As the word implies, Polytheism is the theory which assumes the existence of many gods. Monotheism was the original religion of our race. This is evident not only from the teachings of the Scriptures, but also from the fact that the earliest historical form of religious belief is monotheistic. There are monotheistic hymns in the Vedas, the most ancient writings now extant, unless the Pentateuch be an exception.
The first departure from monotheism seems to have been nature worship. As men lost the knowledge of God as creator, they were led to reverence the physical elements with which they were in contact, whose power they witnessed, and whose beneficent influence they constantly experienced. Hence not only the sun, moon, and stars, the great representatives of nature, but fire, air, and water, became the objects of popular worship. We accordingly find that the Vedas consist largely of hymns addressed to these natural elements.
These powers were personified, and soon it came to be generally believed that a personal being presided over each. And these imaginary beings were the objects of popular worship.
While the mass of the people really believed in beings that were “called gods” (1 Cor. 8:5), many of the more enlightened were monotheists, and more were pantheists. The early introduction and wide dissemination of pantheism are proved from the fact that it lies at the foundation of Brahminism and Buddhism, the religions of the larger part of the human race for thousands of years.
There can be little doubt that when the Aryan tribes entered India, fifteen hundred or two thousand years before Christ, pantheism was their established belief. The unknown, and “unconditioned” infinite Being, reveals itself according to the Hindu system, as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva,—that is, as Creator, Preserver, and Restorer. These were not persons, but modes of manifestation. It was in this form that the idea of an endless process of development of the infinite into the finite, and of the return of the finite into the infinite, was expressed. It was from this pantheistic principle that the endless polytheism of the Hindus naturally developed itself; and this determined the character of their whole religion. As all that is, is only a manifestation of God, everything remarkable, and especially the appearance of any remarkable man, was regarded as an “avatar,” or incarnation of God, in one or other of his modes of manifestation, as Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. And as evil is as actual as good, the one is as much a manifestation, or, modus existendi, of the infinite Being as the other. And hence there are evil gods as well as good. In no part of the world has pantheism had such a field for development as in India, and nowhere has it brought forth its legitimate effects in such a portentous amount of evil. Nowhere has polytheism been carried to such revolting extremes.
Among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans polytheism assumed a form determined by the character of the people. The Greeks rendered it bright, beautiful, and sensual; the Romans were more decorous and sedate. Among barbarous nations it has assumed forms much more simple, and in many cases more rational.
In the Bible the gods of the heathen are declared to be “vanity,” and “nothing,” mere imaginary beings, without power either to hurt or to save. (Jer. 2:28; Isa. 41:29; Isa. 13:17; Ps. 106:28.) They are also represented as δαιμόνια (1 Cor. 10:20). This word may express either an imaginary, or a real existence. The objects of heathen worship are called gods, even when declared to be nonentities. So they may be called “demons,” without intending to teach that they are “spirits.” As the word, however, generally in the New Testament, does mean “evil spirits,” it is perhaps better to take it in that sense when it refers to the objects of heathen worship. This is not inconsistent with the doctrine that the gods of the heathen are “vanities and lies.” They are not what men take them to be. They have no divine power. Paul says of the heathen before their conversion, “ἐδουλεύσατε το̂ις φυσει μή οὐ̂σι θεοι̂ς” (Gal. 4:8). The prevalence and persistency of Polytheism show that it must have a strong affinity with fallen human nature. Although, except in pantheism, it has no philosophical basis, it constitutes a formidable obstacle to the progress of true religion in the world.
Return to Index of Concepts and Definitions