Who Is the "Fool" that Denies God? Not Who You Think.

A few summers ago I was doing my “Atheist Encounter” at a large student Christian camp in the Midwest. While the interaction with the audience sometimes gets heated (since I role-play an atheist, after all) the students in this session were far testier and argumentative than normal.

About 20 minutes into the session, a girl stood up and said, “Mr. Atheist, I want to read you something.”

I replied, “Okay, what is it?”

And then she read me Psalms 14:1: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

“So, are you calling me a fool since I don’t believe in God?” I asked.

And then to the applause of the young crowd, she said, “Yes, you’re a fool for being an atheist. That’s what the Word of God says.”

God Fool Psalms

The Fool Who Says There Is No God

Sadly, to counter my (role-playing) arguments for atheism, she resorted to personally attacking me with an ad hominem. This is bad enough in itself, but the worse part is that she misunderstood the point of Psalm 14:1!

The point of the Psalm is not that atheists are fools. King David is not simply saying that those who deny the existence of God are foolish. He is not making a general condemnation of atheists, or any other particular group who rejects the God of Israel. He is making a different point.

In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Psalms, Willem VanGemeren explains:

“The ‘fool’ (nābāl) is neither ignorant nor an atheist. The word ‘fool’ is synonymous with wicked. It reflects the wisdom tradition where the ‘fool’ aggressively and intentionally flouts his independence from God and his commandments. The wicked were fools when they acted corruptly, shamelessly, and in willful disregard for the ways of God. The opposite of ‘fool’ is ‘wise,’ or one who understands.”

In Psalms 14:1, David is not saying that he who believes in God is wise and he who rejects God is a fool. This may be true, but it’s not his point.

The wise person is someone who believes in God and lives accordingly. The fool is someone who follows human wisdom over divine wisdom, and thus chooses the path of wickedness (see 14:2-5). When it is understood this way, it is clear that the Psalmist is not merely speaking of those who reject belief in God (atheists), but also believers who live selfish lives independently of God and His ways. How ironic!

This should be a sobering thought for Christians. It’s easy (and maybe even comforting) to point at others as the fools. But David wrote the Psalms for God’s people to first reflect on their own lives and to appropriately worship God. If God does exist, then rejecting His existence and desires for how we live is the height of foolishness. Yet it is also foolish to claim to believe in God, but to live as if God is absent.

Rather than being quick to point fingers at others, and to condemn them as fools, we Christians would do well to first ask ourselves a few questions: Could we be the fools David discusses in Psalms? Although we claim to believe in God, do we practically live this out? Does our theology match our practice? And in what ways can we become wiser?

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.


[1] Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; vol. 5; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 5143.


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31 replies
  1. John B. Moore says:

    The fool is the one who pretends to be an atheist when he isn’t. A sheep in wolf’s clothing? He makes fools of impressionable Christian youths, who might think they learned something about atheism, or their own faith, from his false “encounter.”

    Reply
  2. Ed Vaessen says:

    “The wise person is someone who believes in God and lives accordingly. The fool is someone who follows human wisdom over divine wisdom, and thus chooses the path of wickedness (see 14:2-5).”

    Oh boy. Am I wicked because I think God does not exists?

    Reply
    • craig says:

      Ed,

      No, because i thought the same way once. didnt know, didnt care

      But if you are living your life like Stalin who knew that the God of the Bible existed who shook his fist vehemently at God and said “I will never bow to you regardles of the consequences because i deny that you Yahweh nor anyone else have lawful ,divine sovereign ownership rights to my life and every right to demand moral acountability from me on the moment I draw my last breath and i hate that” ….then i s’pose so

      Craig

      Reply
      • Ed Vaessen says:

        craig says:
        “But if you are living your life like Stalin who knew that the God of the Bible existed who shook his fist vehemently at God and said “I will never bow to you regardles of the consequences because i deny that you Yahweh nor anyone else have lawful ,divine sovereign ownership rights to my life and every right to demand moral acountability from me on the moment I draw my last breath and i hate that” ….then i s’pose so”

        Do we have any quote from Stalin or any other piece of information that makes clear he believed the God of the Bible existed?

        Reply
  3. Jon Clark says:

    You’re basically saying the same thing she did. How was she wrong in her exegesis? You are wicked if you are not a follower of Jesus Christ. You cannot be a follower of Jesus Christ, if you don’t believe God exists. Regardless of station, or condition. Potato, poTAHto. Peace

    Reply
  4. TGM says:

    “When it is understood this way…”

    And why is it to be understood your way? If “fool” meant “wicked” then why not just say “wicked”? Obviously the translators of the bible don’t see it your way. Why must your reader have to referee your disagreement with the translators to figure this out? And to go straight to the original [documented] source, I’d have to become an expert in Ancient Greek. Why is this necessary in order to understand the sacred words of an all powerful deity?

