Unlike English, in which the word love means many different things, Ancient Greek had four words to describe the range of meaning that our word love conveys. The first word is eros, from which we get the English word erotic. Eros was the word often used to express sexual love or the feelings of arousal that are shared between people who are physically attracted to one another. The word was also used as the name of the Greek god of love, Eros (the Romans called him “Cupid”). By New Testament times, this word had become so debased by the culture that it is not used even once in the entire New Testament.
The second Greek word for “love” was storge, which referred to natural, familial love. Storge (a word not found in the Bible) referred to the type of love shown by a parent for a child. The third Greek word for “love” was philia, which forms part of the words philosophy (“love of wisdom”) and philanthropy (“love of fellow man”). This word speaks of the warm affection shared between friends. Whereas eros is more closely associated with the libido, philia is associated with the heart (metaphorically speaking). We feel love for our friends and family, obviously not in an erotic sense, but in the sense of being kind and affectionate. However, philia is not felt between people who are at enmity with one another. We can feel philia toward friends and family, but not toward people whom we dislike or hate.
Different from all of these is the fourth Greek word for “love,” agapé, typically defined as the “self-sacrificing love.” This is the love that moves people into action and looks out for the well-being of others, no matter the personal cost. Biblically speaking, agapé is the love God showed to His people in sending His Son, Jesus, to die for their sins. It is the love that focuses on the will, not the emotions, experience, or libido. This is the love that Jesus commands His disciples to show toward their enemies (Luke 6:35). Eros and philia are not expressed to people who hate us and wish us ill; agapé is. In Romans 5:8, Paul tells us that God’s love for His people was made manifest in that “while we were still sinners [i.e., enemies], Christ died for us.”
So, moving from the base to the pure, we have eros, storge, philia, and agapé. This is not to denigrate eros as sinful or impure. Sexual love is not inherently unclean or evil. Rather, it is the gift of God to married couples to express their love for one another, strengthen the bond between them, and ensure the survival of the human race. The Bible devotes one whole book to the blessings of erotic, or sexual, love—Song of Solomon. The love between a husband and a wife should be, among other things, an erotic love. However, a long-term relationship based solely on eros is doomed to failure. The “thrill” of sexual love wears off quickly unless there are some philia and agapé to go along with it.
Even though there is nothing inherently sinful with erotic love, it is in this sphere that our sinful nature is easily made manifest because eros focuses primarily on sensuality and self. Storge, philia, and agapé focus on relationship and others. Consider what the apostle Paul tells the Colossian church: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). The Greek word for “sexual immorality” is porneia (the root of our word pornography). This essentially covers the gamut of sexual sin (adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, etc.).
When shared between husband and wife, erotic love can be a wonderful thing, but because of our fallen sin nature, expressions of eros too often become porneia. In dealing with eros, human beings tend to go to extremes, becoming either ascetics or hedonists. The ascetic completely eschews sensual or sexual love. The hedonist sees unrestrained sexual passion and all forms of sensuality as perfectly natural and to be indulged. The biblical view is a balance between these two sinful extremes. Within the bond of heterosexual marriage, God celebrates the beauty of sexual love: “Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits. I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers” (Song of Solomon 4:16—5:1). Outside of biblical marriage, eros becomes distorted and sinful.