Nightmare on Main Street

Romans 1:21-23

February 9, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

There is a remarkable resemblance between the world described in Romans 1 and the world we live in at the end of the 20th century. Despite our proud claims of technological advance, just how much progress have we really made? It can be fairly argued that morally we have made very little progress at all. The same sins condemned in Romans 1 are routinely committed today. More than that, those same sins are protected by law, and even celebrated in certain quarters.

A few years ago a man named Jacob Bronowski produced a magnificent documentary on the history of the human race entitled The Ascent of Man. Although it was a notable achievement, the title tells you the whole story: Man ascends from the primordial ooze by means of evolution. Thus does modern man assess his place in the cosmos. Man looks in the mirror and says, “You’ve come a long way, Baby!”

Confessions of a Gutter Snipe

This week a few dissenting voices were heard. In Indianapolis, Mike Tyson took the stand to testify in his own defense. Using what is called the “creep” defense, his lawyers basically argued that Mike Tyson had been so gross in his words and actions that any normal person would have known what he wanted when he got that 18-year-old girl to go to his hotel room. By Tyson’s own testimony, he behaved in a disgusting manner. He said in effect, “You knew I was a gutter snipe when you got in my limousine.”

In Milwaukee the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer grinds toward a grisly conclusion. This week more sordid, sickening details came out about Dahmer’s cannibalism. Clearly the defense is using the “gross out” theory, in which you spell out the horrific details so that the jury can only conclude, “No sane person could do something like this.” Will it work? Who knows? I would point out, however, that the Bible itself contains the record of people who did things every bit as bad as what Jeffrey Dahmer did. Cannibalism is awful, but it is not new.

Verily, Romans 1 has come true before our eyes. For years the media gods, the sociologists and the psychologists have been telling us that “anything goes,” that there are no absolute limits on human behavior, that no one has the right to tell anyone else how to live. We have lived as if there were no rules, and as a result we see Baptist ministers rallying to defend Mike Tyson.

Five Steps to Idolatry

How did we get here? How did we slide from where we were to where we are now? How did we get from “One nation under God” to handing out condoms in the public schools? Is there a discernible pattern at work? The answer to the last question is Yes. There is a discernible pattern at work in our culture, a pattern Paul lays out in Romans 1:21-23. It tells us what always happens when men turn away from God. These three verses spell out the Five Fatal Steps that lead from the knowledge of God to outright idolatry.

The Descent of Man

This study picks up precisely where our last study ended. Paul has already said that mankind has the knowledge of God made clear in the conscience and in creation. Something about God “gets through” to every person. But if that’s true, how do you explain homosexuality, abortion, the worship of sex, the worship of money, and the deification of material success?

Paul answers that question in a way that modern scholars will not fully appreciate. Go to any major university, to the Department of Comparative Religion. Take any course you like. The professor will almost certainly deliver learned lectures on the various great world religions, comparing and contrasting their strengths and weaknesses. Paul wants no part of that! For him, the history of world religions is the history of the Descent of Man. It is the story of how man lost the knowledge of God he had in the beginning, of how he turned to idols of his own making. It is, in short, the story of how we got to be in the mess we’re in today.

There are five fatal steps that men take when they decide to turn away from the living and true God. Each step takes him farther and farther away from the truth he once knew. Each step plunges him deeper and deeper into the pit of idolatry. Each step, whether taken consciously or (more likely) unconsciously, leads him toward personal destruction.

Step # 1: Practical Indifference to Known Truth.

Paul begins by saying, “For although they knew God.” It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this statement as the basic beginning point for assessing the condition of the human race. Who is the “they” who once knew God? In this context it refers to the same people who are said to be under the wrath of God in verse 18. And who is that? The people in verses 19-20 who saw the clear revelation of God in nature. Who are we talking about? All these verses refer to the entire human race. No one is truly ignorant of the truth about God! Everyone knows something.

We know, you know, I know, the man down the street knows, your boss knows, your uncle knows, your sister knows, your best friend knows. Everyone knows something about God! Paul says that everyone knows something about God from the testimony of creation and the testimony of conscience.

But that’s not the whole story. Not only do all men know something about God, but left to himself, every person suppresses the truth he knows! He slides down the path from the knowledge of God toward outright idolatry.

That means the problem with the human race is not a lack of knowledge. The deeper problem is ignoring the knowledge we already have. Truth always demands a response. No one can be neutral in the spiritual arena.

Two Critical Mistakes

Paul goes on to spell out what happens when we become indifferent to spiritual truth:

We refuse to glorify God.

We refuse to give thanks to God.

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.” At this point it is helpful to recall Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Truth demands a response, and the truth about God demands that we the creatures glorify him as the great Creator. When we don’t, we fail in the great purpose for which we were created.

It didn’t start with us. It started in the dim mists of the earliest days of the human race when Adam and Eve willfully rebelled against God. They should have glorified God by obeying him, but they didn’t. That was and is the chief sin of the human race. From Eden to Oak Park a bent toward disobedience has entered our spiritual genetic code.

Let us mark the lesson clearly: When men turn away from God, they always go downward! And that fact, as much as anything else, explains our current spiritual crisis in America. We as a nation have turned away from God. That’s why you can hardly mention God’s name in a public school. That’s why the Bible has virtually been removed from public life. That’s why the establishment finds it hard to take seriously people who believe in God. That’s why religion has become a purely “private” affair.

But when God is removed from Main Street, nothing but a nightmare remains.

Step # 2: Fuzzy Thinking About Ultimate Issues.

If the first step might be summed up in the word “neglect,” the second step might be called “speculation.” As men become indifferent to known truth, they begin to actively search for alternative explanations. Paul draws a vivid picture of the result: “Their thinking became futile.” This refers to the mental processes of those who turned away from God. Their thinking—that is, their ability to look at the world around them and to draw accurate conclusions about it—became futile. Goodspeed says they were given over to “futile speculation.”

It’s a strange picture of men who, having rejected the truth, desperately search for anything to replace it. They flit from idea to idea, from hypothesis to hypothesis, from theory to theory, frantically looking for a unifying world view. These are men who could not stop thinking about God, but the more they thought, the more wrong their conclusions became. They couldn’t stop thinking and they couldn’t get it right.

Why Do Evolutionists Get Mad?

At this point it is hard not to think of the modern evolutionist, who having rejected creation out of hand, searches hither and yon for some satisfying alternative. Perhaps it is “natural selection.” Perhaps it will be “positive mutations.” Perhaps it is “hopeful monsters.” Who knows? Perhaps the answer is out there among the vast reaches of interstellar space. Or maybe the “missing link” is Lucy, the mythical woman of East Africa from whom the entire human race is supposedly descended. If Carl Sagan will just keep talking, maybe evolution will begin to make sense. Or then again, maybe not.

At this point I am reminded of what one of my theology professors, Dr. Robert Lightner, used to say. “Don’t get mad at the evolutionists. They’re doing the best they can.” He’s right. Evolution is the best you can do once you turn away from God.

Last Sunday night some of our teenagers were talking with me about a friend at school who gets mad whenever they challenge his evolutionary thinking. He doesn’t just get mad, he gets unreasonably angry to the point that it’s difficult to talk rationally with him. But why should that surprise us? That’s exactly the point Paul is making. Evolution is a straw men grasp at because they have turned away from God. Unless God opens their eyes, they will forever be unable to see any alternative. My advice was simple: Pray for your friend. Talk to him. But don’t get mad. He’s doing the best he can.

The New World Order

Step # 2 follows immediately after Step # 1. Once you neglect the truth you know, your thinking quickly becomes confused. Little wonder that so many of the plans devised by modern man come to nothing. In our own century we have had Peace in Our Time, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, Peace With Honor, and now the New World Order. Although these plans are offered by honorable men, and although each promises to change the world as we know it, all have generally proved to be failures. This fact is inevitable whenever sinful men devise plans that leave God out of the equation.

Mark it down: Those who turn away from God in their hearts, soon leave him in their minds! As a result man’s natural capacity to reason accurately about reality is quickly and permanently harmed.

