Answering fools’ folly
For many Christians today, it might seem that the Bible uses quite harsh language to describe certain of their friends and loved ones—those who don’t believe in God. It calls them ‘fools’:
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”—Psalm 14:1 (also Psalm 53:1)
Similarly in Romans 1:18–32, people who deny God as Creator—despite ubiquitous evidence of His handiwork1—no matter how ‘wise’ they (or others) might think they are, actually thereby “become fools”, and their “foolish hearts” are darkened.
But this doesn’t mean we are to love them any less. On the contrary, we are to “have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 22–23a). We are to “be ready always to give an answer” to those who question us about our faith, and to do this with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Now, I confess that for my first 12 years as a Christian (i.e. since I abandoned atheism and professed in my mid-20s that I would henceforth follow Jesus), I don’t think I ever “gave an answer” to anyone—even when I was ridiculed by certain of my atheist friends for ‘having become religious’.
But all that changed after I attended a creation seminar in 1997.2 Suddenly I could see that the Bible provides believers with a powerful explanatory framework to enable them to give an answer to the questions and challenges from atheists and other non-Christians.
Instead of my self-consciously cringing internally whenever someone asked about my faith, my one-on-one conversations with non-believers became fun and exciting—not least because of the potential eternal benefits for them! I’d like to recount here one such conversation, not just because it was tremendously encouraging and memorable for me, but also because in hindsight I can see I unwittingly brought into play a number of scriptural injunctions relating to evangelism, including ones that atheists wrongly say are contradictory: Proverbs 26:4 and 5.
The conversation extended unbroken for more than three hours during a commercial airline flight from the northern Australian city of Darwin to Brisbane on the east coast.
From Darwin to … Christ?
The young lady seated next to me, with classic Northern Territorian forwardness, introduced herself. Rebecca3 was aged about 15 years and was clearly extremely intelligent, having placed highly in national science competitions. So it wasn’t long before we were discussing ‘science and religion’ issues. She was upfront about her atheist views, believing evolution, and was aghast to learn of my conversion from atheism to biblical Christianity (6,000-year-old universe and all that) ‘despite’ my having a Ph.D. (Yet another demonstration that the mere existence of Bible-believing Ph.D. scientists4 is confronting to atheists!)
During our wide-ranging discussion, Rebecca spoke of her desire to study veterinary science, so as to be equipped to fulfill her Jane-Goodall-like passion5 for nursing endangered primate species such as the gorilla and gibbon back to health.
I said, “Wait a minute. In an evolutionary survival-of-the-fittest world they’re our competitors! Why should we squander resources on looking after animals of no use to us and which cannot possibly compete with man, and are going to die anyway? Not only does it make no sense, but you’re a traitor to your own species!”
Rebecca paled, and leaning back dejectedly, said, “When I boarded this flight, I knew who I was, I knew exactly what to think, but now … I’m not so sure any more about what to believe—and on top of that, you’ve now taken away my reason for living …”
I replied, “Whoa right there! Time out! What I just put to you was according to your view of origins, not mine. I believe the Bible’s account of origins. Your desire to care for sick animals is completely illogical within an evolutionary framework, but is absolutely consistent with what the Bible says—that God has given man dominion over the creation [Genesis 1:28]. So it makes complete sense that God would put into your heart a passion for looking after His sick and hurting creatures in this cursed and fallen world.”
Clearly that hit home, for Rebecca then said, “I want to hear more.”
And so our conversation continued. I ‘gave an answer’ to her increasingly intense questions about life, the universe and everything.
At the end of the flight, as the plane taxied to a halt, I said as nonchalantly as I could, “Well, I don’t suppose you’ve converted to Christianity yet?”
Rebecca looked straight back at me, and answered softly, yet firmly, “I am very, very close.”
As you might imagine, Rebecca’s closing comment and her undertaking (insistence!) that she would buy her own Bible to read it for herself, left me invigorated.
After disembarking, as I mentally replayed our conversation, I became aware that I had unwittingly applied the advice of both Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5:
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”—Proverbs 26:4
“Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”—Proverbs 26:5
Some skeptics like to mock these verses as being ‘contradictory’, as if the author was stupid enough to put genuinely contradictory sentences together, although it was obviously intentional.6
When telling Rebecca she was a ‘traitor’ to her own species, it was right in line with verse 5—I had seized an opportunity (Colossians 4:5–6) to expose the folly of the evolutionary paradigm. And once Rebecca had got that point (“you’ve now taken away my reason for living”), my hasty correction and supplanting of that folly with the wisdom that comes from God’s Word was right in line with verse 4.
