TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

20 June 2016

Betting on God.

Why using Pascal’s wager in apologetics is a bad bet.

Pascal’s wager /pə'skølz 'weɪ.dʒər, 'pøs.kəlz 'weɪ.dʒər/ n. Argument that it’s best to presume God exists: The possibility of hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise.

My first exposure to Pascal was actually PASCAL. (I lived in San Jose in the late 1970s, so as you can guess, my middle school had the best computers.) I knew PASCAL was named after Blaise Pascal (1623–62), a French mathematician and statistician. I didn’t know he was also a Catholic philosopher who came up with a popular apologetic argument. Goes like yea:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or he is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? 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. Wager, then, without hesitation that he is. Pensées, 4.233

In shorter English: Either God exists or he doesn’t; you gotta pick a side. And since you’re the most likely to win big if God exists, the best bet is God exists.

’Cause here’s all its logical outcomes:

PAGAN LIFESTYLECHRISTIAN LIFESTYLE
IF NO GODDo as you will.
Natural consequences.
Ends with death.
Have a good, moral life.
Natural consequences.
Ends with death.
IF GODDo as you will.
Divinely mitigated consequences.
Eternal hellfire afterward.
Have a good, moral life.
Divinely mitigated consequences.
Eternal bliss afterward.

Best outcome   Meh outcome   Not-great outcome   Crappy outcome

If there’s no God, there are no eternal consequences. So you could live your life however you like, and see just how much you can get away with. Since it’ll be an immoral life, there’s always the risk society will find us inconvenient, destructive, or offensive, and we’ll get caught and punished. Or do something stupid or intoxicated, and wind up with a Darwin award. But if there is a God, and he’s just, consequences are guaranteed. Some of these consequences may befall us in this life; definitely they will in the next.

Whereas if we live like Christians—real Christians, not Christianists—we’ll have been loving, kind, peaceful, virtuous, Christlike people. We’d be blessings to the world—which may not appreciate us, but still. Our lives would be good and exemplary, and worth living. If there’s no God, that’s not bad. But if there is a God, we also get the infinite reward of eternal life.

Pascal again:

I would have far more fear of being mistaken, and of finding that the Christian religion was true, than of not being mistaken in believing it true. Pensées, 4.241

The pagan wager.

Pascal’s wager really impresses apologists, but speaking from experience, it doesn’t work so well on non-Christians. Apologists rarely find it gets ’em anywhere.

See, your typical pagan doesn’t accept its premise: They don’t believe God will send ’em to hell. God only sends bad people to hell. And they’re not bad. Well, not that bad. To them, our little table of possible outcomes looks more like this:

PAGAN LIFESTYLECHRISTIAN LIFESTYLE
IF NO GODDo as you will.
Natural consequences—and you had fun!
Ends with death.
Have a “moral” life.
Natural consequences—but less fun.
Ends with death.
IF GODDo as you will.
Divinely mitigated consequences.
God forgives you for not knowing any better.
Heaven!
Have a “moral” life.
Divinely mitigated consequences.
God especially forgives you.
Heaven!

Notice all the outcomes aren’t bad? True, if there’s no God, they’re not great. (In fact some pagans are terrified of non-existence, and are hoping it exists in some form, even if there’s no God.) But none of these outcomes include hell.

Not that hell isn’t a possibility. But not in their chart. They don’t consider themselves bad. They’re good, and if you’re good, you get heaven. Has nothing to do with whether you know Jesus, or believe anything he teaches, or even if you believe in God at all: It’s only about goodness. If you’re good, or good enough, God’ll graciously forgive everything else and grant you heaven.

Speaking of those who doubt or don’t believe in God—i.e. nontheists—you should know they have their own chart. It’s shorter, ’cause it drops the “if God” option.

NONTHEIST LIFESTYLECHRISTIAN LIFESTYLE
Do as you will.
Natural consequences—and you had fun!
Ends with death.
Let your pastors bully you into a restricted life.
Natural consequences—and no fun.
Ends with death.

True, you don’t get any heaven. But you notice the Christian lifestyle isn’t the good option—because nontheists figure it’s a wasted life, spent serving a God who’s not even there. Nontheists believe whenever you play Pascal’s wager, you lose.

Okay. If this is how Pascal’s wager plays out when you’re sharing it with non-Christians—if it doesn’t work in real life—why are Christian apologists so very fond of it?

Well… it sounds logical to them.

See, Christian apologetics is about using logic and reason and history to defend our Christianity. We believe what we do because we know and trust Jesus. But apologists wanna also be able to say we believe it because it makes sense and is reasonable. And Pascal’s wager sorta sounds reasonable.

