There is a tendency for us to simplistically dismiss the gods of the ancient world as mere figments of human imagination, but the biblical approach is a bit more complex than that.
To be clear, at no time in the Scriptures were these gods ever acknowledged to be gods in any true sense of the word. There is only one God and He is the LORD.
Consider the following text by St. Paul:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).
It is a bit unclear whether St. Paul is affirming the existence of these gods or simply prescinding from a debate about that topic. For example, if I were to say to you, “Look, even if you may be right about that particular detail, it still doesn’t change the final answer,” I am not necessarily affirming that you are right about that detail, I am saying that I don’t really want to discuss that point, but rather, move on to the more fundamental point and conclusion.
So St. Paul may not necessarily be affirming that these gods actually exist, but neither is he outright denying that some beings exist that the pagans wrongly call gods.
In the Old Testament a similar stance is evident. There are repeated references to the gods of the pagans or Gentiles. The gods are not usually declared to be nonexistent, but rather it is said that if they do exist they are of no avail and far inferior to the one, true God of Israel: the LORD. There is even a passage in the Book of Psalms that seems to presuppose God in the midst of these gods:
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? … I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince” (Ps 82 1-2; 5-6).
It is a complex passage. The context seems to be God rebuking princes and leaders of the people. But then why are they called gods? And why are they told that they will fall like princes?
The Scriptures do not tend to deny that entities called gods may in fact exist among the pagans. Hence they may not merely be figments of imagination. Yet if they do exist, they are powerless before the True God of Israel and none of them is a true god in any proper sense of the word. They are called gods but are not.
But if they do exist, what could they be? The frequent biblical answer is that they are demons posing as gods, deceiving the nations. Consider some of the following texts:
They did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood (Psalm 106:34-38).
Note here that many of the psalms are written in a poetic manner. But here the poetic structure is based on the correspondence of the thoughts, not the similarity of the sounds. Thus the parallel in this psalm is between “They served their idols” and “They sacrificed their own children to demons.” The gods of the peoples and nations around them are called demons.
They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known (Deut 32:16-17).
The attestation here is pretty straightforward: the strange gods are demons.
For you provoked your Maker with sacrifices to demons and not to God; You forgot the eternal God who nourished you, and you grieved Jerusalem who nurtured you (Baruch 4:7-8).
While in this passage the term “gods” is not used along with the reference to demons, the echo of other texts referring to the idols and gods of the heathen seems clear.
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor 10:20-22)
St. Paul says here that the idols and gods of the pagans are no gods at all but are in fact demons. The sacrifices that the pagans think they are directing to their gods are really being directed to demons.
Thus the Biblical approach to the gods of the pagans is not as simple as mere scoffing and consigning them to the realm of fantasy. The reality was often more tragic and harmful than mere fantasy. The Scriptures hold forth the fearsome possibility (and likelihood) that many of these gods were in fact demons in disguise. They were the deceiver, mockingly assuming his place as a god among the deceived nations.
Early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian held similar views (that the gods were actually demons).
We do well to remember that when people turn away from God today, it is usually not that they believe nothing, but rather they believe in something (in fact, some believe in almost anything). And in turning to their modern idols, they may not merely be embracing an idea, but far worse, a demon. Our task is not just to summon people away from bad ideas, errors, ignorance, or false doctrines. In many cases we must also rescue them from demons.
Beware the doctrines of demons and their very presence. Scripture’s stance on the gods of the nations is not merely to dismiss them as nonexistent. These gods may in fact be pernicious enemies who are very real, who are not fantasy. As it was then, even so today.