False god

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Remains of the Nergal Gate in Nineveh, Iraq

The phrase false god is a derogatory term used in Abrahamic religions (namely Judaism, Samaritanism, Christianity, the Baháʼí Faith, and Islam) to indicate cult images or deities of non-Abrahamic Pagan religions, as well as other competing entities or objects to which particular importance is attributed.[1][2][3][4][5] Conversely, followers of animistic and polytheistic religions may regard the gods of various monotheistic religions as "false gods", because they do not believe that any real deity possesses the properties ascribed by monotheists to their sole deity. Atheists, who do not believe in any deities, do not usually use the term false god even though that would encompass all deities from the atheist viewpoint. Usage of this term is generally limited to theists, who choose to worship some deity or deities, but not others.[2]


In Abrahamic religions, false god is used as a derogatory term to refer to a deity or object of worship besides the Abrahamic god that is regarded as either illegitimate or non-functioning in its professed authority or capability, and this characterization is further used as a definition of "idol".[2][3][4][5][6]

The term false god is often used throughout the Abrahamic scriptures (Torah, Tanakh, Bible, and Quran) to compare Elohim/Yahweh[5] (interpreted by Jews, Samaritans, and Christians) or Ilah/Allah[4] (interpreted by Muslims) as the only true God.[2][3] Nevertheless, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament itself recognizes and reports that on multiple occasions, the Israelites were not monotheists but actively engaged in idolatry and worshipped many foreign, non-Jewish Gods besides Yahweh and/or instead of him,[7] such as Baal, Astarte, Asherah, Chemosh, Dagon, Moloch, Tammuz, and more, and continued to do so until their return from the Babylonian exile[5] (see Ancient Hebrew religion). Judaism, the oldest Abrahamic religion, eventually shifted into a strict, exclusive monotheism,[3] based on the sole veneration of Yahweh,[8][9][10] the predecessor to the Abrahamic conception of God.[Note 1]

The vast majority of religions in history have been and/or are still polytheistic, worshipping many diverse deities.[14] Moreover, the material depiction of a deity or more deities has always played an eminent role in all cultures of the world.[1] The claim to worship the "one and only true God" came to most of the world with the arrival of Abrahamic religions and is the distinguishing characteristic of their monotheistic worldview,[3][14][15][16] whereas virtually all the other religions in the world have been and/or are still animistic and polytheistic.[14]

In the Hebrew Bible[edit]

The Tanakh refers to deities from other neighboring cultures as shedim (Hebrew: שֵׁדִים),[17] possibly a loan-word from Akkadian in which the word shedu referred to a spirit which could be either protective or malevolent.[18][19][20] They appear twice (always plural), at Psalm 106:37 and Deuteronomy 32:17. Both times it is mentioned in the context of sacrificing children or animals to them.[21] When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the Hebrew term shedim was translated as daimones, with implied negativity.[17] This gave rise to a dualism between native spirits of the own religion's God, and the spirits of foreign origin as demons.[22]

In Gnosticism[edit]

In Gnosticism, the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden was praised and thanked for bringing knowledge (gnosis) to Adam and Eve and thereby freeing them from the malevolent Demiurge's control.[23] Gnostic Christian doctrines rely on a dualistic cosmology that implies the eternal conflict between good and evil, and a conception of the serpent as the liberating savior and bestower of knowledge to humankind opposed to the Demiurge or creator god, identified with the Hebrew God of the Old Testament.[23][24]

Gnostic Christians considered the Hebrew God of the Old Testament as the evil, false god and creator of the material universe, and the Unknown God of the Gospel, the father of Jesus Christ and creator of the spiritual world, as the true, good God.[23][24][25][26] In the Archontic, Sethian, and Ophite systems, Yaldabaoth (Yahweh) is regarded as the malevolent Demiurge and false god of the Old Testament who sinned by claiming divinity for himself and generated the material universe and keeps the souls trapped in physical bodies, imprisoned in the world full of pain and suffering that he created.[27][28][29]

