Monday, May 27, 2024

Anonymous Asks (304)

“Are some words better than others when describing people who are not Christians?

I recently had a fellow believer give me a thirty-second lecture about my use of the word “unsaved”. He was technically correct in the sense that, of all the English translations currently available, that word appears only in The Amplified Bible. To the extent that I was using an extra-biblical term, he had a point, though I’m not sure his preference was better in all contexts.

But some words are indeed better than others. Let us consider …

I dislike “unchurched”. It’s even more extra-biblical than “unsaved”, and has the added disadvantage of being essentially meaningless as a descriptor of anyone’s spiritual state. You can be thoroughly “churched” and still wind up in hell, and you can be as unchurched as the thief on the cross and spend tomorrow in Paradise. I suppose “unchurched” is fine if one is using the term between Christians exclusively to describe a person’s level of acquaintance with congregational worship and gathering to the name of Christ.

Then there is “non-Christian”. That’s clear enough at least, and it’s better than “unchristian”, which usually describes bad behavior by people who might well be Christians. The only drawback in using it when talking to an unbeliever is that if their personal definition of “Christian” is not fully and biblically informed, the expression may be as nebulous as “unchurched”.

Not religious” is useless, since “religious” can mean just about anything these days. And “irreligious” is probably not what you are trying to communicate.

Unbeliever” shows up in a few versions of the English Bible, most notably the NIV and ESV. It is the translation of the Greek apistos, meaning literally “faith-less”. Unfortunately, outside religious usage, “faithless” means untrustworthy or inconstant, which is not exactly what we are trying to communicate in most instances. This being the case, “unbeliever” is probably preferable. It’s definitely less cumbersome and antiquated than the KJV’s “them that believe not”.

With regard to “unsaved”, my pedantic friend worried that someone might take it to mean that one could be saved and then become unsaved again, a theological nicety that is probably not the occupation of most of the unsaved, and which would not for a moment confuse a well-taught Christian, or, for that matter, even a poorly-taught one. He preferred “lost” to “unsaved”.

Lost” is indeed more biblical, but it’s also metaphorical and could be interpreted as insulting, which is fine if you are trying to make the point to someone who is lost that they are lost, but not so fine if you are trying to make a different point and they are distracted by your terminology. “Lost” is at least as confusing as “unsaved” in that it is often construed to mean unable to find one’s way, as in the opposite of “found”. However, that is not what we are trying to communicate when we use it as the opposite of “saved”. We mean “lost” as in “If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost”, going under like a ship holed below the waterline. That’s a slightly grimmer picture, but one of which we should never lose sight. The unbeliever is not just confused about religious options, but condemned already.

Speaking of “condemned”, that term is also eminently biblical. Again, if it’s a point you want to reinforce deliberately to someone who thinks he can sit on the fence about the Christian faith, it’s probably a useful term. Any insult it carries is regrettably legitimate and unambiguous.

Agnostic” and “atheist” are extra-biblical, but they’re very precise descriptors if properly understood. “Skeptic” is too.

Unconverted” is a negative of “convert”, which is biblical, but confusing. We use “convert” to mean someone who is persuaded, where the Greek word translated “convert” in some Bibles is literally “firstfruits”, which is probably not what you mean when you use it. Where “to convert” means “to persuade to a different opinion”, “unconverted” sounds like a car that is legally non-compliant.

Infidel”, “heathen” and “pagan” are all better left at home, even if in some cases they are accurate.

Apostate” is someone who once professed and now disclaims Christ. An apostate is not just unbelieving but anti-believing, denying the faith. A useful term in certain contexts.

Another cumbersome phrase to describe unbelievers is “not a follower of Christ”, but it gets to the core of what it means to have a truly Christian faith: it’s about a person, not just a religious system, and it’s about how we live out what we believe, not just how we think about theology.

So then, there are lots of ways to describe the absence of faith in Christ. Some are more biblical than others, but I would say it is generally more important when talking to an unbeliever to communicate clearly than to be technically correct but obscure. The same holds true when talking to believers: if they understand exactly what you are trying to say, you are having a meaningful dialogue even if you have been imprecise in your speech.

And if you are talking to a pedant, it really doesn’t matter which words you use. There is no way to win that one.

No comments :

Post a Comment