Psalm 14:1 is the verse that a lot of Christians like to quote to atheists, believing it is a rebuke of their atheism. However, if we look at the entire passage, we see a different picture:
Psalms 14:1-3: The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. (2) The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (3) All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.
Christians usually only quote the first half of Psalm 14:1, as if it is a slap in the face to atheists. Is this really a verse against atheism?
The second half of verse 14:1 says "They are corrupt, their deeds are vile." At first, you might think that the "they" are those who disbelieve in the existence of God. However, the end of verse 14:1 says "there is no one who does good." One might still think that the verse is referring to atheists. However, Psalm 14:2-3 make it clear that as God looks down on all people, He can find none who are not corrupt, emphasizing it with "not even one."
The Hebrew word translated "fool" is nâbâl,1 which is an adjective having the meaning of "stupid, wicked" or "vile person." It comes from the root verb nâbêl,2 which means "to fall away," "figuratively to be foolish or (morally) wicked" or "causatively to despise, disgrace: - disgrace, dishonour." So, the Hebrew word nâbâl refers more to bad moral character rather than just being stupid. He is foolish because he thinks God will not notice his bad behavior.
Who is the fool?
The passage makes it clear that God can find nobody who does good or even tries to understand God's ways. From God's perspective, not one person attains His standard of moral behavior. So, God sees all of us as fools. We all like to compare our behavior to that of others. When I was living as an atheist, I was morally superior to most Christians. However, I was still not measuring up to God's moral code.
How to "measure up"
Unless you think you can lead a perfectly moral life, God has a solution for your problem. God's solution is to allow you to trade your moral imperfection for the moral perfection of Jesus Christ. The trade is accomplished through faith in Jesus' sacrifice as payment for your sins. The offer is really generous, but will cost you your self-righteousness. No, you can't remain an atheist either. As the psalmist says, you must "seek God."
The fool says there is no God. But, he is not foolish because he is an atheist, but because he thinks he can get away with bad moral behavior. Psalm 14 goes on to say that all people are corrupt and there is not even one who does good. So, God says that we are all immoral fools. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we He can measure up to the moral perfection required by a Holy God. Don't be a fool and think you can do it on your own!
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Strong's Hebrew Dictionary
nâbâl נבל (Strong's H5036) From H5034; stupid; wicked (especially impious): - fool (-ish, -ish man, -ish woman), vile person.
Strong's Hebrew Dictionary
nâbêl נבל (Strong's H5034) A primitive root; to wilt; generally to fall away, fail, faint; figuratively to be foolish or (morally) wicked; causatively to despise, disgrace: - disgrace, dishonour, lightly esteem, fade (away, -ing), fall (down, -ling, off), do foolishly, come to nought, X surely, make vile, wither.
- See Does Atheism (Determinism) Negatively Impact Morality?
Last Modified June 18, 2014