The Dictionary 

Merriam-Webster Paradise Lost
Objectivity Euhemerus
Dialogue of the Deaf Liar, Liar


Some people have wondrous faith in the power of a dictionary. The Jehovah's Witnesses, I am told, recommend to inquirers the definition of the word 'god' provided by Merriam-Webster:

  • “god noun \'gäd also 'gȯd\

    “Definition of GOD
  • “1 capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality: as
    a : the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe
    b : Christian Science : the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit : infinite Mind
  • “2: a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically : one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality
  • “3: a person or thing of supreme value
  • “4: a powerful ruler

  • “Examples of GOD
  • “Does she believe in God?
  • “I pray to God that no one was seriously injured in the accident.
  • “the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt
  • “a myth about the god of war
  • “an offering for the gods
  • “a professor who was regarded as a kind of god
  • “a guitar god like Jimi Hendrix

  • “Origin of GOD
    Middle English, from Old English; akin to Old High German got god
    First Known Use: before 12th century
  • “Related to GOD
    Synonyms: divinity, deity

  • “Other Mythology and Folklore Terms
    elysian, fay, muse, nimbus, phoenix”

  • (Merriam-Webster Online).

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, Lionel Royer

Let us examine how well these examples and instances fit in with the Bible. For instance, Merriam-Webster helpfully offers, "the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt." Well, what about them? Are they really gods, according to the Bible? Jeremiah warns about Nebuchadnezzar's upcoming barbecue:

"And say unto them, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will send and take Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will set his throne upon these stones that I have hid; and he shall spread his royal pavilion over them. And when he cometh, he shall smite the land of Egypt, and deliver such as are for death to death; and such as are for captivity to captivity; and such as are for the sword to the sword. And I will kindle a fire in the houses of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them, and carry them away captives: and he shall array himself with the land of Egypt, as a shepherd putteth on his garment; and he shall go forth from thence in peace. He shall break also the images of Bethshemesh, that is in the land of Egypt; and the houses of the gods of the Egyptians shall he burn with fire." (Jeremiah 43:10-13).

If these 'other gods' are what the Jehovah's Witnesses say they are: mighty, powerful, resplendent spiritual beings,— then why are they subject to fire damage? Perhaps they are not even insurable. One is tempted to classify them as 'idols,' as indeed does the Bible: "For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the LORD made the heavens." (Psalm 96:5).


Paradise Lost

People familiar with the coy modern Jehovah's Witnesses might be surprised to hear the way they used to lay it on the line, about their "many gods:" “Gods such as Zeus and Hermes were worshiped in the days of Jesus' apostles. So the Bible agrees that 'there are many "gods"'...” (p. 34, You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1982). Zeus and Hermes? Where on earth does this come from? Could it be from John Milton's epic English poem, 'Paradise Lost.' This work presents an amalgam of pagan with Christian theology; the pagan gods are fallen angels to whom the high god assigned the governance of the world, but they fell short of expectations. The cosmology which underlies Charles Taze Russell's pantheon of lesser gods under the sovereignty of the greater god 'Jehovah' was familiar to generations of American schoolchildren who read John Milton's poetry in school. This cosmology combines two great streams into one: classical paganism, revived during the European Renaissance, and monotheistic Christianity. A naive reader might object, those two things don't go together!

Observe how it's done: the book of Revelation speaks of a pre-mundane fall of one third of the angels: "And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born." (Revelation 12:4). Though this event is not explicitly described as pre-mundane, or prior to the creation of the world, proponents of this theory often situate it in the 'gap' they perceive opening up within the first few verses of the book of Genesis. What we hear further, in the Bible, about these fallen angels, is that they are in prison: "And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." (Jude 1:6).

