Atheism is often taken to be the exact antithesis of Christian faith. While both are mutually exclusive in that you can not simultaneously be a committed atheist and a committed Christian, to listen to some Christians talk about atheists, one would imagine that they are mortal enemies. Contempt is heaped upon them. In part, this has been due to the emergence of the New Atheism in the 21st century, with figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens fueling the flame of an ‘evangelistic’ atheism. However, what is more responsible for the strong judgment of atheists are two Psalms, Psalm 14.1 and 53.1, both of which read in most translations as: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.'” Most of the time, we hear this against the backdrop of our theological point of views, interpreting it as stance on the ontic existence of God, with the (inaccurate) idea being drawn from the psalms that atheists are deeply immoral people.
However, as John Goldingay has pointed out, the Hebrew here is not intended to reflect such an abstract topic. Rather, it more so refer to the line of thinking “that God can be discounted from everyday life.”1 It is used in a similar way in Psalm 10.3-4 to describe the wicked and greedy who pursue their desires and speak against God. Given the phrase’s association with the villainous, scoundrel character being referred to that is often badly translated as “fool,” an appropriate analogy would be to imagine a thief saying “There are no cops” as they prowl a neighborhood looking for a target. It is a form of speech whose implications are implicit in what is said: no one is around to stop them. Thus, the Psalmist is describing a villainous figure who imagines that God is not around to do anything about what he plans to do.
Now, if you pay attention to the rest of the two psalms, their speech is technically correct. It is said that God “looks down from heaven” (14.2; 53.2). Such language implies that God may not seem to be present to stop the scoundrel’s actions. However, as the two almost identical psalms go on to sing, God sees all the wickedness that is going on. Even if God is not there in that moment to prevent their evil actions, God is not ignorant of the wickedness of humanity. He sees what the scoundrel thinks goes unseen so that God will act to deliver the fortunes of his people (14.7; 53.6). God will act as a refuge for the poor, common targets of scoundrels due to their defenselessness (14.6) and will bring shame upon the godless (51.5). The scoundrel is turning an incomplete truth, which fails to take into account that God can see in heaven what is going, and turns it into a misleading truth: that is, because God is not manifestly present in the moment of their plans, they draw the conclusion that God will do nothing because the corrupt desires of their heart take the apparent absence of God as something to exploit to their benefit. The point of the psalm is to shed light on the thinking of scoundrels (perhaps as a way to give people guidance as to when they are crossing towards wicked thinking) and remind God’s people that God sees what is happening and will take action on behalf of those who are exploited. Even as people face the harms and injustice inflicted on them from such figures, God does see and knows the affliction. They reason from God’s apparent lack of presence that He does not see so as to respond to uphold the vulnerable and bring to naught the wicked. Yet, God not only does God sees their individual wickedness, but He is able to see the flood of evil that has swarmed humanity (the Psalmist’s hyperbolic speech that is not to be taken literally). God is not limited in how much He can take in and know about human activity, but He sees.
We see a similar sentiment express by a victim of abuse in Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, who after being mistreated, Hagar decides to run away. However, God sends an angel and lets her know of His plans for her son. In response, Hagar calls God “El-Roi,” which means “God who sees” (Gen 16.13). While Sarah’ abusive behavior is due to her being a scoundrel figure, but rather her jealousy, the story of Hagar represents the same thought that Psalms 14 and 53 are expressing: God is one who sees the injustice and wickedness committed by humanity and he will step in to intervene on behalf of His people. God acts on behalf of His faithful people, who continue to trust in Him in the midst of the trying times; God’s intervention will occur on their behalf. To that end, the God who sees so as to intervene point forward to the cross and resurrection of Jesus, where God vindicates those who were wickedly treated without anyone to stop it.
Rather than taking these psalms of psalms of judgment against atheists, these psalms more appropriately apply to those people who underestimate God’s justice and vindication. An appropriate description of such people is that they do not have the fear of God in their hearts that would otherwise guide them to be diligent in faithfulness and righteousness. An equivalent form of speech today in Christian circles may be “God will forgive…,” being under the impression that they will not be held to account for what they do. However, it is God who sees, it is God who knows, it is God who delivers, it is God who rescues.