Recently, I began to think more about the role and use of statues, icons and images in the religious arena. Should statues ever be used in churches or is that a violation of the Second Commandment? Are the Catholic, Orthodox, and a few other churches guilty of idolatry when they use these statues and icons? Did the ancient iconoclasts (people who destroyed religious statues) go too far when they demolished many of these icons?
On one end of the spectrum, some Protestants try to totally avoid any and all religious statues and images, while some (Catholics and others) will cling tightly to them at all costs. In this article, I hope to bring about some balance to this sensitive subject.
The Law of God
Let’s take a look at what God said in the Scriptures about using statues and images when He gave Moses the Ten Commandments. All of the Ten Commandments can be found in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and also in Exodus 20:1-17. But let’s look at the relevant part of this passage for our article today in Exodus 20:1-6:
1 And God spake all these words, saying,
2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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:
5 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;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My commandments.
So what exactly is God saying about these likenesses / images? Is He saying that it is always a sin to make any kind of image? Is this prohibition only about worshiping them, or is it about making and using them, also?
The images mentioned in this passage have to do with idols, and idols are an absolute and blasphemous insult to God. The Lord forcefully emphasizes here that He is the one true God (Exodus 20:2). In this context He is saying that He doesn’t want anyone creating an image and saying, “This is the god that brought us out of Egypt,” as the Israelites did in the golden calf incident (Exodus 32:4).
Not an Absolute Ban
So how do we know that God is not saying that simply making images is a sin? He cannot be literally speaking about all images here, can He? Consider the implications of Exodus 20:4:
1) (Thou shalt not make… any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above…) It is not wrong to have a photograph (which is an image or likeness) of friends or family members in your wallet, on your desk, or on your wall. Some of these photos are of deceased Christian people (a likeness of someone now in Heaven). Likewise, we can safely make images of things in the heavens (like the solar system, stars, planets, etc.) There is nothing wrong with this.
2) (… or that is in the earth beneath…) We also know that it is not a sin to have statues (images) of famous people whose lives on earth are commemorated in non-religious settings (parks, courthouses, tourist attractions, etc.). Again, there should be no problem with these images.
3) (… or that is in the water under the earth…) We draw pictures and make models of fish, reptiles and many other sea creatures (images of things under the sea). Still no problem.
4) What about images in our minds? We make mental images all the time. Does Exodus 20:1-6 mean that we are not allowed to even think about things in Heaven, on earth, or in the ocean? That would be silly.
5) In this commandment, He is saying that He doesn’t want anyone creating an image IN ORDER TO WORSHIP IT (v. 5). I believe that Leviticus 26:1 brings this out more clearly:
Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall you set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the Lord your God. (Emphasis added)
The underlined part makes clear the purpose of the image.
6) Furthermore, just five chapters later, in Exodus 25:18-20, God commanded Moses to make statues of two cherubim (a type of angel) to put on the Ark of the Covenant. This is a copy, an image, of something in Heaven that God told Moses to make. Is God contradicting Himself? Is He now allowing what He commanded Israel not to do five chapters earlier? The point is that these angel images were not made to be worshiped, but rather to point to the holiness of God.
7) There was yet another interesting event where God told Moses to erect a statue of a brazen (bronze) serpent and put it up on a pole for all to see. And whoever was bitten by the poisonous snakes in that land, when he would look at the statue, he would be healed (Numbers 21:6-9). This is another statue allowed by God. But when this image later became an object of worship, it was rightly destroyed by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4).
When God speaks of “graven images” in the Second Commandment and throughout the Old Testament, He is speaking of an idol, one in which the maker is intending to worship. God does not want us to make or use those kinds of images. Yet, because of the seven reasons above (and if Scripture is consistent with itself and with the world around us), the Second Commandment cannot be an absolute ban on the making of images.
Ok, having said all the above, please understand that religious image users cannot have free reign with their statues, icons and images. Technically speaking, God may temporarily tolerate someone owning a statue (if worship is not involved), but it doesn’t mean that making them or using them in a religious setting today is a good idea. While the Second Commandment doesn’t seem to be an absolute ban on every possible kind of image, it is definitely a warning concerning some of them.
