Okay, pop quiz: what’s the word in New Testament Greek that means “Christian love”?
The answer: there isn’t one.
I admit, it’s a bit of a trick question. So many Christians have been told that the word “agape” means something like “Christian love,” or at least a self-giving, sacrificial, or unconditional love.
But it’s not that simple.
In an earlier post, for example, we looked at John 3:16, where we’re told that God demonstrated the depth of his love by giving his one and only Son for our sake. The word for “love” in that verse is agape, and it is both the root of and the model for how Christians should love. And agape is by far the most commonly used word for love in the New Testament.
So far, so good.
But that’s still not the same as being able to claim that the word itself means self-giving, altruistic love, or that we should read it that way every time we see it in the Bible.
Here’s a case in point. Just a few sentences after John 3:16, we get this:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (John 3:19-20, NRSV)
People who do evil “love” the darkness and hate the light. If you already know that there are four Greek words that are often translated as love, you might expect the word eros in that verse. Eros is, after all, the root of the English word “erotic,” and historically gets some fairly bad press in Christian literature.
But no. John’s word in that verse is agape — meaning that people who do evil love the darkness with agape-love.
Hmm. Hard to see much of anything Christian in that.
Here’s an even more extreme example. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, we read the terrible story of a foreigner who is smitten with Jacob’s daughter, and thus takes her by force and rapes her, prompting a bloody revenge by her brothers. The text tells us that he “loved” her (Gen 34:3).
But the word, disturbingly, is agape.
To be clear: I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with creating a typology of ways of loving and using the word “agape” as a label for one of those types. If we want to talk about how Christians should love, and want to use the word “agape” as a shorthand for that, fine — as long as we don’t confuse ourselves or each other with claims that the word itself has one exclusive meaning, even in the Bible.
But while we’re at it, let me make a suggestion. Whatever we understand of how and why Christians should love, it can never be separated from the story of what God has done in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Thus, if we need a name for Christian love (and I’m not sure that we do), we can call it “agape” if we like. But I think it’s much closer to John’s intent to say that the name should simply be this: Jesus.