Who is a Heathen? Why did the Definition Change?

Originally indicating all those excluded from the nation of Israel, the heathen definition changed with the new covenant in Jesus Christ and His eternal salvation.

pagan rocks in a circle, heathen definition

We often can use this word as a joke in Christian circles. "Goodness, Jacob, you act like such a heathen." The heathen definition now has taken on the meaning of acting wrongfully or doing something, for lack of better words, "secular." But what did the word mean in the Bible, and has the definition changed over time. Did the word even change meanings between the Testaments?

In this article, we'll explore the meaning of heathen now, in the Old Testament, and the New Testament. We'll especially discover what the Bible has to say about this word in particular, and what to do from here.

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.

In the Bible, the meaning of "heathen" changed with the New Covenant of Jesus Christ that extended to the gentile nations that were previously considered heathens. With the New Covenant, heathens are now those outside of faith in the Son of God, including Jews that rejected Him. Discover the difference between the Old and New Testament definitions of heathen below:

Heathen Meaning in the Old Testament

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.

Although there is a distinction between the nation of Israel and the gentile people in the Old Testament, many scriptures prophesize the unifying of all nations under Christ, the Messiah.

"All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name." ~ Psalm 86:9

Heathen Meaning 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.

"And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith." ~ Acts 15:7-9

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

What Is the Correct Definition of Heathen?

The definitions certainly do get muddled, considering we have three different ones to operate off of. The modern definition appears to mean anyone outside of the Christian faith who does practices outside of the parameters of the Bible. The Old Testament seemed to have a somewhat similar meaning for the word. It signified anyone outside of the Jewish faith who did practices outside of what the Torah recommended. 

The word appeared to transform by the time it got to the New Testament to mean "not Jewish."

In either case, we can't create a clear case for the true definition of heathen. However, we can rejoice in the fact that God allowed "heathens" to graft into the family of God. In one sense, he allowed for the Gentiles to come into a saving relationship with him. Most of what we see in the New Testament testifies to that.

But as for the other definition of heathen, the one that means someone outside of the Christian faith, it often muddies the topic at hand. We can often see the problem as us vs. them. Believers vs. unbelievers. Rather, we should see any "heathen," anyone outside the family of God as someone who has the potential to join the family of God.

The Jewish Christians in the first century didn't like the idea of grafting in the Gentiles. After all, the Gentiles didn't have to do circumcisions or other parts of the Old Covenant. In the same way, if we use the definition of heathen incorrectly, we may get disgruntled if certain heathens get grafted in. We should realize that all of us were once heathens: foreigners to the family of God. And now, we all have a chance to join in the loving arms of Jesus.

Image by RD LH from Pixabay


This article is part of our Christian Terms catalog exploring words and phrases of Christian theology and history. Here are some of our most popular articles covering Christian terms to help your journey of knowledge and faith:

The Full Armor of God
The Meaning of "Selah"
What is a "Concubine"?
Christian Meaning of Humility

Who are Gentiles? Biblical Meaning
What is Fornication?
Meaning of Shekinah Glory
The difference between Grace and Mercy