All men have need of gods.
Homer (c.900 BC), Odyssey
Some early Christians believed in more than one god. Some believed
in two, some in thirty, some in 365, and some in even more*.
In time the orthodox view came to be that there was only one
god. The others had to be tidied away.
Like its close relatives Judaism and Islam, Christianity experienced
some difficulty in tidying away its supernumerary gods. It may
seem obvious that the clean up was completed long ago, and that
the question has now been settled. In fact, matters are not
quite so simple. It is indisputable that Christianity has claimed
since the early centuries that it is monotheistic. But the fact
that a religion purports to be monotheistic is no guarantee
that it is. Mainstream Christian Churches accept the existence
of a range of superhuman beings who might be regarded as candidates
for godhead. The following is a brief review of some of them.
It is an uncomfortable fact for Jews and Christians alike that
the God of the Old Testament is not a single god, but an amalgam
of many gods. This is reflected in the large number of names
attributed to him, most of which are glossed over in translations
of the Bible. The most common name, Yahweh, probably
means something like he who is, or he who calls
into being, but it is possible that the name was adapted
from that of a Samarian goddess. An error in translation of
this word gave us the name Jehovah. A related form, Jah,
is also found in biblical poetry. Hallelu Jah, or hallelujah,
means literally praise Jah.
Another divine name found in the original Hebrew is El,
meaning the powerful one, the ruler, or god.
It is found as part of many biblical names, for example Israel
(who sees El), Gabriel (might of El), Emmanuel
(El with us), Michael (who is like El), Samuel
(asked of El) and Daniel (judgement of El). The name
Elijah (Jah is my god) incorporates both Jah
and El. El was originally the name of a Phoenician
and Canaanite god, the father of other gods, including Baal.
Etymologically the name is related to the Arabic name for God,
Eloah is the name for God used in the book of Job.
In a different form, Elohim, it occurs elsewhere in
the Bible some 3,000 times. The -im ending is a masculine
plural. In other words this is the name not of a single god,
but at least two. Elsewhere God reportedly refers to himself
in the plural. When he decided to make human beings he said
"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ..."
(Genesis 1:26). After Adam ate the forbidden fruit God said
"Behold, the man is become as one of us ..." (Genesis
3:22), which suggests that he is addressing at least one other
god. Again, in Psalm 95:3 he is described as a great King above
all gods. Elsewhere he says "Thou shalt not revile the
gods" (Exodus 22:28).
The name Shaddai is used over 300 times in the Bible.
It originally denoted a sky god. The name meant something like
he who lives on the mountain tops or rain-maker.
Elyon was the name of another god, a name that had
previously been used of an ancient Canaanite deity. Sabaoth
is yet another one, usually found in the compound Yahweh-Sabaoth,
meaning Lord of Hosts, which is how it is usually translated.
It signifies a great military leader and protector in war. On
occasion a divinity appears as the captain of the hosts
of the Lord (see Joshua 5:13-15), and there are yet other
divine characters conventionally identified with God in order
to reduce the number of divinities around: the Ancient of
Days for example in Daniel 7:13. The angel of the Lord
is sometimes identified with God (Judges 6:11-24) but is sometimes
distinct (Genesis 24:7). Occasionally the fact that various
divine characters are distinct is made explicit. For example
according to Habakkuk 3:3 Eloah was coming from Teman
as the Holy One was coming from Mount Paran.
The fact that God is really a conflation of many gods is
usually explained away by saying that there is only one God
with a number of different titles. The plural forms are explained
either by invoking a hypothesis that God spoke of himself in
a manner akin to the royal We which also requires
that he was in the habit of talking to himself or alternatively
that it was God the father talking to the other two persons
of the Trinity. Neither explanation confronts the explicit mention
of other gods.
