Tag Archives: Eternal Life

Betting It All

FreeImages.com/Lance Palmer

Previously, I highlighted another brilliant, famous scientist that was a Christian – Blaise Pascal. I also sketched out his Anthropological argument for the existence of God, which is the overarching theme of his unfinished apologetic work collected posthumously as “Pensées”. However, there is a famous part of this work that is more often associated with his name: Pascal’s Wager. It is unfortunate that his “wager” has taken so much focus from his overall case, but such is life. Let’s look at this wager and perhaps answer some objections to it.

While Pensée #418[1] develops it, #387 gives the essence in one sentence: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” You might say he is concerned with avoiding the ultimate buyer’s remorse: “What if I buy the spiel that God doesn’t exist, but then meet Him when I die?” Pascal’s development of this in #418 can be arranged in a table of 4 options, based on 2 objective possibilities, and 2 subjective responses to those possible realities, as illustrated below.

Objective Reality
God Exists God does
not exist
Our Subjective Response “I believe” Gain all,
Lose nothing
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing
“I do not
Gain nothing,
Lose all
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing

If God doesn’t exist, any gains or losses in our life are minimal, and approach insignificance, with either belief or unbelief. But if God exists  – that’s what makes it a high-stakes gamble. The gaining of eternal life, of unending communion with our loving Creator, is at stake! Gain that, and gain what really matters; reject that and all the riches or pleasures of the world can’t compensate for eternal separation from God.

That’s basically his wager, but is his wager valid? Are those really our choices? Let me get one objection out of the way first: this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather for the prudence of faith. Pascal is leaving aside the theoretical for the moment and getting very practical here to encourage the reader to look at what is prudent, or reasonable. Prudence isn’t a very common word anymore, but Thomas Aquinas defined it as “right reason applied to practice.”[2]Pascal is saying that belief is the wise choice not just in theory but in practice.

Now why is “betting on God” prudent? As he points out, we have to bet: those are, in fact, our only choices. God exists or He doesn’t – agnosticism is not on the table. Why? As Peter Kreeft says in his commentary on Pascal: “Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[3] To try to avoid betting is simply to delay it and then bet by default, to lose by forfeiting the game.

But why bet on God rather than atheism? Much has been made of Pascal’s statements in the Wager that “Reason cannot decide this question [of God’s existence],” and “Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either [theism or atheism] wrong.” Is he negating all of apologetics here? After all, apologetics is being able to “give a reason for the hope that we have”[1 Pet 3:15], is it not? Keep in mind that the Wager is found in Pascal’s notes for his unfinished defense of Christianity. His whole Anthropological Argument is abductive reasoning. Pascal’s hypothetical seeker in his case asks, “is there really no way of seeing what the cards are?” Pascal’s response: “Yes. Scripture and the rest, etc.” These are all reasons. While it’s true that reason alone cannot prove God’s existence beyond our capacity to deny it, the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, as well as Pascal’s own Anthropological argument, stack the odds in favor of the existence of one and only one God – the God of the Bible. So why bet on God? General revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture) reasonably point us to Him. Far from a leap in the dark, Christianity “alone has reason” and “reason impels you to believe.”

Some would say that this idea of “betting on God” is a pragmatic or utilitarian religion, a selfish belief that must surely be repugnant to any good God. It’s true that God sees through any mask of belief, as well as condemns selfishness. But I think Peter Kreeft addresses this well when he responds, “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. Even if it is sheer fear of God’s justice in Hell, ‘ the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov1:7).”[4] I don’t think Pascal intended his audience (the sincere seeker) to simply stop at conceding that belief in God is prudent. He is rather driving the seeker inexorably onward to Christianity, with all that entails. The wager is simply removing one roadblock on the way there.

Lastly, Pascal reminds us at the end of his wager that it is not just a hope for some unknowable future: “I tell you that you will gain even in this life”. And again in Pensée #917,  “The Christian’s hope of possessing an infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment….” Christians get a small foretaste of this blessing even in this life.

A “prudent bet” may sound a bit paradoxical, but as Pascal would say, here, “there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain.”[5] So, are you in?

[1] Note: I am using Krailsheimer’s translation and numbering for the Pensées. You may read Brunschvicg’s edition for free at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm. The numbering there would be: #387 = #241, #418 = #233, and #917 = #540.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd Part of the 2nd Part, Question 47, Article 2. Aquinas is condensing Aristotle’s definition of Prudence from Nichomachean Ethics Book VI, Part 5: “Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods.” Aristotle’s word φρόνησις (phronesis) is typically translated as “prudence” or “practical wisdom”.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 300.
[4] ibid., p.301.
[5] ibid., p.294.