Psalms 14:1 and 53:1: Do Non-Believers Really Do No Good?

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
Psalm 53:1 - The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,”
They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice;
There is no one who does good.
In my last two posts, I have looked at the question of whether Christians have weaponized Psalms 14:1 and 53:1 (they have) but whether the Biblical concept of fool means stupid or silly (it doesn’t). But now I want to turn to the remainder of these two verses because the verses add additional information that Mr. Cline found objectionable in his article, Myth - Atheists Are Fools Who Say "There Is No God": Are Atheists Foolish? Are Atheists Corrupt? Do Atheists Do No Good? Mr. Cline kicks up a great deal of dust over the fact that Christians only like to quote the first part of Psalm 14:1 but not the remainder.

Mr. Cline writes,
Calling someone a fool simply because they don't agree about the existence of a God is no way to initiate a conversation with a stranger; it is, however, a great way to communicate the fact that one isn't interested in real dialogue and only wrote in order to feel better about oneself through attacking others. This can be demonstrated most dramatically by asking if the writer agrees with the second part of the verse, which declares that "They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good." Although few Christians who quote the first portion of the verse rarely go so far as to include the second sentence, no atheist should ever fail to keep in mind that it is always there, hanging unspoken but nevertheless assumed, in the background.

If the Christian doesn't agree with the second part of the verse, then they admit that it's possible to not agree with something in the Bible. If that's the case, then they can't claim that they are required to agree with the first part - but if they do agree with it, then they must admit that they can be held responsible for saying it and can be expected to defend it. If they do agree with that second part of the verse, on the other hand, then they should be expected to defend that and demonstrate that none of the atheists they are talking about "does good." They can't get out of this by saying that it's in the Bible and therefore must be accepted as true.
So, Mr. Cline attempts to set up a choice: If the Christian disagrees with the second half of the verse, she is acknowledging that the Bible is not inerrant. If, however, she stands with the second half of the verse, she must defend it. While I don’t agree those are the only options, for purposes of argument I select option 2: I will agree with the Bible verse and defend it.

First, as noted in the last post, the idea behind fool isn’t that the non-believer is silly or stupid. Rather, the non-believer has made an error on the most basic and important question of human existence: does God exist? This isn’t just an interesting theological/philosophical question like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The answer to the question of whether God exists or not has ramifications in all areas of life from science to politics to morals to truth itself. To answer this question wrong will cause a person to pursue positions and beliefs that will seem perfectly fine if there is no God, but which will bring personal destruction if God really does exist since some of these positions and beliefs defy God. That is what the Bible means when it says that the person who says there is no God is a fool.

The wording of the second part of Psalm 14:1 and 53:1 simply confirms this understanding. Psalm 14:1b reads: “They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one that does good.” Psalm 53:1 merely substitutes “[they] have committed abominable injustice” for “abominable deeds.” Each of these words are Biblically words used to describe the fate of those who fall away from God.

Corrupt – the word here means to spoil or to ruin. This is very similar to the analogy I used last time of the leaf rotting or decaying because it has separated itself from the tree. The person who is corrupt is like a city with its wall thrown down. It is open to destruction.

Abominable – the word here can be translated detestable or vile. The idea is that the person engages in actions or injustices that are detestable to God. The word is closely related to the word regularly translated “abomination” or “detestable,” and is consistently used to describe acts that are made impure or illicit in God’s eyes. It is especially used of things belonging to the worship of idols or the idols themselves. According to Strong’s Bible Dictionary, the word abomination,
… is said of the image to be set up by Antichrist, Mat 24:15; Mar 13:14; of that which is highly esteemed amongst men, in contrast to its real character in the sight of God, Luk 16:15. The constant association with idolatry suggests that what is highly esteemed among men constitutes an idol in the human heart. In Rev 21:27, entrance is forbidden into the Holy City on the part of the unclean, or one who "maketh an abomination and a lie." It is also used of the contents of the golden cup in the hand of the evil woman described in Rev 17:4, and of the name ascribed to her in the following verse.
Thus, both words used to describe non-believers may be seen as synonyms for the word “fool.” When a person rejects God, they become corrupt as they begin to fall into ruin, and they will necessarily engage in actions where they put the idols of this world (e.g., fame, sex, money, power, self-empowerment, family) above God. Seen in this light, it is hard to imagine people who reject God as being anything but corrupt and engaging in activities that would not be considered abominations. It is only our 21st Century spins or connotations of these words that make the phrases even problematic. By not following God, they are necessarily committing sinful acts because sin is merely “missing the mark.” As I explained in my earlier post entitled What is Sin and How Can I Explain It?:
the Bible teaches that God is perfect. (Psalm 18:30, Matthew 5:48) As the creator, He is the source of all that is good, right and just in this universe, and in all of these he is perfect. This leads to a little syllogism:

Premise 1: If God is perfect, what He would do, say and/or think in a given situation is perfect.
Premise 2: God is perfect.
Conclusion 1: Therefore, what God would do, say and/or think in a given situation is perfect.