Christians seem to have had difficulty in convincing non-Christians
that they believed in only one god. Early Christians felt obliged
to answer charges of polytheism. As one philosopher observed:
If these men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they
would have a valid argument against the others. But in fact
they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared
The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity were developed
specifically to explain how two or three gods could be regarded
as one, but the explanation did not satisfy all Christians in
the fourth century when they were developed, and do not satisfy
all Christians today.
asked how Christ could be co-equal and co-eternal with the Father
when the Bible provided clear evidence to the contrary. The
Bible referred to the Father alone as God: "And this is
that the Father and Son are quite separate and that the Father
had created the Son*. Contrary
to modern dogma, Christ was clearly described as inferior to
the Father: ".... for my Father is greater than I"
(John 14:28). Specifically, the Son does not know everything
that God the Father knows (Matthew 24:36). Again, the Son is
fallible. He could not even work a minor miracle on one occasion.
He needed help when tempted. He grew in wisdom, which means
that he cannot always have been all-wise, as the Father was.
He said that he did not know when the world would end, this
information being available only to the Father (Mark 13:32).
He suffered un-godlike passions, being tired and thirsty at
the well in Samaria and weeping at Lazarus's tomb. Also, the
Son has a separate physical manifestation: in Heaven he sits
at the right hand of the Father. Elsewhere in the Bible, the
Father has authority in commanding the Son , and the Son even
prays to the Father.
Such considerations led many Christians to conclude that Jesus
Christ could not have been divine. Others held that he was divine,
but inferior to the Father. The line that eventually triumphed
simply ignored the Bible texts and held that the Son was co-equal
with the Father. To many this looked like the Father and Son
were two gods.
A further complication was how to accommodate the concept of
the Word (logos). The stoic idea of each human being
having a logos (soul) could easily be extended so that
Jesus possessed not just any old logos but the divine
logos, the "Word of God". By the time of
Jesus, the idea of a divine logos was familiar to both
Jews and Stoic philosophers. Some Christians thought that the
divine Word (logos) occupied the role of Jesus"
soul, though this line was later to be condemned as heretical.
A different view eventually became orthodox, that Jesus Christ
was the Word (logos) incarnate. This idea is characteristic
of the gospel ascribed to John: "In the beginning was the
Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"
(John 1:1), which incidentally could also be rendered "In
the beginning was the logos. The logos accompanied
a god, and the logos was a god".
For present purposes we will ignore the difficulties implicit
in the orthodox conception of the person of Christ, but the
distinction between God the Father and God the
Son is a more significant problem.
Holy Ghost is not mentioned in the Old Testament, but plays
a large part in the New. Little is known about the nature of
it (or him, or her).
The John gospel also refers to a Paraclete, a word
that is generally translated as Comforter or Counsellor,
and this is identified with the Holy Ghost (John 14:26). The
status of the Holy Ghost posed a problem for centuries. If it
was a god then Christianity could be accused of having three
gods, as indeed it was. The solution that emerged was that God
the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost are all the
same God, of one substance but three persons. As we have already
seen the meaningfulness of the concept of the Trinity is open
to doubt. Some Christians, many Moslems, most philosophers and
almost all non-believers regard the doctrine as a thin disguise
It is not unusual for attributes of gods to be personified
as semi-independent divinities in their own right: the "power
of god", the "energy of god", the "idea
of god", the "glory of god", the "wisdom
of god". The Egyptians had long accepted such ideas:
To Thoth was ascribed the mental powers of Ra, and, indeed,
the dicta of Ra seem to have come from his lips. He was the
Divine Speech personified*.
Such personifications were popular in the Middle East and several
of them were adapted into Christianity. As we have just seen,
the logos or Word of God, was personified
as the Word, and the spirit of God was personified
as the Holy Spirit. Both were incorporated into the
Christian Trinity. The Might of God became a lesser
being, the angel whom we know as Gabriel. There were
others too: for example the Power of God, the Energy
of God, the Grace of God , the Wisdom of God
and the Prudence of God.
