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.