Paul, Pascal & Pensées

It has been said that the lottery is a self-imposed tax on the poor.

I suppose gambling on one’s eternity is an activity reserved for the poor of spirit. After all, who really wants to bet on something as significant as Heaven and Hell?

 Aren’t there some things too important to merely wager?

Not according to the 17th century philosopher Pascal, who argued that all men must make a decision regarding God’s existence. The arguments found in his work Pensées have come to be known as Pascal’s Wager. Unfortunately, this construct has been trivialized and misunderstood by believers and unbelievers alike.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, maintained by Stanford University, aptly describes the intent of Pascal’s formula:

According to Pascal, ‘wagering for God’ and ‘wagering against God’ are contradictories, as there is no avoiding wagering one way or another: “you must wager. It is not optional.” The decision to wager for or against God is one that you make at a time—at t, say. But of course Pascal does not think that you would be infinitely rewarded for wagering for God momentarily, then wagering against God thereafter; nor that you would be infinitely rewarded for wagering for God sporadically—only on the last Thursday of each month, for example. What Pascal intends by ‘wagering for God’ is an ongoing action—indeed, one that continues until your death—that involves your adopting a certain set of practices and living the kind of life that fosters belief in God. The decision problem for you at t, then, is whether you should embark on this course of action; to fail to do so is to wager against God at t.

Thus, Pascal’s postulation was not a trite gimmick for evangelistic success. It was an observation of the options facing humanity. Apart from the existence of God, objective purpose and freewill lack meaning. The existential connotation of Pascal’s thought is that Christianity provides both meaning and fulfillment in this lifetime. But it offers more than that.

Should a man be in error in supposing the Christian religion to be true, he could not be a loser by mistake. But how irreparable is his loss and how inexpressible his danger who should err in supposing it to be false. -Blaise Pascal

In his presentation “Need God,” Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias offers this commentary:

This wager of Pascal has been the most misunderstood thing that I have ever heard interpreted. Pascal is not here betting, and thinking he has the better bet. Pascal is saying this, “If all you have to offer in life outside of God is some kind of fulfillment and personal existential satisfaction; I get that in GOD. But what I get in God is more than that. So if your test is some kind of temporary fulfillment of your three score years and ten, I’ve found that in my spiritual belief. But I have found more than that. I’ve found the truth, and I’ve found an eternal destiny. So your test I’ve already met. My test you have not met.”

Pascal is not suggesting that unbelievers trust in God merely to hedge their bets. He is highlighting the outcome of their current position. Christianity, if true, will land upon them with irreversable force. And it will be too late for a change of mind. If false, the believer would have endured temporary fallacy. If true, the unbeliever would face an eternity of error.

The Apostle Paul touches on this theme in his letter to the Romans:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Herein, the Christian must look odd to the rest of the world: finding  joy in the midst of peril.  While the secularist might see the Christian as missing out on something the world has to offer, Paul says the believer knows victory even in the midst of persecution.  This is the sort of joy Jesus spoke of: abundant life here, and eternal life hereafter. To miss either would certainly be a grave mistake. According to Pascal, it would be irreparable loss and inexpressable danger.

This is far too heavy a tax to wager lightly.

What are you betting on?