“The fool says there’s no God around.”

Psalm 14.1, 53.1.

The New Living Translation renders Psalm 14.1 and 53.1 exactly the same:

Psalm 14.1, 53.1 NLT
Only fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!

It’s because Psalms 14 and 53 are actually the same psalm. David ben Jesse wrote it five centuries before Psalms got put together—and Psalms is actually made of five different psalters. The first book Ps 1-41 had it, and so did the second Ps 42-72 —so yep, it’s in there twice. For fun, you can compare the two psalms for the differences which slipped into the psalm over time. It’s kinda like different hymnals which have alternate verses to your favorite hymns. (“Amazing Grace,” fr’instance, is a bit different from the way John Newton originally wrote it.)

Differences the NLT actually muted. ’Cause it translated two different words as “actions.” Psalm 14.1 has עֲלִילָ֗ה/alilá, “a doing,” and Psalm 53.1 has עָ֝֗וֶל/avél, “an immoral deed.” The NLT’s translators wanted to emphasize the verses’ similarities so much, they erased their differences. Which isn’t always the right route to take, but one the NLT and NIV translation committees prefer. This is why I tell people to study multiple bible translations: Y’never know what you might be missing because of the translators’ various agendas.

But I digress. Today I’m writing about the first part of the verse, which the KJV phrases thisaway:

Psalm 14.1, 53.1 KJV
1A The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

It’s a verse I’ve heard quoted many, many times. Usually by Christians who wanna refer to nontheists as fools.

Frequently Christian apologists wanna use this verse as a proof text to argue in favor of God’s existence. As if quoting bible is how you prove God exists: “See, the bible says he’s real, so there.” That’s gonna work on a nontheist exactly the same as if I whipped out a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and said, “See, Oz is a real place!” You don‘t prove God exists with words; especially rude words. You prove he exists by giving ’em a God-experience. Anything else basically makes you the fool.

And I wanna back up even further and question whether this verse is even about nontheists at all. Y’might guess I would say it’s really not.

What’s the psalm about again?

In most editions of the King James Version, if an English word doesn’t have an original-language equivalent—if it was added to the text in order to make it more readable English—the KJV puts it in italics. (I do something similar with my own translations: I put the words I added in gray, or if I’m using red text, lighter red.) So when you read “There is no God” in the verse, the KJV’s editors had to put “There is” in italics. ’Cause properly, אָ֘מַ֤ר נָבָ֣ל בְּלִבּוֹ אֵ֣ין ‎אֱלֹהִ֑ים/amár navál b’libó ayn Elohím means “An empty [person] says in his heart, ‘Not God!’ ”

Not God what?

This doesn’t automatically mean God doesn’t exist. It means God is not. Not what? Not here. Not around. Not having anything to do with these circumstances. This isn’t a statement of nontheism; it’s a statement that God isn’t here, and as a result the unbelieving fool does what we see in the second part of this verse.

Psalm 53.1 KWL
Idiots tell themselves, “God isn’t around,”
then ruin things, commit immoral deeds, and do nothing good.

It’s a cause-and-effect relationship. People imagine God’s not watching, or isn’t around to police them, or is watching us “from a distance,” as Bette Midler’s song inaccurately puts it. God’s not everywhere; he’s far. And if he’s far, or doesn’t really care, or doesn’t intervene in human behavior during the present dispensation, they figure now they can get away with stuff.

That’s why God looks from heaven at humanity (which isn’t far away, despite what people imagine) and sees none of us following him. None of us calling out to him. Oppressing God’s people, fearing things that aren’t real fears, and otherwise behaving in ways God despises. Read the rest of the psalm; you’ll get the idea.

