Housteads Altar: Creating gods in our Image

Displayed in the Housteads Museum, Northumberland, is the above section from a pagan altar. It dates from Roman times and shows three gods, each hooded and well insulated against the cold. Unsurprisingly, one does not encounter Roman altars like this around the balmy Mediterranean. Here, in the barren, windswept northern frontier of the empire, the gods were imagined wearing thick cloaks that they might not shiver and freeze.

I must confess that I find it rather charming. It also, however, reveals a spiritual weakness inherent in all humans, regardless of geography or age: we make gods in our own image. The Vikings delighted in tough, warrior-gods; the Greeks’ were handsome and athletic; the Egyptian deities resembled the animals they most feared and respected, such as crocodiles and jackals. Imagining God in any way, shape or form other than how He has revealed Himself in scripture is embarking on the slippery slope to idolatry-town. A woman once barked at me that “MY God would NEVER allow anyone to go to hell!”. ‘Her’ god may well not do such a thing. But what about THE God? We must guard against projecting our assumptions, foibles and prejudices onto the Lord. He isn’t a middle-aged European any more than He is a shivering sentry, longing for the warmth, patrolling Hadrian’s Wall.

Idols are not just carved blocks of stone or wood. They may be the very pictures and beliefs about God we harbour, that originate in our imaginations rather than our Bibles.

Isaiah 44:9: All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. (ESV)