“You can bet your life,” so the saying goes. We are all forced to place this bet when it comes to matters of faith and expectations of what goes on beyond the grave. It doesn’t matter which side of the “God debate” you are on; you must play this hand.
Blaise Pascal was a philosopher and mathematician in 17th century France. His famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Wager is contained in Pensées, a collection of his writings published after he died.
Typically, people tend to view Pascal’s Wager as a “last ditch” argument to defend Christianity, and admittedly Pascal himself seemed to frame it in this fashion. I wish to offer a different perspective in that I think it beneficial to consider the Wager first. Of course the Wager would still be available for reconsideration if one is still not persuaded outright by the weight of numerous arguments, evidence and testimony for God.
Simply put, Pascal argued that belief in God leads to infinite reward in the long run if true, and costs the believer little (or nothing) in the short run whether true or false—and surely costs nothing in the long run if false. (After death the fate would be the same for atheist and believer) The non-believer is observed to have nothing to gain in the end if his worldview is true and would suffer infinite loss (missing out on Heaven) if he has chosen incorrectly. Hence, the better bet is to believe in God.
Some discussions of the Wager note the potential “hell factor” in the theistic worldview as additional risk of infinite negative consequences awaiting the skeptic. However, Pascal himself made no reference to hell in the Wager. Perhaps he thought the positive reward of infinite good for the Christian was sufficient to make his point.
Pascal assumed Christian faith as the sole theistic choice, and skeptics commonly exploit this simplification to declare his analysis invalid. We will inspect this criticism among others to see if the reports of Pascal’s Wager’s demise aren’t a bit premature.
LOL, a Google search for “Pascal’s Wager defended” yields a deluge of skeptics offering rebuttal and less than a handful of pro-Wager sites. Skeptics would surely spin the low ratio of supporting articles to mean “insupportable”, but perhaps apologists pay scant attention to the Wager because they consider available evidence and arguments sufficient to affirm our faith.
The purported refutations of Pascal are little more than hanging curves begging to be whacked into the bleachers. Notably, in the all the cacophony no one offers a realistic and compelling argument depicting atheism as a good bet.
Criticism of the Wager Evaluated
1. Pascal could be picking the wrong god because there are many different religions to choose from. Thus the chance for positive payoff is said to be less the 50-50 proposition Pascal stated.
But when the reward is extremely high or actually infinite, the Wager does not need to be 50-50 or even nearly so to make it a good bet. Btw, Christians do not concede low probability of winning. Quite the contrary–we are convinced that the odds are way greater than 50% that Jesus did conquer the grave. (I digress beyond the scope of Pascal’s Wager)
Some skeptics say that there are infinite possibilities of gods–which would bring the effective probability to zero that you would pick the right god. This calculation ignores that we have ability to reasonably evaluate contending revelations already presented to us. The point of believing isn’t about blindly guessing the correct name and micro-description for God. Surely gods that are too small (finite) to have created the universe or are too impersonal to have created man can be passed over in favor of those who satisfy such criteria. Further elimination results when you list only those that account for both unity and plurality in the Eternal First Cause. Unitarian only and polytheism need not apply. Voila!
Many atheists claim that picking the wrong god would be punished more severely than unbelief. They interpret many religions to condemn blasphemy more than unbelief. Really? Scoffers expect to gain an advantage by blaspheming them all? This assures that they will blaspheme the true God by treating Him as if He were like the false gods which don’t even exist. Don’t try this at home—or anywhere else for that matter.
The truth is that everyone either worships God or idols of their own choosing—the creation or creature rather than the Creator. Even one’s own intellect becomes an idol of worship.
Internet atheists increase their risk, because they actively attempt to erode the true faith of many. It’s bad enough to choose a path that leads to one’s own destruction, but it’s much worse to persuade others to follow. Jesus gave stern warning against those who cause the “little ones” to stumble. (Matthew 18:5-7)
2. More possibilities exist than the two presented by Pascal. Some critics suggest that atheists might still enjoy a blissful afterlife (win the bet) in some paradise without God. Alternately, they hope that a possible god will reward their goodness or will actually reward people who only believe things that are proven according to skeptics’ standards. Various atheists incorporate some version of this concept into their own counter wager they term The Atheist’s Wager. What can I say? No one can accuse them of lacking sense of humor.
