I recently gave a talk on campus to a group of Christian undergraduates. Afterward, an earnest young man spoke to me of his science class with a lecturer who boasted of atheism. “How can you be so stupid not to believe the evidence for God’s existence? But the Bible says that fools don’t believe in God, right?” The student laughed at his paraphrase of Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
But this isn’t really what the Bible means. Professors aren’t stupid. And there are many atheists and unbelievers more intelligent than you or me. When the Bible states, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” it’s not insulting unbelievers’ intelligence. Did you notice the fool doesn’t say “there is no God” in her head, but rather in her heart? Scripture simply takes as a given the living God. The great question, then, isn’t whether God exists, but whether we commit to God. The fool doesn’t need more education or a greater IQ. He needs a change of heart.
This is why Jesus—who often calls people foolish (e.g., Matt. 25:2; Luke 11:40; Luke 12:20)—teaches that a person who encounters him but then turns away is like a fool “who built his house on sand” (Matt. 7:26). Similarly, Paul makes clear that what makes a fool is that they don’t care that God is (Rom. 1:21). Simply put, a fool is made in the heart, not the head.
So the Bible declares matter-of-factly that unbelievers are fools. Yet here’s where things get a little complicated: the Bible also declares that believers are fools!
There is a wrong way to be a fool. Yes, unbelievers are too proud to bow to the living God and too busy to follow the way of Jesus—but aren’t we also routinely guilty of such foolishness? “My people are fools,” complains God; “they do not know me” (Jer. 4:22). Indeed, the prophets of the Old Testament are especially critical when God’s people live as if it doesn’t matter that God is. This is what sociologists of religion call practical atheism: our heads believe in God, but our lives don’t look like it. This “atheism” of the heart is a perpetual risk for those of us, who—of course!—go to church and profess the creeds yet don’t commit our full selves to Jesus’ rule.
But there is a right way for Christians to be fools. “A man who has faith must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool,” argued G.K. Chesterton in his classic book Heretics (1905). This must be so for followers of the incarnate and crucified God. God appears in Jesus as all that is foolish in the eyes of the world: weakness, suffering, even a shameful death. And yet the life and death of Jesus reveal that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). A Scripture-shaped, Christ-like life will look foolish in our society.
So it seems there’s a wrong way to be a fool and a right way to be a fool. How foolish not to receive the gift of life offered to us in and through Jesus Christ! Yet to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord will have us—to cite Chesterton—playing “the court fool of the King of Paradise.”
About the Author
Todd Statham is the Christian Reformed chaplain at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus) and a research fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge.