Who Is a Heathen? Why Did its Definition Change?

Christianity.com Editorial Staff
Who Is a Heathen? Why Did its Definition Change?

Heathen Definition

According to Merriam-Webster, heathen is defined as “of or relating to people or nations that do not acknowledge the God of the Bible” as an adjective, and “an unconverted member of a people or nation who does not acknowledge the God of the Bible” as a noun. Commonly in modern use, a heathen is considered synonymous with a pagan or atheist.

Heathen in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, heathen is an early translation of the Hebrew word goyim. The term goyim meant “nations” and could apply generally to all the nations of the world. In certain biblical contexts, the word was used to specify other nations from Israel, the people of God as referenced in Joshua 23:7 and 1 Kings 11:2. In such uses, the “heathen” were non-Jewish idolaters who did not know the one true God. However the meaning of the word "heathen" changed in the New Testament with the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

Heathen in the New Testament

According to gotquestions.org, in the New Testament, the corresponding word is ethne, the source of our English word ethnic. It is the word used in Matthew 28:19 when Jesus commands His followers to make disciples of all “nations.” He taught that each group of people need to hear the gospel and accept it to receive eternal life.

The word heathen is found more than 140 times in the King James Version of the Bible. Through the years, heathen has lost its original biblical meaning of “not Jewish.” Today, heathen means “pagan” or “unbeliever,” or it is used to describe sinful or irreligious activity in general. Many times, people use the word heathen today to refer to the culture of a people, without regard to religion; the word has taken on the connotation of “barbaric” or “uncivilized.” Nations with regressive technology or a lack of economic development, for example, might be considered part of “heathendom.” We are glad to say that modern translations of the Bible use the more accurate rendering “nations” to refer to people groups.

Bible Verses about Heathens

Old Testament

- Thou also hast delivered me from the strivings of my people, thou hast kept me to be head of the heathen: a people which I knew not shall serve me. 2 Samuel 22:44

- But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, yea, and made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out from before the children of Israel. 2 Kings 16:3

- Thou hast rebuked the heathen, thou hast destroyed the wicked, thou hast put out their name for ever and ever. Psalm 9:5

- Arise, O Lord; let not man prevail: let the heathen be judged in thy sight. Psalm 9:19

- Therefore will I give thanks unto thee, O Lord, among the heathen, and sing praises unto thy name. Psalm 18:49

New Testament

- But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Matthew 6:7

- And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Matthew 18:17

- Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? Acts 4:25

- To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: Galatians 1:16

- And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. Galatians 3:8

Image by RD LH from Pixabay


Originally published August 20, 2019.