However, not all Gnostic movements regarded the creator of the material universe as inherently evil or malevolent.[26][30] For instance, Valentinians believed that the Demiurge is merely an ignorant and incompetent creator, trying to fashion the world as good as he can, but lacking the proper power to maintain its goodness.[26][30] All Gnostics were regarded as heretics by the proto-orthodox Early Church Fathers.[23][24][25][31]

In the Quran[edit]

The Quran refers to jinn as entities who had a similar status to that of lesser deities in the pre-Islamic Arabian religion.[32] Although the Quran doesn't equate the jinn to the rank of demons,[33] it reduces them to the same status as human beings.[34] Due to their mortality and dependence on fate (ḳadar), they would also be subjected to the final judgment by the supreme deity of the Quran (Allāh). Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī, the 10th-century Persian Muslim scholar, Ḥanafī jurist, and Sunnī theologian who founded the eponymous school of Islamic theology, considered the jinn to be weaker than humans, and asserted that whenever humans act upon the jinn, they humiliate themselves.[35]

Alternatively, ṭāġūt may refer to idols, sometimes thought to be inhabited by one or more demons.[36]: 210  Muslims don't necessarily deny the power of deities or demons within the idol, but deny that they are worthy of worship. In the Kitāb al-ʾAṣnām ("Book of the Idols"), the Arab Muslim historian Ibn al-Kalbī (c. 737–819 CE) tells how Muhammad ordered Khālid ibn al-Walīd to kill the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess al-ʿUzzā, who was supposed to inhabit three trees. After cutting down all the trees, a woman with wild hair appears, identified with al-ʿUzzā. After battle, she is killed, and thus al-ʿUzzā considered to be defeated.

Similarly, the Arab Muslim geographer al-Maqdisī (c. 945/946–991 CE) wrote about Indian deities (known in Middle Eastern folklore as dīv), asserting that they have the power to enchant people, even Muslims, to worship them. A Muslim is said to have visited them and abandoned Islam. When he reached Muslim land again, he returned to his Islamic faith. The power of idols is not limited to enchantment alone, they could even grant wishes.[37]

Other similar entities are the shurakāʼ ("partners [of God]"), whose existence is not denied, however their relation to God is. They are regarded as powerless beings, who will be cast into Hell after the Day of Judgment, along with evil jinn and fallen angels turned devils (shayāṭīn), for usurping the divine nature.[38]: 41 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Although the Semitic god El is indeed the most ancient predecessor to the Abrahamic god,[7][8][11][12] this specifically refers to the ancient ideas Yahweh once encompassed in the Ancient Hebrew religion, such as being a storm- and war-god, living on mountains, or controlling the weather.[7][8][11][12][13] Thus, in this page's context, "Yahweh" is used to refer to God as conceived in the Ancient Hebrew religion, and should not be referenced when describing his later worship in today's Abrahamic religions.


