What is a deity? Now, that’s a good question. But it’s not one with a simple answer. In fact, there are several answers that we can give.
If your educational background is anything like mine, then at some point in your schooling you learned the basics of Greek mythology. The colorful stories of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Poseidon, and the other gods worshiped in ancient Greece were some of my favorite things to read about. And while the Greeks eventually learned that no divine beings lived on Mount Olympus, the stories of the Greek gods became a core element of Western culture. This continues today, with movies, television shows, and even comic books retelling, adapting, and using these stories in various ways.
Though the Greek gods themselves are fictional, they fall under one of the definitions of the term deity. As Merriam-Webster tells us, one meaning of the word deity is “a god or goddess,” that is, a being who is worshiped—or in the case of the Greek gods, was worshiped—by people. (There are some modern pagans who would claim to worship the Greek gods or the gods of other mythologies, although the eclectic nature of modern paganism means that a lot of these worshipers do not necessarily believe these gods actually exist. In other words, it’s complicated.) Under this definition, a deity is usually a supernatural being, a being who belongs to a realm above or beyond what we normally experience with our five senses, though such deities, nevertheless, often interact with the world in which we live. A deity in this sense is also typically part of a pantheon of deities, other gods also worshiped by people, in a polytheistic religion—a religion that worships many gods. And each of these deities is typically associated with an element of nature. There will be a god or goddess of the sky, of the sea, of the harvest, of love, and so forth. Most ancient peoples practiced a polytheistic religion, and one can read about the gods of the ancient Egyptians, Celts, Norsemen, Romans, Babylonians, and various other groups. Polytheism also continues today in many cultures. Hinduism is arguably a polytheistic religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that many gods exist. Modern paganism often worships many gods, and various tribal religions around the world continue to worship many deities.
The label monotheistic deities might be a bit odd. After all, monotheism means “belief in one god.” Polytheistic faiths often believe that each nation or culture has its own set of gods, that these gods exist, and that no one group of these gods must be worshiped by all peoples (the Greeks worship the Greek gods, the Babylonians worship the Babylonian gods, the practitioner of one form of Wicca worships one set of Wiccan deities while a practitioner of a different form of Wicca worships another set of Wiccan gods, etc.). A monotheistic faith, however, believes that there is only one god, and most monotheistic faiths confess that this god must be worshiped by all people.
In this sense, we can use another definition of the word deity found in Merriam-Webster: the God, or the one Supreme Being. This is Deity with a capital “D.” The great monotheistic faiths of the world such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all claim that the God they worship is the only Deity, the one Supreme Being who created the universe and who alone is to be worshiped.
However, this section is titled Monotheistic Deities because while each of these faiths—and other varieties of monotheism—professes to worship the one and only God, the understanding of who God is differs greatly between them. Christians worship the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. Judaism and Islam do not worship the triune God. Islam worships the monadic deity Allah, whose final revelation came through Muhammad. Modern Judaism, which rejects Jesus as the Messiah, worships the monadic deity Yahweh.
In monotheism, worshiping the wrong deity is quite significant. Historically, Jews, Muslims, and Christians have all believed that if you do not worship the correct deity, you are cut off from salvation. Today, many people who profess any of these faiths will say that getting the identity of the one deity correct is not all that important, that sincerity of belief is enough even if one believes in the wrong god (to the extent that any of these claimants believe there is a wrong god). Any fair reading of history would indicate that such individuals are not following the beliefs of their religion’s founders, all of whom were quite insistent that worshiping the right deity is vital for salvation.
Other Meanings of Deity
There are other ways deity is used. Popularly, sometimes mortals who are highly revered or respected for their goodness or power can be called “deities.” Thus, we might refer to “the deities of the banking world” as Merriam-Webster does in order to describe certain key leaders and influencers in the banking industry. Deity can also refer to the rank of godhood or the essence of a god. Just as humans possess a human nature, God or gods possess a divine nature or deity.
Finding the Right Deity
Having said all this, the most important issue is whether any deity actually exists and, if so, which one is it? Although space prevents me from giving all the reasons why, the evidence is that the triune God of Christianity is the only deity who exists and thus is alone to be worshiped. Consider just three important facts:
- The servants of other deities remain dead. No one claims that Muhammad still walks the earth. In fact, you can visit his grave—if you are a Muslim—in the city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. The tomb of Jesus, however, remains empty. The New Testament is abundantly clear that Jesus rose from the dead, and no one has ever been able to produce His body (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10; 1 Cor. 15; Rev. 1:9–18). The resurrection validates the teaching of Jesus, for He predicted this extraordinary event, and thus confirms the truth of His teaching about God. The God whom Jesus reveals is the only true God (John 17:3).
- Only Christian teaching explains fully the current state of human beings. We all know that human beings are capable of some incredible things. We build world-class cities, create beautiful art, make scientific discoveries, and take care of others, often by sacrificing ourselves. At the same time, we start wars, end friendships over petty issues, steal, kill, and destroy. Even when we act kindly toward others, very often our hearts are full of hate. Only Christianity accounts for our goodness and badness. Because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27), we can do much good. Because sin has corrupted us, we are capable of great evil (Rom. 5:12–20). The Christian doctrine of original sin teaches us that apart from God’s grace, we are inclined to selfishness and to doing whatever we can to get ahead even if it hurts other people. Human history shows us all too often the truth of this doctrine. Indeed, as someone once said, if original sin were not taught in Scripture, we would have to define the doctrine based on our experience. Since Christianity gets human beings right, we can trust it to get God right.
- The moral law is universal. Deep down, we all know that murder, theft, adultery, lying, disobeying parents, slander, and lusting after things that belong rightly to someone else are wrong. This same law is found in the Bible (Ex. 20:1–17) and it is also written on our hearts, appearing in some form in every culture on the planet (Rom. 2:12–16). Because the Bible tells us the truth about ethics and its law is a universal, we can trust what it tells us about people, and if we can trust what the Bible says about people, we have good reason to trust what it says about God.
There are other good reasons to believe that the deity whom we must love and worship is the triune God of the Christian faith. You should consider these reasons. The good news of the Christian faith is that all those who know this deity—this God—through His Son Jesus Christ will inherit eternal life (John 3:16). Getting this definition right is more than possessing head knowledge. It’s a matter of eternal life or eternal death.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on August 26, 2020.