In a Facebook discussion about God’s reasons for creating and acting in the world (for his own glory), an unbelieving friend made the comment:
Seems like a very human trait to desire glory. Along with all the other human traits I see in Yahweh. I guess you could argue we were created in his image, but I see it more likely we created him in ours.
Is it a human trait to desire glory? Definitely. But the definition of what it means to seek glory is markedly different for God than it is for us.
In the past, I have defined God’s glory as the manifestation of his perfections. But when we talk about humans seeking glory, do we mean they seek to manifest their perfections? No, definitely not. What perfections? If anything, humans seeking glory manifests their most egregious flaws—pride, arrogance, self-aggrandizement etc. When God seeks his glory, conversely, he exercises and reveals his complete goodness. So the two are diametrically opposed.
That’s strikingly different from a god made in man’s own image. But that’s not the only thing that’s different. Here are a few more:
Human beings by nature want to earn their salvation. They think they have to do good things and avoid bad things to go to heaven. Christianity is the only religion I know of where this is not the case. Yahweh does not make us work for salvation (he says there’s no way we could). Rather, he unilaterally chooses whom to save as an act of unmerited favor. If Yahweh had been created in our image, we should expect to have to try to please him with good works like any other god.
Name another religion (not based on Christianity) where a god pays the penalty for man’s sins. It’s unheard of. In fact, it’s so counterintuitive that it’s a major obstacle to many people believing the gospel—they can’t accept that there’s nothing they can do to save themselves; or that God would take their guilt on himself. One of the prime features of man-made religion is that it preserves human autonomy in some way. Christianity radically removes it.
Again, this is unique among religions. Most man-made gods are a single person in a single being, because that is all we know from our own experience: persons just are beings in our view of the world, and it wouldn’t occur to us that it could be any other way. Triunity is completely foreign, and ultimately inexplicable to us. Indeed, it is hard to see how this doctrine could even develop in a man-made sense, except out of polytheism. But the triunity of Yahweh is in the opposite direction: Yahweh is first revealed as one (the Shema; Deut 6:4), and only much later fully explicated as three.
Incidentally, while triunity is bizarre from a human perspective, it just happens to make Yahweh the only God adequate to ground existence itself, by drawing unity and plurality together. (Look up Plato’s problem of the one and many.) Yet the Hebrews can hardly be credited with inventing a deity to appease Plato! And in case you’re thinking that, wait a minute, can’t Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva meet this requirement too…no. Despite being called the “Great Trinity”, they cannot—because they are simply manifestations of Bhagavan. Christians would call this modalism if it were applied to God, and it breaks the one/many ontology. (Mind you, I think the broad strokes of Hinduism are too strikingly similar to Yawhism to assume no connection, especially since Vedism, which Hinduism grew out of, originated in Iran, while Yahwism originated in Iraq…)
With the exception of religions based on Christianity, man-made deities are typically contingent, changeable, emotional, compound, and generally also physical in some sense. Yahweh, conversely, exists necessarily, is unchangeable in his being, does not experience emotions in the sense of undergoing changes in disposition, is not made up of parts but rather is a simple being who just is existence, and is independent of space/time and matter/energy.
The only other religion that looks vaguely like this is, again, Hinduism—but even ignoring the possible links to Yahwism, Hindu philosophy maintains that God in his supreme “form” is supposed to be beyond human experience or reason. So how could we predicate attributes like aseity of him? Moreover, the common representations of God in Hinduism are in the distinctly contingent-seeming manifestations of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva, and their even more human-seeming avatars (again, there is a superficial similarity to Christian doctrine here, this time in the incarnation—but again the resemblance is only skin-deep since the Hindu view is akin to modalism).
Not strictly an attribute of God, but worth mentioning because it is central to Christianity, which atheists would claim is man-made just as much as Yahweh is. Other religions do not claim that man is wicked in his very nature, that his righteous deeds are like filthy menstrual cloths, nor that every imagining and thought of our hearts is continually only evil (see Gen 6:5). It doesn’t make sense for people to make that up about themselves. We typically take ourselves to be generally good. Ask anyone you like whether they’re a good person and the answer is yes. Are they going to heaven? Sure. Why? Because they try to be their best (with apologies to Dollhouse). Christianity is the only religion I know of that says the exact opposite of what we like to assume about ourselves.
