The psalmist calls the atheist a fool because he is ignorant, does nothing good, and is corrupt. I have heard others call the atheist a fool because he lives a morally repugnant life. But I think there is another reason to call them fools: they declare the absolute non-existence of God.
In philosophy this is called the affirmation of a universal negative. Ok, so that’s a nerdy thing to say, but having a philosophy background I understand the difficulty of affirming a universal negative. For instance, if I state that there is no mouse in my house, I must know my house completely; there can be no area in my house, no matter how small, that escapes my knowledge. It is only after I have such complete knowledge of my house, that I am able to state, with certainty, the non-existence of a mouse in my house. But keep in mind, that is only for a single moment of time. If I want to state there never has, nor ever will exist a mouse in my house, I must know my house for all of its existence: past and future. This makes my a-mousism (no mouse!) a near impossibility!
Now let’s expand such a claim to the claim of God’s non-existence. I need complete knowledge of the entirety of the universe, as well as every other actual and possible dimension and universe for all of the, past, present, and future before I could declare the non-existence of God. I would, in fact, have to be omniscient and omnipresent, (oddly the very thing I am arguing against), to declare there is no omniscient, omnipresent being. You see the problem? What fools they are! Right?
But actually, on second thought, I’m not so sure Psalm 14 is really about those people, or at the very least, not only those people. I think there are others possibly even more foolish than the atheist. While it is true the atheist declares Gods non-existence with both voice and heart, there are some, while not declaring it with their voice, whose heart declares God’s non-existence. It is this second group on which I think the psalmist has his focus.
Who are these people you might ask? Well, I think these people are the group we call “all of humanity.”
Ok, I get it, the real atheists are also part of that group, but so are we: you and I are also fools. What I mean is, how often do you behave as if God wasn’t looking? How often do you make decisions thinking he won’t know? When was the last time you stopped yourself from sinning because you realized God was there? What do you think sin is anyway? Isn’t sin the declaration that I can choose right and wrong on my own and I don’t need him? Isn’t sin a way of saying to God, “I can live quite nicely without you, thank you very much?”
If we study Genesis 3 closely we will see that when Eve said the fruit was “desirable for gaining wisdom” she was really declaring her independence from God and his wisdom: she chose to find wisdom in her own way. At this moment, although rationally affirming God’s existence, Eve’s heart declared God’s non-existence. She went her own way to do her own thing and find her own truth. And ever since then, every time we sin we say, along with Eve, “the object of my sinful desire will give me something that I can’t get from God.” In fact, the more we sin, the more our affirmation of God’s irrelevance turns into a heart-felt atheism. We may not say it with our lips, but we certainly do with our actions.
Sort of a bleak picture, isn’t it? They are fools. We are fools. Everyone’s a fool. We have all turned away, we have all become corrupt, there is not no one who does good, not even one. In this sense, it is not an us versus them world, there is only us: we are all fools together.
But notice what the psalmist says toward the end of the psalm, “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!” I think this is where we get to talk about God’s famous “but” even though the psalmist doesn’t use the word “but.” Scripture often uses the phrase “But God” when transitioning from a description of man’s sin to a declaration of God’s grace and mercy. One of the more famous instances is found in Ephesians 2:1-5 where Paul says we were dead in our sins, living lives of utter destruction and rebellion, BUT GOD in his mercy and great love brought us back from the dead and saved us from our sins so we might be raised to live with him in heaven forever. This is the salvation the psalmist was looking for; this is the salvation promised to us in the garden; this is the salvation consummated on the cross; and this is the salvation offered to the fools of the world, every one of us.