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.”
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, where you can find the original version of this article.
 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.