Should the possibility of [no-god + afterlife] be given the same weight as either [God + afterlife] or [no god + no afterlife] ? Surely not. Belief in afterlife is relatively rare among atheists and seems to lack any evidence or testimony that skeptics normally insist upon. How many reports are there of people who died for a short time; then came back saying, “I saw Heaven, but I’m still an atheist?”
Expecting a god who is indifferent toward unbelief is nearly as unrealistic as belief in the godless heaven. Such a notion misunderstands the Christian concept of belief. It’s not about simply accepting that God exists and walked the earth as Jesus. It’s about personal relationship between the believer and God involving love, trust, obedience, and worship.
Good works? Many atheists do comparatively well at obeying the 2nd greatest commandment (love your neighbor as your yourself) and consider themselves worthy of heaven. They discount that they ignore completely the greatest commandment (love God with all your heart, mind and soul). Why would they think dwelling with God would possibly be “heaven” for them? Being good is not the criteria for dwelling together in the same home, being family is. You can’t love your family and treat them as if they don’t exist.
If you are serious about the joy of Heaven, then answer the call of the Holy Spirit and enter into a relationship with the Father through His Son. If God cares how we relate to our fellow humans (and surely He does), it follows that He would also care how we relate to Him.
3. Pascal understated the present cost to believers for believing. This is a fair point to raise that even Christians note in opposition to Pascal. Jesus himself said to “count the cost,” but Jesus would also teach that the reward is worth whatever the cost and that it should be sought as one would seek a pearl of great price. (Matthew 13:45-46) Certainly the apostles and many other martyrs paid a serious price for their faith. Obviously they were fully convinced that their faith was worth even the loss of their lives. Paul wrote:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18)
Note also that God promises comfort and joy for the believer to experience even while undergoing intense suffering—a peace that surpasses all understanding that is unattainable without a relationship with Him. (See Philippians Chapter 4) Volumes of inspirational testimony are available from people like Joni Eareckson Tada and Nick Vujicic who receive grace from God to enjoy difficult circumstances most of us can barely imagine.
Whatever the cost, God offers a greater return in this life well in advance of the eternal reward beyond. But, the majority of Christians in Western culture have a reasonable expectation that their cost for belief will be comparatively small. Some skeptics argue that society loses resources that are directed toward faith activities, but there is no evidence that faith in God impedes positive contribution to our society whether it be science, technology, economics, or the arts.
4. One can’t feign or force belief on utilitarian grounds. God would see through it, and it would be immoral to reward phony faith motivated by pure self interest.
Some people object to the idea that any moral decision might be motivated by self interest—reward to be gained or punishment to be avoided, but there is no shame in choosing an option that results in a win-win. God, who desires that all should be saved and know the truth (1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9) will enjoy your presence in Heaven even more than you will.
I agree that merely faking it is insufficient, but there is no harm in asking God for the desire to be made genuine: “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) Jesus promised not to reject those who come to Him, (John 6:37) and the thief on the cross who turned could only muster up a feeble, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (v43)
The criticisms of Pascal succeed in showing that the true cost/benefit analysis might not be so simple as that presented by Pascal, but the skeptics fail to explain how atheism has anything to offer in the ultimate scheme of things. They offer no realistic or compelling payoff for unbelief after you draw your last breath–certainly not after those who could remember you have expired. . .or in the void after the end of human history.
Betting on atheism is a wager that in the end, nothing will matter. Permanent gain from this is impossible. No matter how you dress it up, atheism winds up stark naked.
I consider Pascal’s Wager not so much as an argument for belief in God but as an exhortation to make an honest assessment of the stakes while you weigh the facts and evaluate the witnesses. Skeptics are fond of saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” before deeming everything ordinary and trashing all testimony as “hearsay”. But, the Wager strikes back—and exposes the hazard of blindly rejecting all claims because they appear to be extraordinary to man possessing finite knowledge. Perhaps, from God’s perspective miracles are quite ordinary—even if employed sparingly.
The great value of Pascal’s Wager is that it turns the tables when considering the burden of proof. The rational mind should demand that a bankrupt premise be proven conclusively if it is to be the cornerstone of your worldview. That’s why I recommend considering the Wager first.