I Wisdom dwell with Prudence, and find out knowledge of witty
Proverbs 8:12 (AV, but with names capitalised as in modern
In Jewish writing Wisdom was personified in the manner of a
goddess. This is most striking in Proverbs 3:19 and 8:22ff,
which were cited to show that Wisdom had existed since the beginning
of time. Indeed, she helped God to create the world (Proverbs
8:22 and Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1). She was known as the Holy
Wisdom, just as God's spirit was known as the Holy
Spirit. She came within a hair's breadth of acknowledged
Godhead by the same route as God's word and God's spirit. As Sophia (Greek for wisdom) Gnostics
regarded her as a divine emanation, but the faction now considered
orthodox was confused about her. Some represented her as incarnate
in Christ. St Paul, for example, described Jesus by her title,
the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), and other writers
explicitly identified her by what came to be Jesus Christ's title, the Word of God. Yet others identified her as
the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God. She featured in
early attempts to define a Christian Trinity, but was eventually
dropped, possibly because of her sex.
God embracing Sophie (during the Creation)
as depicted on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, before
she was wrtten out of the Christian story.
However Sophia was seen, she was enormously important. For
over 900 years, until the Muslims took it in 1453, the greatest
church in Christendom was the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the
Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. Now Wisdom is something of an
embarrassment, especially in the Western Church. She even has
her name spelled with a small w. Often her name is kept in Greek:
Hagia Sophia or translated as Sancta Sophia,
so that most Western Christians who have heard of her assume
her to be merely St Sophia. Stories were created in the Middle
Ages to explain why Sophia had been canonised. According to
the Golden Legend she was a woman who won her sainthood
by witnessing the martyrdom of her three daughters, saints Faith,
Hope and Charity.
The Devil was a relatively late entrant into Jewish theology,
from where he was incorporated into Christianity. Our concept
of the Devil is essentially the one originally borrowed by the
Jews from Zoroastrianism. He seems to have been adopted as a
personal entity during the Babylonian Exile. As Satan he was
first introduced into Judaism as a supernatural being in the
first two chapters of the book of Job, where he appears to be
on good terms with God. Christians saw him as a sort of henchman
for the divinity. King James I described him as "God's hangman"*.
The name Satan derives from the Hebrew word for adversary.
In the New Testament the word was sometimes translated by the
Greek word diabolos, meaning accuser or calumniator.
English translations of the Bible generally retain the Hebrew
word Satan but render diabolos into English
as Devil. The Old Testament uses only the name Satan.
The New Testament, written in Greek but drawing upon the Old
Testament, uses both names. The English term accuser
is also applied as a title (Revelation 12:10).
The identification of a personalised Satan with Lucifer is
much later, and founded upon a mistake. The mistake arises from
a passage in Isaiah:
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!
how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the
nations! Isaiah 14:12
The original Hebrew refers not to Lucifer but to a daystar.
This is most likely to be the planet we now call Venus, though
it might have been the Moon. The Romans called Venus and the
Moon Lucifer and Lucifera respectively. The
Jews seem to have shared the Roman view that Lucifer was the
son of Aurora, the goddess of the dawn.
Venus was known as the morning star because it is often visible
in the morning sky after other planets and stars have faded.
The Greeks knew it as Phosphorus, the "light bringer"
or harbinger of dawn, and the Romans" name Lucifer
has the same meaning. The writer in Isaiah seems to be talking
about the morning star, used as a metaphor for a king's diminishing
power. The word Lucifer means simply "light bringer",
which is why it was used in Victorian times as a name for what
we now call safety matches. By applying a little imagination
and generous interpretations of other biblical passages (notably
Luke 10:18 and Revelation 9:1-11) later commentators managed
to identify Lucifer with the Devil. The fact that early Christians
made no such connection is apparent in the free use of Lucifer
as a forename. A famous fourth century Bishop of Calaris in
Sardinia was named Lucifer.
Ancient peoples failed to realise that
they were seeing the planet Venus both in the evening
and in the morning. They therefore regarded them as two
different planets and two different gods: the god of the
Morning Star Phosphoros (or Phospherus) and the
god of the evening star Hesperos (or Hesperus)..
