Q&A: Calling a Fool a Fool

Calling a Fool a Fool

Question

In Psalm 14:1 God says that only a fool won’t believe in him. But in Matthew 5:22 the Bible says we shouldn’t call anyone a fool. I don’t get it? Don’t these verses conflict with one another?

Answer

Psalm 14:1: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.

Matthew 5:22: But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

The context of Psalm 14:1 concerns a sinner who doesn’t believe there is a God (cf. Psa. 53:1). We know they are sinners as the verse also includes the phrase, “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.” And Paul’s uses the greater context of Psalm 14:1-3,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

to describe sinners (Rom. 3:9) in Romans 3:10-12,

as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

So, the context of both sets of verses concerns sinners. And both the author of the Psalm and Paul are speaking of literal facts. As compared to God’s will, sinners do not do good; they don’t seek after God: they are worthless; and they are corrupt (cf. Rom. 8:7-8). However, there is not even a hint or allusion of malice or anger in either text. But with Matthew 5:22-26, the context of calling someone a fool is unrighteous anger. The verse even mentions anger within it. So, we are speaking of two entirely different situations in Psalm 14:1 and Matthew 5:22: one concerns known facts and the other unrighteous anger.

Also, we should recognize the two different types of anger – righteous (Eph. 4:26) and unrighteous (Jas. 1:20; cf. Matt. 5:22). Even Jesus himself called numerous people fools in Matthew 23:17 where he of the scribes and Pharisees, “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?” In context, Jesus was righteously angry and delivered seven woes upon his enemies - not his brothers, but the enemies of God (Matt. 23:13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). Jesus wasn’t sinning (Heb. 4:15). When God is angry with someone, he is always just in his anger (cf. Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 3:5; 11:15-18; John 2:13-17).

Lastly, notice that within the greater context of Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus used the word “brother” four times. Someone who does not believe in God is not our brother.

So, God is not wrong – and we aren’t either – for calling someone who is not our brother a fool when it is true and not in unrighteous anger.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).