Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

Does 1 Corinthians 8:4–6 deny or affirm the existence of other gods?

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5 minutes to read This is commonly taken as an anchor point for proving that other gods do not exist—but in fact, it is saying the opposite.

From my observation, Christians have three responses when they learn about the divine council in Scripture (and there is no reliable way to predict how it will go ahead of time):

  1. Complete apathy, such that no matter how you draw out the implications of rulership in the spiritual places for the arc of redemptive history, they just shrug and say, “Oh ar.”
  2. Complete enthusiasm, such that you barely need to explain the broadest strokes of what is happening in Deuteronomy 32 or Psalm 82 or Colossians 2 (why all the 2s, I ask), and they are wondering that no one has told them this before, and how they themselves failed to spot it all these years.
  3. Complete loathing, such that every exegetical fallacy and every logical contortion will be meticulously explored as a refuge from this novel, false, distracting, false, divisive, false, foolish, false, ear-tickling, false, liberal, and false doctrine.

I don’t pretend to understand the first response, and I really don’t understand the third—especially since it doesn’t appear to be indexed to any particular theological position or aptitude. Nonetheless, among the more biblically literate evangelical opponents, who tend to favor the ESV, 1 Corinthians 8:4–6 looks like a promising safe haven. This is as ironic as it is unfortunate, because the appeal demonstrates how strongly our use of language influences our theology, and how strongly our theology influences our use of language:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.1 Corinthians 4:8–6, ESV

What is so unfortunate and ironic about this is that in the Greek, the passage explicitly says that there are many gods and many lords. The ESV takes the liberty of interpreting the text, rather than translating it.

What Paul actually wrote was not that there may be “so-called gods,” but that there may be “those called gods.” He also didn’t use scare-quotes, because scare-quotes don’t exist in Koine Greek.

Young does a good job here (but cf. NHEB, KJV, WEB, ASV, ISV and others):

…for even if there are those called gods, whether in heaven, whether upon earth—as there are gods many and lords many—yet to us is one God, the Father, of whom are the all things, and we to Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are the all things, and we through Him…1 Corinthians 8:5–6, YLT

By the same token, verse 4 does not say an idol has “no existence” as the ESV would have it; it says an idol is “nothing in the world.” Whether or not Paul is quoting the Corinthians here (he certainly may be), it cannot be that an idol has no existence, since that is a contradiction in terms; but neither can it be that the deity it represents has no existence, since otherwise Paul contradicts himself in chapter 10:

Therefore, what am I saying? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but that the things which they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to become sharers with demons.1 Corinthians 10:19–20

Paul here echoes his language from chapter 8, affirming that idols are indeed nothing—not because the powers they represent are nonexistent, but rather presumably because:

1. Idols don’t work

Simply put, they are not inhabited by deities as their users suppose. Sympathetic representation, the principle that makes idolatry sensible, is false; cf. Jeremiah 10, noting in passing that v. 11 of that passage presupposes the existence of other gods.

2. The beings behind them are as nothing compared to God

Clearly spiritual beings do stand behind idols, as Paul straightforwardly says—but these beings might as well be nothing when compared with the power of Jesus. The comparison is clearly in terms of importance, as shown by the fact that Paul refers also to the food as nothing. It exists—but it doesn’t matter. Again, putting the text beside Jeremiah 10 is a good starting point for drawing out this theology, but Paul is actually going back more directly to Deuteronomy 32:17, 22:

They sacrificed to the demons, not God [eloah—singular], to gods [elohim—semantically plural] whom they had not known, new gods who came from recent times; their ancestors had not known them … They annoyed me with what is not a god; they provoked me with their idols.Deuteronomy 32:17, 22

Here Moses explicitly links what we translate as demons, which certainly exist, with elohim—he says these beings are in fact elohim, gods, and that the Israelites sacrificed to them, instead of to God (distinguished with the singular eloah). This was a violation of both the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) and the first commandment (Exodus 20:3). Indeed, these are precisely what Paul himself is drawing on in 1 Corinthians 8:6: “to us there is one God,” just as to Israel—but this by no means denies the existence of other gods. The stricture not only makes more sense if they do exist, but is almost incoherent if they do not; far from denying their existence, both Paul and Moses presuppose it. What they are denying, like the rest of Scripture’s authors, is the propriety of worshiping these gods—hence the ambivalent language: “they are gods but they aren’t.”

If Moses and Paul didn’t think there were rulers in the heavenly places, gods over the nations, then they wouldn’t say such things in places like Exodus 12:12; 1 Corinthians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 3:10; 6:12. And that is the real problem with appeals from divine council opponents. They pit Scripture against itself.

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