Religion plays a major role throughout the Bible, both true religion that worships the one true God, and false religion that promotes idolatry and sin. As Christians, it’s important for us to be able to identify and avoid false religion, while also reaching out to those trapped in deception with God’s truth and love. In this comprehensive blog post, we’ll take a close look at some of the main false religions described in the Bible, their origins, beliefs, and how God’s people responded.
- Idolatry was a constant struggle for God’s people throughout the Old Testament, as they were surrounded by pagan nations.
- God strongly condemned witchcraft, sorcery, and divination as deceptive practices that displeased Him.
- False prophets arose both within and outside Israel, promoting lies and deception. God’s true prophets boldly confronted them.
- The New Testament warns against legalism, asceticism, and gnosticism infiltrating the early church.
- God calls His people to reject syncretism – mixing true worship of Him with pagan practices.
Idolatry in the Old Testament
The first of the Ten Commandments establishes that God alone is worthy of worship and that no idols should be made: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God”‘ (Exodus 20:3-5 NKJV).
Yet despite this clear commandment, the Israelites struggled with idolatry throughout their history. Surrounded by pagan nations like Egypt, Canaan, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia, they were constantly exposed to false religions that worshiped idols of wood, metal, and stone. Here are some examples:
- The golden calf: While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God, the Israelites grew impatient and had Aaron make a golden calf idol for them to worship (Exodus 32). This violated the commandment against idolatry and roused God to anger against their sin.
- Baal worship: Once settled in Canaan, the Israelites frequently began to worship the false Canaanite gods like Baal, Ashtoreth, Molech, and others (Judges 2:11-13, 1 Kings 16:31). The pagan practices of Baal worship involved child sacrifice, temple prostitution, and astrology.
- The bronze serpent: During the wilderness wanderings, God had Moses make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, so that anyone who had been bitten by snakes could look upon it and be healed (Numbers 21:4-9). Hundreds of years later, King Hezekiah destroyed this bronze serpent because the people had begun worshiping it as an idol (2 Kings 18:4).
- Pagan shrines: King Josiah instituted major reforms in Judah after finding that pagan altars, Asherah poles, idols, and other shrines had been set up around the temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23). He removed these pagan abominations from the land and reinstituted true worship of God.
The prophets frequently rebuked Israel and Judah for their idolatry, which was considered spiritual adultery against God. Only during the exile in Babylon did the temptation to worship idols finally seem to be eradicated. God used this painful judgment to purify His people and turn their hearts back to Him alone.
Occult Practices Condemned
In addition to the rampant idolatry in the pagan nations surrounding Israel, occult practices like divination, necromancy, and sorcery were also common. God strongly condemns these deceptive practices in the Old Testament. For example:
- Sorcerers in Egypt: When Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh with God’s demand to let the Israelites go free, Pharaoh’s sorcerers and magicians imitated some of the miracles, like turning rods into serpents (Exodus 7:11-12, 22). But God showed His superior power through Moses.
- Witchcraft and divination: The Torah contains clear prohibitions against any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, divination, interpretation of omens, casting spells, mediumship, or consulting the dead on behalf of Israel: “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12 NKJV).
- Saul and the medium: During a period of spiritual decline, King Saul visited a medium to try to contact the deceased prophet Samuel, even though he had previously driven mediums out of the land. The true Samuel condemned Saul for his unfaithfulness before announcing his coming defeat (1 Samuel 28).
- Diviner Balaam: Afraid of Israel, King Balak of Moab hired the diviner Balaam to put a curse on them. But God compelled Balaam to bless Israel instead on three occasions (Numbers 22-24). This affirms God’s protection over His people against occult practices.
The attraction of power over the spiritual realm made occult practices enticing. But God protects His followers and reveals that these practices only bring deception and condemnation. His people must reject the darkness and follow His way.
False Prophets vs True Prophets
In ancient Israel, prophets spoke on God’s behalf to guide the people, give warning, and explain events from God’s perspective. But false prophets also arose who spoke lies, promoted ungodly agendas, and misled the people. How could false prophets be distinguished from true ones?
- False prophets spoke smooth words that the people wanted to hear, while true prophets boldly declared God’s word (Isaiah 30:10, 2 Chronicles 18:7).
- False prophets promoted idolatry and sin, but true prophets called the people to repentance and obedience to God’s law (Jeremiah 23:13-14).