    Reply
    • Tim says:

      I agree. I think it is all to easy to grab a Greek dictionary and find a different use of the Greek and to mold the verse into meaning something else.

      Reply
  5. dc says:

    In my experience people won’t come to belief in Christ as their savior through rational debate any more than al-Assad having a my bad moment tomorrow and confessing his atrocities….. not sure why this is, having different worldviews seems a bit circular; but one thing I believe most Christians will attest to is the experiential aspect of having Christ in their heart, the overt change of a person with spiritual renewal and awareness of God’s immanence, no one can attain that till they accept him…period! Those who have witnessed this deep change in people will appreciate what I mean. But I’ll hazard a guess many atheists would refer to this some sort of self-delusion and no more mysterious than say the placebo effect… oh dear

    Reply
    • TGM says:

      Thank you for implying that acceptance of Christianity is irrational. As to whether an atheist would think your experience was delusional… perhaps. But a fair-minded atheist would admit to being unable to access what is going on in your mind. Instead, their better response would be to ask you why, given human susceptibility to bias and given how easily people can fool themselves, you could feel confident that what you describe as ‘awareness of god’ is truly that. In fact, what is your method for distinguishing between ‘awareness of god’ and ‘something that I cannot yet explain’?

      Reply
      • Dc says:

        You can infer what you like, I believe the Christian Worldview is very rational and cooroborated by a preponderance of historical evidence. My point was that belief can be strenghtened by the spiritual “metaphysical” realm also. In this case receiving Christ into one’s life.

        Reply
        • Ed Vaessen says:

          “You can infer what you like, I believe the Christian Worldview is very rational and cooroborated by a preponderance of historical evidence. My point was that belief can be strenghtened by the spiritual “metaphysical” realm also. In this case receiving Christ into one’s life.”

          TGM only asked a question. How can you know that you are not fooling yourself? What makes your perceived certainty more certain than that of a Hindu or a Muslim? “I feel it is true” will not convince any rational person.
          By the way: ‘historical evidence’ is a very good reason for not believing in Christ. Historical evidence does the same disservice to all other religions in that respect.

          Reply
          • dc says:

            thanks for your reply, I enjoy the interaction.

            1. Evidence for the remarkably changed lives of people who come to Christ is worth looking into and should be taken more seriously than one’s perceived certainty. Again I would be cautious to conflate religions, and their experiences. With respect, the Christian experience is different because it is the Truth.
            2. I would appreciate your take / theory in response to the contemporary scholarship, even those who are not Christian, where the consensus is i. Jesus existed ii. he was crucified on a roman cross iii. his tomb was empty after 3 days iv his followers having been fearful for their lives at his death, subsequently have a complete change of heart and proclaim they saw him v. Saul a jew who persecuted Christians has a change of heart and dies for his belief that he saw Jesus after he died. Cheers

          • Kyle says:

            1. Evidence for the remarkably changed lives of people who come to Scientology is worth looking into and should be taken more seriously than one’s perceived certainty. Again I would be cautious to conflate religions, and their experiences. With respect, the Scientologist experience is different because it is the Truth.

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            dc:
            “2. I would appreciate your take / theory in response to the contemporary scholarship, even those who are not Christian, where the consensus is i. Jesus existed ii. he was crucified on a roman cross iii. his tomb was empty after 3 days iv his followers having been fearful for their lives at his death, subsequently have a complete change of heart and proclaim they saw him v. Saul a jew who persecuted Christians has a change of heart and dies for his belief that he saw Jesus after he died. Cheers”

            Most scholars will agree that a Jesus likely existed. But on an empty tomb and all the rest most will not agree.
            So you have no rational arguments.
            Cheers and please don’t try to convince people with unfounded assumptions.

