A recent book puts forth an intriguing idea that the ancient gods of the pagan world have returned to haunt our modern societies. Have the pagan deities returned? Or could it be something else, something most do not understand?
I have just returned from my third trip to Turkey, ancient Asia Minor, in two years. Teaching the books of Acts and Revelation at the college level sharpens the interest in the events that took place there.
The more I visit, the more I learn and the more I want to dig deeper to understand what God is saying to His Church for today. I believe the book of Revelation holds the key for today’s Church to survive the open spiritual warfare from the demonic world. The evidence of demonic influence on existing culture is clear and unmistakable. You do not have to look further than the writings of prominent social observers to see the alarm some feel.
The absence of God’s protection
Writer Naomi Wolf recently discussed this topic, prompted by several overt displays of pagan occultism. Among them was the recent Grammy Awards ceremony in the United States where entertainer Sam Smith performed a musical piece titled “Unholy,” with its satanic imagery bathed in lurid red light. In 2022 a terrifying animated bull figure with glowing red eyes was bowed down to by scantily dressed male and female dancers at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Birmingham, England. And then there’s “Satan Con,” billed as “A weekend of blasphemy” and “the largest satanic gathering in history,” in Boston.
In a lengthy but perceptive article about the emergence and acceptance of pure evil dressed in progressive clothing, Dr. Wolf rightly states: “. . . that this—the absence of the protection of our God—the ascendancy of a realm on Earth of us doing it all ourselves; regarding ourselves; worshiping ourselves, whoring after only human works; releasing ourselves from all lawful constraints, embracing all lusts and all obedience to non-divine authorities; rejecting mercy; celebrating all narcissisms; treating children like animals whom we own, treating the family like a battlefield; treating the Churches and Synagogues as marketing platforms—this is, indeed what the realms of pagan darkness; or of Principalities and Powers—look like” (“Have the Ancient Gods Returned?” Brownstone Institute, Feb. 23, 2023).
The gods return?
Dr. Wolf’s article was in part motivated by a recent book by Jonathan Cahn, whose writing usually stirs interest as he connects current events to Bible prophecies. His latest book, The Return of the Gods, puts forth the idea that the ancient gods like Baal, Molech and Artemis, among others, have returned in recent years and are behind current evils becoming public policy in many states.
The hard-core abortion activists who want to permit the taking of a baby’s life up to the point of or even after it exits the womb of its mother is one. Another is the policy in the state of Minnesota announcing it’s a “safe haven” for young people wanting to undergo gender transition, even if opposed by a parent.
Legislation supporting such acts goes against every norm of a sane society desiring to preserve its children and future. Yet this is a growing trend. Cahn attributes these changes in society to the unleashing of the ancient pagan gods who have “returned” to popularity within these evil manifestations.
I think Cahn makes a compelling case, which appeals to Dr. Wolf and other observers. But while compelling, it’s not the whole story. I will explain why in a moment.
Why the message in Revelation is important
Visiting the sites of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 has led me to look deeply into the message Christ gave to them. Members of the Church of God living in these cities were surrounded by a thoroughly pagan world where false gods like Zeus, Apollo and Artemis were worshiped in temples and all areas of public life.
It’s hard for our modern minds to grasp how deeply ingrained into the life of each man and woman was worship of gods “which are not gods” (Jeremiah 2:11). A person’s job depended on allegiance to whatever deity was the god of your craft. You were expected to honor that god by attending banquets in that god’s temple, dining on food offered in sacrifice to the god. To not do this could deprive you of your livelihood and social standing. A Christian could not do this without violating God’s commandments.
Two of these congregations listed in Revelation 2 and 3 existed in cities where these gods held particularly high status. When Christ addressed the members in the city of Pergamos, He told them their city was “where Satan dwells” and that the city held “Satan’s throne” (Revelation 2:13).
Pergamos sat at the base of a high hill overlooking a broad plain. Several temples atop the hill might be identified as “Satan’s throne,” but one in particular stands out. The Altar of Zeus was a large altar/temple, the largest in the ancient world. Now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, its appearance makes it easy to imagine Satan sitting enthroned and worshiped by the people bringing offerings to the chief god, Zeus. Being told you live “where Satan dwells” would have been shocking to the Church members there.
Satan does have a realm. Scripture calls him “the ruler of this world” and “the god of this age” (John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan offered to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He would only bow down and worship him (Matthew 4:8-9).
