An Analysis of the Cult of Image Worship

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We are all familiar with the central roles religious images – statues, icons and works of art – play in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Stories of miracles and supernatural feats are so hinged with the cult of images that it’s obvious that one can’t survive without the other.

Such stories have been crystallized in many Catholic legends (e.g St. Mary of Egypt, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Faustina Kowalska etc.) and there’s no shortage of such today – from the spurious to the curious to the grotesque.

In 2014, the Associated Press reported on an “oil weeping” statue of Mary in a small town in Northern Israel which attracted over 2,000 pilgrims.

There have also been stories of statues or icons of “Jesus” and the various “saints” weeping blood, oils or water, nodding, blinking, effective miraculous cures, or surviving a disaster.

When Catholic believers listen to these tales they punctuate the air with chants of “Holy Mother pray for us!” while deliberately piping down on their own critical faculties to deny obvious questions.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that “through the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads and kneel, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose likenesses they are” (8:636)

The Catholic Catechism (2132) also says: “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.'”

We need to ask: why would any Christian kiss or kneel to worship an image in the name of God?

How do Catholics know for sure that the images they venerate are really the “likenesses” and “prototypes” of the persons they portray? Have they physically seen Jesus, Mary or the “saints” before? Did they pose for a photo shoot?

If the honour or worship rendered to an image passes to its prototype, what then stops one from worshipping the rocks in one’s backyards since one can paint a supposed image of ‘Christ’ or the ‘saints’ on them?

Different portraits of Jesus or Mary have been produced by different artists in different nations at different periods of history. Certainly, all these artistic renditions can’t be representations of the persons alleged. This is a fraudulent development.

Church history shows how the cult of images developed. The early Christians while not adverse to art, had no images of Christ. This is evident in the writings of the early church fathers who denounced religious images. For example:

Melito (d. 180 A.D.): “We are not those who pay homage to stones, that are without sensation; but of the only God, who is before all and over all, and moreover, we are worshippers of His Christ, who is veritably God the Word existing before time” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers III, 579).

Irenaeus (c. 125-202 AD): “They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world…” (Against Heresies 1:25:6)

Tertullian (145-220): “But some one says, in opposition to our proposition of “similitude being interdicted,” “Why, then, did Moses in the desert make a likeness of a serpent out of bronze?” The figures, which used to be laid as a groundwork for some secret future dispensation, not with a view to the repeal of the law, but as a type of their own final cause, stand in a class by themselves … It is enough that the same God, as by law He forbade the making of similitude, did, by the extraordinary precept in the case of the serpent, interdict similitude. If you reverence the same God, you have His law, “Thou shall make no similitude” (Of Idolatry, Ch. 5).

Origen (c. 185-254 A.D): “But Christians and Jews have regard to this command … ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me: thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath … It is in consideration of these and many other commands, that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God” (Against Celsus, 7:65)

Lactantius (c. 250-325 A.D.): “Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth” (The Divine Institutes, 2:19).

Notice from these quotes that the only groups of people who venerated images purported to be of Christ were heretics who had mixed Christian elements with occult Gnosticism.

The Synod of Elvira (305/306) prohibited images as a hindrance to the spiritual worship of God.

Ambrose, Jerome and Eusebius made references to people making images of “Christ” or “saints” in their time but they were seriously frowned upon. Epiphanus for instance, wrote:

“…I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person” (Jerome’s Letter, 51:9)

Catholic scholar, Ludwig Ott noted that: “Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan Books: Illinois, 1974, 320).

Even when images were introduced, several emperors condemned their use as heresy and ordered them destroyed.

In 784 A.D. Tarasius who was an advocate of images, became the Patriarch of the East and the Synod of Nicaea in 787 ascribed reference to images and worship to God through them.

This practice was sanctioned in the West through the Synod of Frankfurt in 794. Even then, several emperors, Catholic bishops and others were still opposed to image and relic worship. After 850, the cult of image worship began to grow in churches along with stories of “miracles” performed through them.

