The term “pagan” is commonly used today to refer to someone who does not follow one of the major world religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Instead, pagans follow ancient polytheistic religions like those of the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Norse. The term has also come to include followers of modern religious movements like Wicca, Druidism, Asatru, and others that revive or reconstruct these old polytheistic faiths.
However, the origin and meaning of “pagan” in the Christian Bible is more complex and nuanced. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore what the Bible says about paganism, analyze how the meaning of the term evolved over time, summarize key Bible passages about pagans, and reflect on what lessons Christians today can draw from biblical texts about those outside the faith.
- The terms “pagan,” “paganism,” and “heathen” do not appear literally in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. They are words applied to the biblical texts in later translations.
- In the Old Testament, terms like “the nations” or “gentiles” are used to refer to polytheistic peoples outside ancient Israel.
- In the New Testament, “pagan” refers to polytheistic Greeks and Romans and becomes associated with idolatry, sexual immorality, and other sins.
- But the biblical writers do not present a uniformly negative view of pagans. Some passages portray God as caring for and showing grace to pagans.
- Christians today can learn from the biblical texts to approach non-Christians with both discernment and grace.
Pagans and Paganism in the Old Testament
The words “pagan” and “paganism” do not literally appear in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. Just as the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament was written in Greek – and neither language contains these exact terms. When we read the word “pagan” in an English Bible translation, it is a word applied by later translators to describe the people and religious practices of the ancient world as viewed by the biblical writers.
In the context of the Old Testament, the biblical writers most commonly use the term “the nations” or “gentiles” to refer to peoples outside of ancient Israel who worshiped multiple gods. For example:
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)
This passage describes the pagan religious practices of “the nations” that the Israelites are commanded to avoid. This includes child sacrifice, divination, witchcraft, spiritism – all components of ancient pagan polytheistic faiths.
The Old Testament makes it clear that the pagan gods worshipped by the nations surrounding Israel are not true gods at all:
For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. (Psalm 96:5)
Their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. Their hands cannot feel, their feet cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:4-8)
These passages portray pagan gods as powerless human creations that cannot match the glory of the one true God of Israel.
Yet while pagan religious practices are condemned and pagan gods mocked, the Old Testament does not present an entirely negative view of individual pagans. Some texts describe God as caring for and showing grace to Gentiles. The prophet Amos writes of God:
“Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the Lord. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)
This hints at God’s care for nations besides Israel. Similarly, texts like the story of Jonah show God using prophets to bring pagan nations to repentance and knowledge of Him. The Bible scholar M. Daniel Carroll R. summarizes the Old Testament view like this:
“Israel is not portrayed as God’s exclusive focus. He also directs the paths of other peoples so that his glory can be seen and that they too may know that he alone is God.” (Carroll, Christians at the Border, p. 46)
So in the Old Testament, “pagan” refers to polytheistic peoples outside Israel whose religious practices are condemned. Yet God also shows care and grace to these nations. This biblical view will develop further in the New Testament.
Pagans and Paganism in the New Testament
In the Greco-Roman cultural context of the New Testament, the term “pagan” takes on new shades of meaning. The Jewish writers of the New Testament adopted the Greek term ethne to refer to Gentiles – meaning literally “the nations,” paralleling Hebrew usage. The related word ethnikos came to mean “pagan” – someone following traditional Graeco-Roman religion.
References to pagans in the New Testament often come with condemnation of idolatry – the worship of gods represented by man-made idols. Paul’s words to the Romans are typical:
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:25)
The risen Christ commands His disciples to go and make followers of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey Christ’s commands (Matthew 28:19-20). This Great Commission signals a move from recognition of paganism as a reality outside Israel to active missionizing aiming to convert pagans to Christ.
Beyond idolatry, “pagan” also becomes associated with sexual immorality and wild living in contrast to Christian virtue. For example, Peter urges Christians:
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
The contrast is clear between holy Christian living and the “ignorance” of pagans prior to coming to faith.
Yet even as the biblical writers condemn pagan idolatry and immorality, we also find a more gracious posture toward Gentiles. Paul teaches that God shows patience and kindness to pagans to allow time for repentance:
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
He further writes that God has revealed himself to pagans through creation and conscience, even without special revelation in the Law of Moses:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
This hints at a universal witness of God to all peoples, laying the foundation for pagan response to the gospel.