Hesperus as Personification of the
Evening by Anton Raphael Mengs, ca. 1765
Other unrelated characters are introduced elsewhere in the
Bible and identified with Satan. Among them are rival gods such
as Baal or Baalim, Molech, Beelzebub and Belial*.
Satan is identified with the serpent in the Garden of Eden,
largely as a result of a connection made by St Paul*.
As in many ancient cultures it is probable that the serpent
originally represented wisdom or knowledge, as it still did
in New Testament times: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents
..." (Matthew 10:16). Nevertheless, following other New
Testament writings, Satan is now firmly identified with a serpent
or a dragon (Revelation 12:7 and 20:2). Isaiah calls a sea serpent
leviathan (Isaiah 27:1), and this association, because
of the much later serpent connection, seems to be responsible
for the term leviathan also being applied to Satan.
Satan has also been identified with Asmodaeus, a character
from the Apocrypha (Tobit 3:8 and 17).
The Christian conception of Satan is largely developed from
the New Testament. Here he is identified with the prince
of the devils (Matthew 12:24), the tempter (Matthew
4:3 and 1 Thessalonians 3:5), the evil or wicked
one*, the prince
of this world (John 12:31 and 16:11), the prince of
the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2), and the angel
of the bottomless pit, known in Hebrew as Abaddon
and in Greek as Apollyon (Revelation 9:11). These Hebrew
and Greek names both mean destroyer, a word that is
also used as one of his titles in Wisdom of Solomon 18:25.
The supposed existence of a number of powerful supernatural
evil forces is damaging to the Christian case for monotheism,
even if they could all be shown to be subject to a single satanic
being, or even to be manifestations of the same satanic being.
As the Jews became monotheistic they generally abandoned their
traditional gods, but occasionally the old gods lingered on
with a reduction in rank. The Sun, Moon and stars were almost
universally regarded as gods in ancient times. Now, to emphasise
their subordination to the Jewish God they were made to praise
him (Psalm 148:3). They are still instructed to do so in modern
Praise the L ord! ye heavens, adore Him,
Praise Him, Angels, in the height;
Sun and moon, rejoice before Him,
Praise Him, all ye stars and light: Hymns Ancient and Modern:
even more striking "Sun and moon bow down before Him"
(hymn 298 in Hymns Ancient and Modern). Ancient peoples also
imagined that the planets were really gods, a fact recalled
by our names for them. Later these gods were demoted to angels,
althoughone was especially favoured Venus, the bright
star of dawn, or daystar. It had been Lucifer: now it was Christ
The angel of the Lord in Genesis 16:7-14 was a god according
to verse 13, but various translations gloss over this in various
ways without so much as a footnote. Translators of the Bible
have written some other divinities out of the script: Lucifer's mother Aurora, goddess of the dawn, for example. The original
Hebrew text of Psalm 110:3 refers to the womb of Dawn just as
the Greeks would have spoken of the womb of the goddess Aurora
, but as we have seen earlier, some modern translations fudge
the words so that the goddess Dawn does not appear. Similarly
the Queen of Heaven, Asherah, the consort of El, had her name
translated as grove, so that anyone reading the Vulgate
or the Authorised Version could not guess that a goddess was
being worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple:
…where the women wove hangings for the grove. 2 Kings
23:7, Authorised Version
…where women did weaving for Asherah. 2 Kings 23:7,
NIV, cf. Jerusalem Bible
Rival gods are also mentioned in the Old Testament. In addition
to those already mentioned, such as Baal or Bel,
others include Ashtaroth, Dagon and Nebo.
There seems to have been no doubt that they were real gods and
not merely idols. Two of them, Bel and Nebo,
crouched and cringed together helplessly as their idols were
carted off by the servants of Yahweh (Isaiah 46:1-2).
many Protestant eyes, Roman Catholics worship Mary as a thinly
disguised goddess. The reaction of the Roman Catholic Church
has been to emphasise a distinction between the types of worship
that are due to God and to Mary. God alone is entitled to latria
(adoration), and Mary alone is entitled to hyperdulia
(hyper-veneration). The Orthodox Church makes a similar distinction.
