Humor is really subjective. What's hilarious to one can upset another. What an individual "feels" to be funny is driven by personality and experiences and is influenced by culture. What counts as "dark humor" changes based on all those factors. So, how should Christians think of dark humor? Is it forbidden, no big deal, or some combination of both?
For starters, it's good to know what makes humor "dark." It's not the same thing as "inappropriate humor," and one does not imply the other. Dark humor typically involves subjects which are very unfunny by themselves. These include death, disease, violence, tragedy, and so forth. In some contexts, joking about things like racism or drug use can be considered dark. If the idea used for comic effect is sad or upsetting, it's usually accurate to call that "dark humor."
Believe it or not, there healthy reasons why people sometimes joke about subjects that are "no joke." A common example is called "gallows humor." A gallows is the platform from which people were hung during an execution. Using "gallows humor" means making light of something serious. That's partly to diffuse stress. For some, making jokes about something is a way of feeling more in control—even if there's no control possible.
Thomas' remark (John 11:16) about following Jesus into unfriendly territory so they can at least "die with him" could be an example of "gallows humor." Or it might just be "dark humor" because Jesus' enemies wanted to kill Him. Or he may really have thought that going to see Lazarus was suicide.
Soldiers often make jokes about the difficulties of their lives. This is a way of expressing feelings and emotions with the safety net of it being a "joke." People with terminal diseases, health impairments, or disabilities may lighten the mood by poking fun at their own situation. Dark humor has even been used by prisoners or subjects of tyranny during bad moments. Humor often provides a release of somber tension. Others in their situation might appreciate the joke. Others may not. Those who don't "get" what's happening may not see any humor at all.
It's also possible to use dark humor to point out that something is wrong or tragic. One might be "joking" for the very purpose of condemning that situation, making it a form of parody, satire, or sarcasm.
There's no on-off switch for humor. It's a spectrum—like toast. What's "too dark" for one person might be fine for another. Some bread is so lightly toasted that you can hardly tell. But you can burn bread so black that almost no one would even try to eat it. What's important to remember is that that most people have no problem eating bread they feel is under-toasted; almost no one wants to eat toast that's "too dark" for their tastes.
So if it's better to be "too light" than "too dark" when giving other people toasted bread, then let's apply the same thing to dark humor. Christians should avoid offending other people unnecessarily (Romans 12:18). Better to stick with tame, "light" humor than to cross a line and disturb the other person. Tame jokes might not amuse you, but they're also not likely to upset. You can always get a little crunchier once you know your audience, but you can't un-burn the toast if you go too far. And no, scraping it does not work.
In short, dark humor is not necessarily a sin, but it can become sinful. When does dark humor cross the line? There are two important things to consider. First is our own motivation. Are we laughing out of bitterness, hate, anger, or other negative feelings? Are there mean-spirited emotions behind our laughter? If so, what we're expressing isn't appropriate, and we need to work through that in a healthier way.
The second point is consideration for other people. We don't want to punch people in their bruises. Dark humor can be misinterpreted as insults or heartless mocking to someone who is wounded over that subject. Some topics that are especially important to others will be hurt by someone making light of them. Some moments are not right for a joke that might be funnier later—or only much later. And, unfortunately, social media makes it easy for our jokes to wind up in the ears of people who don't appreciate them—and don't care about the context or what a person "really meant."
Additionally, Christians need to be careful not to tempt people to go beyond their own conscience (Romans 14:24). Making jokes that are "too dark" for someone else's maturity level can encourage them to ignore their internal limits or personal convictions, which is never good.
Some people claim everything is fair game for humor—and there may be slivers of truth in that. It's one thing to say, "That's not funny" and another to say, "We should arrest people who say that." Also, everything in human experience will be balanced and redeemed by our Creator (Revelation 21:1-5). Only God is eternal and perfect. So, in a sense, nothing else is as "serious" as Him.
But common sense tells us not everything is meant to be funny. Fighting off an awkward laugh is one thing. But embracing comedy at certain kinds of evil or pain is a sign of a spiritual problem (1 Corinthians 10:13; Philippians 4:8). Some topics are rarely, if ever, safe to joke about. But everyone's convictions are different. Avoiding jokes that you "feel" are inappropriate should be obvious (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Likewise, the need to not "force" humor on those who aren't amused by it should be obvious. What you chuckle at in your head might be horribly offensive at high volume. Some friends might appreciate a joke, but other friends might be hurt. We shouldn't expect other people to "lighten up" or "get over it" when it comes to dark humor. Rather, we should be loving and cautious (1 Corinthians 8:13; Romans 14:1-4).
Speaking from personal experience, I have what most people would think of as a dry, dark, sarcastic sense of humor. But in an article about dark jokes, I didn't include any. It's not that I can't think of any examples that are tame...to me. It's because a lot of different people will read this, and I don't know how they like their toast!
Almost anything could be funny in the right circumstances. "Dark" humor can be a way of coping with stress, anxiety, depression, or trauma. But we shouldn't be mean-spirited or hateful—even in our own minds. Not everyone will agree about whether it's OK to joke about things like death, violence, disease, or drugs. Believers should check their own motives first and be careful not to offend other people with our humor. When in doubt, it's better to keep things light. Like toast, it's better to be "too light" than "too dark" for those around you. You can't un-burn toast.
Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.