Again, I want to bring balance to this topic, so the question is, “Is it helpful to make or to use these images in a religious setting?” All things may be allowed, but “all things are not expedient [i.e., beneficial or helpful]” (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23).
Ok, let’s imagine this scenario:
Moses is walking in the wilderness and he happens upon an Israelite. This man is doing what many Catholics do. He is bowing before a statue, praying and kissing the statue. Moses then questions him about this and the man says, “Oh no, Moses! You don’t understand. I am not worshiping, I am “venerating.” So Moses says, “Ok, that’s fine. Please continue!”
Well, I don’t think that anyone who knows anything about Moses would believe that the outcome would be this way. The above result is about as likely to happen as this scenario:
A suspicious wife catches her husband in the very act of adultery. When she confronts him then and there, he says, “Oh no, honey! You misunderstand. We are not committing adultery, we are just “cuddling!” And the wife says, “Well ok, that’s fine, darling. Please continue!”
Now, I think that we all know that this is not how either one of these scenarios would pan out. You can call what you’re doing by another name (“venerating” or “cuddling”), but swift action would have been taken in both of these scenarios, and the extreme consequences that would have followed would have exposed the wrongness of their actions, and brought to light the sin they tried to downplay and re-name.
Unlike today, in the Old Testament, the Jews were all too familiar with the sin of idolatry and what it looked like. Moses knew idolatry when he saw it. And so did the Jews. The bottom line is that Moses would have rightly condemned the actions of the Catholic in the above scenario.
Don’t Kid Yourself
No doubt, Moses understood that the heart of man tends toward idolatry, not atheism. I am not aware of any atheists in ancient Israel, but the continual sin that plagued Israel over and over in the Old Testament is idolatry.
Given the continual falling into temptation by the Old Testament Jews by idolizing statues and other objects (and remember, they were God’s chosen people), what makes us today think that we would be immune to this same weakness? What makes us think that we can flirt with this potential danger? Will we add arrogance to our idolatry? Are we so much better than the Jews that we can live in such a minefield of religious images and statues (as the Catholic Church does) with hardly a thought that it could cause problems? It is a spiritually unhealthy environment. It is an occasion to sin. The Bible tells us to “flee idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14), not flirt with it!
Remember, image lovers, it’s not just about you. You may think that a statue or icon is “helpful” in “reminding” you of God’s love or His presence, or something along those lines. You may feel that it brings you great peace, but you must consider how it will affect others, as well. We should be very careful about being a stumbling block to those around us (Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:9-12). Again, graven images were a constant stumbling block for ancient Israel. Even if they really felt that they were only “venerating,” they were still tempting their Jewish brothers and sisters to sin.
Catholics will tell us, “But God commanded the use of statues in the Old Testament.” That’s true, but this was a specific command for Moses and the people of Israel at that particular time. But God never commanded the church to make or use statues! Neither can you find in the New Testament someone praying to God through an image. If there was a spiritual “need” for them in the church, the New Testament writers would have said so.
I wish that Catholics would be more willing to listen to what the Scriptures say as a whole. I wish they could put aside their blind confidence in the Catholic Church for a minute and recognize the danger of their cherished tradition of using images.
An even greater danger exists when we hear reports of statues that “cry tears of blood,” or statues that nod their heads periodically, etc. These are thought to be miracles happening, drawing many devoted followers further into deception.
It is true that we don’t know individual hearts, but we know the heart of mankind, in general, and that it tends toward idolatry (Romans 1:21-23).
For the record, the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially condemns the sin of idolatry (CCC #2113). I’m thankful for that. But some things can so easily be turned into an idol, even if it wasn’t the intent of its maker.
Again, this is what happened in the case of the brazen serpent. It started off very positively, very helpful. But someone just couldn’t help himself and began to worship it, drawing others with him.
Although popes might agree with what King Hezekiah did when he destroyed the brazen serpent, I am not aware of any statues or images that any pope has ever destroyed for fear that faithful Catholics may fall into idolatry. Not even in areas of the world where there is, by their own admission, “excessive devotion.”
You must ask yourself, are these religious statues an aid to worship, or are they actually a hindrance? God told His people so many times to tear down their images. There was a reason for that.