Blaise Pascal’s famous wager argues that believing in God’s existence is a safer bet than not believing. Before examining the strengths and weaknesses of Pascal’s proposed gamble, we must understand the context in which it arose and how Pascal1 intended it to be used as an apologetics tool. Four points of clarification2 are helpful in this regard.
- Pascal never intended this wager to function as a rational proof for God’s existence, nor as a substitute for Christian evidences.
- He aimed the wager at a specific audience, namely those who have opted to suspend judgment on ultimate issues.
- The wager emerged in a specific historical and epistemological context, seventeenth-century France, which Frederick Copleston describes as “a society impregnated by deistic humanism,…rationalist skepticism and free thought…”
- Pascal apparently intended the wager as a device to help awaken people who are indifferent to ultimate issues including God, death, and immortality.
Naturally, through the years, a few Christians and many skeptics have raised criticisms against Pascal’s wager presentation. I outline some of those here, then offer some responses—in keeping, I trust, with Pascal’s intent.
What some Christians say…
The wager diminishes love for God and makes “faith” a cold, pragmatic gamble.
Response: It may seem that way, but pragmatics may be the unbeliever’s starting point. Tasting and seeing that the Lord is good could, by the grace of God, transform that person’s heart. Maybe we should view the wager as a common-sense appeal that helps a person mentally prepare for faith (itself a divine gift) and apologetic reasoning as a means to clear away doubts so a person’s heart can then rest confidently and securely in God.
Doesn’t the wager itself run counter to Pascal’s own claim that it is God who imparts faith?
Response: Pascal believed that while a person cannot give his- or herself true faith, he or she can begin to prepare intellectually for true faith. The wager’s greatest force may be its ability to shake a person out of his or her “indifference” to ultimate issues. The wager is simply an apologetic tool, not an end in itself.
What many skeptics say…
The wager fails to recognize that the believer does lose a great deal by wagering on God. If God doesn’t actually exist, the believer has nonetheless given up his autonomy and wasted the only life he has on religious nonsense.
Response: It may be more accurate to say that people who wager on God have everything to gain, and, in comparison to the gain, little to lose. For, even if a person who wagers on God is incorrect about God’s existence, he or she still gains a virtuous life and all the comforts and reassurances that accompany a life of faith.
The wager provides no guarantee. Why wager at all?
Response: The existential uncertainties of life force us to choose. Life itself provides few guarantees. People who bet on God have a guarantee of non-dissatisfaction. If they are wrong about God’s existence, they will never know it because they will be dead. In contrast, if someone wagers against God and is right, that person is guaranteeing he or she will have no satisfaction. For even if that person is right that God does not exist, he or she will never know it because he or she will also be dead.3
The wager only works if you wager on the right (or true) religion. What if you wager on the wrong God?
Response: Pascal recognized the existence of other religious alternatives, but believed that Christianity, given its prophecy, its miracles, and its unique explanatory power, was the most-probably-true religion. Certainly Pascal’s wager emerged within a limited historical context, when most hearers of the wager understood that one either believed in the Christian God or could believe in no God at all. In today’s pluralistic, multi-theistic climate, this aspect of Pascal’s wager may have slightly lessened the wager’s force and breadth of appeal.4
The wager will not convince an adamant atheist.
Response: On its own (apart from God’s grace), no argument will. There is a difference between presenting evidence and personal persuasion. The wager was not intended for the adamant-atheist audience to begin with.
The wager promotes intellectual dishonesty. You can’t pretend to believe when you really do not.
Response: True, but the wager can promote reflection and serious inquiry into the basis for believing. In addition, if a belief is not contrary to reason and is warranted prudentially, why wouldn’t a person be willing to accept it?
Wouldn’t a just God prefer honest skeptics to dishonest or purely pragmatic believers?
Response: Skeptics fail to see that, from a biblical perspective, it is the hardness of their hearts that keeps them from believing in God. Their unbelief is rooted in rebellion and immorality. God has given signs of His existence, but the skeptics ignore and/or repress them (see Psalms 14 and 19, and Romans 1). Reflective nonbelievers would do well to consider whether their unbelief actually springs from rational or non-rational factors.
Blaise Pascal was the quintessential Renaissance man. His contributions to science, mathematics, and popular invention were both profound and enduring. But his approach to Christian theology and apologetics set him apart as a unique Christian thinker.
1. For more on Pascal’s life, accomplishments, and faith, see the previous posts in the “Blaise’s Best Bet” series: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
2. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 4 (New York: Image Books-Doubleday, 1994), 169–71.
3. Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 119.
4. Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason & Theistic Proofs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 164–66.