Atheists in the Old Testament?
Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’?” Were there atheists in Israel?
The passage clearly gives the impression that atheism was known in Israel. My answer to your question is a qualified yes. I will first make a few comments about atheism, then proceed to explore its nature in Psalms.
1. Different Types of Atheism: Scholars speak about different types of atheism, making the meaning of the term somewhat ambiguous. Most people use the term to mean philosophical atheism. This is the belief that there is no God in or outside the universe, and that different arguments (e.g., philosophical and scientific) can be given to support, demonstrate, and/or defend the correctness of this position. For them there is only a purposeless cosmos. Others may believe that there is a god, but argue that the inadequacies of human language make it impossible to talk about him (semantic atheism). Hence, in principle God does not exist. A final example is practical atheism: the belief that there is a God but that we should live our lives as if He did not exist in order to be responsible persons. It could also be defined as believing there is a God while not living according to His will for us. I suggest that the psalmist is referring to this last definition.
2. The Fool and God: According to the psalmist, the practical atheism of the “fool” is hidden in the heart but revealed in actions. It is not a denial of God’s existence, but of His relevance in their lives. Being a fool does not mean being stupid or having significantly limited intellectual capacities. Here foolishness consists of not taking God into serious consideration in our lives. Since God does not occupy a significant place in the thoughts of the fools, they rarely seek Him or pray to Him (Ps. 14:4; 10:4). Their lives are in their own hands. They say to themselves, “God has forgotten; He hides His face; He will never see” (Ps. 10:11). They ascribe to God their own spiritual apathy by describing Him as unconcerned about what they do, as they are about what He says. They also ask, “How does God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?” (Ps. 73:11). God, they claim, is not interested in knowing what we do or in reacting to it; He “will not require an account” (Ps. 10:13). Yes, there is a God, but He is not as involved in human affairs as the pious believe.
3. Wicked yet Blessed: Fools do not take God seriously, but create social chaos. They deceive others through lies and evil (verses 6, 7), and are well acquainted with the “ethics” of corruption. Therefore they mistreat and abuse the poor and the innocent (Ps. 14:1-3; 94:6). Their insensitive conscience is a nest of iniquity and deception (Ps. 73:8, 9).
What confuses the psalmist is the paradox of fools who affirm there is no God, yet enjoy life and well-being. They rejoice in their accomplishments (Ps. 94:3). In spite of disobeying God’s law, “his ways are always prospering” and with self-assurance affirms, “I shall not be moved; I shall never be in adversity” (Ps. 10:5, 6; 73:3). Indeed things go well for them: They do not have the struggles and burdens of the common person, they enjoy good health, and they are socially influential (verses 4, 5, 10). Consequently they are proud (Ps. 94:2; 73:6).
It is precisely because things go well for them, in spite of the way they live, that fools conclude that God does not care much about what they do. He still blesses them. Personal experience is used to justify personal religious convictions. They forget that the purpose of God’s goodness is to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). After visiting the temple the psalmist stated, “Then I understood their end” (Ps. 73:17): That fools will perish (verse 27).
Practical atheism continues to be a threat to those who are willing to rationalize the depth of God’s concern for our convictions and actions. His will is always good for us, and by following it we affirm that there is indeed a God who rules the universe. n
Now retired, Angel Manuel Rodriguez has served as a pastor, professor, theologian, and director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.