Step # 3: Inability to Distinguish Good From Evil

Now the order becomes even clearer. What starts with neglect leads to speculation which leads to moral blindness. Romans 1:21 says, “Their foolish hearts were darkened.” The heart is the center of the personality. It’s the place where moral choices are ultimately made.

So what happens when you turn away from God? First the mind becomes confused, then the heart is darkened so that you cannot see clearly to make good moral choices. To turn from the truth is to plunge yourself into moral darkness. Is it any wonder that people regularly make decisions that hurt themselves? When the head goes wrong, the heart soon follows. Fuzzy thinking leads to fuzzy living.

At the heart of every person, darkness has settled—a darkness that only the light of the gospel can penetrate. How else can you explain Mike Tyson and Jeffrey Dahmer? How else do you explain gang murders, crack cocaine, legalized abortion and crooked politicians? The world is dark because hearts are dark. The light of God’s truth has gone out; men now grope in darkness.

Step # 4: Self-Proclaimed Ability to Live Without God.

What happens next? “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” The key word is “fools.” The Greek literally means “morons.” Although they thought themselves wise, God called them morons. The tragedy is, they truly think that by rejecting God they have found the truth.

Note the progression: Neglect leads to speculation which leads to moral blindness which now climaxes with a total loss of God.

Here is the divine estimate of the great philosophers of Greece and Rome. In God’s eyes they were fools because their philosophy was based on a rejection of God’s truth. Dr. R. A. Torrey used to read verse 22 this way, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became philosophers? No, Foolosophers.” That’s what God thinks of the world’s intellectuals. Although possessing great intelligence, they are moral and spiritual pygmies.

Instead of choosing to serve God, modern man has made himself God and worshiped himself. Consider these words of Richard Greene, founder of the Mind Control Institute:

We’ve been making a transition in different levels of evolution. Evolution is going on all the time … We have mastered the evolution of the body now … (and) moved into the period of our evolution as humankind where we evolving mentally … Our purpose on earth is to make ourselves realize our godhood, that we have everything we need inside of us. (Quote in Word of Life, Winter 1992, pp. 12-13.)

God calls the man who said those words a fool. Although he may be brilliant, he’s a spiritual moron.

Have you ever ridden a see-saw? It works on a very simple principle: If one person is up, the other person must be down. Both people can’t be up at the same time. It’s the same in the spiritual realm. If God is up, then man is down. If man is up, then God is down. Both can’t be up at the same time. When God is up in his rightful place, man will be down in his rightful place. But when the roles are reversed reality itself is distorted.

Step # 5: Substituting the Visible in Place of the Invisible.

Now we reach the final step in man’s tragic turning away from God. The progression is clear:



Moral Blindness

Loss of God


In verse 23 Paul paints a startling picture: “And exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” What has happened? Because man is incurably religious, if he will not worship God, he will find (or make) something to worship.

Man is so constituted that he must worship something. If he will not worship the true God, he will worship a false God, even if he has to manufacture it himself. (Warren Wiersbe, Romans, p. 23.)

We now reach the final stage. Note the progression within this verse. When man turns away from God, he creates an “image” to worship. First there are images that look human, then the images themselves begin to

degrade into images of birds, then four-footed animals and finally images of snakes and snails and bugs. Interesting. When man turns from God, he begins by worshiping himself, but he doesn’t stay there. The course is always downward.

Don’t miss the point. When you turn away from God, you always turn to something else. No man lives in a vacuum. You either worship God or replace him with a god of your own making!

Paul uses an unusual word to drive this point home. He says men “exchange” the glory of God for man-made images. It’s what happens after Christmas when you decide you don’t like the angora sweater Aunt Elsie gave you. You take it back to the store and exchange it for a power drill (Or a Nintendo game, if you are under 12.) In the same way, men swap God for idols.

Looking Up to See the Frogs

Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum, and the same thing can be said of the human spirit. Man’s unwillingness to glorify and thank God in the way that he was created to function has left in his innermost being a great void, which cannot stay empty. Into this void has poured all manner of spiritual disease. (Stuart Briscoe, Romans, pp. 44-45.)

