Pascal’s Wager is an argument for the existence of God developed by 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal’s Wager is the most famous part of his collection of notes known as the Pensées. With the Wager, Pascal attempted to provide a compelling reason to believe in God based upon happiness and possible outcomes.
Understanding Pascal’s Wager is easiest when we first look at other Christian arguments. Almost all of the various arguments used by the Christian Church can be divided into two categories. The first category seeks to demonstrate that belief in the existence of God is reasonable, while the second provides reasons to accept specific beliefs of the Christian faith. Pascal explained that the Wager is designed to “incite to the search after God,” so the Wager belongs to the first group. However, Pascal’s Wager is different from nearly all the other arguments for God’s existence in one key respect. While most arguments for the existence of God use evidence and reason to prove the truth of God’s existence, Pascal believed that God’s existence can’t be known without Scripture. He wrote that “if there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible . . . . We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is,” and that “reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us . . . . According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.” Clearly, Pascal did not encourage belief based on evidence for the existence of God. Instead, he focused on the benefits of belief.
Pascal began his Wager by questioning the real existence of God. According to Pascal, if we don’t trust what the Bible says about God, then God’s existence is like a coin toss. There are only two possibilities: either God exists or He does not. Next, Pascal noted that there were two personal beliefs we could have about God: We can believe that God exists, or that He does not. When Pascal combined the issues of God’s real existence and our personal belief, he determined that there were only four possible outcomes. We might believe that God exists, when in fact He does. We can believe that God exists, even though He does not. Or we could believe that God does not exist, and that belief may be either true or false. Pascal claimed that the choice is unavoidable. If we ignore the question, we essentially choose unbelief. So given these four possibilities, how should we decide what to believe? Pascal wrote that we should choose according to our reason and our happiness. But as previously mentioned, reason cannot aid us in making this decision. This leads us to the heart of Pascal’s Wager: we must base our belief upon our happiness.
How will our happiness be affected if we wager that God exists? Pascal argued that we will either gain an unlimited amount of happiness or, at worse, lose nothing. “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” If we believe in God and God does exist, then the promise of Heaven and eternal life, the Good News of the Gospel, will really be given to us. Furthermore, nothing worthwhile is lost if our faith turns out to be false. Pascal believed that the joy of living a life according to the Bible’s moral teachings was far greater than the pleasures that sin sometimes seems to provide. “You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life . . . that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.” If Pascal is right about this, then we gain more happiness (and therefore “win the bet”) by believing in God, even if He doesn’t actually exist!
On the other hand, if we wager that God does not exist, we gain nothing. Pascal did write about Hell (the punishment for unbelief) shortly after discussing the Wager, and it is easy to see how the threat of Hell could help convince someone to bet that God does exist. But Pascal’s Wager doesn’t consider the punishment for unbelief. Pascal was concerned only with happiness and the possible positive outcomes of the wager. Everyone has only one life – a limited amount of time in which we can gain a limited amount of happiness. If we believe in God, we’ll be happier, and there’s the chance that unlimited happiness will be gained. So it seems that the rational choice is to believe that God does exist.
I Do Not Believe
Unlimited, Eternal Happiness
No Happiness Gained
God Does Not Exist
Limited Happiness Gained
No Happiness Gained
While Pascal’s Wager is intriguing, there are serious difficulties with several key elements of the argument. For example, Scripture rejects Pascal’s claim that reason cannot help us decide the issue of God’s existence. Paul wrote in Rom. 1:19-20 that “what can be known about God is plain to [everyone], because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and Divine Nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” When medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas commented on this verse, he explained that “when an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause . . . . Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.” In other words, the very world itself, which has been created by God, is full of evidence for God’s existence. We can use reason to examine the world around us and realize that it must have come from a Divine Creator. Furthermore, Jesus proclaimed Himself “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” (John 14:6) and His disciples argued for the Gospel with evidence and reason to demonstrate that it is true, not merely that it will be good if it is true (e.g., Acts 17:2-3, 1 Peter 3:15, Eph. 4:11-16). This suggests that evidence and reason is not only possible, but critical, to argue for both God’s existence and the Christian faith.
Also, Pascal is wrong when he claims that once someone believes in God, they will have eternal life and unlimited happiness. James 2:19 explains that belief in God is not proof of salvation and a right relationship with Him. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” The “workers of lawlessness” in Matt. 7:7 and the Pharisees of Matt. 23:27 that “are like whitewashed tombs” believed in God, but they were condemned and rejected by Jesus. Many religions today accept the existence of God, and many otherwise irreligious people believe that God exists. But Scripture is clear that eternal life only comes by believing in Jesus Christ and accepting the free gift of salvation that comes from His death and resurrection (John 3:16, 11:25, Phil. 3:9-11). So according to the Bible, while we must accept that God exists in order to receive eternal life, it is not the only thing we need to believe.
However, the central idea of Pascal’s Wager is an important truth. Pascal is right to highlight the happiness that comes with a relationship with the one true God. Like Pascal, the Bible frequently proclaims the joy that comes with being a child of God. For example, Paul writes in Phil. 4:7 that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding” is a part of the believer’s life. Christians are promised eternal life (John 3:36, 1 John 5:11-13) and freedom from the penalty of sin (Col. 2:13, Rom. 8:1). 1 John 3:1 tells the Christian to “see what kind of love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Indeed, John 3:16 and Romans 5:8 explain that God’s love for us is so great that, regardless of our sin and failures, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on our behalf and provide us with the gift of eternal life. Unlimited happiness is assured to the Christian, who has come into a real relationship with this infinitely loving God.
Pascal’s Wager helps reveal to us that the path to true, fulfilling happiness starts by recognizing the existence of this loving God. However, we cannot stop where Pascal’s Wager does. We must move beyond the mere existence of God. We must uncover the nature of God and the saving acts of God, both of which come together in the person of Jesus Christ.
Those who would like to learn more about this topic are encouraged to check out:
Blaise Pascal - Pensées (http://gutenberg/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm)
Peter Kreeft - The Argument from Pascal’s Wager (http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/pascals-wager.htm)
Ted Wright - Another Look at Pascal's Wager (http://crossexamined.org/eternity-has-the-floor-another-look-at-pascals-wager)
William Lane Craig - Pascal's Wager (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/pascals-wager)
Norman Geisler - The Big Book of Christian Apologetics (http://amzn.com/B00SBXX3TI)