The Foolishness of Idolatry – Romans 1:21-23

Because humans suppress the truth and do not honor God, they became unable to respond properly to God (v. 21a). The verb “render futile” (ματαιόω) is used of idolatry (Jer 2:5) and has the sense of emptiness or worthlessness. The word-group is used to describe idols as worthless things. Several commentaries suggest the possibility of an allusion to Psalm 94:11 (LXX 93:11), “the thoughts of man are worthless.” Kruse, Romans, 96, for example. Although the form of the word is different (LXX Ps 93:11 has a noun rather than a verb), that both texts combine a word from the ματαιόω word group and διαλογισμός makes this allusion probable.

What has been “rendered worthless” is humanity’s thinking. The noun here (διαλογισμός) refers to discussions or arguments, the “content of reasoning or conclusion reached through use of reason” (BDAG). The idol-worshiper has a logical, rational reason for worshiping something which is not worthy of worship, but that reasoning is itself futile.

Lord Subrahmanya in MalaysiaThe hearts of those who suppress the truth are foolish and darkened (v. 21b). The heart is the place where one thinks and reasons (not the head). The word Paul uses is not the common word for foolishness but the rare word ἀσύνετος (asynetos). It is used only here and 1:31 (Matt 15:16/Mark 7:18, not understanding Jesus’s teaching).

This noun has the sense of “lacking understanding” (BDAG), but also a lack of moral character (T.Levi 7:2). An inscription at Ephesus uses this word with the sense of “stupid,” but Moulton and Milligan comment that “it seems clear that “foolish” here does not primarily denote lack of brains but moral obliquity” (MM 87).

To become darkened (σκοτίζω) is also used for “moral darkening” in Second Temple period literature.

TestReub 3.8 And thus every young man is destroyed, darkening his mind from the truth, neither gaining understanding in the Law of God nor heeding the advice of his fathers…

TestLevi 14.4 For what will all the nations do if you become darkened with impiety?

This moral darkening is the reason the Gentile world practices idolatry. Humans became fools by exchanging the knowledge of the creator for images of creation (v. 22-23). They claimed to be wise, but they became fools when they worshiped creation rather than creator. To worship a god that looks like a human is foolish, but at least a human is in the image of God. To worship other created things (birds, animals and reptiles) is even more foolish since they were not made in the image of God in the first place (Kruse, Romans, 97).

In describing idolatry as foolishness, Paul does not depart at all from the prophetic condemnation of idolatry (for example, Isa 44:13). Paul may be alluding to Psalm 106:20, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” or Deuteronomy 4:15-18. In the context of that Psalm, the wilderness generation “forgot their God and Savior” and what he did for them at the Red Sea. Because they exchanged that knowledge for foolishness, they fell under God’s wrath (ὀργή, cf. Rom 1:18).

It is remarkable Paul would describe worship practiced by the entire world at that point in history as “foolishness,” but even some Greek and Roman writers who considered the worship of gods to be foolish. Although describing someone’s religious beliefs as foolish is not polite in the modern world, Paul is not far from his contemporaries in mocking the worthlessness of worshiping idols.

Once again, I wonder how well this “works” in modern presentations of the Gospel. In the modern west, dismissal of gods and idols is passed over quickly since few would consider worshipping an idol. But for the majority world, this is a serious question. How can the Gospel be presented to a world which does worship a variety of gods and idols in a way which dismisses the gods yet still attracts people to the Gospel? For example, how do Asian Christians deal with veneration of ancestors?

I would love to hear from readers in non-Western countries on this issue: How is Romans 1:21-23 taught and preached in cultures which are dominated by worship of gods?

9 thoughts on “The Foolishness of Idolatry – Romans 1:21-23

  1. I once watched an interview of a man that was just asking and answering random people’s questions about God and one woman came up and asked a question about how could a loving God allow people that don’t know Him or that He exists go to Hell if they didn’t know any better? I also questioned this when I was trying to understand more about salvation and how it seemed unfair that those that didn’t know would suffer the same fate as those who knew and turned away. This is where natural revelation comes in. It doesn’t point us to the salvation message, but it allows us to know that us and our world didn’t happen by accident, but we are without excuse to know that He exists (Romans 1:18-21). We do know that He exists, but it is whether we choose to accept it or not. Suppressing that truth (Romans 1:21) causes that downfall and He allows us to follow our own beliefs like Moo talks about God’s response to that choice “by giving people over” (Moo 40). So, in the end we can’t blame God for the end result, if we chose it for ourselves and we will suffer those consequences.

    • ” how could a loving God allow people that don’t know Him or that He exists go to Hell if they didn’t know any better?” – this is one of the most common questions from skeptics, and really is the issue in Romans 1.