Whether or not the difference is merely a semantic one is a
matter of opinion. To many the distinction appears artificial.
Roman Catholics sometimes point to a critical distinction between
the worship of God and Mary. Only God has the power to answer
prayers. Mary acts merely as a mediator, or rather mediatrice.
She does not answer prayers herself as a goddess would, but
only brings the matter to the attention of God in the person
of Christ, the sole source of salvation.
to Roman Catholic belief, Mary's powers of mediation are sovereign:
Christ, her son, cannot refuse his mother. The question then
arises as to whether there is any real difference between Mary
answering prayers herself and having her answers metaphorically
rubber-stamped by a higher authority. Many see the rubber-stamping
as a conceit designed to maintain the appearance of a monotheistic
religion. Indeed, the concept of Mary as mediatrice was largely
developed to rebut accusations that she was worshipped as a
goddess. The familiar Ave Maria or Hail Mary
has been amended over the centuries to reflect this more acceptable
line. Thus the closing words "Pray for us sinners, now
and at the hour of our death" were added to the prayer
specifically to emphasise God's sovereignty, in response to
Lutheran criticism in the sixteenth century. Other prayers,
the forms of which were settled before the Protestant accusations
of polytheism, show Mary as possessing independent powers. The
following example, from the Sub tuum praesidium, is
at least 1,000 years old, although a fragment from the third
or fourth centuries suggests that it is much older:
We seek refuge under the protection of your mercies, Mother
of God; do not reject our supplication in need, but deliver
us from perdition, you who are alone blessed*.
Moreover, it used to be perfectly orthodox to claim that Mary
"ordered" or "commanded" God, and that he
but these claims are ever more muted, precisely because of the
implications. So too, the claim that Mary's intercession
is all-powerful can be explained away by saying that "she
invariably intercedes in accordance with God's will"*.
Many will find this explanation less than convincing, since
it implies that Mary only ever asks for things that God has
already decided to grant, so reducing her role as intercessor
who are regarded as perfectly orthodox have claimed that Mary
can direct and guide our destinies as she wills; that no one
can be saved except through her; that she reigns along with
her son and is praised by angels, and that nothing can resist
her. Indeed, she is omnipotent. She heals Hell, treads demons
underfoot, saves mankind and restores fallen angels. She is
above the angels. She is "another Paraclete", i.e.
another Holy Spirit. She is the cause of our redemption. She
is our "saviour". Indeed salvation is impossible without
her. She has the same "glory" as the second person
of the Trinity. She is the "complement of the Trinity".
She is even called the "Spouse of the Father", "Spouse
of the Holy Spirit", and most frequently "Spouse of
Christ". All three have been described as her lovers [amatores].
It is even ventured that she is co-creatress [symplástes]
with God. Theologians can start prayers to her with the words
"Our Mother who art in heaven .... ". She is acclaimed
as Queen of Mercy as God is King of Justice. She is in some
respects superior to God himself and exercised power over him.
Theologians ask her to over-rule God (e.g. to free them from
Hell if Christ should condemn them to it). She "stops the
arm of God's justice, power and revenge by the force of her
mercy and love"*.
MS. Douce 374 roll 119A(1) frame4 - detail
Jesus with his Book of Life tries to dispense Justice
to a dead man, held by an angel and a demon.
The dead man's soul is being wieghed in a balance by St
Jesus's Queen Consort and Mother, Mary tips the balance
in favour of Mercy
(while a demon tries to tip it the other way).
