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Paganism today

August 2003 | by Jonathan Skinner

Last month we explored the current phenomenal rise in paganism in our society, along with the reasons for it and explanation of the ‘big ideas’ that hold the movement together. We will now look at a biblical response.

In essence our response can be considered under five headings – creation, miracles, revelation, Jesus and prayer.

Creation

When Paul and Barnabas healed a crippled man at Lystra (Acts 14:8-18) the crowds proclaimed: ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’

As the people were about to offer sacrifices to them, Paul revealed his answer to these pagans in no uncertain terms: ‘Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you.

‘We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.

‘In the past, he let all the nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy’ (emphasis added).

Paul’s answer to paganism was to point to the creator God ‘ who not only made the universe, but also sustains and governs it for our good.

The universe

The first biblical response, then, concerns creation. Paganism does not explain the universe as it is. Although it believes in beings greater than us, it cannot explain where they (and indeed we) came from, nor how the world came into being.

Although paganism believes in a whole pantheon of ‘gods’ and spiritual forces of one kind or another, they are all finite. In other words, it sees the universe as a closed system that explains itself.

The Bible (and I would say common sense) tells us that there needs to be an external, infinite and almighty Creator. The universe is not self-explanatory ‘ it could not have brought itself into being.

There has to be some ultimate explanatory cause that lies outside the created order. Paul uses the same approach with the pagans in Athens when he makes them look beyond their belief in limited spiritual beings to the ‘God who made the world and everything in it’ (Acts 17:24).

Miracles

Our second response relates to miracles. It is interesting to note that it was a miracle that grabbed the pagans’ attention at Lystra. This hints at a far larger response in our Bibles to paganism.

When Moses confronted the pagan Pharaoh, God showed his supremacy by demonstrating superior power ‘ Aaron’s staff, which had been turned into a snake, swallowed the snakes produced by the Egyptian sorcerers.

Although Pharaoh’s ‘wise men’ could copy some of the plagues, they could not reverse them nor reproduce them all.

Furthermore, God’s supremacy over pagan deities was demonstrated by the dividing of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.

Later, Elijah demonstrates the weakness of Baal worship by calling down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel.

In the New Testament, Jesus commands the forces of nature, heals the sick, casts out demons and defeats death ‘ all showing his divine power.

In all this we have an historically accurate record of miracles that show that our God controls heaven and earth ‘ Jesus Christ is Lord indeed (Philippians 2:11).

Revelation

The miracles recorded in our Bibles tend to be ‘clustered’ around those periods where God revealed something new ‘ around Moses and the giving of the Law; around Elijah and Elisha who called the Jews back to that revealed Law in the face of an obscene degree of paganism; and, of course, around the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

Miracles demonstrated, substantiated, and verified that God was speaking.

Although paganism appears to have real supernatural powers (as seen in the magicians of Egypt, for example), these are of a different order to that exercised by our sovereign, creator God.

The apostle Paul implies paganism’s link with supernatural forces when he tells the Corinthians that, although an idol is really ‘nothing’, yet ‘the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons’ (1 Corinthians 10:20).

But this supernatural power bears no comparison to that of the true God ‘ it is a pale and perverted sop that Satan offers to his followers to keep them enthralled.

By contrast, in Scripture, God used his undeniable miracles to authenticate his divine revelation.

Trash heap

This is highly significant ‘ the present rise in paganism is built on our post-modern culture, in which the concept of ‘absolute truth’ has been consigned to the trash heap of history. Language has been stripped of meaning.

Our answer is that a real God really does speak real truth, and that we really can understand him ‘ we have been given comprehensible revelation.

The God who reveals himself speaks to the minds of men created in his image as reasoning beings. Furthermore, he empowers us to understand even spiritual things by the regenerating and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.

God verifies his communication by his miraculous acts in history ‘ acts recorded in the sure words of Scripture. The answer to error is truth ‘ and truth is reasonable.

The apostle Peter wrote: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15). Only truth sets people free.

Jesus Christ

But, of course, Christian truth is not just an abstract concept ‘ it is embodied in a person, Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). He is God’s clearest communication of truth ‘ he cuts through all the confusion of error, superstition and perverted ignorance.

Various forms of paganism offer us ‘deep and dark knowledge’ ‘ but it is all confusion. Paganism seems to provide a spiritual dimension and power for life ‘ but once the curtain is drawn back its myriad of otherworldly beings obscure any vision of reality. They promise divinity (a popular claim of New Agers) but deny us access to God.

The truth and light of Christ dispel this demonic darkness. Jesus’ answer to paganism lies firstly in his revelation of the nature of the living God and, secondly, in his work of redemption.

For Jesus is not only ‘the truth’ ‘ he is also ‘the way’. By his death on the cross Jesus has defeated Satan’s power and purged our sin. Those who trust him can now draw near to God, forgiven and at peace with their maker.

Paganism offers another dimension to life ‘ an apparently ‘spiritual’ one ‘ but spiritual life is only given through Jesus Christ, who is ‘the life’.

As we fight spiritual darkness in our generation we must remember that we need to ‘be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’ (Ephesians 6:10; emphasis added).

Prayer

Finally, Paul goes on to speak of the reality of the present warfare, and calls us to arms: ‘Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.

‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

‘Therefore put on the full armour of God . . . And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests’ (Ephesians 6:11-13, 18).

As paganism rises like a flood in our generation, we need to be like ‘the men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do’ (1 Chronicles 12:32).