The concept of pagan virtue also appears in the New Testament. In Acts 10, God gives Peter a vision to preach the gospel to a Roman centurion named Cornelius who was previously a pagan. Luke describes Cornelius as:
A devout and God-fearing man, who was highly regarded by all the Jewish people. (v. 22)
Upon hearing Peter’s preaching Cornelius believes, and the text makes clear he already had faith in God and lived a virtuous life even before becoming a Christian.
So the New Testament view of pagans contains both condemnation of idolatry and immorality, coupled with recognition that God shows grace to the nations and that even pagans can demonstrate sincere seeking after God.
Key Bible Texts on Pagans/Paganism
To summarize the biblical perspective, here are some key texts illuminating the meaning of “pagan” and paganism:
Psalm 96:5 – For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
Isaiah 42:17 – But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame.
Acts 17:16-23 – Paul was distressed in Athens by the proliferation of idols, but adapted his preaching to pagan culture.
Acts 14:8-18 – Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for pagan gods after healing a cripple, but point the crowds to the true God.
Romans 1:18-32 – Pagan idolatry and sexual sin is condemned as exchanging the truth for a lie.
1 Peter 4:3-4 – Peter contrasts pagan living for lusts versus living for God’s will.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – Paul navigates issues like eating food sacrificed to idols.
Colossians 3:5-7 – Christians must put off pagan sins like sexual immorality, idolatry, and wrath.
Matthew 5:43-48 – Jesus calls his followers to love enemies, not just those within their own religious community.
Acts 10:1-48 – The story of the conversion of the pagan Roman centurion Cornelius.
Taken together, these passages give a broad picture of the biblical perspective on paganism. This includes condemnation of idolatry and immorality, recognition of God’s care for all nations, his general revelation to humanity, and examples of pagan individuals responding positively to that light they were given.
Lessons for Christians Today
What principles can modern Christians draw from this biblical material to guide our posture toward non-Christians today? Here are a few key lessons:
1. Reject idolatry while remaining gracious to idolaters. The biblical writers condemned pagan idolatry in no uncertain terms. But even as they critiqued false religions, we also find examples of God showing mercy to pagans and even using their cultural forms like poetry, literature, and art to communicate gospel truth. Christians today can reject religious relativism that treats all spiritual paths as equal, while also remaining gracious, thoughtful, and kind in relating to those of other faiths or no faith at all.
2. Remember common ground shared by all humanity. As the passages from Romans suggest, God has revealed himself through universal means like creation and conscience, giving all human beings common ground upon which to build. Christians can appeal to this shared sense of morality, beauty, and meaning to make connections as we share our faith.
3. Avoid broad judgments about those outside the faith. As examples like Cornelius show, outward religious identity does not tell the whole story about the state of someone’s heart or the work of God’s grace in their lives. We should humbly leave judgments of hearts and motivations to God Himself.
4. Let sharing truth be motivated by love, not proving superiority. Paul adapted his message based on his pagan audience in Athens, focusing on building bridges. He critiqued false ideas about God, but his motivation was to share truth with gracious persuasion. Christians today can learn to share our faith motivated by Christlike care for others, not winning arguments.
5. Recognize diversity within any broad religious label. Just as the biblical descriptions of pagans do not present a monolith, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists and others reflect incredible diversity as individuals. Seeking to understand and relate to others as multifaceted people opens doors to share truth.
By approaching those outside our faith with biblical discernment paired with grace, we can navigate relating to others with both conviction and Christlike compassion.
In summary, the terms “pagan,” “paganism,” and “heathen” never appear literally in the original texts of the Bible. But through a historical study of how these terms are applied in various translations, we see a complex biblical perspective emerge. The biblical writers condemned the idolatry and immorality associated with pagan religions, while also recognizing God’s care for all nations, His general revelation, and even cases of pagans responding positively to the light given them like Cornelius.
Modern Christians seeking to apply biblical teaching about pagans should aim to strike a thoughtful balance – rejecting false ideas, but with graciousness toward those who hold them. By building bridges and looking for common ground, we can communicate God’s truth effectively. With the Spirit’s guidance and relying on God’s grace rather than our own wisdom or rhetorical skill, we can share the gospel in a way that honors Christ and opens doors for meaningful dialogue.