So how did the fallen angels come to be identified as the gods and goddesses populating the pagan pantheon? We know that God created all things good. We meet in the New Testament with fallen, malignant spiritual creatures, demons, who delight in making people's lives miserable. We know God did not create them in their present ugly, deformed state. What were they before, and how did they fall? The prophets thundered denunciations against two god-kings, the king of Babylon and the prince of Tyre. Both of these men informed their subject population that they were gods, as was common in the ancient Near East. Their parallel denunciations both start out at the human level, but thereafter they ascend, or rather descend, to the spiritual director standing behind this self-deified ruler. Isaiah begins by denouncing a man, the king of Babylon, as instructed: "That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!" (Isaiah 14:4). But who is he denouncing now?:

  • “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”

  • (Isaiah 14:12-15).

Some readers can't see any change of focus from the near to the distant, they think he is still talking to the all-too-human king of Babylon who claimed to be a god though he was not. However, I think the syncretists are on to something legitimate here, and also in their other key proof-text:

  • “Son of man, take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty.
    Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created.
    Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.
  • “Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee. . .Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee. . .All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.”

  • (Ezekiel 28:12-19).

Again, the passage begins with the denunciation of a man who is no more than a man—indeed he is condemned because, being a man, he makes himself god, not for being an exalted spiritual creature who makes himself god: "Because thine heart is lifted up, and thou hast said, I am a God, I sit in the seat of God, in the midst of the seas; yet thou art a man, and not God, though thou set thine heart as the heart of God . . .They shall bring thee down to the pit, and thou shalt die the deaths of them that are slain in the midst of the seas." (Ezekiel 28:1-8). But by the time we get to the 'covering cherub,' we seem to have moved on from there. However, even realizing that Satan was an exalted, beautiful creature who fell into evil, how can this serve to rehabilitate the pagan pantheons? We must keep moving. . .

On to the demons. Paul informed the Gentiles their gods were in the final analysis nothing but demons:

"But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils [daimons], and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils." (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).

How would pagan readers have responded to hear this demotion of their adored deities? Modern readers are prone to read Paul's words as a neutral statement of taxonomy: what kind of thing are the pagan gods? They are daimons. This is how it is read by many modern readers, but ancient pagan readers would have been indignant. In their celestial hierarchy, demons were far lower than gods. Paul is pushing their objects of veneration down the ladder, even in pagan terms, much less in Christian terms. In condemning these beings whose fraudulent imposture kept the whole pagan religious system humming, the Christians consigned the demon-gods to a shrinking island disappearing beneath the flood of Christian moralism. The moral worth Christianity was willing to allot to these beings is minimal. Those who were worshipping the beautiful, powerful being Athena did not think, in bending to hear her whispers to her acolytes, they were breathing in the foul, unclean breath of evil demons. In other words, Paul is telling his pagan readers, if any there be, that the gods they are worshipping are not anything like what they envision, they are altogether different. He is defining them out of existence.

However the guiding idea of the Renaissance synthesis of the two theological systems, the Christian with the pagan, is that they are already almost identical, because the demons are by nature just exactly what the pagans thought 'gods' were. The pagans did not mistake their objects of worship: these beings were exactly as the pagans thought they were. The pagan system requires only a bit of tweaking at the top, merely to elevate the status of 'Jehovah' above that of the subordinate gods, to a greater extent than the pagans already understood 'Zeus' to be on high. We learn in the Bible that angels are creatures of great beauty, might and power: "Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word." (Psalm 103:20). Where, in the Bible, do we ever learn that demons are anything like this? We do not. The chasm over which we wish to travel can only be traversed on pagan highways. We can learn from the Iliad that the pagan gods are mighty, we can learn this from the Aeneid, but we can never learn this from the Bible. The Bible stresses over and over the nullity of the pagan gods, not their power and sublimity:

"Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods: yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed, and behold it together. Behold, ye are of nothing, and your work of nought: an abomination is he that chooseth you." (Isaiah 41:23-24).