Thinking logically, if what God would do, say and/or think in a given situation is what is perfect, then whenever anyone does, says and/or thinks that is different than what God would do, say and/or think in any given situation is necessarily acting in a manner that is not perfect. And perfection is the mark that we are trying to hit. (Matthew 5:48) So, when we act in a way that is inconsistent with what God, the perfect being, would do then we are missing the mark, i.e., we are sinning.

C.S. Lewis said, "Whatever is not of faith is sin; it is a stream cut off — a stream that cuts itself off from its source and thinks to run on without it." God is the source. He calls on us to follow Him and to follow in His ways. Yet, we are not perfect, and the major way we demonstrate our imperfection is to stray from God's ways. To paraphrase the Lutheran confession, we depart from God's perfect ways in thought, word and deed; by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We do so because we want to be our own gods. We think we know better. We want to be in charge. And whenever we do so, we stray from the truth and from the ways of perfection.
This is precisely the point being made in these two Psalms. As stated last time, the meaning of the Hebrew word for fool, nabar, is that the person has made that initial error and as a natural consequence will adopts positions that will lead to destruction. So, is the non-believer going to be corrupt in God’s eyes? Yes. Will the non-believer’s deeds be vile in God’s eyes? Yes. These truths are almost beyond doubt.

But Mr. Cline, like many of his fellow non-believers, wants us to believe that he does good things. Christians must, from his point of view, acknowledge that atheists and other non-believers “do good.”



From the Christian point of view, Atheists can engage in moral actions – actions that appear to be moral like feeding the hungry, caring for the sick or helping an old lady cross the street. But without knowledge of God, confusion arises about what is really good. For example, the non-believer may help a young woman to an abortion clinic and call that good, but I am convinced God would not agree. More importantly, God is not concerned with only our actions. God cares as much about the motivation for doing good as he does about the goodness of the act that is done. A person may give to charity, but only because he can get a deduction on his taxes. A person may feed the hungry, but does so to try to meet the pretty girl who is committed to doing so. He may help an old lady cross the street, but only because his neighbors are watching. Even an insect can engage in behavior that seems moral on its face (like a bee sacrificing itself by stinging a bear that it trying to attack the hive), but God looks at motivation, too.

Consider Amos 5:21-24. In that passage, the people of Israel believe that they are doing good. In fact they are doing what God has directly commanded them to do in the sense that they are bringing sacrifices and having festivals remembering the great things that God has done for them. How could that be wrong? But God, who sees the heart, rejects what they do, not because their actions are evil, but rather God rejects the sacrifices and the festivals because the hearts of the Israelites are far from Him. Amos records God’s words:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
The hearts of the Israelis were hopelessly wicked and depraved. Little has changed today. All of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, are far from where God created us to be. Psalm 14:1 is absolutely correct: there is no one who does good – at least not in the eyes of God who sees the secret things.

In fact, the final clause “there is no one that does good” is a major message that animates the Gospel: we (meaning non-believers and believers) are all hopelessly sinful apart from God, and the only way to avoid destruction is to get right with God through accepting the free gift of salvation that comes through His one and only Son, Jesus. The person who says in his heart that there is no God is not in that place and is headed for destruction. That it is applicable to everyone – not just non-believers.

The fact that Mr. Cline doesn’t recognize this is expected because he has cut himself off from the source of all truth by his initial rejection of God and his Lordship. He thinks that because non-believers care for abused children, fight global warming and stand up for immigrants (among hundreds of other causes – some good, some not-so-good) that means that they are moral and the statement that “They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” is necessarily wrong.

Sorry Mr. Cline, but as the passage above demonstrates, God finds the facially moral actions by people whose hearts are not right with God to be empty gestures. The person who doesn’t believe in God is in rebellion to Him and His kingdom, and adopting a puppy or seeking to pass a law against hate crimes doesn’t somehow make the person good in God’s eyes just as adopting a puppy or working to pass a law against hate crimes couldn’t make Benedict Arnold good in the eyes of Colonial law. In God’s world, the place of the heart is every bit as much of what defines goodness and evil as the action itself, and the one who denies God – the one who rejected the source of all goodness – is someone of whom it is rightfully said, “They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”

When the Bible says that the fool has said in his heart that there is no God, the Bible is not saying that the Atheist is silly, stupid or a jester. Many of the Atheists I meet are quite bright, quite serious, and knowledgeable about a lot of things. But if a person is wrong about the most important question of all, i.e., whether there is a God, then the rest of her answers related to the most important question will be wrong and will become increasingly wrong as she continues to separate herself more and more from the truth. That is exactly what Biblical foolishness looks like.

