Pascal's Wager: Faith Versus Picking the Right Horse
Most Christians will have heard an iteration of what’s called Pascal’s wager. It only appears in the Unclassified Papers section of my Pensées, though I’m sure you can find it elsewhere in the French philosopher’s work. Blaise Pascal writes: “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” (§387). According to Pascal’s reasoning: the rational person should live as though God exists. If they’re wrong they experience finite loss while if they’re right they enjoy infinite gains.
In my experience, from Christian apologists to preachers, Pascal’s wager is usually treated as a kind of mic-drop or “gotcha” moment. For it supposedly appeals to the rational hearer, able to weigh the odds of existence and choose wisely. I’m aware that the logic is more complex. Furthermore, I’m not a philosopher nor am I the son of a philosopher. So please forgive me in advance, but the wager has never sat well with me. And I certainly don’t think it’s as compelling as it’s often treated, whether in pulpits or debates.
The three points below are in many ways an expansion of my Cautionary Note on Apologetics. In that post I suggested that locating an infinite God within our finite is not only impossible, but also a little impertinent. Furthermore, the apologist always runs the risk of defending the truth without participating in it. Tied to those general points, here are my three contentions with Pascal’s wager.
1. Pascal Seems at Odds with Paul
Firstly, in his famous chapter on the resurrection Paul says that “we are of all people most to be pitied,” if it isn’t true (1 Corinthians 15:19). In my doubts, I’m often tempted to reassure myself that Christianity as a system is more beneficial than others, even if it turns out to be untrue. But Paul opposes those hollow sentiments, calling the faith “futile” if untrue (1 Corinthians 15:17).
So I think there’s a real danger in Pascal’s wager, since it allays doubts with assumption. It promotes ‘faith’ that isn’t so much convinced of the truth but fearful of the consequences. This brings us to my second point.
2. The Wager Treats Faith as Fire Insurance
One of the strengths of Pascal’s wager is found in its economy. However, the downside of this is that it is also reductionistic in its presentation of the Christian faith. Belief is so much more than backing the right horse. If there is a God, then we all face incomprehensible loss. I’m just not sure that highlighting this points people towards God. If it does it points them towards a deity akin to your Discovery insurance scheme, rather than the one whom knowing is eternal life (John 17:3).
I must be careful here, however it’s worth pointing out that rational assent shouldn’t be confused with a faith that knows, trusts, loves, and enjoys. I know that in some terrible medical emergency, I’ll be admitted to a private hospital on Discovery’s dime. And I know that my wife loves me. Yet what I do with those respective truths is worlds apart.
3. Confusion Concerning the Good Life
Finally, and following the above, Pascal’s wager implies that following Jesus doesn’t mean living your best life now. But it does. The contrast of finite loss and infinite gain suggests that material loss in this life constitutes a less than blessed existence. But knowing God and experiencing his grace is the blessed life. Yes, the Christian must take up her cross, give sacrificially, serve selflessly, practice discipline, and pursue holiness, only those things aren’t merely ‘loss.’ By pitching finite loss against eternal gain, the wager makes less of the very real gains of following Christ.
Christianity is about a new life and transformed loves. Listen to Eugene Peterson, commenting on John 17:3, “Life is resonant with a wide range of joy and meaning, complex with strands of purpose and peace, and vibrant with profundities of righteousness and love. A person is never wholly and fully alive until he or she is alive to God.” So the Christian isn’t someone who is simply sure. That would suggest that knowing God is no different from knowing arithmetic.
“This Is Eternal Life”
In conclusion, here is another point made by Eugene Peterson on eternal life. Commenting on “eternal,” he writes: “It is not a word that refers to the future. Eternal life is not the life we get after we die. It is the life we get from God right now. I got a biological life from my parents, but I get eternal life from the Spirit of God. It is not something I wait for but something I participate in. It is not a distant promise but a present history.”
For all its apologetic value, Pascal’s wager runs the risk of locating eternal life in the future. Thus the wager cheapens life in the present, especially the Christian life. Faith ends up being a calculated decision rather than delighting in God, overwhelmed by his love.