  2. In todays world there are plenty of “idols” such as money,sex and fame that people look to as what they need and not God. I know this isnt the same as an actual golden statue or figure but I believe it has the same effect. And that effect is turning people off of the road to God and leading them down a dark path. Something that I think would help fix this problem is going into communities that struggle with worldly things and have nothing. Because I believe they are the ones who look to money as their savior. And what you can do to help would be showing the glory of God through you by doing good acts and also teaching his word at the same time. This way they have something they can actually see is real and not just something in a book.

  3. So, to say that men’s thoughts are useless ,might be true in comparison to Gods thoughts, but if a man is moved by God and is hearing from the Lord we can take that as sound truth and believe it because we know it is from God. its hard for Paul in this time to relay all different types of messages because he doesn’t want to contradict him self. its clear Paul is saying any praise or worship going to other gods are foolish, that there should be only praise of one God. people now of days it would be hard to get across because there are so many idols, not just even gods but sports, jobs, an school. if we put aside all that and God be number one in our lives we can live closer to him. we can let our lives get in the way of the person we owe our lives to and that’s Jesus.

  4. Although in the modern west there are not people worshipping statues, or the type of “idols” that are in the Bible, there are still numerous idols and things that people are worshipping/giving their time to. When I think of an object, or a “false god”. Something that I have always thought is whatever a person devotes the most of their time ambition towards- becomes their “god” or “idol” For example, some people spend all of their time and ambition seeking to acquire money. All they want is to be rich with money, and this desire above everything else in their life, and this becomes an “idol” for them. People even idolize other people. A person might have a celebrity as their idol, or even a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse. They put another person above everything else, including God. If people are devoting their time, and putting other things first, then it shows that they value these things more than God. I think it is important for Christians to preach the gospel, while making others aware of these “idols” that they have in their life. People are quick to forget that these objects and things are temporary, and that they should not control their lives.

  5. Blog Post 10.11.21

    In Western culture it’s a norm to have a belief in God and not so much multiple gods. Therefore this lifestyle is more accepted and isn’t a huge problem. Another reason why the belief in God is that religious freedom is on our side. Before diving into the negative on worshipping idols in a different country such as China or India we should first understand that it’s a cultural norm to worship multiple gods and not the one true God. An aspect of the want to worship gods is because Christianity or the belief in God period is illegal and they can be put to death for putting faith in such things. Though it is illegal in these countries it’s not uncommon to find believers in these types of cultures. Ancestral background has a huge impact on the view of religion in other countries because it is viewed as a tradition and not so much as a personal decision to follow their religion.

    To bring the desire to worship God to individuals it’s important to come to their level and create an understanding for yourself as to why they worship their gods. After this conversation I feel as though the question of have these gods ever done anything for them (most often in third world countries where they worship gods they are tortured and not valued). Then present the gospel to these people groups by telling them there is a God that favors, adores, and loves them; from there on I would then give them the message of Jesus Christ. This mission work calls for someone who is dedicated to going back and pouring into these individuals for a few months or years at a time; for example like Paul there were many times he had to write back to the churches he visited to point them in the right direction even after being there for an extended amount of time.
    1 Kings 8:60

  6. In the context of contemporary mission work, it certainly is difficult to speak down toward other religions. We are taught to be extremely sensitive, and the line has been blurred between not being insulting and embracing forms of universalism. Even the current Pope seems to believe that – in the name of cultural sensitivity – it is wrong to say that one will not go to heaven for embracing a savior other than Christ Jesus. In many cases, of course, there is also a blending of religions, such as in shinto practices where Christ may be worshipped as savior, but the practice of ancestor and kami veneration continues.

    It is clear throughout the Bible that, not only are we commanded to worship God alone, but He is also the only one deserving of worship. The Genesis 1 story along with John 1:3 and other verses describe God as the only one who had a hand in creation. God’s introduction of Himself to Moses as well as Isaiah 44:6 and other verses reveal God as being the existing one, who is the first and will be the last. He is the only eternal, necessarily existent being; the only non-contingent and non-dependent thing in creation.

    Wether or not God is the only divine being (which I do not believe He is, as the Bible teaches the divine council, angels, demons, Satan, and other divine beings), He remains the only one worthy of worship as He alone is eternal, He alone is perfect and holy, and He alone is the all-powerful creator. This is why Longenecker writes that Paul’s theology in Romans boils down to God being righteous (174). It is also why Paul is so bold in his critique of other gods. It is an utter moral failure to worship other gods above Yhwh, as He is the only one that is deserving of worship. Additionally, it is only through Christ – who is God – that we are saved, so why would we offer our loyalty to some other god that isn’t capable of saving us, either because they are a lesser being or because they do not exist at all? Paul’s mission is to bring “obedience that comes from faith” to the Gentiles, and in order to be fully obedient to God they must put Him so high above other idols that they refuse to even worship any created being (Longenecker 178).

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