Unlike English, in which  the word “love” means many different things, the Greek uses three words  to describe the range of meaning that our word “love” conveys. The first  word is eros, from which we get the English word ‘erotic.’  Eros is the word used to express sexual love or the feelings of arousal  that are shared between people who are physically attracted to one another. By  New Testament times, this word had become so debased by the culture that it is  not used even once in the entire New Testament.

The second Greek word  for love is phileo, which forms part of the words ‘philosophy’  (“love of wisdom”) andor philanthropy (“love of fellow man”). This word  speaks more of the warm affection shared between family or friends. Whereas  eros is more closely associated with the libido, phileo can be  more associated with the emotions, or the heart (metaphorically speaking). We  feel love for our friends and family, obviously not in the eros sense,  but a love that motivates us to want to treat them kindly and help them succeed.  However, phileo is not felt between people who are at enmity with one  another. We can feel phileo love toward friends and family, but not  toward people whom we dislike or hate.

Different from both of these is  the third Greek word for love, agapao, typically defined as the  “self-sacrificing love.” It is the love that moves people into action and looks  out for the well-being of others, no matter the personal cost. Biblically  speaking, agapao is the love God showed to His people in sending His Son,  Jesus, to die for their sins. It is the love that focuses on the will, not the  emotions or libido. This is the love that Jesus commands His disciples to show  toward their enemies (Luke 6:35).  Eros and phileo are not expressed to people who hate us and wish  us ill; agapao is. In Romans 5:8,  Paul tells us that God’s love for His people was made manifest in that “while we  were still sinners [i.e., enemies], Christ died for us.”

So, moving from  the base to the pure, we have eros, phileo, and agapao.  This is not to denigrate eros as sinful or impure. Sexual love is not  inherently unclean or evil. Rather, it is the gift of God to married couples to  express their love for one another, strengthen the bond between them, and ensure  the survival of the human race. The Bible devotes one whole book to the  blessings of erotic, or sexual, love—Song of Solomon. The love between a husband  and a wife should be, among other things, an erotic love. However, a long-term  relationship based solely on erotic love is doomed to failure. The ‘thrill’ of  sexual love wears off quickly unless there areis some phileo and  agapao to go along with it.

Conversely, while there is nothing  inherently sinful with erotic love, it is in this sphere of love that our sinful  nature is made most manifest because it primarily centers on the self, whereas  phileo and agapao focus on others. Consider what the Aapostle Paul  tells the Colossian church: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:  sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is  idolatry” (Colossians  3:5). The Greek word for “sexual immorality” is the same word from which we  get ‘pornography’ (Gk. porneia), which essentially covers the  gamut of sexual sin (adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bestiality,  etc.).

When shared between husband and wife, erotic love can be a  wonderful thing, but because of our fallen sin nature, eros too often  becomes porneia. When this happens, human beings tend to go to extremes,  becoming either ascetics or hedonists. The ascetic is the person who completely  eschews sexual love because its association with sexual immorality makes it  appear evil and therefore must be avoided. The hedonist is the person who sees  sexual love without restraint as perfectly natural. As usual, the biblical view  is seen in the balance between these two sinful extremes. Within the bonds of  heterosexual marriage, God celebrates the beauty of sexual love: “Let my lover  come into his garden and taste its choice fruits. I have come into my garden, my  sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my  honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. Eat, O friends, and  drink; drink your fill, O lovers” (Song of Solomon 4:16–5:1). But outside of biblical  marriage, eros becomes distorted and sinful.