“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” This question is found in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 1:20. The Apostle Paul had just written, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, NIV). It does sound at first hearing a bit foolish: to think that anything good could come from a man being tortured to death in such a gruesome fashion really doesn’t seem wise. Crucifixion in the Roman Empire was reserved for slaves and political enemies as the ultimate humiliation.
For Christians, however, the theology behind that story changes everything. We believe that the Creator Himself was at work in the event, taking himself the rightful place of human punishment, paying a moral and spiritual debt that human beings could never pay. If Jesus was the naïve victim of political intrigue, his story is one of pathos. If Jesus was the willing victim of a cosmic plan that would make it possible to set things right between human beings and their Creator, that is something else! God’s wisdom and human wisdom: there can seem quite a contrast.
The wisdom of the world alleges that self-preservation is of first importance, and yet, there is Jesus dying innocently, and as Christians believe, sacrificing himself so that others might have a shot at eternal life.
The wisdom of the world argues that concern for one’s own tribe is enough. Such tribalism was enough for the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. It fuels the ongoing strife in the Middle East and beyond. It divides Americans by ethnic background. And then there is Jesus, saying that God loves the entire world and sent his Son so that people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” might stand side-by-side with one heart and voice, united in love and in the worship of God (see Revelation 7:9f.).
The wisdom of the world assumes that challenging the cultural norms of other societies is disrespectful or at least unnecessary: “live and let live,” after all. And yet, there is Jesus, challenging those within his own ancient Jewish culture to allow God to adjust their values and norms to those of heaven, and then extending that challenge to every other human society.
All temporary human values seem to be turned upside down by the Christian gospel—or as Christians would argue, are turned right-side up. The gospel urges Jesus’ followers to “take up the cross” for the sake of God’s purposes and for others, which is surely contrary to a fierce spirit of self-preservation. The gospel urges people to remember that “God … loved the world” when He sent His Son (cf. John 3:16), and that all of us must learn to show His kind of love to all the people groups of the world through the message of salvation and through other positive acts of caring. In the gospel, all people have the same original value as those who uniquely bear the image of God, and they all now need what only Jesus can offer: the power to restore that image in the human soul. The gospel challenges all cultural norms that are contrary to the grace and truth found in Jesus Christ, often raising obscure values to primacy and toppling idols that contradict God’s highest revelation of Himself in Christ.
So, the Apostle Paul could really have been onto something. God has made foolish the wisdom of the world, because it has often been the wisdom of fools to begin with. Opting to live on a foundation of eternal values, even when it costs us something in this temporary world, is true wisdom. As Paul argued and Christians believe, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21, NIV).