like us, chosen by us, and judged by us, there are no “gods.” There is only a single Creator God and knowing we have a consistent, reliable, trustworthy God is crucial to understanding the world and finding peace.

By: Jeff Laird

Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.


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