What’s So Funny About God?

Steve WilkensBy Steve Wilkens11 Minutes

Adapted from Chapter 1 “God Has to Be in There Somewhere” from What’s So Funny About God? by Steve Wilkens

When I die, I want to go quietly in my sleep like my grandpa. Not yelling and screaming like the other people in his car.

It’s a bit dark, but I like this joke. It has the classic structure of a good one—setup and punch line. The setup line recognizes that we all fear encountering excruciating pain and prolonged suffering before death. Thus, it captures our attention, pulls us in, and makes us participants. Then the punch line comes; the unexpected is introduced and we end up in a very different place than what we initially anticipated. For some reason we like this. The surprise brings happiness and laughter.

I love humor, and I love God. So it’s natural that I wanted these two objects of my affection to love each other. That didn’t appear likely.

Humor is fluffy; God is profound and holy. Theology is serious; jokes are silly—or so it seemed. Moreover, theology talks about all of life’s big questions, but humor didn’t seem to make theology’s big-questions cut.

I really wanted this relationship to work out, but two thousand years of theological reflection have mostly ignored humor as an area of interest. I began to fear that my desire to find connections between my faith and humor were just wishful thinking.

Still, I couldn’t let it go. Maybe it’s because I was convinced that if humor brought joy and hope (and it does), God must be in there somewhere. However, I think the main reason I suspected that humor and God already had an intimate relationship was because humor is one of the main ways that I express love. I say “I love you” to my wife and kids frequently, but not always with the words themselves. More often, it comes across by telling a joke, watching funny YouTube videos with the kids, teasing, or doing goofy things calculated to elicit groans. And when I employ groan-inducing dad humor, my kids’ response is sometimes “I hate you,” which, when stated with a chuckle, really means “I love you.” At least that’s how I’m reading it.

If I said “I love you” directly to my friends, they would probably suspect that I recently had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. But I try to express my love for them with reports of the most recent offbeat news stories I ran across, funny occurrences in the classroom, mutually traded insults that morph into expressions of affection through the mystical prism of guy talk, and (again) jokes. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that one of the primary vehicles by which I communicate and receive love had nothing to do with God. Moreover, humor’s “I love you” function presented a serious challenge to the charge that humor is too frivolous for service in the Christian life. If humor is a love delivery system for humans, it seemed likely that God just had to be in there somewhere and that we might discover a healthy dose of LOL in God. Even though I’m sure God is not nearly as awkward as I am about communicating love, I still didn’t see why humor couldn’t be one of the ways God expresses his love for us.


I couldn’t figure out why the baseball kept getting bigger and bigger. And then it hit me.

One “aha” moment kicked my interest in potential connections between theology and humor into a higher gear. It was the realization that what we generally consider the bottom feeder in the comedic pond—the pun—actually requires a highly complex intellectual capacity. Getting it requires the ability to rapidly flip through a Rolodex of different possible meanings for words and phrases and recognize the juxtaposition of two definitions. Without one of my highest mental processes, the so-called lowest form of humor fails to hit me in the funny bone. At the same time, the pun above is one that a second-grader of average intelligence could understand.

What happens when we move on to more sophisticated forms of humor? I tried a little experiment. I told the following joke to my shih tzu:

After taking a bite of the forbidden fruit, Adam knew he had done wrong, felt shame, and covered himself with a fig leaf. Eve also felt shame, and she too covered herself with a fig leaf, and then went back into the forest to try on some magnolia greenery, a palm frond, and three varieties of mulberry leaves.

Tofu the shih tzu didn’t get the joke. I then tried it out on a border collie since that breed is 130 levels higher on the canine intelligence index. Still nothing.

Only humans get humor. As simple as it seems on the surface, the humor in this joke goes far beyond a canine’s mental and cultural repertoire. It obviously requires language skills that dogs lack, but it also demands cultural and religious background knowledge, the capacity to comprehend the moral emotion of shame, and to place oneself into the mindset of another who feels shame, an awareness of gender stereotypes— “Adam, does this fig leaf make my butt look big?”— and the consciousness that this joke nudges a line that imperfectly delineates funny from offensive. And yes, I do realize that some will be offended by this joke. My shih tzu didn’t take offense at it, and it’s not simply because he’s a socially insensitive male. He’s not human (but don’t tell him), and humor is possessed by no species on this planet other than human beings.

Like humor, spiritual sensitivity is a human capacity. And spiritual awareness, like our comedic sensibilities, demands the intellectual, moral, social, and emotional horsepower supplied by our highest human capacities. In fact, the capacity to grasp the alternative world that humor requires is the same mental ability that allows us to envision a God who transcends the natural realm. If our loftiest and most complex abilities are gifts from God and are as essential to the life of faith as they are to the existence of humor, I couldn’t help but conclude that God must be lurking somewhere in our comedic capacities. The precise nature of the connection was still a mystery to me. However, as I reflected further upon what humor does and how it works, it became increasingly mysterious to me why so few have seriously considered whether humor might be an important theological resource.

Our faith demands a necessary and precarious balance of judgment and grace, and I think humor helps us with this. Good laughter does not let us off the hook with sin, because it acknowledges the utter stupidity of our actions. When done well, laughter is a form of showing disappointment and even anger at ourselves. When we laugh because of the freedom of redemption, it must be conditioned by a recognition that judgment has exposed us for who we too often are. However, laughing at the absurdity of our faults needs to be conditioned by our recognition that stupidity and rebellion can be reversed and forgiven.

As the old saying states it, confession without repentance is just bragging. Without the combination of confession and turning around, we fall into the trap of cheap grace or suffocating guilt, and we are quite susceptible to both.

Because we are so spiritually dense, God has to sneak up and surprise us, but the joke is for us. This is the best part of the good news. While the truth about our life is often painful, the surprise of God’s grace is that it benefits us.

Adapted from What’s So Funny About God? by Steve Wilkens. Copyright © 2019 by Steve R. Wilkens. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

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