A Fool Says in His Heart

Unfortunately, most Christians who apply that famous verse (actually, it appears twice in the scriptures) don’t understand the Hebrew idiom. If they did, they would know that it is not talking about atheists. Indeed, it has nothing to do with atheists.

I think I’ve posted on that topic a couple of times here, so I won’t go into the details again—but I may not recall correctly.


Can you please post again as I don’t recall the details and I would like to understand the real meaning of the passage as having nothing to do with atheism.

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I will do so. I’m on the run and heavily scheduled today. If I don’t post what you’ve requested by tomorrow, feel free to remind me so that I don’t forget about this.

The fool[a] says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
— Psalms 14:1

Notice that the NIV Bible has a footnote “a” on the word “fool” and that footnotes is as follows:

Psalm 14:1 The Hebrew words rendered fool in Psalms denote one who is morally deficient.

"The fool has said in his heart “There is no God.” is NOT about atheists. So many of the claims which far too many Christians make about “atheists” based upon various scriptures betray a sad misunderstanding of the Bible. Psalm 14:1 is probably the most abused.

Bible readers should keep in mind that atheism in the modern day sense was not an issue in ancient Israel, to say the least, so nobody had much reason to talk about it. Secondly, if they read the Hebrew text behind the passage, they would notice that “the fool” is NABAL----which is also a name of a famous Old Testament fool who had a bad run-in with David. (See 1 Samuel 25.) Of course, the word had its meaning long before Nabal was born. (And by the way, it is not the same word at all as the Racca “Thou fool!” that Jesus prohibited.)

Long story short: The audience at the time knew what the text meant in saying “the fool says in his heart”. It is speaking of the religious people of ancient Israel who claim to know God but then —in their heart where they make decisions about right and wrong—they decide and act as if there is no God watching them. They may say with their mouth that they know God but in their moral/ethical decisions (say in their hearts) they act like someone who doesn’t think a righteous God is watching what they do, much less judge them for their evil acts.

Notice how this interpretation fits the context? Notice how it fits the story of the famous fool, NABAL? (1Sam 25)

If the ancient Hebrews had wished to speak of an atheist in our modern day sense, the passage would have referred to one who “has said with his mouth, ‘There is no God.’” Big difference.

SUMMARY: In that culture of ancient Israel …

“To say with one’s mouth” was to speak one’s thoughts and beliefs aloud.

“To say in one’s heart” was to reason and make decisions on a course of action (and actions speak louder than words.)

So, is the Psalmist talking about the atheists of our day? No. A modern day atheist in that sort of context in Psalms 14:1 makes zero sense.

The Psalmist saw that lots of people who outwardly spoke of submitting to the God of Israel as covenant members of the nation of Israel (under the Sinaitic Covenant between God and his people) nevertheless lived morally deficient, foolish lives because their inward thoughts and decisions were just as if they didn’t acknowledge God at all. That is why they they are called fools. Such a person is a NABAL.

The Psalmist had no reason to speak of a “says with one’s mouth” atheist. He had plenty of reasons to denounce “says in one’s heart” atheists among his own covenant people of Israel.

@Patrick, I hope that clears up that Hebrew exegetical issue that is often lost in translation.


I’m really looking forward to the moment when someone drops that verse on @patrick only to get an exegesis correction from him. Oh what fun that will be.


Very good!

Randal Rauser has a similar posting. His books, “Is the Atheist My Neighbor” and “You’re Not as Crazy as I Think” are good, too. The first book also deals with the Romans allusion to “without excuse.”


As a Christian, I’m glad you posted that.


Interesting book. Can you share more about it?

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Where do you get the energy, Dr Swamidass? :slight_smile:

Briefly, Randal Rauser is a Baptist seminary professor in Edmonton, Alberta. He grew up in a strict Pentecostal family, but enjoys talking with skeptics. His favorite method is to “steel man” someone (build up their case and argue from their point of view) rather than “straw man” them. At minimum, he tries to devote 50% of his time to arguing from the other one’s side.


In this book, he argues that we need to be the sort of adversary someone wants to agree with, not just that makes his case as an adversary.

He interacts with a friend/atheist, who co-wrote part of the book. He examines prejudices from Christian standpoint regarding unbelief and doubt, and compassionately discusses God’s view on that.

I think you would enjoy discussing with him as a TCK who tries to build bridges.


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You want to invite him here to explain his book to us?

I started reading the Randal Rauser article and agree with what I’ve read so far. I hope casual readers don’t overlook one of his first important points:

Let’s begin by conceding for the sake of argument (and only for the sake of argument) that the text is addressing intellectual atheists. In other words, when the psalmist speaks of the individual who “says in his heart there is no God,” what he is, in fact, referring to is the individual who denies that God exists (i.e., the atheist).

I’ve already explained that Psalms 14:1 is not addressing “intellectual atheists” per se. Dr. Rauser is making a concession here purely and only for the sake of further developing his rejection of the false arguments so often made. Readers should take special note of that. (I have some concerns that some people who disagree with him—not anyone on this forum—might be prone to quote-mine his argument.)


Oh, good point. If you read the entire part, he’s very clear that he does not feel that the passage applies to atheists at all. I find that he is a very sympathetic and understanding person.

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