In 1188, it was declared that a denial of images was a denial of God. In 1225, it was said that Christ was not Christ unless He was graven.

Thomas Aquinas said in Summa Theologiae that an image of Christ claims the same veneration as Christ Himself. At the Council of Trent (1551-1552) idolatry was finally made a dogma (compulsory belief) for Catholics and so it remains till date.

What the Bible Says

In Scripture, none of the inspired writer ever mentioned the use of images in worship to God in the tabernacle or temple rites except when Israel was backslidden and served pagan gods.

The Bible denounced religious images as the works of man’s hands; imitations of creations, made of dead materials and a foolish worship (see Lev. 19:4 2 Kgs. 18:4 , Isa. 44:8-20; 46:6-7 etc.). The second commandment in the Decalogue says:

You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them” Exodus 20:4-5 (New American Bible)

This commandment has been slyly eliminated from the Catholic Catechism because of its implications on Catholic dogma. To properly bury the verse in the rat’s nest, they split the tenth commandment into two – making the part about not coveting your neighbour’s wife into the ninth and the rest, servant, etc. was grouped together to form the tenth.

Catholic doctrinal books also intentionally use the review of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy instead of the original giving of the commandments in Exodus.

These efforts prove that Catholic leaders too are aware that God’s commands condemn their use of images in worship.

You saw no form at all on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire. Be strictly on your guard, therefore, not to degrade yourselves by fashioning an idol to represent any figure, whether it be the form of a man or a woman…” (Deut. 4:15-16 NAB)

I shall pronounce my judgements on them because of all their wickedness, since they have abandoned me, offering incense to other gods and worshipping what their own hands have made” (Jer. 1:16 New Jerusalem Bible)

To whom could you liken God? What image could you contrive of him” (Isa. 40:18 Jerusalem Bible)

These were directives given to God’s people in the OT denouncing images made of God or any divine figure. In the NT, the same commands were given to Christians forbidding them from “Christianized” image worship:

Therefore, my beloved, avoid idolatry 1 Cor. 10:14 (NAB)

Others must stay outside [heaven]: dogs, fortune-tellers, and the sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters, and everyone of false speech and false life” (Rev. 22:15, NJB).

God doesn’t need to go into semantic acrobatics or manipulation of terms. His Word is clear that any worship or veneration offered to an image is idolatry. Plain and simple. We spurn His commands only at our own peril.

During a discussion with an ex-Catholic friend, Rita, years ago, I asked, “What was the main factor that led you to reject Catholicism?” She answered, “Every time we prayed towards an image, something in me would ask, ‘Is this not idolatry? Is this not an abomination before God?’ Sometimes when I voiced out my inner protests, they would defiantly tell me it’s not idolatry. But their explanations couldn’t drown my inner voice. It was when I looked into the Bible, that I realized that God had been tugging at my conscience all along.”

This “Christian” idolatry persists because many religious people want to walk by sight rather than by faith. They want God or Jesus to be portable and manageable; in a form that they can see, touch and kiss rather than serving Him in spirit and truth.

The cult of image worship is simply a continuation of the traditions of pagans who made images of their deities.

The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s article on ‘The True Cross’ says:

“[I]n the first ages of Christianity, when converts from paganism were so numerous, and the impression of idol-worship was so fresh, the Church found it advisable not to permit the development of this cult of images, but later, when that danger had disappeared…the cult developed freely.”

The bigger the tales of miracles wrought through these idolatrous images, the bigger the income generated for Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and the greater the number of souls led into spiritual bondage.

But God must be worshipped as He has prescribed in His Word not as we insist He should be worshipped.

The Relics of Rome

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Photo source: Catholic Answers

You don’t need to study the teachings of Roman Catholicism too deeply to be repelled by the stench of death and deception that permeate its practices. There is nothing more creepy and absurd than entering an old style traditional Roman Catholic church filled with skeletons and bones of “saints” and the like.

I once watched a documentary in which a monk took a researcher to the basement of a Catholic monastery, explaining to her the significance of relics to the Catholic faith.