And look at the result—an avowed atheist evolutionist at the start of the flight had dramatically shifted ground during the course of a single conversation. She had gone from shock at my believing the Bible, to saying “I want to hear more”—a nice example of what can be achieved by adopting the Apostle Paul’s strategy when addressing Greek-thinkers of going back to origins. “We want to hear you again on this subject”—Acts 17:16–34.7
Notice the importance of applying both verse 4 and verse 5. It would not have been enough if I had merely made my ‘traitor’ remark. That would have limited me to arguing without the Bible—in which case I would have sadly been just like the one I was arguing with! Unfortunately, many Christians erroneously think they can argue against evolution (or other issues like gay ‘marriage’ or abortion) using only the evolutionists’ own presuppositions. In other words, tacitly agreeing to the evolutionists’ terms of the debate: “Keep the Bible out of it!”
No, instead we have to show others that logical thinking is only possible when built on the Bible.8 So when it comes to applying these two verses from Proverbs 26, it’s a case of both/and, not either/or. They are not contradictory instructions, but complementary.
Scripture—a great guide to evangelism!
In talking one-on-one with Rebecca, I had opportunity to speak to her personal hopes and ambitions, knowing that God cares about these (Psalm 37:4, 1 Peter 5:7). Her desire to nurse sick animals was a good thing, which had come from God (1 Timothy 4:4), written on her heart (Romans 2:15). But as long as she entertained evolutionary ideas of origins, her thinking would be illogically “divided against itself” (Matthew 12:25), “unable to stand”, i.e. unsustainable. I invited her to choose instead to “cling to the good” (Romans 12:9).
Was I disappointed she hadn’t yet gone as far as receiving Christ? Well … that would’ve been great, but the Scriptures remind us that none of us works alone (1 Corinthians 3:6), and that prayer is crucial (Acts 26:29, Romans 10:1). We can have the satisfaction of knowing that God is sovereign in salvation (John 6:44), and our labours in these matters are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Certainly I had the satisfaction of seeing with my own eyes someone who, in boarding that plane to Brisbane, left Darwin behind—not just the city, but hopefully also the ideas of the man after whom it was named.9 I pray that many others, too, will leave evolutionary ideas behind and instead embrace Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).
References and notes
- See Sarfati, J., Is the design explanation legitimate? (chapter 9 in Refuting Evolution, available via creation.com/store), creation.com/design-legit. Return to text.
- The presenters were CMI–Australia’s Dr Carl Wieland and Dr Don Batten, who have since become my colleagues (quite a story in itself). Return to text.
- Not her real name. Return to text.
- See Creation scientists and other specialists of interest . Return to text.
- Considered the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, Jane Goodall is renowned for her 45-year study of chimps in the wild in Tanzania, and for her advocacy of animal conservation and protection. Return to text.
- The skeptics are also logic-challenged. A contradiction is A and not-A. These two pieces of advice are logically a dilemma, not a contradiction—each alternative has its own advantages and disadvantages. Return to text.
- For more on this see the DVD presentation Creation Evangelism, available via creation.com/store. Return to text.
- See also Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation. Return to text.
- On 9 September 1839, HMS Beagle sailed into Darwin harbour during its surveying of the area. The Beagle’s captain, John Clements Wickham (promoted into the position after the retirement of Captain Fitzroy), named the region ‘Port Darwin’ in honour of his former shipmate Charles Darwin (who had left the ship in October 1836). The settlement there became the town of Palmerston in 1869, and was renamed Darwin in 1911. Return to text.
Excellent. I would love to see more of this kind of talk made available to the general public. GOD needs more creationists in schools to counter the evolution garbage the students are being brainwashed with. We've been there, seen that. Now let's do something about it.
I often quote these two verses unsolicited as examples and raise the question deliberately because I think the wisdom and humour is so very clear to a common sense listening ear. Good leaders, teachers and parents use these two proverbs frequently, even if they don't know their source. Those who like to pick them apart publish their own resistance and unwillingness to open their eyes.
