The word heathen is an older translation of the Hebrew word goyim in the Old Testament. The word goyim literally meant “nations” and could refer broadly to all the nations of the world. In other contexts, the word was used to distinguish other nations from Israel, the people of God (Joshua 23:7; 1 Kings 11:2). In such cases, the “heathen” were non-Jewish idolaters who did not know the one true God.
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 people group needs 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.
Certainly, God has created all people and loves each person perfectly. In fact, Jesus came to provide the opportunity for salvation for every person of every nation. We are not to view those of other people groups critically or negatively, but with a desire to share the love of Christ with them. In addition, a person can live in a non-Christian culture yet deeply love Jesus. Many people have come to faith in Jesus in cultures that some would call “heathen.”
Our goal is to share Christ’s love with all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20) and to show respect to all, even if they oppose our message. God is in the process of redeeming people from all over the world. John had a glimpse of the multicultural crowd that will be in heaven one day: “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10).