Iconoclasm refers to the destruction of religious icons, images and other symbols or monuments, usually for religious or political reasons. The word comes from the Greek words eikon meaning “image”, and klao meaning “to break”.
In the Bible, iconoclasm is most often associated with the prohibition against graven images, especially in the Old Testament. The second commandment states:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6 ESV)
This prohibition was in response to the idolatry that was prevalent among the neighboring nations of Israel at that time. Since idolatry was understood as worshipping a false god, having any images or idols that could become the object of worship was forbidden.
The prophets especially railed against the idolatry of Israel when they strayed from the worship of the one true God. The book of Ezekiel, for instance, records visions of idols and false images in the temple that provoked God to anger (Ezekiel 8). God commands the destruction of these idols and images to remove what provokes His wrath.
“Then he said to me, “Son of man, thus says the Lord God: These are the things that drive me to frenzy. Because of all the detestable idols of the house of Israel, I will deal in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. In the sight of their eyes I will bring down the pride of your power; and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, so that I will lay waste her altars; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 24:6, 24:9 ESV)
The most extensive example of sanctioned iconoclasm in the Old Testament is the smashing of idols and images during king Josiah’s reforms in 2 Kings 23. Verses 4-7 summarize the destruction:
“The king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the keepers of the threshold to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel. And he deposed the priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens. And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.” (2 Kings 23:4-7 ESV)
In the New Testament, iconoclasm was not as great of an issue. There is no direct prohibition of images and icons, however the biblical principle of avoiding idolatry and false worship is still emphasized.
The apostle John, in his first epistle, warns against the dangers of loving the world and the things in the world:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” (1 John 2:15-16 ESV)
Paul also warns against coveting and greed throughout his epistles, which could potentially lead to idolatry:
“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry…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?” (1 Corinthians 10:14, 10:21-22 ESV)
There are a few instances in the book of Acts where idolatrous items are destroyed or denounced. When Paul encounters idolatry in Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16 ESV).
Later at Ephesus, many repent of their practice of magic arts and burn their scrolls and books (Acts 19:17-19). The Ephesians further demonstrate their rejection of false worship by burning idols and magic items worth 50,000 pieces of silver (Acts 19:23-41).
Overall, the main biblical principle is to avoid idolatry by not worshipping false gods or engaging in practices that may lead to false worship. Images and icons are prohibited when they become the object of worship and adoration instead of pointing people towards the one true God. Therefore iconoclasm, when properly understood, aims to preserve right worship and prevent idolatry and false religion. The heart issue is what matters most to God, not just the destruction of idols themselves as an end goal.
Throughout history, iconoclasm has manifested in various ways based on how groups have understood biblical warnings against images and idolatry. During the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries, conflicts erupted over use of religious images, with the iconoclasts supporting their prohibition and the iconodules defending their use. The Protestant Reformation also witnessed major iconoclastic episodes, such as the Beeldenstorm (“statue storm”) during which Calvinists destroyed statues and images in Catholic churches. Both sides accused the other of idolatry.
Modern iconoclasm also occurs as political groups destroy or deface images and monuments of previous regimes or cultures. There is an interesting interplay between religion and politics in many examples of iconoclasm throughout history. Oftentimes the distinction is blurred between purely religious motivations and other social or political factors.
So in summary, the Bible prohibits idolatry and false religion, but does not explicitly promote iconoclasm for its own sake. The main principle is to promote true worship of God alone. Destroying images and idols may form part of preventing idolatry, but the outward destruction alone is meaningless without the inward turning of the heart towards God. The Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13 ESV). God sees the heart most of all, beyond just the outward actions.