Title: Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters

Author: Timothy Keller

First Edition (2009), 209 pages

Review by Kim Pullen, September 2023

Chapter Titles:

  • Introduction: The Idol Factory
  • All You’ve Ever Wanted
  • Love Is Not All You Need
  • Money Changes Everything
  • The Seduction of Success
  • The Power and the Glory
  • The Hidden Idols in Our Lives
  • The End of Counterfeit Gods
  • Epilogue: Finding and Replacing Your Idols


The late Timothy Keller had a gift with words, whether they were written or spoken. Counterfeit Gods is an example of how he could gently and succinctly communicate deep, complicated truths. He also understood and communicated God’s grace emphatically in each sermon he preached, and he certainly did so in this book.

Keller begins and ends the book by describing humans as factories that mass-produce idols. And he does it quite convincingly because we are. Keller states emphatically that anything created to which we turn to fill up the empty spaces of our soul is an idol (Romans 1:25). Since God is the only uncreated thing in the universe, we have quite a selection of idols to choose from!


The Big Four

The author hits the big four idols—sex, money, success, and power—but he also says that these are simply surface idols, the metaphorical 10% of the iceberg, and that there is a whole host of hidden idols that enslave us without us even knowing it.

The author analyzes several biblical characters in depth for each of these big four: Jacob for Sex, Zacchaeus for Money, Naaman for Success, and Nebuchadnezzar for Power. He also talks about the hidden idols that we can find in religion and uses the puzzling story of Jonah.

Most relevant to the Hope for Spouses audience is the chapter “Love is Not All You Need.” Keller shows how for Jacob, “Rachel was not just his wife, but his ‘savior.’ He wanted and needed Rachel so profoundly that he heard and saw only the things he wanted to hear and see…Later, Jacob’s idolatry of Rachel created decades of misery in his family.”


Deep Idols

In the chapter “Money Changes Everything,” Keller starts to hint at deep idols when he states: “Idols cannot be dealt with by simply eliminating surface idols like money or sex. We can look at them and say, ‘I need to de-emphasize this in my life. I must not let this drive me. I will stop it.’ Direct appeals like that won’t work, because the deep idols have to be dealt with at the heart level.” Not only must an unfaithful spouse uncover and address the deep idols that prompt their sinful choices, but the betrayed spouse must also seek to find their hidden idols which is often not their spouse or marriage, but possibly success, power, security, or acceptance.

In the chapter, “The Seduction of Success,” Keller states: “The false sense of security comes from deifying our achievement and expecting it to keep us safe from the troubles of life in a way that only God can.” For the betrayed spouse, these “achievements” can also be a healthy marriage, a happy family, or the outward appearance of both, especially to our family of origin or church family.

In “The Power and the Glory”, the author says: “One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic.”

A powerful statement the author made that I personally have experienced in my own broken marriage is that “Jonah stands as a warning that human hearts never change quickly or easily, even when a person is being mentored directly by God.” This may seem discouraging at first, but if Jonah—who was personally discipled by God—took a long time to see and address his hidden idols, why am I surprised that it is taking my spouse so long? God was patient with Jonah because God saw the big picture of Jonah’s life.


What the book lacked

Finally, the author addresses the importance of how we address counterfeit idols. However, he only spends about a chapter discussing this. Personally, I think the book needed as many chapters detailing how to uproot and divest ourselves of idols as he wrote explaining the different kinds there were. He states: “Idols cannot simply be removed. They must be replaced. If you only try to uproot them, they grow back; but they can be supplanted. By what? By God himself of course. But by God we do not mean a general belief in his existence. Most people have that, yet their souls are riddled with idols. What we need is a living encounter with God.”



Overall, the book is an excellent discourse on the intricacies of idols and how they impact our heart. I think additional deep Bible study and meditation is required–and maybe even a little counseling—to help us address how these idols were planted in our hearts in the first place (the big “why”) so we can uproot them and plant healthy seeds of worship to the only God who can fill the empty spaces of our soul.