Mary's cult came too late for her to be admitted to the divine
Trinity, but there had been an obvious need for a feminine influence
ever since the demotion of Sophia. This helps explain
Mary's promotion into the divine Imperial Family (Mother
of God, Bride of Christ, and Mater Sapientiae
"Mother of Sophia" ). Her titles reflect her growing
divinity. She acquired the title Theotokos, Mother
of God, in the fourth century, and her first known feasts date
from the fifth century. She was given the title Notre Dame,
Our Lady, in the twelfth century, after which she collected
titles at an ever accelerating rate. She is, amongst many other
things: Mother of Mercy , Empress of Angels and Empress of Heaven
, Bower of Divinity , Mistress of the World , Queen of Queens
and Holy of Holies. She took over the title of the virgin goddess
Hera in 1954 when Pope Pius XII proclaimed her Queen of
Heaven. In 1964 Mary was awarded yet another title: Mater
Ecclesiæ, Mother of the Church.
devotion is particularly strong in southern Europe, where it
is clear to any observer that the distinctions of Roman Catholic
theologians mean little to many Marian worshippers. They know
that she is assigned a place above the highest angels and act
accordingly. They pray to Mary, Queen of Heaven, and expect
her to answer their prayers, just as 2,000 years ago their ancestors
prayed to the goddess Juno, Queen of Heaven. To any objective
observer there can be little doubt that Mary represents an updated
melange of popular mother goddesses, among them the Greek Diana,
the Egyptian Isis, the Phrygian Kybele, and the Middle Eastern
Ashtaroth. For each sky god, King of Heaven, there is generally
a Magna Mater as Queen. The titles Queen of Heaven
and Mother of God are both liable to lead ordinary believers
into thinking of Mary as a goddess. As one authority says of
the title Mother of God (Greek Theotokos):
Theotokos in Latin Dei Genitrix is hardly used;
not, however, on theological grounds, but for the simple reason
that it might give rise to misunderstandings on account of
the pagan worship of Kybele, the Mother of Gods*.
Whether this is ingenuous or disingenuous we need not concern
ourselves. For us, the question is whether the Christians who
regard Mary as a goddess are a small aberrant group, or a mainstream
group protected by purpose-designed word play.
Hellenic philosophers around the time of Jesus regarded gods
as lesser beings in a divine hierarchy subordinate to one supreme
god. The Jews also had a hierarchy of heavenly beings subordinate
to their one supreme god, namely the angels. It is clear, as
theologians have long accepted, that angels are the discarded
gods of polytheism*.
This sort of belief, henotheism, is typical of the transition
from polytheism to monotheism.
Jewish and Christian literature refers to a number of different
types of angelic being. They are traditionally ranked in three
circles, each of three orders, and feature much more heavily
in Christian hymns than in biblical writings. Authorities differ
as to their names and relative ranks, but usually cite nine
from the following list: seraphim, cherubim, orphanim, thrones,
virtues, dominions or authorities, princes or principalities,
powers, archangels, and angels. Modern writings tend to ignore
the various angelic ranks, but they feature in dogma, even in
Anglican dogma*. Orthodox
Christians pray to angels just as they pray to saints. Prayers
to guardian angels are especially popular, and the Roman Church
favours such prayers as well*.
word angel is derived from the Greek angelos
meaning messenger, a word used to translate a wide range of
Hebrew expressions including ones denoting men, sons of
God or sons of gods, sons of the mighty, mighty ones,
holy ones, keepers, watchers, and armies of God*.
In the earliest books of the Bible they are represented
as men, as is God himself (Genesis 18). Indeed, God is sometimes
regarded as a sort of pre-eminent angel (e.g. Genesis 48:15-16
and Judges 6:11-24). In early Christian writings, before Jesus
had been promoted to the divine Trinity, he too also seems to
have been regarded for a while as a pre-eminent angel, apparently
identified with the Archangel Michael*.
Angelic beings also provided mechanisms for natural phenomena.
Like the pagan gods before them they moved the sun, moon, planets
and stars in their orbs. Angelic Thunders spoke and angelic
winds, like Boeas and Zephyr, blew on God's command.
