: What is theology?
Theology literally means the “study of God”. Varying religions and philosophies have vying proposed understandings of what the truth is about God. In an effort to help you understand many of the most prominent perspectives on God, we will now explore the various ways that people get started on the wrong foot in their study of God so that we can then get started on the right foot.
Atheism comes from the negative a-, which means “no,” “not,” or “without,” and theos, which means “god”. Basically, atheism is the belief that there is no God. Related to atheism are the beliefs that there is no devil, no supernatural realm, no miracles, no absolute moral truth over all cultures, and nothing beyond the material world, so therefore people do not have souls and there is no possibility of spiritual life after physical death. Curiously, atheism is historically a relatively new concept.
The word atheism does not exist in the Old Testament language of Hebrew. Moreover, the Old Testament generally assumes that everyone believes in the existence of God saying, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (1)
In stating that there is no god, atheism must prove that God does not exist; this requires that we have complete knowledge, which is impossible. Consequently, agnosticism has become more popular with doubters of the existence of a God or gods. Agnosticism is derived from a-, meaning “without,” and Gnosticism or gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” An agnostic does not know about or is ignorant about God. Agnosticism asserts that while we can examine the physical world, we have no access to the spiritual world and therefore can never know if a God or gods exist.
Agnosticism overlooks the possibility that if God exists, He could reveal Himself to us and thereby make Himself known. This is precisely what the Bible teaches. Jesus “descended from heaven.” (2) In Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (3) Jesus says of himself, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (4) Jesus came down from heaven and revealed God to us in order to clear the fog of agnosticism so that we can see God clearly.
Deism teaches that a god made the universe but then left his creation alone and has no dealings with it a bit like an absentee landlord. With god absent, deism teaches that the world runs by natural laws that god established to govern his creation. Subsequently, miracles are impossible because the universe is a closed system, and god does not intervene in his creation or overrule his natural laws.
Perhaps the most noted and consistent deist was President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). He sat down in the White House with a razor in one hand and the Bible in the other and cut out those parts of Scripture that he decided were untrue. The result was The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Only one in 10 Scripture verses survived, zero miracles were considered factual, and the resurrection of Jesus was systematically cut from the pages of Scripture.
The inconsistencies with deism are many, including the fact that they deny miracles yet affirm the great miracle of creation by God. Furthermore, Jesus is not only the Creator God of the universe, but also the ongoing Sustainer God who contradicts the central tenet of deism: “For by him [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (5)
Finite Godism teaches that god does exist but with limitations, such as not being all-knowing (omniscient) or all-powerful (omnipotent). The motivation behind finite godism is to explain how a good god could coexist with all of the evil and injustice in the world. Finite godism seeks to explain the goodness of god and evil in the world by stating that, while god is good, god is limited and unable to stop evil in the world.
The problems with finite godism are many. First, a finite god would need a greater infinite God to enable its continued existence. Second, past and present evil does not negate the fact that the all- powerful, infinite God will one day bring evil to an end, as Scripture teaches. Third, the existence of evil does not in any way disprove the infinite wisdom and power of God. Fourth, a finite god is simply of no help at all; such a helpless god cannot truly help us in our time of need and is therefore unworthy of devotion.
Jesus answers the question motivating the belief in finite godism. At the cross of Jesus, we witness the darkest hour of history. At the hands of an unjust legal system, surrounded by chants of a bloodthirsty mob, the greatest person who has ever lived, Jesus Christ, was brutally murdered. In that moment, it appeared that God was in fact finite as He did nothing to intervene and stop the injustice. Yet, three days later Jesus rose from the grave defeating evil. God demonstrated Himself not as powerless but powerful. Therefore, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the question “Where is God when it hurts?” is answered: God is good and powerful and at work through Jesus Christ to bring about victory and life, even through what appears at first glance is nothing more than defeat and death.
Pantheism is derived from pan, which means “all” and theism, which means “god.” Pantheism is the belief that all is god or that the material world is itself god or divine. Based upon monism, which is the belief that all reality is one interrelated being, the god of pantheism is impersonal. Pantheism is popular in Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism along with New Spirituality (also called New Age-ism), Christian Science, Unity Church, Scientology, and Theosophy. Pantheism is widely advocated in the worldview of Star Wars, where God is not a person but rather an impersonal force that envelopes and includes each of us.
In pantheism there are no miracles because God is not beyond this world or able to override it. It is also said that pain, matter, and evil are unreal illusions, which does not make any sense after you stub your toe leaving yoga class.