The fairest way to examine the claim of whether Yahweh is just another man-made deity is to compare him to the gods of other ancient near eastern religions. Judaism was, in effect, competing with these ANE religions; and many scholars believe it borrowed significantly from them. But when you start studying ANE comparative religion, and particularly how the Torah (aka Pentateuch) compares with other ANE texts and myths, you can’t help noticing how strikingly different it is.
There are so many examples of this that it’s hard to pick just a few. For a good primer, John D Currid’s Against the Gods is a very strong starting point. Currid makes a persuasive argument that the Old Testament does not merely borrow existing ANE myths, as many scholars suppose, but uses them precisely to show how these myths are false, and how Yahweh is unique among the gods. A few brief examples will have to suffice:
- Yahweh is not constrained by national borders. In the ANE, gods were “tied” to the land. In Canaan, Baal and his cronies had power. In Egypt, Re and his pantheon. Exodus makes a particularly big deal of how Yahweh is God of all the earth and cares nothing for national boundaries (cf Ps 24:1). It emphasizes how Yahweh is in the midst of Egypt, even though he is not an Egyptian god, but the God of Israel—a place that doesn’t yet exist! Notice the wording, for example, of Exodus 10:4—”I will bring locusts into your country”—and verse 1: “that I may show my signs in their midst” (cf Ps 135:9). And of course, the tenth plague has Yahweh sauntering through the entire land of Egypt killing the firstborn of every family with impunity.
- Yahweh has command of all other gods.* Again, this is emphasized to the extreme in Exodus. Moses’ staff becomes a serpent to mock the power of Pharaoh, whose headpiece is engraved with the Uraeus, a rearing cobra symbolizing the goddess Wadjet, who confers legitimacy upon his rule and authorizes his claim over the land of Egypt. In the plagues, God first strikes the Nile—which the Egyptians worshiped as a goddess of fertility because it was effectively what kept the whole country alive—thus demonstrating his power of their entire kingdom. Later, the land is in darkness for three days, showing that Yahweh has power over the Egyptians’ supreme sun god, Re. And he crushes their army in the red sea as the sun is rising, again mocking Re’s impotence. Examples can be multiplied, but I’d be here all day.
- Yahweh is utterly sovereign. Not only does he have command of all other gods, but those gods are utterly subordinate to him because they are created and he is not. Exodus 3:14 illustrates well God’s eternality and “self-containedness”, which I’ve described above under the heading aseity. But you see this starting at Genesis 1, which mimics to a large degree other ANE creation myths in its structure, but changes key points. For example, Yahweh is not born in any sense. Yahweh brings the chaotic waters into existence; they are not eternally there. Yahweh does not have to subdue the waters or battle other gods for supremacy over the created order.
- Yahweh does not create man as a slave. Most remarkably, Judaism is unique in ANE religions in describing man as an “imager” of Yahweh. Man represents Yahweh on earth. He is made to be in some way like Yahweh, and serves as a vice-regent to Yahweh. Yahweh shares his authority and even aspects of his very nature, like goodness and wisdom and love, with Adam. This is unheard of in ANE religions, where man was ubiquitously created to be a slave to the gods because they were tired of working on creation. This demonstrates another difference (let’s call this the last one for now):
- Yahweh does not have physical form. He does not tire like other ANE gods; he does not get hungry like they do; he does not have any needs—let alone needs that can be fulfilled by man. He goes to great pains to emphasize this when he gives the ten commandments, ensuring the Hebrews understand that they are to make no kind of image or statue to represent him (Ex 20:4-5), because he is not like anything that can be seen (Deut 4:15-19).
So these are just a few reasons that it’s very hard to take seriously the claim that Yahweh just looks like a made-up god. Of course, none of this proves that he isn’t made up. But if he were, we’d expect him to be more like the made-up gods of other religions. We’d expect to find similar characteristics and attributes—especially to other ANE gods which he was supposedly copied from. Since that isn’t what we find, the evidence certainly doesn’t weigh in favor of the atheist.
* Genesis seems to indicate, and Exodus takes for granted, that there are actual beings, often called elohim or “gods”, which the pagan nations worship. So the Egyptians are not merely worshiping false idols, but actual false gods—powerful spiritual beings created by Yahweh. Notice the wording of Exodus 12:12: “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments”. This doesn’t seem to make sense if the gods don’t actually exist in any other form than crafted idols. See my notes on “The Serpent in Genesis 3” for more.