Many Protestants believe statues, especially those in churches, are idols. They base their erroneous belief on a misinterpretation of the First Commandment, which states, “I am the Lord your God …. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven (engraved or 3-dimensional; also dead) image, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that this on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Ex 20:2-5).
First, notice the commands that immediately precede and follow the prohibition against making graven images. They say that we shall have no other gods and that we shall not bow down to them or worship them. Therefore, context implies that we must not make graven images that we then treat as “other gods.” The command does not suggest a universal prohibition against image-making. Rather, the command is against image-making for the purpose of worshipping that image or the false god it represents.
Second, Catholics do not worship anyone or anything other than the one God, the God of Israel, the Trinitarian God, the eternal Creator. Third, in Exodus 25:17-19, God instructed the Israelites to construct the Ark with graven images of creatures in heaven. In Numbers 21:8-9, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent. In 1 Kings 7:25-29, King Solomon commanded statues of lions, oxen, and cherubim be placed in the temple, and 1 Kings 9:3, God approved Solomon’s works.
This last verse (1 Kings 9:3) is of great importance because it shows that God approved the use of statues in temple worship without commanding Solomon to make them. If God were teaching in Exodus 20 that an inextricable link between images and idolatry exists, His command to create images for use in temple worship or otherwise would make no sense.
Furthermore, do we not create images in our minds? If I have an image of a rare bird in my mind and I want to share the image with others, I can draw it, carve it, mold it out of clay or any other substance, and none of these would constitute worship. We make images in our minds continuously. This is part of how humans think; it’s part how we form concepts. God created us to make mental, 3-dimensional, graven images to reason about his creation. Therefore, the mere creation of images does not equal idolatry.
Additionally, creating images is not intrinsically evil because God creates human beings who are made in His image and likeness. As those made in his image and likeness, we have intellects that are designed to create images. If making images is evil for human beings, then it is evil for God. But God is not evil. Therefore, creating images is not intrinsically evil. Rather, creating images would be subjectively evil if they were designed to be worshipped.
The point of the Commandment is not to prevent humans from creating images but to clarify that we are not to worship them, or anything other than God for that matter. God knew people could worship many things. In other cultures, people worshiped their temporal rulers, trees, animals, planets, stars and on and on. In the time and region of the ancient Jews, the pagans worshiped man-made images, and God, who knew that worshiping idols would be problematic for the Jews as evidenced multiple times in Scripture, instructed the Jews not to make graven images.
Additionally, Catholics use statues and other images to remind us of our faith’s great heroes who went before us. If you see a Catholic kneeling before or kissing a statue, that person is venerating (showing respect or reverence) the individual represented and not the statue itself.
Relics are bones or other personal items that belonged to a dead saint. Even after death, people have touched some of these relics and have been healed of diseases. The following Bible verses show that relics sometimes heal people and can be used for this purpose:
Acts 19:3 – “And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that the handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
2 Kings 13:21 – “And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.”
Mat 9:20-22 – A woman is cured of hemorrhages after she touches the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.
Acts 5:15 – People carried the sick into the streets so that Peter’s shadow might fall upon them.
The Council of Trent instructs the faithful that “the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—whose bodies were the living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Cor 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men, so that they who affirm that veneration and honor are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other sacred monuments are uselessly honored by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and also now condemns them.”