Comments

The Pixie said…
These Psalms are directed at the Jews, not atheists.

They were written during the exile, and the Jews were struggling to understand how they - God's chosen people - could have fallen so low. The answer they came up with was that God had abandoned them because they were so depraved - which probably meant worshiping other gods more than anything else.

So as you say "those who fall away from God", but specifically to Jews who had fallen away, and the "actions or injustices that are detestable to God" would have been worshiping other gods, breaking the first commandment. As you say "the worship of idols", which was actually the worship of gods who were believed to reside in said idols.

BK: More importantly, God is not concerned with only our actions. God cares as much about the motivation for doing good as he does about the goodness of the act that is done. A person may give to charity, but only because he can get a deduction on his taxes.

Absolutely. The atheist who gives freely to charity is far more a good person than the Christian who gives to charity to look good before God.
BK said…
The idea that the Psalms were written during the Babylonian exile is part of a view that says that the Old Testament stories predating the fall of Jerusalem were part of an effort of the Jews to create a national identity. That idea has very little in the way of support and I think that evidence has been discovered over the years that make it a pretty tenuous idea. Both of these Psalms say on their face that they are Psalms of David, and until there is compelling evidence to show otherwise, I accept them as written by David. If they were written by David (as they should be understood), the rest of your comment about them collapses.

Pixie: "The atheist who gives freely to charity is far more a good person than the Christian who gives to charity to look good before God." We agree. However, giving freely to charity is not enough to make the atheist a good person in the eyes of God.
The Pixie said…
B: The idea that the Psalms were written during the Babylonian exile is part of a view that says that the Old Testament stories predating the fall of Jerusalem were part of an effort of the Jews to create a national identity.

The Psalms vary in their dates dramatically. I am saying the specifically Psalms 14 and 53 were written during the exile.

The best evidence for this is verse 7, wishing for God to restore his people, i.e., to end the exile. Why would David long for God to restore his people?

BK However, giving freely to charity is not enough to make the atheist a good person in the eyes of God.

Sure, because God's greatest command is to worship him. In the morality God pushes on us, not worshiping him is the greatest sin. Ultimately, he just wants his ego stroked, and he gets angry when we fail to do that, and it is that which determines who goes to heaven and hell.

My view is that failing to worship God is not morally wrong. The freedom of religion, the freedom to worship who we want or no one at all, is generally considered a basic human right, so I am not alone here.
BK said…
Pixie: "Sure, because God's greatest command is to worship him. In the morality God pushes on us, not worshiping him is the greatest sin. Ultimately, he just wants his ego stroked, and he gets angry when we fail to do that, and it is that which determines who goes to heaven and hell."

Once again, I am reminded of why conversation with you is pointless. I don't know if you are really that stupid or that ignorant or if you are just trying to yank my chain, but regardless you are certainly grossly disrespectful about the things of God. Consider this conversation at an end and I will delete any other comments in this thread.
Px:Sure, because God's greatest command is to worship him. In the morality God pushes on us, not worshiping him is the greatest sin. Ultimately, he just wants his ego stroked, and he gets angry when we fail to do that, and it is that which determines who goes to heaven and hell.

If there is no God who is it getting his ego stroked? A non existent god? If it is the men who made up God why would they make up an egotistical God?

PX: My view is that failing to worship God is not morally wrong. The freedom of religion, the freedom to worship who we want or no one at all, is generally considered a basic human right, so I am not alone here.

where does the Bible say it;s q moral wrong Where does it even say its a sin? Worshiping God is good it's good for us but that doesn't mean it's a moral good,
worshiping God is an outward sign oh piety and piety is a virtue, That's what you are confusing with not worshiping being a moral wrong,
PX:The answer they came up with was that God had abandoned them because they were so depraved - which probably meant worshiping other gods more than anything else.

The major reason I find in prophets Amos and Jeremiah is that they cheated the poor and did social injustice.



PX:So as you say "those who fall away from God", but specifically to Jews who had fallen away, and the "actions or injustices that are detestable to God" would have been worshiping other gods, breaking the first commandment. As you say "the worship of idols", which was actually the worship of gods who were believed to reside in said idols.

the point is worshiping things not God. That links worship of the wrong thing to social injustice

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