'And when the seven thunders spoke, I
was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say,
"Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do
not write it down."' (Revelation 10:4)
The Old Testament refers to a number of demons. Rahab, for
example, was a demon personifying water (Psalm 89:10), while
the female demon Lilith is mentioned as living in the desolation
of Edom (Isaiah 34:14, Jerusalem Bible). Of the two goats selected
as offerings by the Jews, one was sacrificed to Yahweh, the
other, the scapegoat, was sent into the desert to the demon
Azazel (Leviticus 16:8-10, Jerusalem Bible). Such demons were
minor gods to whom sacrifices were made (Deuteronomy 32:17 and
When the New Testament refers to devils it generally
means demons. That they are supposed to be actual beings, not
merely false idols, is confirmed by James 2:19.
Unclean spirits are mentioned several times in the Bible. They
caused various illnesses. Their exact nature is never made clear,
but it is apparent that they enjoyed supernatural powers. Jesus
had conversations with, and exorcised, a number of them.
Many saints are recycled pagan gods. According to Roman Catholic
teachings they are entitled to a type of worship called dulia
(veneration). The question arises as to whether this, like the
hyperdulia accorded to Mary, is much different from
the type of worship due to God.
The role of the saints, like that of Mary, is now conceived
as one of intercession. In effect Christian believers supposedly
direct their requests to God through the saints: they do not
pray to the saints for their direct intervention. The line is
a fine one, and it is apparent that it is not universally recognised
by the faithful. Take for example St Christopher, the traditional
protector of travellers. Many tens of millions of Christians
carry around St Christopher talismans. They may be seen on neck
chains and on car dashboards throughout the world. They are
often called charms because they are believed to act
as magical charms to ward off danger. There can be no doubt
that many of those who rely upon St Christopher talismans believe
that their efficacy comes from St Christopher. His charms often
bear the inscription "behold St Christopher and go thy
way in safety". Whatever the official line on such matters,
and whether or not St Christopher ever existed, it is clear
that millions believe that a supernatural being other than God
is able to provide them with supernatural protection.
To many non-Christians, and some Christians, it is difficult
to see the difference between the Christian St Christopher and
the Greek god Hermes or the Roman god Mercury, both of whom
were supernatural patron protectors of travellers. It is also
notable that until this sort of criticism was raised against
the role of saints it was held that the saints could work miracles
themselves, not merely by applying to God. As scholars pointed
out, St Peter could kill with a rebuke, without any need for
In Russia, Orthodox Christians address prayers both to Christ
and to St Nicholas. Outside the Orthodox and Roman Catholic
Churches, Christians are less susceptible to charges that they
In the early church, the Emperor was universally accepted as
being infallible, having been appointed by God as head of the
Christian Church. Since 1870 bishops of Rome have also claimed
infallibility, and Roman Catholics are required to believe this
as a matter of dogma.
The clear implication is that emperors possessed, and the Pope
still possesses, abilities denied to ordinary human beings,
in other words supernatural powers. As pope, Innocent III claimed
to be set midway between God and man. Since subsequent popes
have never denied this claim, it would seem that it is still
upheld. For many it is difficult to see what the difference
is between a demigod and an infallible being with supernatural
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that they will attain theosis
or deification at some stage in the future*.
They will then share the substance of God, as do the three persons
of the Trinity. Whether or not this will make new gods is a
question parallel to the question of whether the concept of
the Trinity is meaningful.
The invocation of the dead is a remnant of ancestor worship
still practised in Eastern Churches. The living frequently ask
their dead ancestors to pray for them*.
Arguments for polytheism are similar to those concerning saints.
Icons are also worshipped. For example the adoratio crucis,
liturgical worship of the cross (by kiss and genuflexion) has
been practised since the dedication of the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre in 335. The Second Council of Nicæa in 787 made
the veneration of images lawful. Henceforth proskunesis
(reverence) might be paid to them, but not latria (worship).