The basement was literally filled with human skulls from the ceiling to the floor.

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, a relic is “the material remains of a saint or holy person after his death, as well as objects sanctified by contact with his body.”

In utter desperation, modern Catholic apologists try to find a Biblical basis for this practice by citing some Bible passages which actually violate the Catholic definition of relics.

A scholar pointed out that the few Bible texts that Catholic apologists have cobbled together “have to be so grossly isolated, so completely removed from any meaningful context, so as to provide automatic refutation upon the most basic contemplation.”

For example, they cite 2 Kings 13:21

Once while the Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.

This passage shows that the people didn’t believe the bones of Elisha had any power whatsoever; they dumped the man’s body on the bones because they sighted their Moabite enemies approaching. It was a one-time miracle by the power of God.

God sovereignly used Elisha’s bones as a vehicle of raising the dead, just as He used ravens to feed Elijah (1Kings 17:6) and a fish to swallow Jonah (Jon. 1:17). There was nothing “magical” about the ravens or fishes.

Notably, this was the only instance where Elisha’s bones worked a miracle, and the Israelites didn’t venerate his bones – even in their days of apostasy.

Let Catholics today throw their corpses on the bones of Padre Pio or Fr. Michael Tansi and let’s watch their dead rise.

Other passages cited are the instances where people touched the cloak of Jesus (Mt. 14:35-36); Peter’s shadow healing the sick and handkerchiefs or aprons from Paul which healed people (Acts 5:15, 19:12).

These aren’t relics since Jesus and the apostles were not dead before these miracles occurred and nowhere in Scripture did Christians venerate these materials.

This is where the “Christian” mask of Catholicism falls off to reveal a sinister side. It’s hard to spin the pictures of people bowing in front of corpses and skulls, blood or hearts of “saints,” lighting candles and fingering rosaries.

Even if you know little of the Bible, such scenarios (especially in Catholic dominated countries) are enough for you to start questioning this religious system.

Some relics, like the Shroud of Turin, the alleged crib of Jesus exhibited on Christmas day or the cup allegedly used at the last supper (“the Holy Grail”) come with sensational thrills; others are just plain outrageous.

For example, several Catholic churches have claimed to have Mary’s hair (some red, some brown, some blonde, some black!); the bottle of milk on which Jesus was suckled; Mary’s skirts; Joseph’s carpenter tools; Jesus’ crown of thorns; the water pots from which water turned to wine, and even Jesus’ foreskin allegedly discovered by the monks of Charroux who claimed it yielded drops of blood.

Interestingly, Catholic churches in Coulombs (France) and St. John’s in Rome have also claimed to have Jesus’ foreskin in their possession! (John Wilder, The Other Side of Rome, 1959, Grand Rapids, p. 54).

Some relics seem to be for people far removed from the world of reality e.g a relic of a piece of broiled fish Peter offered Jesus at the Last Supper which John Calvin (1509-64) sarcastically referenced, that such a fish “must have been wondrously well salted, if it has been kept for such a long series of ages.”

The shrine of the Holy House of Loretto in Italy is a case in point. This building is alleged to be the very house the virgin Mary lived in Jerusalem. So how did it get to Italy? The Catholic Encyclopedia (13:454) explains:

Angels conveyed this House from Palestine to the town Tersato in Illyria in the year of salvation 1291 … Three years later, at the beginning of the pontificate of Boniface VIII, it was carried again by the ministry of angels and placed in a wood … where, having changed its station thrice in the course of a year, at length, by the will of God it took up its permanent position on this spot…”

Perhaps in the next five decades, these “angels” would also transport this shrine to Mexico.

The relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified were so scattered all over Europe at a time that Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote that one could build an entire ship out of all of the “genuine fragments of the cross.”

Yet, the cross of Christ was carried by a single individual. Are we to believe that single cross multiplied into millions?

St. Paulinus actually admitted that the cross “never grew smaller in size, no matter how many pieces were detached from it” (Cath. Ency. 4:524). You see, once you veer out of truth, there is no limit to your delusion.