But how can intelligent people turn to idolatry? Easy. It happens all the time. It begins when people reject what they know about God. There are only five short steps from God to idols. People make the journey without even knowing what they’re doing.

Idolatry slanders God, because it cheapens our view of who God is. It also degrades those who practice it, because you tend to become like the God you worship. Here is ultimate irony: Man who thought to surpass God by ridding himself of the Almighty now falls below the level of the bugs and reptiles. He has to look up to see the frogs.

Modern Idols

Our real problem is that we think none of this applies to us. We don’t worship idols, do we? Before you answer that question, consider that the key word of verse 22 is “image.” When man turns from God, he creates “images” named after birds, animals and reptiles. Those “images” become idols. And what are idols but images that represent our view of ultimate reality? An idol is anything to which we look in order to get our sense of meaning and value in life. In that sense, many things that are good in themselves may become “idols” when we look to them for ultimate meaning and value.

Stuart Briscoe offers this helpful—and challenging—analysis:

The root of the problem is in man’s utterly arrogant preoccupation with himself. Tourists from all over the world have viewed the wonders of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt without realizing that much of the magnificence was man’s tribute to himself and an insult to God. We should never forget that many of the statues that grace our museums, pleasing our aesthetic senses and sparking our curiosity, provoke God to wrath. Neither should we overlook the fact that ancient idolatry is alive and well in the modern world. The article on “Idolatry” in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible lists some of the better known gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon: Ishtar, goddess of love; Nabu, the patron of science and learning; Nergal, the god of war and hunting. Today we sit in Ishtar cinema, study in Nabu university, and yell our heads off at Nergal stadium—modern places and attitudes of worship. (Romans, p. 47)

What are our modern heroes but idols who represent ultimate values? Our children look to people like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Madonna because they represent what our children want to become. Heroes aren’t bad—in fact we need more positive heroes to look up to—but any hero can easily become an idol. What has Elvis Presley become if not an idol whose worship is centered at a cultic shrine in Memphis?

Let’s go one step farther. Is it just coincidence that we name our sports teams after animals? We have the Bears, the Bulls, the Lions, the Dolphins, the Huskies, the Rams and the Longhorns. Look at the cars we drive: The Mustang, the Cobra, the Cougar, the Lynx, the Rabbit, the Jaguar. And when we want to leave the driving to someone else, we board a Greyhound bus. It is significant that in the last few years we have named our vehicles after celestial objects: The Astro, the Lumina, the Taurus and the Sunbird.

If this sounds far-fetched, remember that an idol doesn’t have to be a physical image that you bow before. Idols are merely physical objects that become projections of our hopes, dreams and aspirations. As such, the physical objects may be harmless in themselves. They become idols when we invest them with our own version of ultimate meaning and value.

Four Final Conclusions

As we wrap up this study, let’s draw everything together in four final conclusions.

Left to himself, man will always move away from God.

The true judgment on the human race is that man has turned away from God and does not realize it.

Those who turn away from God find it is only a short journey from the knowledge of God to the worship of idols.

The first step away from God is the big one.

I’m sure we all say, “I would never turn to idols.” Don’t be so sure about that. It all begins with Step # 1: Practical indifference to known truth. All you have to do is neglect the things you know to be true. Here is a sentence worth pondering. The sin of neglecting that which is good leads eventually to the sin of committing that which is evil. Seen in that light, all of us are more in danger of idolatry than we would dare admit.

So what is your excuse for not worshiping God? What reason can you give for not glorifying him? What keeps you from being more thankful?

_____Too Busy

_____Too Tired

_____Nothing to be Thankful For

_____Secret Bitterness Toward God

Whatever your excuse, it isn’t good enough. It’s time to put first things first. Turn your heart back to God. If you delay, you may find yourself becoming an idol-worshiper without even knowing it.

There is a way out of idolatry, a way provided by Jesus Christ himself. What man-made religion cannot do, what the “images” of modern life cannot provide, what the heroes of the present day can never accomplish, Jesus Christ can do. Against the emptiness of idolatry in all its alluring forms stands the Son of God himself. Those who turn from the broken cisterns of man will find in Christ living water drawn from a well that shall never run dry.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?