Agape Love in the Bible

by John J. Brugaletta

In the New Testament, the Greek term agape occurs over 200 times, and nearly all Bible scholars translate the term as “love.” But while agape has only one meaning, the English word “love,” when used as a noun, has thirteen meanings. It can mean affection, enthusiasm, a score of zero in tennis, or to do something freely (as opposed to “for money”) and more. And there are six similar meanings when the word is used as a verb.

The result of this disorder for the Bible translator is the Christian public’s erroneous assumption that Scripture commands us to at least have kind feelings for everyone else, and at worst, to have erotic emotions for them.

But there are today, as there always have been, people for whom honest Christians cannot produce even kind feelings. Who among us can do so when faced with a Hitler, or Vlad the Impaler, or Ivan the Terrible? And for those who are not familiar with these three examples, let’s imagine a madman who had a habit of kidnapping women and burying them alive? Loving him, in the popular sense, would mean disobeying what is in Holy Scripture. As an example of Jesus’ low evaluation of certain people, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” (Mt 23:15)

But the good news is that agape love does not necessarily include feelings as a prompt. It is simply an ingrained habit of doing what, to the best of our knowledge, would be best for someone else. It is our way of following what God does in answering our prayers: if He considers our petitionary prayer to be helpful, He will send us that for which we prayed. If not, He will send nothing. He does this, I believe, to protect us from ourselves. It is also something He seems to have implanted in us, for when our toddler demands an authentic pistol, something like instinct tells us to refuse, despite the young one’s shrieks of protest.

(And here it must be said that often in our lives there are other kinds of love that can combine with agape love. For example, philia or friendship love may sit beside it when actual friends are considered; and eros orromantic love might be present as well. But while these differing types of love may at times be correlated, they are special cases, for agape love remains as itself no matter what is added.)

A search through various Bible versions reveals that agape is routinely translated as “love,” so, of course, the majority of pastors and priests use this misleading word in their sermons. These versions include The Restoration Bible, Good News for Modern Man, The Story of Redemption Bible, International Standard Version, Jerusalem Bible, King James Version, Net Bible, New American Standard, New International Version, The Message, World English Bible, New English Bible, The Four Gospels, and the Good News Bible. This list demonstrates the unseen cause of Christians’ confusion when faced with putting God’s will to use in their lives. There are two words in the English language that would more accurately translate agape, “concern (or concerned)” and “benevolent (or benevolence).” The passage in the Gospel of Matthew which now reads, “love your neighbor as yourself,” could be translated as, “be as concerned for your neighbor as you are for yourself,” or “be as benevolent toward your neighbor as you are for yourself.” (Mt 19:19b)

So what is to be done about this aberration? It has taken root so widely among Christian denominations that it will take strenuous efforts by a large number of people to set it right. Let’s pray that this becomes a reality.

John J. Brugaletta is a Christian writer and a retired professor of literature. He has 8 books of poetry in print, along with 2 books of Christian prose. He has published articles in several different venues, including “CSL”: New York C. S. Lewis Society, and “Anglican Theological Review.”

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