- False prophets were concerned with gaining money, fame, and position, unlike the humble true prophets (Micah 3:5-8).
- The predictions of false prophets did not come true consistently, while the words of true prophets proved reliable (Deuteronomy 18:22).
- True prophets had a divine calling from God and His Spirit working through them, not just their own imaginations (Jeremiah 14:14).
Here are some examples of confrontations between false prophets and God’s true spokesmen in the Bible:
- Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal: At Mount Carmel, Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to have their god send fire from heaven. Though they pursued their pagan rites desperately, their silent idols failed them. After Elijah prayed to the Lord, fire fell and consumed the sacrifice, proving God’s power and authority (1 Kings 18:20-40).
- Micaiah vs. Ahab’s prophets: King Ahab only liked prophets who spoke favorably to him. When Micaiah faithfully gave God’s harsh word of coming defeat, Ahab rejected it and had Micaiah imprisoned (1 Kings 22:1-28). But Ahab learned the hard way at his death that he should have listened.
- Jeremiah vs. Hananiah: During Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem, Hananiah broke the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck, prophesying falsely that God would swiftly break Babylon’s yoke of oppression. But Jeremiah insisted Babylon’s yoke would only be broken after many years of exile (Jeremiah 28). Time proved Jeremiah spoke God’s truth.
- Ezekiel vs. false prophetesses: Ezekiel 13 condemns both false prophets and false prophetesses in Israel who prophesied only what they imagined out of their own minds. He accuses them of preying on God’s people like ravenous wolves rather than building up the flock.
The Bible makes it clear that speaking presumptuously in God’s name was no small matter. Deuteronomy 18:20 says false prophets were to be put to death for misleading God’s people with their deceptions. While we seek to correct rather than harm deceivers today, Jesus’s warnings in the Sermon on the Mount about false prophets confirm their damnable heresy continues to shipwreck people’s faith (Matthew 7:15).
New Testament Warnings Against False Religion
While idolatry may not have been as prominent in New Testament times, the early church still faced threats from false religion. The New Testament epistles warn against legalism, asceticism, syncretism, and Gnosticism.
Legalism refers to making strict observance of the law a requirement for salvation. The book of Galatians addresses the circumcision controversy, where certain Jewish Christians claimed Gentile believers had to be circumcised and follow the law to be right with God. But Paul strongly refuted this, affirming righteousness comes through faith in Christ alone (Galatians 2:16). Believers are free from the law’s condemnation, though faith should still produce good works (Romans 10:4, Galatians 5:1).
Asceticism takes religious devotion to an unhealthy extreme through severe self-denial and abstention. Paul confronted ascetic tendencies among the Colossian Christians:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—’Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23 ESV).
True devotion to God should not neglect caring properly for the body He has given us.
Syncretism refers to blending religious beliefs and practices from different sources. The Corinthians apparently took pride in tolerating a man living immorally with his stepmother. Paul rebukes them harshly for boasting about evil rather than mourning this sin in their midst (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). He called on them to remove this man and purge out the old leaven of malice and evil, that they may be a new unleavened batch as God intends (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). The Corinthians needed to reject this moral syncretism firmly.
Gnosticism was an early heresy that emphasized secret spiritual knowledge. Gnostics rejected Christ’s humanity and also justified immorality, since they believed the body and spirit were separate. John condemns proto-Gnostics who denied Jesus as the divine Christ in the flesh:
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (2 John 1:7 ESV)
He also condemns the licentiousness of some Gnostics:
“For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1:4 ESV)
These New Testament warnings remind us to test all doctrine carefully against Scripture to avoid being misled.
As we can see, the Bible contains many examples of false religions that competed with devotion to the one true God all throughout history. Idolatry was a constant struggle for God’s people, though the exile finally cured them of it. Occult practices and false prophets continually arose to mislead people and propagate lies. Even in New Testament times, the early church had to be on guard against legalism, asceticism, syncretism, gnosticism, and other false teachings.
While our culture likes to emphasize religious tolerance above all, the Bible does not approve of this kind of muddy pluralism. God insists His followers reject all idolatry and sinful religion, rather than attempting to mix light with darkness. He alone is God, and He will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8). At the same time, God deeply loves the people lost in deception and wants them to experience His grace, mercy and truth. As Christians, we must take a stand for God’s truth against false religion while also reaching out to its victims with compassion.