This is the second of two essays introducing Pascal’s Wager. Click HERE for Part 1.
In “The Pop Star and the Mathematician” I gave an overview of the apologetic approach commonly called Pascal’s Wager. In that Wager, 17th-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal argued that the choice between Christian belief, with its potential for infinite benefits (and implied lack of cost), and nonbelief, with its potentially infinite costs and penalties, made choosing Christian belief always the more reasonable of the two. The argument is often misunderstood as an attempt to prove God, when in actual fact it is a prudential argument, and one focused on the interlocutor who is already open to the possibility of Christian conversion.
Even Pascal, then, recognized inherent limitations of the Wager. Nonetheless, the Wager has been criticized harshly on many grounds. Four seem—at least at first glance—to be particularly compelling.
First, it is said, Pascal shows himself unconcerned with what is true, as his argument is a pragmatic one rather than one driven by fealty to truth. This distinguishes it from most classical arguments for God’s existence, arguments that harness evidence enabling one to discard falsehood and distractors and arrive at what is true about God and creation and humankind. The pragmatic nature of the argument—appealing to common sense as it does—suggests to some that Pascal was more interested in bringing in new adherents to Christianity than he was in finding and proving and broadcasting the truth. In a stinging criticism of the Wager, W. K. Clifford in 1879 quoted Coleridge: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and in the end loving himself better than all.”[i] Richard Dawkins, who has suggested that the Wager was nothing more than some sort of joke, has even charged it is less than honest because it encourages feigned belief.[ii] Abandoning the truth, it is asserted, essentially abandons seeking to know God. These charges of corruption, however, ignore that the Wager is not an abandonment of the truth, but an appeal to prudence so to bring the enquirer to the truth. It is the equivalent of getting an injured person to get into an ambulance so to be brought to a place of healing and restoration and hope.
Second, critics charge, the Wager appeals to self-interest: to minimizing one’s risks, cutting one’s losses, and saving one’s skin. This, to critics, seems quite at odds with Christianity, which is supposed to be about thinking not of oneself but of God and others. The response to this is that of course a Christian should be thinking selflessly, and will do so, but the Wager is not addressed to the Christian. Rather, it is addressed to the non-Christian skeptic, who has yet to absorb this Christianly manner of thinking. Moreover, having benefits that flow from belief, and being joyful in such benefits, is entirely in accord with Scripture. Even Christ’s admonition about taking up a cross daily and following him appeals to the desire of the Christian to save his life (Luke 9:23-25). The Christian life is one of sacrifice: in Bonhoeffer’s famous words “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[iii] But the Christian faith is not a dark and morose one: it is one that promises life eternal that begins now, life that carries with it the hope of infinite joy and love, through which one’s life and relationships and ultimately creation itself is set right. This is part-and-parcel of Christianity, and to omit this promise and its power is to ignore or deny the essence of the faith. Moreover, from the orthodox Christian vantage point it is no small matter to avoid the punishment each has rightly earned and instead receive the unmerited grace of a merciful God. It is not selfish to desire this: indeed, pride is the primary impediment to trusting in that mercy. Pascal is, to be sure, goading a certain sort of person into doing a cost-benefit analysis of Christianity. But the real calculation will not be plain until that person is brought into the church, which will not happen unless reason and reasonableness is employed.
Third, there is a hesitancy and tentativeness about what is asked of the nonbeliever in the Wager. The wagerer is simply asked to place his bet, to conform his life to the expected result, and to reap the ultimate benefit if he is right. It is the case that this is not a demand for full-throttle certainty. But in some respects one can say this is not all so very different from a Billy Graham crusade altar call, where new believers take their first baby steps in the faith. Conversion may come with tsunami force, or it may come more gradually. Pascal here is making the first step of faith as appealing as possible, fully understanding that this is not all that will be required of the convert. “Following the advice of the wager can be seen as a first step in the process of possible belief development,” notes Douglas Groothuis. “Because beliefs cannot just be taken up at will, a process is undertaken which may result in full-fledged belief, if certain conditions obtain. Pascal himself is aware of the difference between true conversion and prudential exploration.”[iv] Peter Kreeft makes the point as well: “True faith is not a wager but a relationship. But it can begin with a wager, just as a marriage can begin with a blind date.”[v]
A fourth criticism is that the variables in Pascal’s equation are skewed in a variety of ways. By making one of the variables (that of benefit from belief) essentially infinite, the equation can never favor unbelief, however unlikely or fanciful belief may actually be. To this Pascal might reply: Q.E.D.—because that is the point. He does not think Christian claims unlikely, of course, or even necessarily unprovable. But he must deal with the skeptic where the skeptic is—which is likely to be in a place where Christian belief is not near certainty, and may be far from it.
