Why I Wouldn’t Wager Like Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a brilliant French mathematician, philosopher, and physicist (among other things) who was also a devoted follower of Christ.  He is most famously remembered for his religious and philosophical ideas, but his contributions to theoretical and empirical science were enormous.  For example, at the young age of 19 he invented the first mechanical calculating machine. 

One of his most far-reaching contributions was his origination of probability theory, the branch of mathematics dealing with the “correlation between possibilities and outcomes.”[1]  As you will see in a moment, he applied some of this thought to his theological writings as well.  (You can read more about him here.)

Pascal died at the young age of thirty-nine, having struggled with his health since his teenage years.  His most influential work was published posthumously and it titled Pensees (“Thoughts”).

THE WAGER ARGUMENT

Arguably Pascal’s most well-known contribution to philosophy was his famous Wager Argument which can be found in his Pensees.  Here we see clearly some of his application of his probability theory to his philosophical thinking.  William Lane Craig articulates the argument as follows:

 …Pascal argues that when the odds that God exists are even, then the prudent man will gamble that God exists.  This is a wager that all men must make—the game is in progress and a bet must be laid.  There is no opting out: you have already joined the game.  Which then will you choose—that God exists or that He does not?  Pascal argues that since the odds are even, reason is not violated in making either choice; so reason cannot determine which bet to make.  Therefore, the choice should be made pragmatically in terms of maximizing life and infinite happiness.  If one wagers that God exists and he does, one has gained eternal life and infinite happiness.  If he does not exist, one has lost nothing.  On the other hand, if one wagers that God does not exist and he does, then one has suffered infinite loss.  If he does not in fact exist, then one has gained nothing.  Hence, the only prudent choice is to believe that God exists.[2]

Peter Kreeft, in a book titled Christianity for Modern Pagans, which is essentially a commentary on Pascal’s Pensees, writes in the section on “The Wager”:

 The Wager is not an attempt to prove that God exists.  It is not a new argument for the existence of God.  Rather it tries to prove that it is eminently reasonable for anyone to “bet” on God, to hope that God is, to invest his life in God.  It moves on the practical, existential, human level rather than the theoretical, metaphysical, theological level… [In contrast to some other great theological works, like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica] Pascal’s Wager…is addressed to unbelievers, to those who are skeptical of both theoretical reason and revelation.[3]

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

I don’t have a problem with the logic of Pascal’s argument, that seems pretty water-tight as far as it goes to me.  What I struggle with is how it seems to contradict what the Bible says about the Christian life.  The “Wager” seems to cast the Christian life into the same mold as the non-Christian life.  In Pascal’s own words: “If you win [the wager] you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing.”[4] 

Wait a minute… lose nothing?

While I will gladly grant that the Wager is not a full-orbed apologetic but a simple, practical, argument to show the absurdity of not believing in God, I still think it is misleading.  Paul did not speak of belief in God in these terms at all:

“12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

Paul says that Christians live their lives in such a way so that if they get to the end of their life and it was all a big hoax, they are most to be pitied.  In other words, we are wasting our lives and misleading ourselves and others.  Piper comments: “What Paul is saying here is that the life Paul has chosen to live, based on his deep and confident hope for his own resurrection, would be a pitiable, foolish life, if in fact there is no resurrection.”[5]

Paul says this explicitly later in the same chapter:

“And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” (1 Cor. 15:30-32)

By Paul’s reasoning, the unbeliever has it better than the believer if the dead aren’t raised (if there is no afterlife or God does not exist).  While I can’t claim to have suffered in any measure comparable to Paul’s, I know I have made some sacrifices for Christ.  If there is no reward or no hope of future gain, my actions were not noble, but stupid.  Going to seminary and spending all our savings, and cramming into a tiny little 500 sq. ft. apartment, and going without insurance, and dealing with constant stress were all a big fat waste of time.  Not to mention the ridicule and shame I endured on the baseball team at Charlotte for my faith.  Any true Christian could list a long list of things they have sacrificed, big and small, for the sake of Jesus and His Kingdom.

Why go through all this ridiculous suffering, if there is no reward? 

Jesus seems to have emphasized the same point in His Sermon on the Mount:

1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matt. 6:1-2)

He contrasts two kinds of reward: earthly and heavenly.  Either you indulge in your earthly “reward” now as you receive it from men, or you forego it, and receive a reward later from God in Heaven upon death (and on into eternity).  The hypocrites live as though there is no God because they value man’s honor over and above God’s rewards.

But, applying the logic of Pascal’s Wager, if there is no God, it all washes out and doens’t make any difference.  But, clearly there is a difference.  If there is no God, it is not the unbeliever who has missed out, but the believer.  He’s the fool because he has shunned the only good things that will ever be offered him.[6]

The problem that I see with Pascal’s Wager is that it invites people to a Christian life that is existentially meaningless; whether you have Christ or not does not make a lick of difference how you live or what you experience in this life.  The only difference between the follower of Christ and those who reject him is whether or not you gain something (or lose something) in the afterlife.  But as we have seen, this is not the teaching of Scripture.

Of course, I doubt that Pascal himself believed the implications I’m complaining about, but clearly the Wager presents the Christian life this way, whether he believed it or not. 

Kreeft at least acknowledges that the faith that the Wager invokes is not necessarily saving faith: “To the objection that such ‘belief’ is not yet true faith, the reply is: Of course not, but it is a step on the road to it.”[7] 

This much I accept, though I still think that “wagering” this way with unbelievers is not helpful or productive because it casts the Christian life in a mold into which it simply cannot fit.  And, what is more, most unbelievers will find such a thin argument phony.  Humans beings in their core, are not attracted to that which costs them nothing.  It is no coincidence that the church’s greatest growth happened not during times of peace and prosperity, but during times of great tribulation, persecution, and suffering.  When a man or woman stands up and says “I will not do this thing you are asking me to do for Jesus’ sake” and then proceeds to receive a beating or to have their head lopped off, it is a powerful thing that the Holy Spirit is pleased to use to compel people to come to the Lord who is more satisfying that life itself.  Or when a person decides to spend their savings and depend on others in order to pursue theological education it communicates to some that Jesus is worth more than financial stability and the sense of pride that often comes with self-sufficiency. 

This is the stuff of the Christian life that I’m afraid simple wagers like the one formulated by Pascal many years ago are simply unable to capture.

___________________

[1] Chris Rohmann, A World of Ideas: A Dictionary of Important Theories, Concepts, Beliefs and Thinkers (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 298.

[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd Ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 68.

[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees Edited Outlined and Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 291.

[4] As quoted in Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, 294.

[6] Of course I believe that if there were no God, happiness would be an impossibility anyway and the label “good thing” versus “bad thing” would be meaningless.  As Craig points out in his book: “One cannot live happily and consistently on an atheistic worldview.  In order to be happy, one must believe in objective meaning, value, and purpose” all of which are irrational without God (Reasonable Faith, 85).

[7] Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, 301.

 

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