  1. ^ a b Frohn, Elke Sophie; Lützenkirchen, H.-Georg (2007). "Idol". In von Stuckrad, Kocku (ed.). The Brill Dictionary of Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. doi:10.1163/1872-5287_bdr_SIM_00041. ISBN 9789004124332. S2CID 240180055.
  2. ^ a b c d Angelini, Anna (2021). "Les dieux des autres: entre «démons» et «idoles»". L'imaginaire du démoniaque dans la Septante: Une analyse comparée de la notion de "démon" dans la Septante et dans la Bible Hébraïque. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism (in French). Vol. 197. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 184–224. doi:10.1163/9789004468474_008. ISBN 978-90-04-46847-4.
  3. ^ a b c d e Leone, Massimo (Spring 2016). Asif, Agha (ed.). "Smashing Idols: A Paradoxical Semiotics" (PDF). Signs and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Semiosis Research Center at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. 4 (1): 30–56. doi:10.1086/684586. eISSN 2326-4497. hdl:2318/1561609. ISSN 2326-4489. S2CID 53408911. Archived (PDF) from the original on 23 September 2017. Retrieved 28 July 2021.
  4. ^ a b c Bosworth, C. E.; van Donzel, E. J.; Heinrichs, W. P.; Lewis, B.; Pellat, Ch.; Schacht, J., eds. (1971). "Idol, Idolatry". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Vol. 3. Leiden: Brill Publishers. doi:10.1163/1573-3912_islam_DUM_1900. ISBN 978-90-04-16121-4.
  5. ^ a b c d Kohler, Kaufmann; Blau, Ludwig (1906). "Idol-Worship". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation. Archived from the original on 4 May 2013. Retrieved 18 April 2021.
  6. ^ "Definition of idol". Merriam-Webster.com. Edinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2021. Retrieved 18 April 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Stahl, Michael J. (2021). "The "God of Israel" and the Politics of Divinity in Ancient Israel". The "God of Israel" in History and Tradition. Vetus Testamentum: Supplements. Vol. 187. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 52–144. doi:10.1163/9789004447721_003. ISBN 978-90-04-44772-1. S2CID 236752143.
  8. ^ a b c Van der Toorn, Karel (1999). "God (I)". In Van der Toorn, Karel; Becking, Bob; Van der Horst, Pieter W. (eds.). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd ed.). Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 352–365. doi:10.1163/2589-7802_DDDO_DDDO_Godi. ISBN 90-04-11119-0.
  9. ^ Betz, Arnold Gottfried (2000). "Monotheism". In Freedman, David Noel; Myer, Allen C. (eds.). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. pp. 916–917. ISBN 9053565035.
  10. ^ Gruber, Mayer I. (2013). "Israel". In Spaeth, Barbette Stanley (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Mediterranean Religions. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 76–94. doi:10.1017/CCO9781139047784.007. ISBN 978-0-521-11396-0. LCCN 2012049271.
  11. ^ a b Smith, Mark S. (2000). "El". In Freedman, David Noel; Myer, Allen C. (eds.). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. pp. 384–386. ISBN 9053565035.
  12. ^ a b Smith, Mark S. (2003). "El, Yahweh, and the Original God of Israel and the Exodus". The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 133–148. doi:10.1093/019513480X.003.0008. ISBN 9780195134803.
  13. ^ Niehr, Herbert (1995). "The Rise of YHWH in Judahite and Israelite Religion: Methodological and Religio-Historical Aspects". In Edelman, Diana Vikander (ed.). The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms. Leuven: Peeters Publishers. pp. 45–72. ISBN 978-9053565032. OCLC 33819403.
  14. ^ a b c Smart, Ninian (10 November 2020) [26 July 1999]. "Polytheism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Archived from the original on 11 November 2020. Retrieved 25 April 2021.
  15. ^ Hayes, Christine (2012). "Understanding Biblical Monotheism". Introduction to the Bible. The Open Yale Courses Series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 15–28. ISBN 9780300181791. JSTOR j.ctt32bxpm.6.
  16. ^ Bernard, David K. (2019) [2016]. "Monotheism in Paul's Rhetorical World". The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: Deification of Jesus in Early Christian Discourse. Journal of Pentecostal Theology: Supplement Series. Vol. 45. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 53–82. ISBN 978-90-04-39721-7. ISSN 0966-7393.
  17. ^ a b Greenbaum, Dorian G. (2015). "Part 1: Daimon and Fortune – Hie Thee to Hell: The Place of the Bad Daimon". The Daimon in Hellenistic Astrology: Origins and Influence. Ancient Magic and Divination. Vol. 11. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 128–129. doi:10.1163/9789004306219_006. ISBN 978-90-04-30621-9. ISSN 1566-7952. LCCN 2015028673.