David, thanks very much for this summary of the discussion. How profitable for Christians to discuss with those who suppress the truth and believe a lie. There is a brilliant little book by Richard Pratt Jr - 'Every Thought Captive' that is a study manual for using those two verses from Proverbs. That may also apply to Mark K. who presses the idea that these verses cannot be used as a structure for biblical defence (apologetics) and evangelism.
I have often wondered about those passages but now you have clarified them. Thanks
I have also heard the explanation that the verses are meant to express the futility of foolish opponents who are convinced in their own mind that they are right and are unreasonable when it comes to holding onto their beliefs in the face of being shown clear logic and reason in refutation of their arguments.
For example, someone who irrationally believes that nature causes biological matter to become more and more complex in response to survival of the fittest. When you refute their arguments one after the other they continue to bring up ever increasingly sophistic (not a typo) theories as if clinging tightly to their beliefs in the face of logic and reasoning.
The verses as I understand them perfectly represents the common idiom "darned if you do and darned if you don't."
Thank-you David for your explanation as to how you were guided in practically applying this interesting passage -- your article is helpful to me.
The understanding that I've taken from this passage in the past is that it is essentially a literary device that means something along the lines that when you are dealing with a fool you are (to use a common expression) "damned if you do and damned if you don't".
Looking at it in this way, as I've understood the passage, I've seen dealing with the fool as a lose-lose proposition. And dealing with hundreds of outright strangers in public ministry, as I do, often those who are open mockers with nothing but contempt for God/Christians, those who simply blaspheme when they hear the Gospel, I've found that ignoring fools of this sort is indeed generally the best approach.
For me the takeaway is that there may be more than one way to properly understand and apply this passage as there are different sorts of "fools".
If you get a moment please let me know if you think my approach is possibly a correct application of the passage also when dealing with particularly contempt-filled fools. If I'm wrong on this I would prefer to know that and not find myself incorrectly dividing the word. Also, I certainly don't want to influence others with potentially incorrect exegeses...
God bless, t.
Your exegesis of the passage is correct; it does present dealing with the fool as a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Ignoring fools is essentially the approach of verse 4; the dilemma is that sometimes we do need to answer fools according to their folly, as verse 5 advises, so that they don't think themselves wise. Nevertheless, the passage also offers some interesting thought on how one might answer a fool if the emphasis is put on "according to his folly"; i.e. an answer may be following the fools line of reasoning to its absurd end (answering a fool according to his folly), or an answer may be demonstrating the Biblical and true line of reasoning (not answering a fool according to his folly). Though the intended meaning of the author was limited, the applications of these verses a many and varied. The point is that we need to weigh up carefully in any given situation both if we will answer the fool and how we will answer the fool.
I would say that if one wanted to rightly divide the word of truth here, what Prov. 26:4-5 means is simply what jumped out at me the moment I read it. Don't argue with a fool from the fool's axiom, or you'll be like him. Instead, point out to him the folly of his position based on the logical outgrowth of what he claims to believe where it will destroy that position so that he won't think himself wise. And the author did exactly that on that plane. Then said author turned around and gave true wisdom to that kid he was talking to, so much so that she became "very close" to making a decision for Christ. I pray that she is already decided for the "non-smoking" section of eternity.
What a fantastic article. I confess I have yet to make someone strongly question their evolutionary world view but I keep trying nonetheless. I love Creation Ministries, absolutely great article. God Bless Dr. Catchpoole and CMI.
Bold as a Lion, good stuff indeed, and gives one compassion for the still blinded lost when we who purport to walk in the `light`with *Jesus* as *LORD* yet take so long to understand clearly these things ourselves.
I often wince on recalling how we are told to ask wisdom James 1:5 ,but most the time roar on with my own intellect and zeal. Sail on.#:<)
I loved reading about plane conversation and had a ear-to-ear smile on my face the whole way through. I can completely confirm, from many such opportunities like this myself, that sharing with another IS now fun and exciting!
There is no one-size-fits-all solution...ever. Just because something may work or is appropriate in one situation does not necessarily mean it's the right one for another. People are individuals and so a word of advice, wisdom or how you act toward another may be just the right thing here but the next time, in another similar situation, you may have to do the opposite.
I think Solomon well understood this (after all, he was the second wisest man who ever lived!). We also see this in Jesus' response to disbelief. For example, contrast the interplay of gentleness and confrontation with the woman at the well with his outright in-their-collective-faces approach utilised when dealing with the religious holier-than-thou hierarchy. Of course, both times it was to get their attention and to help them see that the Kingdom of Heaven was among them.
