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At the beginning of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis offers these provocative quotes about mockery:
The best way to drive out the devil, if he will
not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer
and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.
The devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure
to be mocked.
In what follows, the great apologist relates a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape, who is instructing a junior demon, Wormwood, on the art of deception and temptation. Along the way, this demonic correspondence cleverly shows the pitiful and foolish ways of devilry and delivers an edifying kind of mockery to the reader. Like the Apostle Paul, we should not be unaware of the devil’s schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11; see also Jude 1:9–10).
All spiritual warfare against the lies, deceptions, and predations of Satan and the demons must be carried out while donning “the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11, see vv. 10–20).2 Mere wit or bravado is futile against “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NASB). We need to speak the truth in love, empowered by the Spirit of Truth (Ephesians 4:15; John 14:17; 1 John 5:6). But can mockery really be part of the apologist’s arsenal in defending the Christian worldview as objectively true, compellingly rational, and pertinent to the whole of life (1 Peter 3:15)?
Mockery: Good and Bad
Having taught and written about apologetics over the last forty-five years, I often cautioned apologists to beware of arrogance in argument, which can be a besetting sin of apologists, who spend so much time trying to be right. If we become puffed up in our knowledge, we might use mockery in cold and cocky manner. Early on, apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984) instructed me about this. In discussing his strategy of exposing the illogic of non-Christian worldviews, which he calls “taking the roof off,” Schaeffer warns us:
I need to remind myself constantly that this is not a game I am playing. If I begin to enjoy it as a kind of intellectual exercise, then I am cruel and can expect no real spiritual results. As I push the man off his false balance [false worldview], he must be able to feel that I care for him. Otherwise, I will only end up destroying him, and the cruelty and ugliness of it all will destroy me as well.3
Schaeffer is speaking about our demeanor in doing negative apologetics, which is the critique of non-Christian systems of thought. This differs from constructive or positive apologetics, which advances the case for theism through natural theology or for the deity of Christ, for example. Negative apologetics is vital because an unbeliever is unlikely to be interested in the Christian message if she is content with her present worldview (or lack thereof). All apologetics, Peter instructs us, should be done “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Can one use mockery in this way?
I will argue that since mockery is often used in godly ways in Scripture, it can be employed in apologetics as well. But we first need to discern the nature of mockery to know when it should and should not be used, since the Bible also condemns mockery. The key is knowing how to tell the difference.
What Exactly Is Mockery?
Mockery is teasing and insulting language or behavior directed against a person, thing, or idea. For example, “John was stung by Mary’s mockery and fled the room.” Mockery is in the same semantic neighborhood as ridicule, derision, jeering, sneering, scorn, scoffing, joking, teasing, and taunting; it often uses sarcasm, satire, or parody. Mockery may or may not include humor. The goal of mockery is to make someone feel ashamed or show that an idea is shameful or deeply stupid. Mockery can either make a valid point or miss the point. In order to properly evaluate mockery, we need to ask who is mocking whom, for what reason, and in what spirit. Before considering how mockery can be used constructively in apologetics, we will consider its sinful expressions.
In the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible, “mock” appears seventy-two times, “mockery” three times, and “mocking” six times. The terms are used in a variety of settings with various meanings. However, many references are condemnations of mockery. For example, we are told, “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22). Again: “Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). Some mockers are beyond reason, so must be shunned, not engaged. Similarly, “Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended” (Proverbs 22:10).
The most evil mockery of all was that experienced by the perfectly righteous Jesus — as He had predicted (Matthew 20:19) — while He was in custody (Luke 22:63), before His crucifixion (Matthew 27:29–31), and during His crucifixion (Matthew 27:39–44). Jesus’ disciples, when newly filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, were mocked as being drunk (Acts 2:13).
Without consulting the many other references to vicious mockery in Scripture, we see that such mockery is derision or insult uttered without knowledge, wisdom, and discretion. The ungodly mocker is a fool who makes his or her foolishness known by ridiculing those who do not deserve it for the sake of the mocker’s own sinful satisfaction.
God’s Use of Mockery
The Bible gives us many instances of mockery made by the godly (or by God Himself) done against foolish or evil people in order to put them in their place. Consider the prophet Ezekiel’s denunciation of the King of Tyre:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘In the pride of your heart
you say, “I am a god;
I sit on the throne of a god
in the heart of the seas.”
But you are a mere mortal and not a god,
though you think you are as wise as a god….
“‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘Because you think you are wise,
as wise as a god,
I am going to bring foreigners against you,
the most ruthless of nations;
they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
and pierce your shining splendor.
They will bring you down to the pit,
and you will die a violent death
in the heart of the seas.
Will you then say, “I am a god,”
in the presence of those who kill you?
You will be but a mortal, not a god,
in the hands of those who slay you.
You will die the death of the uncircumcised
at the hands of foreigners.’” (Ezekiel 28:1–2, 6–10)
Ezekiel denounces the arrogance of pagan power through divine sarcasm, which assures real-life judgment.
