The Laughter of Jesus
Did God-incarnate ever spend time laughing with His friends?
That’s a funny question, you might remark.
OK, my joke didn’t fly. But the question, “Did Jesus laugh?” does present an interesting look at the development of what might be called a theology of humor. While an article of this length cannot pretend to delve into this topic deeply (alas, my doctoral dissertation on The Comedy of Jesus is still in the works), it will touch on several areas of interest relevant to the nature of humor, God’s relation to it and offer some intriguing biblical examples.
A Time to Laugh
Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh,” but does not go into details. Do other passages clue us in a bit better to the question of a theology of humor? Maybe. There are several psalms that speak of God laughing, such as Psalm 2:4; 37:13; 59:8. Hermeneutically — that is, in relation to the discipline of biblical interpretation — these passages are intended as anthropomorphisms, meaning that they deliberately attribute human qualities to God in order to get a point across in terms we can relate to. Hence, in Psalm 37:13 we read, “the Lord laughs at the wicked.” Still, passages such as these are indeed suggestive.
In some sense, God does have what we’d call, anthropomorphically speaking, a sense of humor. He did, after all, create the duck-billed platypus. Granting that He — God, not the platypus — does have a sense of humor, it follows that humor rooted in God’s nature is good. This does not mean that all humor is good. In fact, in a fallen world filled with creatures who are to some degree or another warped, offering only shadows of their former glory, a great deal of what passes for humor is likewise warped. As a result, shows like “MADtv” and “Jackass” exist.
But if there is such a thing as humor that is good, and if it is rooted in God’s nature, then some humor must be good, even godly.
Many years ago I had a conversation with a friend who argued that humor is objective and rooted in God’s nature. I disagreed, using a weak logical counterexample that stated that if three different people were told a joke, but not all of them laughed, this proved that humor was not objective. That wasn’t a very good counterargument. In fact, my friend made a good point. All good emotions have their root in God’s perfect nature. If humor is an expression of good emotion, then it, too, must have its root in God’s nature.
So, Stephen, if you’re out there somewhere reading this article, yup, you were right. Humor is objective and rooted in God’s nature.
Is Christianity Always Serious?
There are, unfortunately, obstacles to overcome in order for us to truly even begin to develop, much less grasp, a true theology of humor. First, we must realize that in a fallen world, there is fallen humor. If evil is not an actual thing, but a parasite that preys upon the good, as Augustine and others have argued, then humor that is originally good has been warped by evil that preys upon its goodness.
Second, we need to overcome the obstacle that depicts Christ and Christianity as completely serious. Granted, the Bible is not a joke book and the limitations of the way the Bible manuscripts were written do little to help matters. They do not, for instance, contain punctuation to clue us in to humor — not even exclamation points! Can you believe they didn’t even use emoticons? 🙁 In short, there are no textual indicators to tell us, “Hey, this is a funny part!” But there are other ways to discern humor in the Bible, primarily by the words and the context.
Third, we have a lot of cultural tradition that does not leave much room for humor in relation to the nature of God or the Gospels. If you watch just about any movie about Jesus, He’s usually pretty serious all the time.A notable exception is Bruce Marchiano’s portrayal of Jesus in Matthew, depicting a Jesus who smiles and laughs. And why shouldn’t He be? After all, human sin and the need for radical redemption are hardly laughing matters. But was Jesus serious all the time? As we’ll see, He wasn’t.
Humor and Christ’s Natures
Theologically speaking, however, we must come to terms with humor in relation to the divine and human natures of Christ, or what theologians call the hypostatic union:I have always thought (yes, always) that “Hypostatic Union” would be a great name for a Christian band. Maybe they exist?
In the incarnation of the Son of God, a human nature was inseparably united forever with the divine nature in the one person of Jesus Christ, yet with the two natures remaining distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man.Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 1984), under “Hypostatic Union.”
It follows, given Christ’s human nature, that He laughed (granting the premise that good, objective humor, rooted in God’s nature, exists). Besides, Jesus had 12 disciples. Get 12 guys together, have them hang out for awhile, and they will definitely laugh at something — probably a lot of things.
Is There Humor in the Gospels?
In 1964, Christian scholar Elton Trueblood published The Humor of Christ. In the preface, he shares the story of reading a New Testament passage aloud and, at a certain point, hearing his 7-year-old son laugh. When questioned about his laughter, the boy said that the passage was funny. Jesus had been talking about the absurdity of pointing out the spec of sawdust in someone else’s eye, when their own eye has a plank stuck in it (Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42). How many times do we come across such passages and overlook the humor? Far too often, Trueblood argues.Trueblood even includes an appendix in his book: “Thirty Humorous Passages in the Synoptic Gospels.”
Did Jesus say anything else that might be construed as humorous? Definitely. Other examples are found in His tirade against a group of hypocritical leaders known as Pharisees. My favorite humorous remark in this passage is Jesus’ comment that they “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).
In context, He’s chastising them for hypocritically neglecting “more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Obviously, it would be difficult to swallow an actual camel. Unless it was unusually tiny. The humor reinforces the point.
Christ Laughed and Expected Others to Laugh
Underscoring a point mentioned briefly earlier, Trueblood writes:
The widespread failure to recognize and to appreciate the humor of Christ is one of the most amazing aspects of the era named for Him. Anyone who reads the Synoptic Gospels with a relative freedom from presuppositions might be expected to see that Christ laughed, and that He expected others to laugh, but our capacity to miss this aspect of His life is phenomenal. We are so sure that He was always deadly serious that we often twist His words in order to try and make them conform to our preconceived mold. A misguided piety has made us fear that acceptance of His obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious.Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (Harper & Row, 1964), p. 15.
Also, “Synoptic” means seeing-together and refers to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. At times Trueblood does appear to be overplaying his arguments for the humor in all the passages he addresses, but he does make a strong overall case for the humor of Christ.
Unfortunately, space does not allow a detailed or even brief assessment of the types of humor used by Christ (no, slapstick was probably not on the list). Trueblood, however, explores Christ’s use of irony, hyperbole (exaggeration) and wit, as well as the humor found in many of the parables.
But Jesus also used humor in His reasoning, by way of the reductio ad absurdum. This kind of argument literally reduces the logic of an opponent’s reasoning to absurdity, thereby refuting the position, that, if followed to its logical conclusions, is in fact absurd. See Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003), pp. 33-35 for an exposition of two instances of Jesus’ use of reductio ad absurdum (Matthew 12:25-27; 22:41-46).
A study of the concepts of delight and joy in the Bible gives an overall picture of rejoicing and laughter in the Christian life here and now, as well as in heaven beyond. Indeed, the reuniting of God’s people with Him is likened to a bride and groom, joyfully celebrating their wedding (Revelation 19:7,9; 21).
So, did Jesus laugh? Given various lines of rational and theological inference, Jesus did indeed laugh. And when appropriate, so should we.
Copyright 2008 Robert Velarde. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Robert Velarde is author of The Heart of Narnia and Conversations with C.S. Lewis. He studied philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.