Who is the fool who has said in his heart, there is no God?

The fool hath said in his heart,
  There is no God.

Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity:
  there is none that doeth good.
God looked down from heaven
  upon the children of men,
to see if there were any that did understand,
  that did seek God.
Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy;
  there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge?
  who eat up my people
    as they eat bread:
  they have not called upon God.

Psalm 53, Authorized (King James) Version

A villain has said to himself,
  “There’s no God here.”

People have been devastating and offensive in evil;
  there’s no one doing good here.
From the heavens God has looked out
  at human beings,
To see if there is someone insightful,
  enquiring of God.
The whole of it has turned backwards, altogether they’re foul;
  there’s no one doing good, there isn’t even one.
They don’t acknowledge, do they, the people devising trouble,
  who eat my people?
They’ve eaten food;
  they haven’t called God.

Psalm 53, John Goldingay, The First Testament

Psalm 53:1 (= Psalm 14:1) has often been used to bash atheists. People who don’t “believe in” God are fools. And “believe in” is theoretical, intellectual. We’re talking about non-theists, people who do not think God exists.

That’s not what the Psalmist had in mind. There weren’t too many theoretical atheists around.

John Goldingay’s rendering jars us. “There’s no God here.” Where does he get the word “here”?

There’s no “here” here in the Hebrew text. He adds it. Why? Because without it we get the wrong idea. As Goldingay says in his commentary (vol. 2, p. 151):

The expression in the second colon is conventionally rendered, ‘There is no God,’ but in the cultural and literary context it will not be a declaration of metaphysical atheism. It rather declares that God is not present in the world as the speaker experiences it.

John Goldingay, Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 42-89, p. 151

We might say: In the here and now, God is AWOL or MIA.  In the translation that he provides in his commentary, Goldingay says, “The crass person says in his heart, / God is not here.”

This psalm does not describe the absence of God as felt by the lonely person, or sick or bereaved or beaten-down person, whose solitary, aching heart registers no consoling divine presence. That is a relational and emotional atheism, a sickness, a form of despair, and the person who experiences it is not a fool and is not to be condemned or argued with but loved and cared for.

Nor does this psalm describe the absence of God in the conclusion of an argument devised or followed by the thinking person who is disappointed in the end to find that the evidence, the premises, and the reasoning processes do not yield, “Ergo deus est, QED.” That is a metaphysical atheism. The arguments may be purely intellectual, in which case the person who reaches this point is not a fool but someone who has not considered all the evidence, or has started from faulty premises, or has made a mistake in reasoning. Maybe if you’re smart enough you could review their argument and help them find the flaw. Or the arguments may be intellectual on one level but colored and tilted by an underlying relational and emotional atheism. Either way, again, this person is not a fool and is not to be condemned or ridiculed, but is perhaps to be reasoned with, and in any event is to be loved and cared for.

This psalm is about the practical atheist, the nabal, the moral moron. The absence of God is here not painfully felt but arrogantly presumed. It is not an absence that is lamented. It is not an absence that is stated either in triumph or in disappointment as the conclusion of an argument. In fact it is not an absence that is voiced at all: the fool hath said in his heart (has said to himself)—not aloud—that there is no God.

In fact, whether in ancient Israel or in the contemporary world, fools like the nabal of this psalm are as likely as anyone else, occasionally or perhaps even constantly, to say with their mouth that there is a God, that they are on God’s side, that God is on their side. They may, probably do, voice the right pieties, sing them loudly, participate in all the right rituals, stand up and sit down and cross themselves or raise their hands at exactly the right moment.

But then—who is the psalmist to say what is or is not in their heart? What judgmental presumptuousness is this?

It’s no good saying: this is the Bible, so God is talking. God is and is not talking throughout the Bible. In the Psalms the voice we see on the page is normally the voice of the human worshiper.

The psalmist is able to say what is in the fool’s heart because the psalmist sees what the fool does. It is obvious if your moral vision is unimpaired. The fools are corrupt (or devastating). They perform abominable iniquity (or offensive evil). The fools have eaten God’s people for lunch. These are observable and observed behaviors. On the basis of these observations, the psalmist declares that these fools (villains) have said in their heart that there is no God. The fool, concludes the psalmist, is a moral, practical atheist.

This actively rebellious practical atheism, like the passive emotional-relational atheism noted above, can also generate a surface layer of metaphysical-theoretical atheism. In such a case, no amount of argument will avail without a prior or concurrent operation of grace that leads to a thoroughgoing metanoia.

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