The prophet Elijah mocked the false prophets of Baal in a famous incident.
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:27–29 ESV)
Elijah was thus vindicated by the no-show of the gods in question and his God was shown to be real in this truth-and-power encounter.
While these two prophets mocked the ungodly to a godly end, it does not seem that their mockery had any apologetic effect. They were giving prophet denunciation rather than engaging in persuasion, which is the goal of apologetics. However, when God mockingly responds to Job in light of his suffering and questions for God, the point is apologetic.
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:1–7)
God hammers these unanswerable questions until Job acknowledges that he must trust God, given God’s wisdom in creation, even though God never tells Job the reasons for his suffering (Job 38–41). Job confesses:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1–6)
So much could be said about God’s revelation to Job, but for our purposes, it suffices to note that God used mockery to convince Job of God’s competence in His governance of creation. If anyone was ever put in his place, it was Job. The finite creature is no position to render judgment on God’s governance of the world.4
Our Lord Himself sometimes used mockery in exposing and condemning evil. Consider only one example. In condemning the religious leaders of His time, Jesus unleashed the seven woes of Matthew 23. Consider one:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23–24 NASB)
The authorities in question were so fastidious as to use a net to strain out unclean insects from their food, yet they were oblivious to the most important matters of morality. The juxtaposition is so great and so absurd that Jesus uses mockery (which contains humor) to make His point. The account does not tell us whether He persuaded any of those hearing to repent. However, it would have the apologetic effect of teaching anyone who got the point as to the true nature of God’s law and holy living.
The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to correct the false teaching that Gentiles had to obey the Jewish law in following God, including circumcision. He is incensed at the Galatian Christians’ toleration of a teaching that denied the gospel itself, saying that whoever teaches a counterfeit gospel is worthy of eternal condemnation (Galatians 1:8–9). Paul refutes this error theologically, but also puts the Judaizers in their place with this mockery. “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). Paul rebukes heresy with mockery, after having made his case biblically. The apologetic value comes from refuting false doctrine.
Irenaeus’s Apologetic Mockery
Before sketching a biblical model for mockery in apologetics, we consult Irenaeus, a Greek bishop and the leading Christian theologian of the second century. He was also an apologist, who principally targeted the heresy of Gnosticism. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus critiques the Gnostic’s false claim that the ultimate reality is ineffable — that is beyond what can be spoken or grasped by the mind. This counters the Bible’s claim that God can be known for who He is because He has chosen to reveal Himself in nature, Scripture, and in Jesus Christ.
Irenaeus employs a clever reductio ad absurdum against this ineffability claim. Instead of using the Gnostics’ profound-sounding names for the ultimate reality, such as Proarche and Monotes, he assigns fruit names to the ultimate reality, such as Melon, Gourd, and Cucumber. Irenaeus reasons that if any names can be used for the unnamable, why not fruit names? In fact, fruit names have the advantage since they are “in general use, and understood by all.”5 The apologist uses absurd fruit names to reveal the absurdity.
Toward An Ethic of Mockery in Apologetics
Mockery is sometimes used against bad ideas and bad people in the Bible and can be used for apologetic purposes in order to show that an idea or person is worthy of mockery. Mockery seems best used in reductio ad absurdum arguments, which are a part of negative apologetics — the critique of non-Christian worldviews as false. If an idea leads to absurdity, then the absurdity can be mocked in order to heighten the sense of absurdity. However, we must be careful to avoid the Bible’s condemnation of ungodly mockery. The question is: Who is mocking whom and for what reason and to what end? The apologist should mock only false and errant people by using good reasoning and do so to correct them and to glorify God.
Any mockery used in apologetics needs to pass several tests. First, it must properly identify an idea or person as absurd. Otherwise, the mockery commits the fallacy of the straw man. Second, it should be clever enough to work and not fall flat. Third, the mockery must not be done for the sake of wanton cruelty or egotistic purposes. The apologist needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit and be exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit in such mockery (Galatians 5:22–23) and not fall into the acts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19–21). The apologist’s purpose should be to convince someone of their error and to point them to the way of Jesus and the truth of the Bible. Fourth, the apologist needs to discern if mockery is the right method at the right time with the right person. I have no formula for discerning this, but given the combustible nature of mockery, one should be cautious, humble, and prayerful.
Douglas Groothuis, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of 15 books, including Fire in the Streets (Salem, 2022) and Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (InterVarsity Academic, 2022).
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1941; New York: HarperCollins, 2009), vii–viii, Kindle Edition. Lewis does not provide documentation to the original sources.
- Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the NIV.
- Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (The IVP Signature Collection Anniversary Edition) (1968; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 154, Kindle Edition.
- Nevertheless, this trust need not be a matter of blind faith, since the case for Christianity overall is so strong. Job himself had sufficient evidence to trust God, given that God was speaking to him. On the case for Christianity, see Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022).
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.11.4; see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 75–76.