Another variable that Pascal skews, it can be argued, is that of benefit to the nonbeliever, for whom no benefit is admitted except “poison pleasures.” [vi] In fact, however, there are benefits that come from refusal to believe in God: freedom from moral constraints, the ability to enjoy oneself without regard to an afterlife, the possibility of a Hedonist existence (whether one chooses this or not), and so forth. Of course, to the Christian these are bonds of servitude, not evidences of freedom. But accepting for argument’s sake that these do represent a great benefit, they are still finite by definition (because the nonbeliever’s life is deemed finite). No matter how great they may be, they do not defeat the compelling math of the Wager, with its infinite variable of eternal felicity.
The obverse side of this coin is that the Wager, it can be argued, understates the potential costs of Christian belief, skewing the equation in that way also. If the Christian is wrong, the Christian has essentially sacrificed his freedom and pleasure unnecessarily, and while there may be no “infinite” if the Christian is wrong, the sacrificing of the totality of one’s finite life to a lie is a cost as close to infinite as can exist in the closed-loop world of the atheist. If this is the case, however, we can return to the wisdom of our pop star theologian in the preceding essay, who cites the sort of countervailing benefits that a Christian life would still yield (and can be convincingly argued from history has produced): better treatment of others, truer relationships, greater joy—and the social and societal benefits that follow from these. The “costs,” if they are that, are at least offset by these benefits that strictly speaking are not included in the Wager (which predominantly focuses on ultimate costs and benefits).
A further serious criticism of Pascal’s Wager is that it does not allow for other possibilities besides Christianity and atheism, and the presuppositions of each. What if both are wrong, and there is something other than eternal bliss and damnation on the one hand, and full stop at death on the other? What of other religions and beliefs such as reincarnation, which provides another possibility? And what if there is salvation given for reasons entirely unknown to us, such as for diligently seeking the truth or being true to ourselves or being nice to others?
It cannot be denied that Pascal’s field of vision with respect to other religions was not as broad as those in today’s more pluralist world—even though he was the first post-medieval Christian apologist. His world was indeed one in which the options before most men and women were Christian belief or no belief. That said, he was undoubtedly aware of Judaism and Islam, so the question must be asked why these belief systems were ignored in the Wager.
In fact, they were not. Christianity was in the Wager because Pascal believed (as evidenced in the remainder of the Pensees) that Christianity was particularly strong in its claims, its comprehensiveness, and its coherence. The Wager worked because of that strength, not simply because it was a religion set in opposition to nonbelief. He also would judge the fruits of other beliefs to see if they merit being included in a Wager. Presumably the same logic would apply to other religions, but the same strengths and variables would not (in part because none have exactly the same promise of eternal life as Christianity). Elsewhere in the Pensées Pascal is dismissive toward other religions, rejecting supposed similarities as distractors from Christian truth as expounded in Scripture, which for Pascal is authoritative. “[E]verything is at stake,” he reminds us: these are not mere philosophical questions.[vii]
What does the Wager provide for us today, as Christians seek to bring others to Christ? Does it in our postmodern world still work?
First, it bears remembering that this is a way of approaching a particular sort of person in a particular place of inquiry. It is tailored to the person perhaps already open to the possibility of conversion to Christianity, but seeking to be reassured about the rationality of such a decision. It is not a debating technique for those openly hostile to Christian belief. It presumes the integrity of the seeker in earnestly wanting to make the right decision (even if not yet for the most pure of motives). At some level it reflects a person desiring God.
Second, this is indeed a first step toward Christian commitment, not a substitute for genuine repentance and conversion. It is an invitation to belief, as we have seen, but it is also an invitation to the church to participate in catechizing and bringing to baptism and full conversion those who are weighing the costs and benefits of belief, as the Wager invites them to do. One reason Pascal’s Wager may seem off-putting to some modern evangelicals is that it does not view conversion in a purely individualistic way but sees that change coming from within the context of the believing community. “You want to find faith and you do not know the road,” Pascal writes. “You want to be cured of unbelief and you ask for the remedy: learn from those who were once bound like you and who now wager all they have. These are people who know the road you wish to follow, who have been cured of the affliction of which you wish to be cured: follow the way by which they began.” [Emphasis added.][viii]
Finally, this is an exceptional tool for Christian believers, to assist in confirming them in the faith, of showing them ex post facto how their decision (even if it involved no conscious consideration of the Wager) was a wise and reasonable and rational one. As the pop singer cited in the previous essay showed in his interview, it is also a good defense (“apology”) when one is questioned about whether it makes sense to believe. And in the postmodern context, even if a skeptic does not accept the legitimacy of the Wager, there can be great potency in the Christian’s articulating how this has applied to one’s own life, and thus set the bar high for rationality and prudence as others consider what to believe.
Alexander Whitaker is the President of King University in Bristol, TN.
[i] Simon Blackburn, “Pascal’s Wager,” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 279.
[ii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), 130, 131.
[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 99.
[iv] Douglas R Groothuis, Christian Apologetics : A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), 166.
[v] Kreeft and Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans, 301.
[vi] Blackburn, “Pascal’s Wager,” 279 (quoting Pascal).
[vii] Kreeft and Pascal, Christianity For Modern Pagans, 205(Fragment 150).
[viii] Ibid., 295 (Fragment 418).
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