At this there is a parting of the ways: some can go on with Charles Taze Russell and John Milton, melding the two systems together because there is much they treasure in both, others cannot. The connective tissue binding this system together must come in from paganism, it can come from nowhere else. Someone reading the Bible says, 'these angels, mighty in strength, sound just like gods!' Well, they sound like the pagan gods as described where? In pagan literature,—not in the Bible. The triple equation demanded by this composite system: demons=fallen angels=pagan gods, is a leap across an abyss. The fact that, for many years, little American school-children were taught a poem built upon this framework, is one of those unaccountable oddities of life, not a datum of theology.



We expect the people who compile dictionaries to be objective, or at least to try to be. Ambrose Bierce got a few cheap laughs by dropping the pose of Olympian objectivity people expect in dictionaries, and offering fiercely partisan and opinionated definitions like,

"Absurdity, n.: A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion. "
(Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)

It is really as it should be that Merriam-Webster does not take sides in the age-old squabble between monotheists and polytheists; they are there for both. Their definition must satisfy those who want to hear "a myth about the god of war," and it does. The Bible, on the other hand, is a fiercely partisan book. It is downright one-sided on this issue. Myths about the god of war are made-up stories about no gods: "Shall a man make gods unto himself, and they are no gods?" (Jeremiah 16:20).



Euhemerus championed the idea in the ancient world that the pagan gods had originally been men, later deified for their contributions to civilization. There would seem to be a kernel of truth in this conception: somehow the thunder-maker got mixed up with an old king of Crete, so that biographical details of this latter person attached themselves to the meteorological phenomenon. One might think Euhemerus was a skeptic attacking traditional pagan religion, yet the reality is more complex. Just as someone like Marcus Borg can forge a new bad religion out of the discarded and wrecked bits and pieces of Christianity left behind by the 'Jesus Seminar,' some people found opportunity in Euhemerus' religious reform. It was the best thing ever to happen to tyrants who desired to deify themselves, as tyrants like to do. There is however a warning for such men in the Bible, who might end up eating grass alongside the beasts in the field. God does not approve:

There is already a substantial amount of demythologizing going on with Merriam-Webster's fourth definition, 'a powerful ruler.' The tyrant who said, 'I am God,' did not mean to state the obvious, 'I am a powerful ruler,' but rather to add a layer of awe and mystery to that quotidian reality. The lexicographer does not buy it, and neither do I, but the speaker does not intend to say no more than 'I am a powerful ruler.' I do not for my own part believe that the prince of Tyre was anything more than a powerful ruler, as they say; he was no god, or no more of a 'god' than a man sufficiently powerful to stifle the erupting giggles of the crowd when he said 'I am a god,' but somehow the lexicographer's stopping mid-way between 'yes' and 'no' leaves us where we might be if he had abdicated and handed the wheel to his elder brother Flat.

In fact the pagan theology of apotheosis was always more complex than the stripped-down, telegraphed language of a 'powerful ruler.' The Romans were willing to consider a man to be a god, but acclaiming him as such might involve suborning the testimony of a homeless derelict living under the bridge (who was supposed to have seen him traversing the skies) and other complications.

Pumpkinification of

People mean different things when they talk about 'the gods.' Some people visualize the gods of old as psychological archetypes, still of value in plumbing the depths of the human psyche, though not actually resident in the skies. There are even acolytes of the present day who have revived the old usages, seeking aesthetic or psychological benefit: "These gods are 'not to be believed in or trusted, but to be used to give shape to an increasingly complex and variegated experience of life.'. . . Far from being merely a religious belief, polytheism, for Miller, is an attitude that allows one to affirm 'the radical plurality of the self.'" (Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler, p. 46). The thing is, the old-time believers did not perceive the entities to whom they were devoted to be aesthetic or psychological templates, but rather real beings, really flitting around up there. If you do not believe what the pagans believed, you are not reviving paganism, but inventing something new, or perhaps reviving something that dates back, not to antiquity, but to the European Renaissance: polytheism as play-acting, in costume.

