Why Christ Condemned Calling Someone a Fool

The fool in Bible terms is not quite what we might think. Why does calling someone a “fool” put a person in danger of going to hell, according to Jesus? The answer is, it does, and it doesn’t.

There is a marked difference in how we use the word today contrasted with what Jesus meant. Today, we likely think a person is a fool if he does something ill-advised. But in Bible times it meant far more than that. The statement is found in Matthew 5:22, and it is part of what is commonly known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There, He says, “Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother ‘Raca!’ [an Aramaic word referring to an empty-headed person] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” To grasp the meaning of this warning, we need to understand the context.

In that day, some had reduced Judiasm to a matter of externals. Act the right way, and perform the right rituals, and you were a good Jew. Matters of the heart were being ignored. But using several commandments of the Old Testament Law, Jesus demonstrates to His hearers that God’s standard involves not only outward acts (as the Pharisees taught) but inward attitudes (cf. vs. 27-28). In vs. 21-22, the discussion concerns the act of murder and the underlying attitude that can lead to it, malicious anger. In vs. 22, three levels of severity are described, each falling short of physical murder, but each sinful and destructive.

1) If a person nurses a hateful and malicious attitude toward a fellow Jew (“his brother”), he could well be brought up before the local magistrate (“the judgment”).

2) If his hatred is expressed in words of angry contempt (such as “Raca!”–the equivalent of “You stupid idiot!”) it could be a matter for the Jewish supreme court, called the Sanhedrin (“the council”).

3) Worse still, the one who calls his brother a “fool” thereby suggests his own unsaved condition, which therefore means he is in peril of eternal damnation.

In our own culture, there would seem to be little difference between the last two of these. But the latter term is given a much stronger meaning in the Old Testament. The fool is a godless, and immoral person (cf. Ps. 14:1; Prov. 9:13-18; 14:9). He is a wicked reprobate, destitute of spirituality. Further, and most significantly, many of the translators see the epithet, “You fool!” as implying a curse. Rotherham’s New Testament has, “You cursed fool” [i.e. ‘You damned fool!’].” And the Twentieth Century New Testament paraphrases, “Whoever calls down curses upon him.” The Living Bible paraphrase has, “And if you curse him...”

Out of hateful and malicious anger, one individual is sitting in judgment on another (in effect, taking the place of God) and calling down eternal destruction on the object of his hateful wrath. This bears little relation to our current use of the word, referring to someone lacking in common sense who does something silly. In the Jewish culture, branding someone a fool was close to murder. It reflected an arrogant and hateful attitude calling for immediate correction (vs. 23-24).