Our problem centres on the definition of a god. According to
Chambers Dictionary, a god is "a superhuman being,
an object of worship". This definition and similar ones
in other dictionaries accord well with our general understanding
of the word's meaning. Of the supernatural entities discussed
so far, all are claimed to be superhuman, except for icons and
for living Orthodox Christians, who will become superhuman only
in the future.
The only question then is whether the various remaining superhuman
beings are worshipped. On this criterion it is possible to acquit
Wisdom, demoted Old Testament gods, unclean spirits and living
popes. Demons can be let off on the grounds that they have not
been worshipped recently. In the interest of brevity, we shall
leave on file questions arising from the fact that God and Satan
are both conflations, likewise the implications of the invocation
of the dead.
best candidate for the title of another god is Satan. There
is no doubt that he is seen as a powerful supernatural force.
Until recent times baptismal catechisms included the lines "Forsakest
thou the devil? And all devil worship". Christians affirm
that Satanists still worship the Devil, so there can be no argument
about his being worshipped. The fact that Christians themselves
do not worship him is not sufficient to disqualify his claim.
The fact that certain ancient Greeks worshipped only, say, Apollo
is not an argument that Apollo was a monotheistic god. He was
part of a system of belief in which other people worshipped
other gods, so he was a member of a pantheon. A parallel argument
holds here for Satan. In any case the New Testament refers quite
specifically to Satan as the god of this world*.
The next best candidates are the second and third persons of
the Trinity. We have already seen that the concept of the Trinity
is questionable. To many, including many who call themselves
Christians, it is unintelligible. If it is no more than a linguistic
deceit then we are left with three gods masquerading as one.
Perhaps the next best candidate, in the Roman Catholic Church
at least, is Mary. The claim that she is merely a powerless
intermediary is a difficult one to sustain. First, the idea
of the role of intermediary seems to have been developed specifically
to refute charges of idolatry, and is hardly recognised at all
by many of the faithful. Second, the system of intercession
is difficult to reconcile with God's supposed omniscience,
omni-benevolence and omnipotence. Why should God's decisions
be affected by information channelled through figures such as
Mary, when he already knows such information? Any intermediary
is superfluous. Third, even if it is accepted that Mary is herself
powerless, and able to act only as an agent of God, this does
not debar her from being regarded as a goddess. Many polytheistic
religions recognise that subordinate gods may not be free to
act without leave from a superior one. Homer and Virgil tell
us that lesser gods were constrained by Zeus during and after
the Trojan War. According to Homer, Zeus himself was subject
to those most ancient divinities, the Fates (Iliad 8.68 ).
Arguments for the divinity of others are almost as powerful.
Saints and angelic beings worshipped in the Eastern Orthodox
and Roman Catholic Churches are good candidates. The argument
is identical to that for Mary.
In brief, the number of gods recognised by Christianity depends
on our definitions. If we accept that the concept of the Trinity
is meaningful, and that the distinction between different forms
of worship is valid, then mainstream Christians still have at
least two gods: God and Satan. If the Trinity is only a linguistic
deceit, then they have at least four: the Father, Son, Holy
Ghost, and Satan. If the distinction between the words latria
(adoration) and hyperdulia (hyper-veneration) is illusory
then the Roman Church has at least five gods: the Father, Son,
Holy Ghost, Satan, and Mary. If the distinction between latria
and dulia (veneration) is illusory then it has many
The principal point here is that there is a case to be answered,
and few Christians are aware that there is a case at all. Familiar
techniques are used to cover up the problems: different gods
are bundled together and presented as one God with different
titles. Others are translated away into oblivion, or deprived
of the capital letters that would otherwise identify them as
supernatural beings. Biblical passages that fit the case for
monotheism are quoted extensively, while those that compromise
it are ignored. Teachings are changed when they become indefensible,
although without any admission that the earlier teachings were
wrong. Words change their meanings as required. For many, there
is a suspicion that linguistic deceits have been employed specifically
to obscure uncomfortable truths and to maintain a claim to monotheism.