How did the Romans under the emperors, who were willing to consider their own 'powerful rulers' as gods, view those 'powerful rulers' whom they had vanquished in battle, like the defeated Gaulish king Vercingetorix? There were not very magnanimous, as they might have been had they considered all 'powerful rulers' to be gods. Chivalry not yet having been invented, they paraded this poor man, defeated in a noble cause, through the streets in triumph prior to his execution. The Merriam-Webster lexicographers have simplified a complex reality, and dealt with it as would apologists determined to discredit and undermine the concept: 'Sure there was a lot of priestly flim-flam surrounding the idea of divine kingship, there always is, but when you get right down to it the only important thing is that these men were 'powerful rulers.' After all the Romans ultimately dispensed with the idea of witnesses reporting a guy flying through the sky; Caligula deified himself during his lifetime, and no one saw him ascend through the clouds.' They have deconstructed and demythologized the pagan concept, as indeed they would likely wish to do also to Christian conceptions.


Dialogue of the Deaf

Sometimes theological disputes are really arguments about the meaning of words. To conclude that the lexicographers are masters over the disputatious theologians is however in error. To some extent pagans and monotheists are talking about different things when they say 'god,' as our definitions above demonstrate. The pagans do not mean 'Supreme Being' when they enumerate their legions of deities,— almost by definition, there can be only one of those,— and the monotheists do not mean "a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers" when they say 'Jehovah is God;' there might be additional beings or objects believed to have more than natural attributes and powers. So why all the controversy, if polytheists and monotheists are after all simply talking about different things? Why make polytheism a death-penalty offense, as does the law of Moses:

"If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.  And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you." (Deuteronomy 13:6-11).

These entities are vying for the same 'shelf space' as the living God, which is why He counts them as rivals. Israel was espoused to the living God: "Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown." (Jeremiah 2:2). But she strayed, she took on other lovers: "Then said I unto her that was old in adulteries, Will they now commit whoredoms with her, and she with them?" (Ezekiel 23:43). It often strikes atheists, that God's rivals being very near to nullities, and certainly no gods, then God Himself must be similarly far down on the ontological ladder: a fiction, an illusion. But this does not follow. What is not necessarily helpful is to 'define' what the pagans were 'getting at' when they hymned their gods, when the Bible does not seek to understand but simply applies the death penalty. These 'persons or things of supreme value' blocked access to the living God; that they were small and of little account is less than no excuse.

Some dictionary-makers seem to think it is their mission to make all statements true. But not all statements are true. If I say, 'I can fly through the air,' they furrow their brows and offer, 'If we redefine "fly through the air" to mean "walk rapidly," then this could be true.' But 'fly through the air' does not mean 'walk rapidly.'


Liar, Liar

In a 'power play' familiar to modern readers, the lexicographers have staged a putsch to establish their science as the Queen of Sciences, reigning over and above such past contenders as theology and philosophy.

Swami Prahlad Jani

Readers of the 'Jesus Seminar' genre of literature are very familiar with this tendency. The argument runs like so: ancient literature, pagan and monotheist, makes claims modern readers find extravagant. Since these claims are so extravagant, probably no one making these claims ever expected them to be believed; rather, this is a 'literary device.' This is a 'scorched earth' strategy, which leaves the abandoned claims of the pagans, which everyone discounts, in ruins, but alongside them leaves also the scorched and blasted ruins of Christianity, because we 'discover' by this means that the resurrection was a 'literary device,' as was the virgin birth, etc.

A good check on this methodology is to look at contemporary pagan societies such as India. Do the 'holy men' who make extravagant claims intend these claims as no more than 'literary devices,' or do they expect to be believed? There is a man who claims he has neither eaten nor drunk in more than seventy years:

"Prahlad Jani is being held in isolation in a hospital in Ahmedabad, Gurjarat, where he is being closely monitored by India's defence research organization, who believe he may have a genuine quality which could help save lives. . .Mr. Jani, who claims to have left home aged seven and lived as a wandering sadhu or holy man in Rajasthan, is regarded as a 'breatharian' who can live on a 'spiritual life-force' alone. . . His claims have been supported by an Indian doctor who specializes in studies of people who claim supernatural abilities, but he has also been dismissed by others as a "village fraud."" (The Telegraph, Man claims to have had no food or drink for 70 years: Indian military scientists are studying an 82-year-old who claims he has not had any food or drink for 70 years, by Dean Nelson in New Delhi, 11:02PM BST 28 Apr 2010.)

