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What Does the Bible Say about Heathens?

If someone calls you a "heathen," you may not understand what it means. In the Bible, a heathen has a particular meaning connected to your relationship with God.

Contributing Writer
Updated May 03, 2023
What Does the Bible Say about Heathens?

Some people refer to others as “heathens” because they wish to feel superior. Sometimes people will joke with each other and say, “You’re such a heathen!” Actually, they are calling you ignorant. In religious terms, a heathen means something else.

Why Does the Bible Talk About Heathens?

This topic is like the “haves and have-nots.” Webster’s dictionary defines heathen as a people or nation who do not practice Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. This popular dictionary also defines heathen as someone who is uncivilized or irreligious. Some people will loosely use the term heathen. Some people think those who don’t have formal education are heathens when that is not the actual definition.

In the Bible, heathen is a little more serious. Christianity.com sums up the Bible's definition of heathen as follows:

"The term heathen is an earlier interpretation of the Hebrew word goyim in the Old Testament. The word goyim actually meant “nations” and could apply broadly to all the nations of the world. In other contexts, the word was used to specify other nations from Israel, the people of God (Joshua 23:7; 1 Kings 11:2). In such situations, the “heathen” were non-Jewish idolaters who did not believe in the one true God. However, the meaning of the word "heathen" changed in the New Testament with the new covenant in Jesus Christ."

Why are is the topic of heathen in the Bible relevant? God made it relevant. He has made a difference in those who believe in God and those who serve pagan gods or other gods that people made up. Some people worship the stars. Some worship Greek gods. Some worship nature, and some worship the devil. Since God is God and He is the only true God, it is unbearable to tolerate those who question His existence. 

Then, some people know He exists, but they just do not want to get with the program. That is why Satan was kicked out of heaven (Luke 10:18). He wanted to be God, was very rebellious, and influenced others to rebel (Isaiah 14:13-15). Then, he and his crew came to earth and corrupted man (Genesis 3). Things got so bad that God decided there would be a do-over. So, God sent a flood to wipe out everyone except Noah and those on the ark (Genesis 5-8). Still, man’s ways were not pleasing to the Lord. God provided a path of redemption. So, He sent Jesus to die on the cross so that the Gentiles or heathens could be saved.

What Makes a Person a Heathen According to the Bible?

Numerous Scriptures in the Bible address the word heathen. Initially, when looking for heathen in the concordance, it might direct you to look under “Gentile.” In the Bible days, Gentiles were usually defined as those opposed to the Jewish and Christian faith. Pagan and heathen are sometimes interchangeable. 

In the Bible, heathen is synonymous with the word Gentile. Nowadays, no one would refer to people who are not saved or apart from their religion as heathens. You would lose a lot of people making that comparison. Since God is God, not knowing Him or denying His existence makes you a heathen. God is a jealous God and will have no other gods before Him (Exodus 34:14).

The children of Israel so angered God after He brought them out of four hundred years of bondage (Exodus 19:3-6). They worshipped pagan gods and engaged in riotous living (Nehemiah 9:18). People often know that God exists and have seen His works but continue to walk in lust, pride, arrogance, and other sins. It is like they are trying to see exactly how much they can get away with before God gets mad. 

Should We Refer to People as Heathens?

I do not believe we should refer to people as heathens because they are not yet saved. Would you want to be called a heathen? I do not think I would. Granted, people do things that might put them in that category. I have seen stories on television of people who committed atrocious murders. They should be called heathenish.

The goal is to get people to salvation. People are often easily offended, especially if they feel that they are being talked down to or degraded. Of course, God can call anyone He wants a heathen because He is the ultimate standard (Romans 13:1). We have to adjust to the times and vocabulary that is politically correct. You do not want to bring about a lot of attention to yourself by running around calling people heathens. As soon as you do that, you might be in a position where someone wants to refer to you as a heathen.

God also promised to give us the heathen for an inheritance (Psalm 2:8). People are valuable. Souls are valuable. God is not willing that any man should perish but desires that all come to repentance. If He gives us the heathen for an inheritance, that means you need to witness to people who are not saved. Win the lost at any cost. To some people, the gospel is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18, especially to those not reared in a Christian environment. You have an opportunity to witness to them through your lifestyle and how you embrace your faith (1 Peter 2:12). You would be amazed at who is watching you and the way you interact with others. There is a saying that you may be the only Bible that some people read. Many times, people are pondering in their hearts about making a change and are looking for evidence. You could be that evidence by how you treat people and how you interact with others.

Is a Heathen the Same as an Atheist?

Atheists do not consider themselves heathens. Again, the Bible refers to those who are not saved as heathens. There were many pagan religions in those days. We will have people who serve other gods. Everyone is not going to be on the same page. I also do not know why super-rich people tend to be agnostic or not believe in God. God allowed them to grow in wisdom and wealth, but people start to believe their own press and put faith more in themselves and their staff than they do in God. Google the wealthiest people in the world and see if you can attach them with Christianity or any other religion.

Unfortunately, atheists can get out there and just start spouting off about how they hate God. It really is a form of demonic activity. They have gotten so puffed up about God not existing that they want to show Him that they do not care. The Bible says in Exodus 20:5, “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

It is a dangerous thing to parade around and show your hate for God. It can and will affect your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. Some of these people might be saved and just wondering why things are not going well. That is why it is good to pray prayers for forgiveness of your sins and those who came before you. You just do not know all that people get into and how it might affect you.

If God refers to people as heathens, it is because they are heathens. Some people know the truth and seek to keep that truth from people. Read Romans 1:18-32. It talks about people who know God and turn from Him. God is allowing those who have gotten so wrapped up in their sins to make fools out of themselves. Some have changed the truth of God into a lie, worshipping and serving the creature more than the creator (Romans 1:25).

Many of us will never know the debts of wickedness that some have participated in over the generations (and even this generation). Stay prayed up. Read your Bible and seek to know the truth.

Further Reading:

Who were Gentiles in the Bible? Meaning and Examples

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/seksan Mongkhonkhamsao

Dr. Sandra SmithDr. Sandra Hamer Smith is a Christian and wife to Sylvester Smith. She has one stepson, Greg. Smith lives and resides in Memphis, Tennessee. The University of Memphis alumnae has been in education for about 20 years after receiving the call to teach. Dr. Smith primarily teaches language arts. Prior to education, she worked in local and national television news for 13 years including positions as an overnight news anchor, reporter, and assignments editor at two local network affiliate stations. Smith was also a freelance correspondent for BET news. Dr. Smith has freelanced for the Tri-State Defender newspaper and Contempora magazine.  She is the author of the self-published novel GLORY…THE HAIR.  Smith is also a playwright and poet. The Tennessee native is a member of Temple of Deliverance COGIC, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc, Omicron Delta Kappa, The Golden Key International Honour Society, and Kappa Delta Pi.



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