After all, say an eccentric billionaire is tossing a coin, and wants you to bet on how it’ll land. Heads or tails; it’s a 50:50 chance. If you bet heads and you’re right, he’ll give you a million bucks. If you bet tails and you’re right, hey, at least you were right. So what do you do? Duh; you bet heads and hope it comes up heads!

Except—to continue our analogy—the pagan thinks this eccentric will generously also give you a million bucks if you bet tails and you’re right. And the nontheist thinks he has no million dollars, and will never pay up, and you’re a sucker for playing.

And, I should add, our analogy is flawed. Because God’s existence does not compare with a coin toss. Humans don’t think of God’s existence as having 50:50 odds. Odds have nothing to do with it. Either we believe God exists, or we don’t. It’s not really a wager, because there’s nothing to wager.

Okay yes, there are such nontheists as agnostics, folks who doubt God exists but haven’t come down hard against him. These folks are playing the odds—but it’s not 50:50. Either they lean towards theism, but have their doubts; or they lean towards atheism, but don’t wanna be closed-minded about it. They claim they’re on the fence, but their lifestyle proves they’ve picked a side: It either allows for God or doesn’t. If it allows for God they’ll usually think like a pagan, and figure they’re going to heaven regardless. If it doesn’t they’ll think like the other nontheists, and figure Pascal’s wager is dumb.

Lastly: I should point out how skeptics love to play with Pascal’s wager by switching gods on us.

PAGAN LIFESTYLENORSE LIFESTYLE
IF NO ODINDo as you will.
Natural consequences.
Ends with death.
Love and serve Odin.
Natural consequences.
Ends with death.
IF ODINDo as you will.
Divinely mitigated consequences.
Eternity in Helheim afterward.
Love and serve Odin.
Divinely mitigated consequences.
Valhalla afterward!

Of course we Christians think this sounds dumb. When it comes to Odin, we become the nontheists, and reject the very premise of the wager. And now you see why they don’t buy it.

Christians don’t wager.

Unless you’re a Christian who has significant doubts and are hypocritically hiding them, you’re not really playing Pascal’s wager either.

No you’re not. Because you’re not betting God exists; you’ve fully concluded he does. And since he does, and you’ve put faith in him, there’s no odds. No chance. No risk. Just certainty: We do inherit God’s kingdom. It’s a done deal.

Pascal’s consolation prize of “Well, at least you lived a good, virtuous life”? Only Christian apologists act as if that’s a reasonable consolation prize. Every other Christian finds it stupid. ’Cause we’ve read what Paul of Tarsus had to say about it, and he found it stupid.

1 Corinthians 15.13-19 KWL
13 If resurrection of the dead isn’t true, not even Christ is risen.
14 If Christ isn’t risen, our message is worthless. Your faith is worthless.
15 Turns out we’re bearing false witness about God:
We testified about God that he raised Christ!
Whom he didn’t raise, if it’s true the dead aren’t raised.
16 If the dead aren’t raised, Christ isn’t risen either.
17 If Christ isn’t risen, your faith has no foundation.
You’re still in your sins, 18 and those who “sleep in Christ” are gone.
19 If hope in Christ only exists in this life, we’re the most pathetic of all people.

If there’s any realistic chance we’re not inheriting the kingdom, what’re we even doing here?

So yeah: Christians won’t seriously consider the wager, and non-Christians won’t seriously consider it either. It’s an intriguing thought-experiment, but in the end it’s not practical: Belief in God doesn’t work this way.

That said, I still know Christians who persist in using it. Because, they say, at least it gets people to think about God. It forces skeptics to deal with the important question of whether Christianity is true or false. Okay yes, it does get people to think about God. But no, it doesn’t force skeptics to do a thing. Like I said, they reject the premise of Pascal’s wager, because it doesn’t describe their view of God. (Or no God.) In fact, it has a really annoying side effect.

Y’see, nontheists are really fond of claiming the only reason we Christians believe in God, is because we’re too afraid not to. We’re so afraid of blasphemy, so afraid of hellfire, we lose all sense of rationality and common sense. We’re totally blind to other views—like theirs.

Pascal’s wager totally plays into their worldview. “If you bet on God, you’ll get heaven; if you don’t, and you’re wrong, you’ll get hell.” To them, this is precisely what they mean by fear-based reasoning. Suspend your doubts about God because you have a 50:50 chance of hell? That’s stupid—and totally supports their stereotype. It doesn’t lead ’em a millimeter closer to Jesus: It has the opposite effect.

Y’know what does lead ’em closer to Jesus? Tell ’em what he’s done in your life. Tell ’em what he’s told you. Don’t try to out-clever them; just share your experiences with Jesus with them. That’s evangelism. Works far better than a debate.