My 'first take' on this man is to say, like the kids do, 'Liar, liar, pants on fire.' The Indian military may aspire to leap-frog beyond rival military organizations by unlocking this man's ability to survive on sunshine and air, thus making it possible to sustain an army in the field on pennies a day. However they might enhance their effectiveness as a deterrent force if they refrained from this type of research. Whatever one suspects about this man's personal character, his defenders are fully convinced and do believe very strongly that he never eats. It is they who are challenging the skeptics to test his claims. They regard his claims as fully falsifiable in principle; if the man were seen on a security video scarfing down Doritos in the check-out line at the Seven-Eleven, then their world would come crashing down. They would turn on him and denounce him. So would the ancient pagans had they found the hidden tubes leading from their cult statue down to the little man in the basement who 'spoke' through the god. Archaeologists are very familiar with the blatant fraud and outrageous imposture that enveloped ancient paganism like a cloud. Is it likely ancient paganism's modern Hindu cousin operates on altogether different principles? If people of the time accepted these untruths, then why did they have to be hidden?

Reportedly a goddess instructed him to follow his current diet: "Prahlad Jani is a local of Ahmedabad, India, who claims that at the age of 11, the Hindu goddess Amba appeared to him and told him that he would no longer have to eat food. He has apparently lived in a cave since the 1970s, and claims not to have eaten anything for most of his 81 years (as of 2012)." (recovered from This is called, by those who believe in it, 'breatharianism.' One sincerely hopes 'breatharianism' is not redefined and reinvented by the lexicographers as, 'eating very little, because, as everyone knows, it is impossible to eat nothing.' The intended meaning seems to be, 'eating nothing,' or as practitioners put it, "sustaining oneself without the need for food." However, that claim is not credible. The lexicographers should not feel any burden to make it credible; that is not their job.

What greater cultural arrogance than to say, 'This man's claims are so absurd that, not only do we not believe them, but even his champions do not believe them!' This version of 'tolerance' and 'understanding' plows the third world village into the ground beneath our weighty and onrushing tank treads. It not only negates the claims, but does so with such vigor as to transfer them from the category 'claims about the world' to the category 'fiction.' Not only do they say 'this is untrue,' they deny that anyone could possibly ever have said or thought, 'this is true.' What arrogance! It is thus unhelpful for lexicographers to define down god-claims to the point where these claims become a very small, easily over-leapt hurdle: the pagans, when they say 'Nebuchadnezzar is god,' only mean to say 'he is a powerful ruler,' etc. It is ultimately intolerant. Better to say, 'These claims are false—this man who lives on sunshine is eating when you are not looking,' than to say, 'This is a literary device, he does not mean by 'food' what you mean by 'food' nor by 'eating' what you mean by 'eating.'' That is disrespectful and unfair: how can his champions ever defend themselves against such a way of 'understanding' their claims?

Humanity has richly earned its bad reputation, as the Bible underscores: "I said in my haste, All men are liars." (Psalm 116:11). When did the lexicographers decide it was up to them to save us from ourselves? It may be that some untruths can be rectified by dumbing down the meaning of the words used: 'He says he has not eaten in 70 years. But he only means his life does not revolve around food; of course he has eaten.' But it is not up to the lexicographers to salvage our tattered reputation for truthfulness. What if, contrary to all expectation, his claims are actually true? Certainly this man's defenders think so, and they deserve the respect of a denial, not a condescending pat on the head such as would embarrass a kindergartner.