Pascal’s Wager (You Wanna Bet?!)

Pascal’s Wager (Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662) caught my attention because of its unique “game show-like” approach in philosophy. His position of simplicity makes the assumption that each person must ultimately come to a reckoning about God’s existence (or non-existence) and His relevance (or lack thereof) to one’s life.  It was formed under a Christian apologetic framework that did not give an option of backing away from a choice just because one does not have answers one way or the other. (More on this later as to its relevance to the unbeliever making a decision for Jesus Christ.)  It makes the assumption that (1) God exists and (2) that there is an eternity as He is eternal, and (3) that an eternity with God is a great outcome and a preferable alternative over a person’s non-existence or an existence of separation from God.

A quick logical summary of Pascal’s Wager:

1.  “God is, or He is not”

2.  A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.

3.  According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

4.  You must wager (it is not optional).

5.  Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.

6.  Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

7.  But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves. [1]

I’m not a gambler by any stretch, but the “wager” aspect of Pascal’s argument is one of its major strengths.  It rings true when you consider the decision-making opportunities of an unbeliever of Jesus Christ.  Every day that goes by for the unbeliever is a calculated risk when no decision is made in acknowledgment of Christ as personal Lord and Savior.  Without the intervention of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, a person (the flesh) is incapable of making a decision for Jesus Christ (John 15:26-27; 16:8-11, 13); however, from the moment that the Holy Spirit provides sufficient knowledge and consciousness to a person who has yet to commit to Christ, that is essentially the moment when he or she becomes a “risk taker” as to their eternal destiny.  Can we assume that the rich man in Luke (16:19-31) knew enough about God but chose to take the fateful risk each day of loving himself and his wealth?

The weakness of Pascal’s treatise can be seen in its general criticism that it was insufficient in its explanation of who God is (or even His presence) even though he clearly presented God from a moralistic argument. [2]  His critics were largely atheists and agnostics who dismissed his argument altogether; however, they all missed the point.  Pascal’s point no. 7 (above) is an excellent one.  Even if one does not understand God or question His presence, there is no reason to not “try” to understand (Proverbs 4:7). God only asks for a person to seek and that He would provide the answers (Matthew 7:7-8). In other words, there is no excuse for not seeking Him.  Those that choose to dismiss God’s presence in spite of the realization of nature are taking the ultimate risk:

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.  Romans 1:20 NLT

When I came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, my knowledge of God was at a level somewhere between naivete and infancy.  Once you acknowledge Him, you gain the ability to learn more and more about Him and His ways through faith in those moments you remain in fellowship with Him because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  All of this is a matter of faith.   Agnostics dismiss faith in something that they cannot conceptualize, while atheists deny God altogether and put all of their “faith” in self:

“An atheist accepts that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help lead to a life of fulfillment.” [3]

I wonder if Pascal had a dialogue with a non-believer who says there is no God and he responded with, “You wanna bet?!”  If I were to present this to a non-believer, I would take the approach that Pascal conveys in his concept:  “What do you have to lose?” and “Try it…you’ll like it!”  A failure to make a commitment would continually challenge the non-believer’s sensibilities in the potential to miss out on eternal happiness in Christ–the essence of lostness (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:10, 23).  Some people, however, will make the choice to reject Christ and live according to their flesh (where Pascal says you haven’t lost anything). [4] The person who does not believe there is a God can live a life without a moral foundation, but this comes down to the “you’d better be right” assertion, for the other side of that is being lost for all eternity if God does indeed exist.  By Pascal claiming that the non-believer must make a sincere choice (your wager, please), it presents a serious dilemma.

In my humble opinion, having a person consider Christ will take some time if there has not been given any consideration to who He is and what He is about.  The moment that a person senses that the messenger is exerting pressure or coercion over allowing for a thought process to take place would push virtually anyone away.  A non-believer should always get the sense that Jesus’ burden is light (Matthew 11:29-30), but allow for the Spirit and the Word to do the “heart surgery” necessary to compel the non-believer to make a decision for Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:12-13).

In summary, I was intrigued with Pascal’s Wager as a method to present a non-confrontational message to a non-believer.  Even though we are challenged to go and preach the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20), we do not have the burden of explaining everything there is to know about God (because we can’t)–all we are called to do is bring it (and let the Spirit take care of the rest).

 

1 Article – Pascal’s Wager (n.d). From Wikipedia. Retrieved September 18, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal’s_Wager

2 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, part III, p. 59; Published 1958 by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. Boston MA http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm

3 Quote – Murray v. Curlett, American Atheist Center (n.d.), Copyright 2014 – American Atheists, Inc., Cranford NJ, Retrieved September 18, 2014 from http://atheists.org/about-us

4 Lecture – Vernon Caston (n.d.). Week 2 Lectures, p. 8 – Topics in Philosophy CST5225, Crown College, St. Bonifacius MN

Categories Christian Studies, philosophyTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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