The Israelites fell into this same trap. God had earlier instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent as a vehicle of healing those bitten by venomous serpents (Num. 21:9).

This foreshadowed the work of Christ on the cross to undo the deed of the serpent (Jn. 3:14-15). But many years after the bronze serpent has fulfilled its purpose, the apostate Jews still kept it with them for veneration. This made it an abominable object before God and it was finally destroyed by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4).

The origins of relics can be traced to ancient paganism. The Catholic Encyclopedia rightly admits that the use of “some objects notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint” was in existence “before the propagation of Christianity” and “the veneration of relics, in fact, is to some extent a primitive instinct associated with many other religious systems besides that of Christianity” (12: 734).

This use or veneration of relics dates back to the same false worship that God denounced all through His Word. Many of these pagan cults have certain sites regarded as “holy” because a portion of their god is said to be buried there.

In Hindu myths, Shiva was said to have carried the corpse of his wife, Sati “around the world on his shoulder until the other gods, to put an end to his mourning, dismembered the corpse. The spot where each pieces of her body fell to the ground became sacred places of pilgrimage called pithas.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Vol. VIII, 913).

Ancient Egypt “was covered with sepulchres of its martyred god: and many a leg and arm and skull, all vouched to be genuine, were exhibited in the rival burying places for the adoration of the Egyptian faithful.” (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, Loizeaux Brothers, 1959, 179).

It must have been due to this exposure to Egyptian paganism that God didn’t disclose to the Israelites where He buried Moses. If apostate Israel could worship an object Moses had made, how much more his bones if they had them!

The New Catholic Encyclopedia (XII, 234-5) says:

It is thus in vain to seek a justification for the cult of relics in the Old Testament; nor is there much attention paid to relics in the New Testament … [The church “father”] Origen seems to have regarded the practice as a pagan sign of respect.

Apart from the pagan roots of relics, there is also a business side to it. The Catholic church generates much money from relics and pilgrimages. For centuries, bone business was big business.

In 750 A.D., it was recorded that long lines of wagons constantly came to Rome bringing immense quantities of skulls and skeletons which were sorted, labelled, and sold by the popes.

A marble slab at the Church of St. Prassade states that in 817, Pope Pascal had the bodies of 2,300 martyrs transferred from the cemeteries to this church (H. B. Cotterhill, Medieval Italy, 1915, 71, 391).

Just as in the occult, bone relics are also used to “consecrate” Catholic altars or church buildings. The castle church of Wittenberg where Luther nailed his 95 theses had 19,000 saintly relics!

The Council of Trent declares that venerating the bodies of dead “martyrs” is compulsory for Catholics because through them, “many benefits are bestowed by God on men.”

In Bible Christianity, however, there is no place for blessings funnelled through dead bones and rotten flesh because Jesus has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). The Gospel offers life to all who accept it by faith.

True worship is “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). We don’t need a physical object in order to relate with God. The inconsistencies, idolatry and deceptions that relics are based on evince neither godliness nor truth.

Contrasting Biblical and Catholic Sainthood

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On April 27 2014, the world watched in awe as 800,000 people, 6000 Priests, 700 Bishops, 150 Cardinals, 24 Heads of State and two live Popes gathered in the Vatican to make two dead popes into “saints.”

A thunderous applause erupted with the declaration:

We declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.

According to Catholic belief, the saints are those who died and are now with Christ in heaven as intercessors, and have been given recognition by the Church for outstanding holiness and virtue.

But according to the Bible, the word saints (Greek: hagios) means “consecrated to God or holy” and it refers to all true Christians – even those who sadly lack spiritual maturity.

The epistles were addressed “to the saints which are at Ephesus” (Eph. 1:1), “to all the saints in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:1), “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ” (Col. 1:2). These were all living people.

The Catholic process of making someone a saint usually takes decades and sometimes centuries, in order to certify their merit.

