(1 Cor. 1:18-31) Is Christianity foolish?

CLAIM: Some fideistic and emergent interpreters argue that Christianity is “foolish” in the sense that it is irrational, illogical, and contradictory to empirical evidence. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Paul is not claiming that Christianity is foolish in the sense of being irrational; he is claiming that it is foolish in the sense of being despised and looked down upon, which the context makes clear.

First, the NT commands the use of apologetics and evidence. The NT authors explain that Christians should use apologetics, as one of the ways to communicate the gospel message (1 Pet. 3:15; 2 Cor. 10:3-5; 1 Cor. 9:3; Phil. 1:7, 17; Titus 1:9; Rom. 1:19-20). Paul’s missionary journeys are punctuated by a high view of apologetics, as well (Acts 9:22; 17:2, 4, 17; 18:19, 28; 26:25, 28). In fact, Paul even used apologetics, when he came to Corinth! In Acts 18:4, we read, “[Paul] was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Since Paul used reason and evidence, when he came to Corinth; he can’t be claiming that the gospel is irrational or illogical. This would contradict his own approach in Corinth.

Second, the context alludes to the gifted sophists. In 1:17 and 2:1, Paul states that he did not come with “superiority of speech.” Of course, when we understand the background of Corinth, Greece, it is clear that this culture placed a high priority on speaking gifts. In other words, Paul places truth above eloquent speech. Moreover, Paul’s OT citation refers to rejecting God’s truth for human tradition (v.19). Paul cites Isaiah 29 to demonstrate that God’s truth is more important than human tradition (see Isa. 29:13-14).

Third, human wisdom isn’t bad, but it’s insufficient (v.21). Paul writes, “The world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (v.21). In other words, rational speculation would never bring you to the specific details of God’s plan through Christ, which Paul will later unpack in chapter two (2:14).

Fourth, the gospel is difficult to accept, because it spread through the lowly in society (v.26-27). If humans were inventing a religion, they would expect it to be spread through the intelligentsia, the rich, or the powerful in society. However, the gospel spread through “uneducated and untrained men” (Acts 4:13). This went directly against the expectations of the first century culture.

Fifth, the gospel is difficult to accept, because of their expectations—not because it is irrational (v.23). To illustrate this, imagine a young Albert Einstein showing his general theory of relativity to his scientific community for the first time. Of course, a few of the scientists were not expecting anything like this, so they probably could’ve said, “Einstein is a fool…” Of course, they didn’t call him a fool because his theory was irrational (or he himself was irrational). Instead, they called him this, because they weren’t expecting a truth of this kind. In the same way, the Christian message was considered foolish, because of the cultural and religious expectations (“The Messiah doesn’t get crucified! That’s foolish!”).

Sixth, historically, Christianity was looked down upon by the surrounding people in the first century. The Greek satirist Lucian called the early Christians “misguided creatures.”[1] Pliny the Younger called Christianity a “depraved and excessive superstition.”[2] Tacitus called it a “most mischievous superstition.”[3] In fact, there is a graffito from the second century AD with a picture of a crucified donkey. Beneath the crude drawing read the words: “Alexamenos worships god.”[4] This picture shows the derision with which the early Christians were treated for worshipping a crucified Messiah.

[1] Lucian The Death of Peregrine, 11-13.

[2] Pliny the Younger Letters 10:96.

[3] Cornelius Tacitus Annals 15:44.

[4] John Stott writes, “This is well illustrated by a graffito from the second century, discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome, on the wall of a house considered by some scholars to have been used as a school for imperial pages. It is the first surviving picture of the crucifixion, and is a caricature. A crude drawing depicts, stretched on a cross, a man with the head of a donkey. To the left stands another man, with one arm raised in worship. Unevenly scribbled underneath are the words ALEXAMENOS CEBETE (sc. sebete) THEON, ‘Alexamenos worships god’. The cartoon is now in the Kircherian Museum in Rome. Whatever the origin of the accusation of donkey-worship (which was attributed to both Jews and Christians), it was the concept of worshipping a crucified man which was being held up to derision.” Stott, John. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986. 24-25.