Pantheism has many other shortcomings, including denying that the universe had a beginning when both Big Bang cosmology and the Second Law of Thermodynamics say otherwise, declaring the physical world to be an illusion, and an inability to explain how a world without intelligence or morality brought both into existence. Pantheism is clearly refuted in Romans 1:25: “They [people who do not know God] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” We should worship the Creator instead of His creation, as pantheism encourages.
Panentheism comes from pan (“all”) + in + theism (“god”), which together mean “all in God.” Not to be confused with pantheism, panentheism teaches that God is part of or in creation so that, in a way, creation is akin to God’s body which houses his spirit. In panentheism, God is seen as existing in two polarities; God exists in one form as a present reality and exists in another form as a future possibility. It is said that God is growing, maturing, and evolving from His current state to His potential state not unlike humanity. As a result, it is said that God is both finite and infinite, and eternal without a beginning yet not eternal and with a beginning. Contradicting itself, panentheism therefore teaches that God made Himself, which would require God to exist before He existed. Furthermore, panentheism says that God is presently imperfect but ever learning, growing, and changing to become more and more perfect.
Despite the self-contradictions of panentheism, it was held in the ancient world by men such as Plato. Tragically, some who profess to be Christian have also adopted the false understanding of God postulated by panentheism. This includes some feminist theologians and Marxist theologians, process theology, and some forms of open theism stressing the immanence of God over His transcendence and the changing of God over His immutability.
Panentheism does not agree with the God of the Bible. Some of God’s attributes, include His unchanging immutability, His eternal perfection, His sovereignty over creation, His infiniteness, and His independence of the world rather than dependence upon it.
Polytheism comes from poly, which means “many,” and theism, which means “god.” Polytheism says there is more than one god. Religions adhering to polytheism include Hinduism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism, Jainism, ancient Greek mythology, Mormonism, Scientology, and the Unification Church.
The main problem with polytheism is that it is impossible for multiple, completely equal, finite gods to exist without a superior and infinite God to rule as their Creator and overseer. Clearly, the Bible acknowledges that many people worship false gods. There is only one true God (6) and all other “gods” are mere idols and not “gods” at all (7).
The Old Testament clearly states that there is only one God (8). The New Testament is in full agreement. (9). The Bible also teaches that there is no one like God. (10). Thus, claiming to be like God is a satanic lie. (11).
However, demons (fallen spirit beings) may also pose as gods and elicit worship, possibly even through counterfeit signs, wonders, and miracles. This happens throughout the book of Exodus where the Kingdom of God and Satan’s kingdom of the “gods” are vying for supremacy in a cosmic showdown. (12).
- Exodus 12:12 – “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.”
- Exodus 18:10-11 – Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods.”
- Exodus 20:3 – “You shall have no other gods before me.”
These “gods” are very powerful fallen angels and other spirit beings who rebelled against God. They revile the real God and want to replace him with gods. Practically, this means that there are incredibly powerful demonic spirits—with names such as Baal, Chemosh, Molech, Brahman, Jezebel, Allah, Mother Earth, Mammon (money), and Aphrodite (sex)—that are wrongly worshiped by multitudes as gods. One major theme of the Bible is that God creates, and Satan counterfeits. False gods are behind false religions lead by false teachers who perform false miracles – all schemes to lead people astray from the real God to the false gods.
From the beginning, God’s people have lived with constant pressure to accept other religions and “gods” as equally worthy of worship as the God of the Bible. Too many times people are like Solomon and divide their devotion between God and the “gods” (13). To embolden us, the Bible presents stirring stories of faithful followers like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel who would not compromise their devotion to God despite facing opposition and persecution. (14).
Monotheism teaches that there is only one personal God who is separate (transcendent) from the universe though involved in it (immanent). As a result, many people have regarded Christianity as just one of many monotheistic religions along with Judaism and Islam. In one sense, Christianity is monotheistic, as it does believe in one God. Yet, upon further investigation, the Bible is not impressed with mere monotheism because God’s objective is not that we simply believe in one God. As James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” The God of Christianity as revealed in the Bible is one God who exists in the Trinitarian community of Father, Son, and Spirit. No other religion shares the concept of the Trinity with Christianity. Now that we have eliminated ways we can get started on the wrong foot, we can now get started on the right foot by learning about the one true God.
(1) Ps. 14:1; 53:1
(2) John 3:13; 6:38