One of the most common arguments used by believers to support faith in God is known as Pascal’s Wager, named after the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who formulated the wager.1 The argument generally goes as such: “if you believe there is a god and you are proven wrong when you die, then nothing is lost; however, if you believe there is no god and you are proven wrong at death, then you could lose everything”. In other words, it is best to bet on the existence of God and not take chances with the possibility of burning in hell for all eternity. During my own interactions with Christians, there has rarely been an instance where Pascal’s Wager was not invoked in one form or another.
I. Pick a God, Any God
While Pascal certainly intended his wager as a defense of faith in the Christian God, it can easily be applied to virtually any other deity. Not surprisingly, Christians construct a false dichotomy that either the Christian God exists or no god does. What if Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, or some other religion is actually the truth? Some Muslims believe that Allah will be sending Christians to hell at the last day, because they have rejected Muhammad’s message and believe in a trinity as opposed to the “oneness” of God that is focused on in the Quran. If we must wager on a god, which god should it be?
A stipulation that will often be brought up as a response to this challenge is that the wager is only reasonable if there is something at stake. Since the gods of some religions do not threaten us with eternal torture, we have nothing to fear from not believing in them. Yet many of those gods do promise a reward if you concede to worship them, and so forfeiting eternal bliss might be considered a loss. Christians wager against the gods of other religions when they affirm their faith in Christ, but how can they be sure that they have selected the true deity? If they are intellectually honest at all, they will admit they cannot be sure.
II. It Could Happen…
Believing in anything on the sheer chance that it might be true is not a fantastic idea. Suppose that you are afflicted with cancer and a man approaches you, claiming that he can cure you if you will only agree to be his slave for the remainder of your life. If you reject his offer and it turns out he was lying, you have lost nothing, but if you decline and he is actually telling the truth, you have lost the opportunity to be cancer-free. Would you consent to enslavement on the chance that the man could possibly have the cure? I think it is safe to say that few of us would let ourselves be enslaved, because we judge it unlikely that the man is being honest, and a lifetime of servitude is not very desirable.
Similarly, if there is a god, it is unlikely that many of us could pick the right god out of the millions that have ever been mentioned or will be mentioned in the future. It might also be contended that subjecting oneself to the will or servitude of a certain god can damage or corrupt one’s character. If, for example, you wager on the existence of Tezcatlipoca (an Aztec god who desired human sacrifice) and conclude that you should worship him just in case he is the true god, sacrificing humans to appease your new god might get you into some trouble. Of course this is an extreme example, but a person might also develop a bad habit of self-loathing under the Christian God, who teaches us that every little sinful thought is utterly deplorable (Matthew 5:27-30).
III. Problems of Probability
Another major error in Pascal’s Wager is the probability assigned to God’s existence, which is not clearly defined at all. If we are to seriously evaluate the wager, it would be helpful to know what the probability is that a god exists, let alone one that desires our worship and will send us to eternal torment if we do not comply. This will vary according to each person, and obviously if a strong atheist assigns a figure of zero probability to God’s existence, then the wager will not persuade them in the slightest.
“But wait!” the theist might plead, “The probability of God existing is 50/50. Either God exists or he does not exist, right?” Such a poor understanding of probability is precisely why the lottery continues to attract consistent players. When you purchase a lotto ticket, either you are going to win or you are going to lose, but does that mean your odds are therefore 50/50 of getting that oh-so-elusive jackpot? Quite the contrary, as many state lotteries have odds of nearly 14 million to 1.2 How do we know that the probability for the Christian God’s existence is not equally as slim, given that countless other gods must have some probability of existing too?
IV. Lip Service Salvation
Let us assume for a brief second that Pascal’s Wager convinces us that it would be rational to accept the existence of the Christian God and avoid eternal peril. What then? If a person agrees with the propositions of the wager only to escape the threat of hell, is their faith really sincere? What advice does Pascal give to non-believers who are not capable of willing themselves to sincerely believe in Christ? Once again, from his 233rd note:
Basically, he says if you just emulate and pay lip service, you will learn to earnestly believe in Christ. However, any psychologist will tell you that it is just not so simple, and even the bible itself indicates that salvation requires more than acknowledgement of God’s existence. The following verses clearly demonstrate that, according to the bible, one must be fairly sincere in their faith to be saved by God:
Must believe all of the good news/gospels. (Mark 16:16)
Must take communion. (John 6:53-54)
Belief without good deeds is not enough. (James 2:26)
Must be baptized with water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5)
Those who do not obey the gospels will be punished (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9)
Pascal’s Wager may be a useful starting point to encourage people to think about God, but by itself it is not capable of making full-fledged, totally saved believers. Its only realistic or practical application would be for individuals who think there may be a god, yet are not sure of it for one reason or another. Despite the fact that it makes several unfounded assumptions and has been continually proven to be grossly vacuous since it was first created, the wager is still in use today by many Christians, preachers, apologists, and their ilk.
1. Pascal, B. (1670) Pensees, Section III: Of the necessity of the wager. (Note 233).
2. Anonymous. Lottery Probability, & Your Real Chance of Winning. The Lottery Site. Retrieved Sept. 27, 2008.