There are exceptions, though, like in the case of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer (the founder of Opus Dei), it took 27 years to make him a saint after his death. Some of the criteria used are:

1. There must be verification of two miracles experienced by persons who prayed to the dead candidate.

John Paul II met with this criterion but John XXIII didn’t, but Pope Francis waived the requirement aside and accepted one miracle instead.

2. Incorruptibilty – If the body of the candidate is free from decay after it’s exhumed from the grave. St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) was said to have remained undecayed for 600 years!

3. Liquefaction – If the dried blood of the wannabe saint liquefies on a feast day. This is said to occur to the blood of St. Januarius (patron of Naples) every September 19, his feast day.

4. Odour of Sanctity – If the candidate’s body allegedly exudes a sweet aroma like roses, rather than putrid smell. Catholics claim that the grave of St. Teresa of Avila exuded a sweet fragrance for 9 months after her death.

5. An inquiry into the person’s life, conduct and writings.

Isn’t it curious that the same John Paul II who venerated the Quran; fellowshiped with snake charmers and occult animists; embraced evolution; rejected salvation through Christ alone and protected thousands of paedophile priests passed the Catholic “saint quality control” system? Very convenient.

In Scripture, the word “saints” was applied to believers on earth who were not outstanding people like Peter or Paul.

Acts 9:32 “Peter visited one place after another and eventually came to the saints living down in Lydda

Acts 9:41 “Peter helped her to her feet, then called in the saints and widows...”

1 Cor. 1:2 “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints

2 Cor. 13:12 “Greet one another … all the saints send you greetings”

Biblically, all one has to do to become a saint is to repent and believe the gospel. A person may be declared a “saint” on earth by some men in robes, but if he rejected the gospel that saves or died in his sins, he is in Hell. It matters not whether his blood is liquefied or his corpse smells like Blue de Chanel.

Catholics pray to and revere their “saints”, but in the Bible, saints revere and pray to God. The very old tired Catholic excuse is: “Just as you ask your fellow Christians to pray for you, we are asking them to pray for us.” This is a faulty argument.

First of all, the dead have passed from this world and are dead to us. If we desire the prayers of the saints, we seek the living. God specifically condemns communion with the dead (Deut. 18:10-11).

Any form of communication with the spirits of the dead is spiritism and an abomination before God.

We don’t light candles to our fellow Christians, or bow before their pictures or pray to them to protect and guide us as Catholics do to their saints, so the inter-Christian prayer parallelism falls flat.

Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967, 11:670) admits:

Usually in the N[ew] T[estament]; all prayer, private as well as public liturgical prayer is addressed to God the Father through Christ.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia also says that the main objections against prayers to saints is “that these doctrines are opposed to the faith and trust we must have in God alone … and that they cannot be proved from the Scriptures” (Vol. 8, p. 70). We heartily agree with these objections.

The Lord Jesus taught us to pray as thus “Our Father in heaven” that is, our prayers are to be addressed to God the Father in heaven.

He also taught us that “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Matt. 6:9, Jn. 14:14). Since only God can do and know all things, only He can answer prayer.

Saints in heaven are not omnipotent or omniscient, so how can they protect or hear the prayers of millions of Catholics from all around the world, in different languages at the same time? It’s simply impossible.

Catholicism also places much emphasis on saint relics. These could be body parts, items or clothing used by the saints. These are kept in ornate boxes (called reliquaries) and are displayed for veneration. No Catholic altar is complete without a relic.

Catholic relics too have their grades:
a) Bones/blood of saints are “first class relics”.
b) Items they used are “second class”
c) Objects they touched are “third class” (John Paul II’s bloody shirt worn when shot by an assassin and bits of John XXIII’s skin taken from his cadaver were kept).

Indeed, Catholicism’s sainthood is unbiblical, man-made, idolatrous and superstitious. True Christianity is based on a relationship with a Living Saviour, not with human skulls, rotten flesh or rags.

The only man in Scripture who ever prayed to a dead “saint” was a man who was already in Hell, and his prayer wasn’t even answered! (see Luke 16). Yes, sometimes, such “prayers” do receive answers, but the entities answering prayers to dead “saints” are enemies of God.