"Heathen" is an old word in Northern European languages such as English. Its original meaning was probably "dweller-on-the-heath", similar to the original "country-dweller" meaning of the Southern European word "pagan". Some historians claim that, during the conversion of Europe to Christianity, people who lived in the countryside held on to their ancestral folk religion longer than those living in the cities or towns. Because of this, the meaning of these words eventually changed to imply simply "un-Christian".
In current usage, "heathen" usually means one of three things:
- A person who does not follow of one of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
- A person who has no religion, often with an implication of immorality thrown in.
- A person who follows the pre-Christian religion of Northern Europe, based on Norse or "Viking" mythology. This ancient religion has modern adherents, who use "Asatru" as the formal name for their religion. Asatru heathens object to Meaning (1), above, as too general, and to Meaning (2) as simply wrong. Asatru is a government-recognized religion in some of the Scandinavian countries. Estimates of the number of people who follow this religion vary widely, but "several thousand" is a good guess in the U.S. In Europe it is becoming increasingly widespread among fans of Heavy Metal music (especially in Germanic countries) and among Scottish infantry units of the British Army.
Heathen in the Bible
The term heathen, as used in the Bible, broadly refers to non-Israelitish people, otherwise called Gentiles, or pagans. According to most evangelical Christian soteriology (doctrine of salvation), man will be judged in accordance to how he responded to the basic innate moral light which God has given him, through the light of conscience and outward creation, as well as by the Scriptures. The latter is held to be the comprehensive revelation, and is the objective and immutable authority by which the truthfulness of any light of conscience is determined.(Ps. 19; Romans 1-3) While heathens who truly obey valid truth which is given them are held as superior to those who walk in disobedience to the Scriptures, it is indicated that those who obey the former will be given the light of the gospel, by which they may be saved. (Romans 2; Acts 10; 11:14,18)
In the Old Testament the Gentiles were far less sharply differentiated from the Israelites than the later times of the New Testament, though in the church no distinction was to be made as regards equality. (Acts 10; Gal. 3:28) While the Hebrews were chosen of God to be the nation through whom He would reveal Himself, it was made clear that this election was not due to an intrinsic superiority of their own. (Dt. 7) It was further manifest that the basis for the Divine judgment upon certain heathen nations was due to their immorality, which flowed from their love for and allegiance to false gods (idolatry). In managing the cultural institution of slavery, Old Testament regulations also made a distinction between Hebrew slaves and those of foreigners, with the former being as hired servants, and offered freedom (except female engaged to be married), with a generous form of "severance pay", while the latter became a family inheritance (unless they escaped, or suffered certain injuries by the hand of their owner). However, even foreigners could purchase Hebrew slaves. For further information, see: slavery
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915) states that,
the Israelite was commanded to love the stranger (Deu_10:19), to sympathize with him, “For ye know the heart of the stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exo_23:9 the King James Version). The Kenites were treated almost as brethren, especially the children of Rechab (Jdg_1:16; Jdg_5:24; Jer 35). Uriah the Hittite was a trusted warrior of David (2 Sam 11); Ittai the Gittite was captain of David's guard (2Sa_18:2); Araunah the Jebusite was a respected resident of Jerusalem. The Gentiles had the right of asylum in the cities of refuge, the same as the Israelites (Num_35:15)..a Gentile servant must not be defrauded of his wage (Deu_24:15). They could inherit in Israel even as late as the exile (Eze_47:22, Eze_47:23). They were allowed to offer sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem, as is distinctly affirmed by Josephus (BJ, II, xvii, 2-4; Ant, XI, viii, 5; XIII, viii, 2; XVI, ii, 1; XVIII, v, 3; CAp, II, 5), and it is implied in the Levitical law (Lev_22:25)...
But as we approach the Christian era the attitude of the Jews toward the Gentiles changes, until we find, in New Testament times, the most extreme aversion, scorn and hatred. They were regarded as unclean, with whom it was unlawful to have any friendly intercourse. They were the enemies of God and His people, to whom the knowledge of God was denied unless they became proselytes, and even then they could not, as in ancient times, be admitted to full fellowship. Jews were forbidden to counsel them, and if they asked about Divine things they were to be cursed. All children born of mixed marriages were bastards. That is what caused the Jews to be so hated by Greeks and Romans, as we have abundant evidence in the writings of Cicero, Seneca and Tacitus. Something of this is reflected in the New Testament (Joh_18:28; Act_10:28; Act_11:3).
If we inquire what the reason of this change was we shall find it in the conditions of the exiled Jews, who suffered the bitterest treatment at the hands of their Gentile captors and who, after their return and establishment in Judea, were in constant conflict with neighboring tribes and especially with the Greek rulers of Syria. The fierce persecution of Antiochus IV, who attempted to blot out their religion and Hellenize the Jews, and the desperate struggle for independence, created in them a burning patriotism and zeal for their faith which culminated in the rigid exclusiveness we see in later times.
- Dr. John Gill (1690-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible, Romans 2
- B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament (1891), Romans 2:1-16
- Albert Barnes (1798-1870) Notes on the Bible, Acts 10:35
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor; Gentiles