My version of Psalm 14 rhymes:

Psalm 14 KWL
0 To the director. By David.
1 The stupid think God isn’t here.
They wreck. They do no good. They sneer.
2 From heaven, the LORD looks to see
if any child of Adam be
astute enough to seek God out.
3 But all of them are turned about.
They’re twisted. They do nothing good.
Not one of them knows what they should.
4 Their every act is sin; when all
eat bread, it’s not the LORD they call.
5 There’s no respect; no holy dread.
God’s with our righteous group, instead.
6 Ashamed to help the poor, are you?
Because the LORD’s their refuge, true?
7 Was rescue sent from Zion’s hill?
Who got this aid for Israel?
The LORD will set his people free.
May Jacob—Israel—have glee.

See, when Christians read of this irreligious behavior and leap to the conclusion it’s because people don‘t believe God exists whatsoever, we miss the fact humans behave this way even when we do believe in God. The problem isn’t theism or nontheism. It’s that people think God’s not relevant. They differentiate between their religious life and their secular life, and presume God doesn’t care what they do in the secular arena. Or they figure God forgives all, so it no longer matters if they sin. Or whatever excuse gives ’em full access to the cookie jar.

Claiming verse 1 is about people who don’t believe in God, doesn’t just miss the point of the psalm: It blames nontheists for something which isn’t really a nontheist problem. It’s a human problem.

In the United States, various Christians blame the nontheists for what they imagine is America’s growing sin problem. (Statistically it’s shrinking, not growing, but that’s a discussion for another time.) They claim America’s going to hell, and it’s because fewer and fewer people believe in God. And yeah, the percentage of notheists in our population is increasing. But it’s still about 8 percent. (Other countries have much higher percentages; China, which contains probably the greatest number of nontheists, currently polls at about 42 percent.) Yet David stated everyone’s gone astray. And society’s crimes and misdeeds demonstrate he’s right: Everyone’s gone astray. Any evil which takes place in America can’t be entirely placed on the nontheists; our Christians are totally complicit. Sinners include the majority which does believe in God or gods.

So while various Christians will claim these psalms are about the perils of nontheism, and all nontheists are fools, that’s not what they’re about. They’re statements about how people are stupid to ignore God. He’s not distant. In fact he’s quite ready to judge our sins.

Time to start repenting.

Nontheism is our fault anyway.

In my experience, people become nontheists because Christians have done a crappy job of demonstrating God.

Like I said, if you wanna convince a nontheist God is real, give ’em a God-experience. Christians who actively include God in our lives should be able to demonstrate his reality by behaving like Jesus, being fruitful like Jesus, and where necessary doing miracles like Jesus. If we’re not producing fruit, of course nontheists aren’t gonna believe; we’ve given them nothing to work with. We’re supposed to live the sort of God-filled lives which make nontheists seriously doubt their beliefs.

But we don’t. On the contrary: There are way too many cessationists in Christendom, who figure miracles were for bygone days, or only for missionaries and saints. They have nothing to show. And there’s very little distance between cessationism and nontheism: It’s only a single step from “God doesn’t act” to “God doesn’t exist.” Only a single step from “God is distant” to “God is absent.” Only a single step from “The bible speaks of life in olden times” to “The bible speaks of life in mythical times.”

It’s why I’ve met so many nontheists who grew up in cessationist churches. They didn’t have to change their lifestyle and beliefs all that much. Just flip a switch from “maybe” to “maybe not.”

I’m not just blaming those who pish-posh miracles. Fruitless Christians are also lousy examples. Pagans are fully aware that if we claim to follow Jesus, we gotta act it; claiming “God forgives all, so it’s okay if I don’t act it” is a dick move. And if we claim God’s real, but have no changes in behavior and lifestyle to show for it, what proof is that of God’s reality? Why do we go to so much trouble to relabel our bad behaviors as fruit, or pretend we’re better than we are? They figure they’ve taken the saner course: Drop the act, and enjoy the rest of our godless lives.

We’ve got to be so much better than this. We gotta stop being fools whose lives expose the fact we don‘t take God seriously. I can’t blame a nontheist for looking at how irreligious Christians behave, and doubt God as a result. I can only blame ’em if they’ve seen better. So let’s show them better, and stop settling for any godless form of Christianity.

Context.

Christian apologetics.