What is Pascal's Wager?
Question: "What is Pascal's Wager?"
Answer: Pascal's Wager is named after 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. One of Pascal’s most famous works was the Pensées (“Thoughts”), which was published posthumously in 1670. It is in this work that we find what is known as Pascal's Wager.
The gist of the Wager is that, according to Pascal, one cannot come to the knowledge of God’s existence through reason alone, so the wise thing to do is to live your life as if God does exist because such a life has everything to gain and nothing to lose. If we live as though God exists, and He does indeed exist, we have gained heaven. If He doesn’t exist, we have lost nothing. If, on the other hand, we live as though God does not exist and He really does exist, we have gained hell and punishment and have lost heaven and bliss. If one weighs the options, clearly the rational choice to live as if God exists is the better of the possible choices. Pascal even suggested that some may not, at the time, have the ability to believe in God. In such a case, one should live as if he had faith anyway. Perhaps living as if one had faith may lead one to actually come to faith.
Now there have been criticisms over the years from various camps. For example, there is the argument from inconsistent revelations. This argument critiques Pascal's Wager on the basis that there is no reason to limit the choices to the Christian God. Since there have been many religions throughout human history, there can be many potential gods. Another critique comes from atheist circles. Richard Dawkins postulated the possibility of a god that might reward honest disbelief and punish blind or feigned faith.
Be that as it may, what should concern us is whether or not Pascal's Wager can be squared with Scripture. The Wager fails on a number of counts. First and foremost, it doesn’t take into account the apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 1 that the knowledge of God is evident to all so that we are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20). Reason alone can bring us to the knowledge of God’s existence. It will be an incomplete knowledge of God, but it is the knowledge of God nonetheless. Furthermore, the knowledge of God is enough to render us all without excuse before God’s judgment. We are all under God’s wrath for suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness.
Second, there is no mention of the cost involved in following Jesus. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus twice warns us to count the costs of becoming His disciple (Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-33). There is a cost to following Jesus, and it is not an easy price to pay. Jesus told His disciples that they would have to lose their lives in order to save them (Matthew 10:39). Following Jesus brings with it the hatred of the world (John 15:19). Pascal's Wager makes no mention of any of this. As such, it reduces faith in Christ to mere credulity.
Third, it completely misrepresents the depravity of human nature. The natural man—one who has not been born again by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3)—cannot be persuaded to a saving faith in Jesus Christ by a cost-benefit analysis such as Pascal's Wager. Faith is a result of being born again and that is a divine work of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that one cannot assent to the facts of the gospel or even be outwardly obedient to the law of God. One of the points from Jesus’ parable of the soils (Matthew 13) is that false conversions are going to be a fact of life until the time Christ returns. However, the sign of true saving faith is the fruit it produces (Matthew 7:16-20). Paul makes the argument that the natural man cannot understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). Why? Because they are spiritually discerned. Pascal's Wager makes no mention of the necessary preliminary work of the Spirit to come to the knowledge of saving faith.
Fourth and finally, as an apologetic/evangelistic tool (which is what the Wager was intended to be), it seems focused on a risk/reward outlook, which is not consistent to a true saving faith relationship in Christ. Jesus placed obedience to His commands as an evidence of love for Christ (John 14:23). According to Pascal's Wager, one is choosing to believe and obey God on the basis of receiving heaven as a reward. This is not to diminish the fact that heaven is a reward and that it is something we should hope for and desire. But if our obedience is solely, or primarily, motivated by wanting to get into heaven and avoid hell, then faith and obedience become a means of achieving what we want rather than the result of a heart that has been reborn in Christ and expresses faith and obedience out of love of Christ.
In conclusion, Pascal's Wager, while an interesting piece of philosophical thought, should have no place in a Christian’s evangelistic and apologetic repertoire. Christians are to share and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
Recommended Resources: I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek and Logos Bible Software.
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Questions about Apologetics and Worldview
What is Pascal's Wager?