  18. ^ Rachel Elior; Peter Schäfer (2005). על בריאה ועל יצירה במחשבה היהודית: ספר היובל לכבודו של יוסף דן במלאת לו שבעים שנה. Mohr Siebeck. p. 29. ISBN 978-3-16-148714-9.
  19. ^ Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses. Judika Illes. HarperCollins, Jan 2009. p. 902.
  20. ^ The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. Rosemary Guiley. Infobase Publishing, May 12, 2010. p. 21.
  21. ^ W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), p. 1403 online; Dan Burton and David Grandy, Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization (Indiana University Press, 2003), p. 120 online.
  22. ^ Martin, Dale Basil (Winter 2010). "When Did Angels Become Demons?". Journal of Biblical Literature. Society of Biblical Literature. 129 (4): 657–677. doi:10.2307/25765960. ISSN 0021-9231. JSTOR 25765960.
  23. ^ a b c d Kvam, Kristen E.; Schearing, Linda S.; Ziegler, Valarie H., eds. (1999). "Early Christian Interpretations (50–450 CE)". Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 108–155. doi:10.2307/j.ctt2050vqm.8. ISBN 9780253212719. JSTOR j.ctt2050vqm.8.
  24. ^ a b c Ehrman, Bart D. (2005) [2003]. "Christians "In The Know": The Worlds of Early Christian Gnosticism". Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 113–134. doi:10.1017/s0009640700110273. ISBN 978-0-19-518249-1. LCCN 2003053097. S2CID 152458823.
  25. ^ a b May, Gerhard (2008). "Part V: The Shaping of Christian Theology - Monotheism and creation". In Mitchell, Margaret M.; Young, Frances M. (eds.). The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 1: Origins to Constantine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 434–451, 452–456. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521812399.026. ISBN 9781139054836.
  26. ^ a b c Bousset, Wilhelm (1911). "Valentinus and the Valentinians" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 27 (11th ed.). pp. 852–857.
  27. ^ Litwa, M. David (2016) [2015]. "Part I: The Self-deifying Rebel – "I Am God and There is No Other!": The Boast of Yaldabaoth". Desiring Divinity: Self-deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 47–65. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190467166.003.0004. ISBN 9780199967728. LCCN 2015051032. OCLC 966607824.
  28. ^ Fischer-Mueller, E. Aydeet (January 1990). "Yaldabaoth: The Gnostic Female Principle in Its Fallenness". Novum Testamentum. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. 32 (1): 79–95. doi:10.1163/156853690X00205. eISSN 1568-5365. ISSN 0048-1009. JSTOR 1560677.
  29. ^  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainArendzen, John Peter (1908). "Demiurge". In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  30. ^ a b Logan, Alastair H. B. (2002) [2000]. "Part IX: Internal Challenges – Gnosticism". In Esler, Philip F. (ed.). The Early Christian World. Routledge Worlds (1st ed.). New York and London: Routledge. pp. 923–925. ISBN 9781032199344.
  31. ^ Brakke, David (2010). The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 18–51. ISBN 9780674066038. JSTOR j.ctvjnrvhh.6. S2CID 169308502.
  32. ^ al-Azmeh, Aziz (2017) [2014]. "Chapter 5 – Allāh". The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allāh and His People. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 294–295. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139410854.007. ISBN 9781139410854. LCCN 2013023226.
  33. ^ el-Zein, Amira (2009). "Beings of Light and of Fire". Islam, Arabs, and Intelligent World of the Jinn. Contemporary Issues in the Middle East. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 52. ISBN 9780815650706. JSTOR j.ctt1j5d836.6. LCCN 2009026745. OCLC 785782984.
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  36. ^ Nünlist, Tobias (2015). "Zur Liminalität: Die Dämonen als Grenzwesen". In Nünlist, Tobias (ed.). Dämonenglaube im Islam. Studies in the History and Culture of the Middle East (in German). Vol. 28. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter. pp. 192–246. doi:10.1515/9783110331684-007. ISBN 978-3-110-33168-4.
  37. ^ Elias, J. J. (2014). Key Themes for the Study of Islam. Vereinigtes Königreich: Oneworld Publications
  38. ^ Henninger, Joseph (2021) [2004]. "Beliefs in Spirits Among the Pre-Islamic Arabs". In Savage-Smith, Emilie (ed.). Magic and Divination in Early Islam (1st ed.). London and New York: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315250090. ISBN 9781315250090.

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