Another of the seven churches of Revelation was in Ephesus, home to one of the wonders of the ancient world, the great temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). The site of the temple is today a pile of stones and a reconstructed pillar. In the first century world, though, it held the attention of the city and region.
Artemis was a goddess of nature and the hunt. She acquired a fertility role from the older Asian goddess Cybele. Cybele had as priests and attendants to her worship men known as galli, men who emasculated themselves and dressed and acted as females—an early transgender practice—as part of the rituals honoring the goddess.
This practice continued into the time of the first century. When you consider the ministry of the apostle Paul in Ephesus over a three-year period, you get a clearer picture of what he worked against and the culture Christians had to deal with. Today’s transgender culture is a mirror of many aspects of that world where the gospel of Christ first prevailed against lifeless paganism.
The message of Revelation is meant to give us encouragement today in the face of an increasingly idolatrous world engrossed with the culture of self—and now with an added spiritual dimension of outright satanic adoration and twisted demonic ideas and behavior intended to distort every norm of human behavior. The structure of the family is being attacked at every level. The idea of gender and the very nature of humanity is being mutilated as part of deliberate public policy.
What we are seeing is not the return of the ancient pagan gods. Those gods have been here all along. What is new is that they are emerging from behind the facade of false religion, which has carried them from the ancient to the modern world.
Demons behind the idols
The Bible clearly tells us that behind every idol and false god is a demon seeking to be worshiped. Notice these scriptures. Speaking of Israel, God said: “They provoked Him to jealousy with foreign gods; with abominations they provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons, not to God, to gods they did not know, to new gods, new arrivals that your fathers did not fear” (Deuteronomy 32:16-17; see also Leviticus 17:7; Psalm 106:37).
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, living in a city full of temples and idolatry, describing the vain worship there: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20).
The idols and temples in ancient times may have represented an Artemis, Zeus or Athena. But the real objects of worship were fallen demons of the spirit realm—the powers of darkness, the unseen rulers and influencers of civilization and culture.
To truly understand the course of world history, we need to recognize that a being described as “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) governs and shapes the way of life of human society in resisting the ways of God. Paul told the Ephesians that they “once walked” along Satan’s path in their pre-Christian life (Ephesians 2:2). Paul made great strides against this satanic culture. Over his three years in Ephesus his preaching and teaching resulted in the word of the Lord growing mightily and prevailing (Acts 19:20).
But church history clearly shows the gods never went away. They got themselves baptized! They transformed the teaching of truth amid the early Church. Worship of God on the Sabbath was changed to Sunday, the day of the sun god. The pagan holidays at the roots of Easter and Christmas in time replaced the biblical festivals God had revealed. One by one the foundational truths taught by Christ and the apostles were replaced by “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1) and “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
The picture of the church that emerges after the first century period looks nothing like the Church originally founded by Jesus Christ. Idols, icons and saints were worshiped instead of the true God. The Christianity of later history along with other false religious systems became the hiding place for the ancient pagan gods. We are seeing them more overtly emerging now as our world is forgetting God.
We have forgotten God
Recent decades have seen a steady diminishing of a Bible-based morality, ethic and way of life among the Western nations. Many secular prophets have warned through the years that people were turning from God and that His Word, the Bible, was no longer a vital part of the foundation.
Among these was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who said, when speaking of the travails of his own Russia languishing in the death camp called communism, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Indeed, this is what has happened in America and the English-speaking world as well. The current explosion of satanic, pagan worship is the result.
When a beastlike power rose out of Europe in 1914 spewing war across the continent, leading to the collapse of empires, followed a generation later by another world war and the death of millions by bloodshed, famine, pestilence and holocaust, it was because men had forgotten God.
Forgetting God has resulted in a debased culture He describes as full of “all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness . . . envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful” (Romans 1:29-31). The resulting culture of death awaits the judgment of God.
We have come to a stage in this progression of evil where it seems the gods who have always been there, hiding in the Western world behind a veil of false religion claiming to come in the name of Jesus Christ with its doctrine of demons and plain idolatry, have now emerged. We are watching demonic influence in the popular culture.
The ancient gods have not “returned”—they have always been here, but held at bay through the purpose and power of God. As we have turned our back on God, their influence has grown bolder. We have crossed a threshold into a new period of experience. It appears there is no going back to the world we knew. We are in a spiritual war, and Jesus Christ calls each of us to face the battle of the ages, standing firm with the armor of God!