        • toby says:

          2. I would appreciate your take / theory in response to the contemporary scholarship, even those who are not Christian, where the consensus is:
          i. Jesus existed
          Saying that someone existed in an ancient book is not an extraordinary claim. People have existed, so I assume this person could have existed.
          ii. he was crucified on a roman cross
          Romans crucified people, he could have existed, so he could also have been crucified.
          iii. his tomb was empty after 3 days
          Grave robbery is a thing that exists so saying that the body was gone is not an outrageous claim.
          iv his followers having been fearful for their lives at his death subsequently have a complete change of heart and proclaim they saw him
          Friends of criminals against the state are often fearful of being captured themselves for proximity to a criminal. Also it can be disappointing to a rebel when their lead rebel dies and they fear the collapse of their enemy won’t happen. The second point would also open the pathway to lying about the death of their leader to make their enemy look foolish and weak.
          v. Saul a jew who persecuted Christians has a change of heart and dies for his belief that he saw Jesus after he died. Cheers
          Paul had a “vision” similar to that of Joseph Smith. He also spoke about how those that spread the word and taught about god was also worth twice as much pay as anyone else. This makes his credibility questionable. Along with seeming to make things up as he went to appease his crowd, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”

          Reply
          • dc says:

            I stopped at grave robbery, sorry I am not being disrespectful but I will leave it there…

            all the best

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            dc says:
            “http://crossexamined.org/10-reasons-accept-resurrection-jesus-historical-fact/

            i guess all this can be explained away also…”

            Dumping an URL is a clear sign that you have are not able to formulate answers on your own.

          • toby says:

            I stopped at grave robbery, sorry I am not being disrespectful but I will leave it there…
            Is that not the first thing that jumps into your head when you hear empty tomb/grave? Look to egypt to see evidence of empty tombs. If you heard that a grave was found opened and empty at a local cemetery would your first response be to think a body resurrected itself? If someone personally visited you and said that they saw and talked to that reanimated person, but you didn’t see or talk to that person yourself, would you believe the person telling you? I find it hard to believe that you would. Today we have cameras and video. You’d want actual proof. But you and millions like you are completely fine with, “It was written in this old book so I believe it on account of this spooky/hopeful feeling it gives me when I think about those things as being real and happening.”

          • Andy Ryan says:

            Grave robbery is not only a thing that exists, it was actually pretty common at the time. And even Matthew 27 says that the tomb wasn’t guarded until after the body had been in there a whole night.

          • toby says:

            And even Matthew 27 says that the tomb wasn’t guarded until after the body had been in there a whole night.
            Very true. It even says that the body was given to Arimathea to be taken there. Did anyone see him put it there? Was there a roman guard following along to make sure? Doesn’t say. You’d think it would include taht.

    • toby says:

      How do you account for the people of other religions having the same “experiential aspect” of their religion? It happens across the board from christianity to islam to wiccans to buddhists.

      no one can attain that till they accept him…period! . . . . But I’ll hazard a guess many atheists would refer to this some sort of self-delusion and no more mysterious than say the placebo effect… oh dear
      Do you not realize that in the first sentence you describe how placebo works, then in the last complain that people will say it’s placebo? If you prime yourself with blind belief then is it so outrageous to think that at any event you’ll jump to the conclusion that whatever you believe was the cause? People convince themselves that their god helped them make it to work on time, made sure they had just enough milk left in the jug for their cereal the next morning, saved their house from the tornado while the rest of the neighborhood was wrecked. If you believe that ghosts exist then when you’re in a place that people say is haunted, guess what you’re going to experience.

      Reply
      • Dc says:

        Am I speaking about other religions or ghosts? You may have the spiritual realm all worked out, well done , maybe even accepted Christ at some point, if so I would ask how did that work out for you?

        And not sure how my first sentence explains the placebo effect; essentially I wanted to say that people will believe or do what they want despite all the evidence all around them. And that’s their call.

        Reply
        • toby says:

          And not sure how my first sentence explains the placebo effect;
          You’re given a pill by someone you trust. You believe them and in turn believe the pill will work. Same with Jesus.

          Am I speaking about other religions or ghosts?
          I brought it up to make a point that you didn’t respond to. So again: How do you account for the people of other religions having the same “experiential aspect” of their religion?

          Reply
          • dc says:

            Hi Toby,
            1. Yes well the placebo effect is empirically proven to work on occasions, and it’s a paradox of sorts. But your conclusion that Jesus is one doesn’t necessarily follow. Jesus could also be the correct medication. I would suggest to the extent that experience is not rooted in the belief of salvation through Christ, according to sound biblical doctrine, then the source of that experience and therefore the experience itself is not the same.

            2. In short, I can’t comment on those religious experiences and because I am not familiar with their examples, it would be like a chemist being told to explain physics because he is a scientist. Again, I can only speak of personal experience and of other Christians. But what I can say is that the spiritual world is not just the realm of the God, but also Satan. And those who are not with Jesus as their Lord are lost until they accept him.

          • toby says:

            In short, I can’t comment on those religious experiences and because I am not familiar with their examples, it would be like a chemist being told to explain physics because he is a scientist.
            I thought that you could comment on how someone who experiences the same feelings and certainty as you about their religion makes you think about yours. Apparently that’s satan.

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