Horses for courses!
Good explanation of how these two verses might look like when put into practice. I did have a question. I didn't quite understand why in an evolutionary survival-of-the-fittest world they’re our competitors! And then in the next sentence you say that we shouldn't squander our resources on looking after animals of no use to us and WHICH CANNOT POSSIBLY COMPETE WITH MAN.
If they are not our competitors, how does caring for them show that she would be a traitor to her own species?
The reasoning goes something like this: caring for species with dwindling numbers that we have no use for devotes resources that should be devoted to furthering the cause of her own species. As such, in giving to the apes, she would be taking away from us. The 'survival of the fittest' mentality pictures 'the struggle for life' as a zero-sum game: we can only gain at the expense of others. And if she would be taking away from us to give to another species, she is betraying her own species. It's an insane and abhorrent line of thought. But as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, evolution can't ground a single sane morality:
"Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals … That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws."
Your article caught my eye and I knew the proverbs as soon as I saw the reference.
The experience you had on that flight was good for us to read and you answered her well, and I hope she can springboard to great things in God.
Your rationale on these two verses fails to convince me that the instruction is not contradictory, nor is it something I have a problem with. There are two parts to each verse. 1) the directive, and 2) the reason for. Surely the directive is contradictory in both and discernment is required by the individual involved as to which is applied. These are the proverbs of Solomon, not the Holy Spirit, and Solomons life was a mess for a long while. There are no contradictions, where God speaks, or his prophets, etc, but the words of men and even Satan are recorded in the book, warts and all, so should we be religiously striving to resolve everything that appears to be contradictory, or mistaken, esp when its the proverbs or words of men? Am fully aware of the verse that declares the Scriptures are inspired, and this does not take away from that. The Holy Spirit inpired the writer to faithfully record what they said, without regard for its accuracy. This is why we have some (very few) contradictions and mistakes and even lies in the Bible (such as Cain telling God he did not know the whereabouts of his brother). Please don't read this as attacking you or your article, as I enjoy what you write and the tone in which you write, and have for a long time. This was the best attempt at reconciling these verses I have come across in almost 40 years, but still see them as contradictory. Kind regards. P.
As Dr Catchpoole said: "Some skeptics like to mock these verses as being ‘contradictory’, as if the author was stupid enough to put genuinely contradictory sentences together, although it was obviously intentional." The statements in Proverbs 26:4–5 can only be considered contradictory if we take them out of context and in a way that was not intended by the author. The same is true of lies and mistakes reported in the Bible; while the statement itself is a lie or a mistake, the report of the statement is accurate with respect to the author's intention (whether they intended to report a lie or mistake that actually happened, or whether they were reflecting a particular teaching on the lips of a character in a parable, etc.). This is why we gauge the reliability of the Bible (and any other literary work) based on the intended meaning of the authors, not on individual statements apart from their contexts. Please see Answering Bible skeptics and especially Errors in the Bible? for more information.
David, Thank you for this encouraging article. You didn't say how long ago this took place but it prompted me to pray for Rebecca. I am confident that one day we will spend some 'eternity' talking to her about these things which opened her eyes to Almighty Gods' rich salvation in Jesus Christ. I have truly come to love the ministry of CMI. Keep on serving until He comes!
I have a nephew in his mid-20s who describes himself as a true skeptic. He is, thankfully, always willing to listen to me when we talk about creation vs evolution, atheism vs Christianity, etc. I took great comfort from this article, as it gave me renewed hope that my words can impact him for Christ. I have used and will continue to use the information I find on the CMI website and from Scripture itself. Thank you all so much for equipping me with solid scientific and biblical teaching.
It is so easy, as this article show, to crack the belief of those who are deceived by the pseudo evolution science. Having cracked, it is important, as this article show, to be sensible in sowing the seed for the eternal life in Jesus the Lord.
How it happened that you David reaped such a crop? Isn't it because your first thought is on presenting Jesus our Saviour and you catch any possible hold to reach the goal? The rest is in the hands of the Spirit. Well done!
Thanks David - the practical relevance of the truth of Proverbs 26:4-5 is something I have learnt from CMI and I also try to adopt.
I've found the NASB translation helpful in considering Proverbs 26:4-5,
"Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Or you will also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, That he not be wise in his own eyes."
Thank you for your wonderful ministry.