Many Christians believe in God fundamentally because they sense his presence. But what if you don’t sense his presence? Or what if it comes and goes—at times deserting you and leaving you doubting? What should we do when certainty proves elusive? Should we commit to living a devout Christian life only if we are absolutely convinced that Christianity is true?
Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century thinker, famously addressed these very questions. An influential mathematician, scientist, and inventor, Pascal was also deeply religious. In his early 30s, he had a religious experience so powerful that he kept a written description of it stitched into his coat until his death at 39. Pascal left behind a major, unfinished work of apologetics, but notes for the project were found among his belongings, compiled by editors, and published as the Pensées.
In one of his notes, Pascal makes several attempts at a pragmatic argument that one should commit to living a devout Christian life even without certainty that God exists. “Pascal’s wager,” as the argument is called, can be summed up in a single sentence: For those who choose the way of Jesus, there is much to gain and comparatively little to lose.
What’s to be gained? Infinite happiness in heaven, as the wager is often presented. But a much stronger version goes beyond mere self-interest: if Christianity is true, then living a Christian life brings joy to God and can help other people in their journeys toward God. On the other hand, Pascal argues, if Christianity is false, one really hasn’t lost all that much. True, the person living a Christian life has a demanding moral code to follow, but that life has many benefits of its own. And anyway, the worldly pleasures one must renounce won’t bring deep, lasting happiness.
Here’s how Pascal puts it:
[W]hat harm will come to you from taking this course? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, doing good, a sincere and true friend. It is, of course, true; you will not take part in corrupt pleasure, in glory, in the pleasures of high living. But will you not have others? I tell you that you will win thereby in this life.
In other words, even if Christianity isn’t true, the person who follows Christ will live a full, meaningful, and moral life.
From the beginning, many have objected to Pascal’s approach. Voltaire, the 18th-century satirist, thought the wager was “indecent and childish. The idea of gaming, of losing or winning, is quite unsuitable to the dignity of the subject.” The English philosopher G. E. Moore registered his disapproval: “I have nothing to say of it except that it seems to me absolutely wicked.” And atheist Richard Dawkins asks whether God might not respect a courageous skeptic “far more than he would respect Pascal for his cowardly bet-hedging.”
Over time, four distinct objections have been made against Pascal’s wager: (1) believing in God on pragmatic grounds is immoral because we should only believe something on the basis of evidence; (2) committing to God for the sake of future benefits is selfish; (3) the existence of other religions invalidates Pascal’s argument; and (4) Pascal’s approach to religion is inconsistent with Christian doctrine itself.
These objections are worth taking seriously, but every one of them can be overcome. Buttressed by recent findings in sociology and psychology, a modified and updated version of Pascal’s wager can answer the critics while providing a powerful argument for committing to the Christian life.
Consider two possible ways the world might be: Christianity is true—or there is no God, and at death it all goes black. And consider two possible ways you might live your life: commit to God in a Christian way or don’t. There are, of course, other logical possibilities (practicing other religions, for instance). For now, though, pretend the only two plausible options are Christianity and atheism.
Pascal would then say there are four possible outcomes:
- You wager for God, and Christianity proves to be true.
- You wager for God, but atheism proves to be true.
- You don’t wager for God, but Christianity proves to be true.
- You don’t wager for God, and atheism proves to be true.
Clearly, if Christianity is true, wagering for God is the better choice. By living the Christian life, one brings joy to God, increases the chance of enjoying union with God now and in the afterlife, and helps others draw close to God. So outcome 1 is far superior to outcome 3.
But what if Christianity is false? Even then, Pascal says, you will likely be better off. And contemporary social science is busy confirming his argument. As Duke University’s Harold Koenig and colleagues have shown, those actively practicing a religion are more likely to have stable families, higher self-esteem, a richer social life, greater degrees of optimism and hope, and a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
Other researchers have shown that religious persons also tend to live somewhat longer and give more to charitable causes. Focusing on self-reported happiness and overall life satisfaction, Harvard’s Robert Putnam and University of Wisconsin–Madison sociologist Chaeyoon Lim note that “the association between religion and subjective well-being is substantial.” In an average case, and controlling for other variables,
28.2 percent of people who attend a service weekly are predicted to be “extremely satisfied” with their lives, compared with only 19.6 percent of those who never attend services. This result is roughly comparable to the difference between someone in ‘‘good’’ health and another in ‘‘very good’’ health, or the difference between someone with family income of $10,000 and another with $100,000.
The upshot is this: suppose you think there’s a better chance that Christianity is true than false (whether because of experience, philosophical and historical arguments, a sense of God’s presence, or some combination). If so, then not committing to God would be positively irrational. You would be foregoing a greater-than-50/50 chance at the benefits of committing to God if Christianity is true, just for the sake of a less-than-50/50 chance at the relatively minor advantages that come with not committing to God if atheism is true.
According to the standard presentation of Pascal’s wager, you should wager for God even if you think there’s only a tiny chance that Christianity is true, because the value of eternal life is infinite. But this undervalues our God-given power of reason and can lead to dangerous thinking. Consider someone raised in a cult who is almost sure the cult’s teaching is false, but who invokes Pascal and remains out of a fear of hell. That would be a tragic mistake.
Critics are right, then, to reject versions of the wager that urge belief in God simply because of the possible benefits—without looking at evidence. After all, we can’t simply believe in God at will. Suppose I offer you $10,000 to believe there are an even number of hairs on your head. You might reply that belief doesn’t work like that—we don’t control what we believe like we control, say, our arm movements. Moreover, our minds shouldn’t be for sale; we should respect the truth more than that.
But where there are sufficient reasons to think Christianity is plausible, we can choose to commit to God—to seek him through prayer, worship, reading the Bible, fellowship, thinking about religious questions, and striving to live a morally excellent life. (Skeptics and seekers might offer a more conditional prayer: “If you’re there, God, please forgive me for this, and help me with that. . . .”)
You can’t force yourself to believe something you don’t really believe, no matter how promising the risk-to-reward ratio. But when it comes to how you live and what you seek, considering risks and consequences is perfectly reasonable.
As some critics of Pascal’s wager have pointed out, Islam, Judaism, and many other religions could put forward a similar argument. According to this objection, Pascal gives no reason for choosing Christianity over the alternatives.
Fair enough, but it hardly follows that there are no reasons to choose Christianity over other faiths. There is, in fact, strong evidence that Christianity is true. There are philosophical arguments for the existence of the Christian God. There are historical arguments about Jesus’ teachings and resurrection.
Pascal’s wager already gives you a reason to practice some religion rather than none. If, upon careful reflection, you come to think that Christianity is either likely true, or at least as likely to be true as false, then it’s clear which religion you should practice. Jesus called himself “the way and the truth and the life”—the road by which sinful humans can reach God (John 14:6). If you think this is probably true, then all claims to the contrary must be probably false—making the choice between them obvious.
What about the objection that a religious life motivated by Pascal’s wager is selfish, and hence unworthy of God? As we’ve seen, the wager need not be motivated only by concern for one’s own salvation. The driving desire might also be to please God and help others live the Christian life. But even if self-interest is the main factor, it’s not wrong to want to be happy forever. The selfishness charge makes sense in circumstances when someone’s self-centered pursuit hurts others, but that’s not applicable here. Making a religious commitment in order to gain heaven doesn’t condemn anyone to hell.
To be sure, it is better to love God because of his goodness than to serve him out of fear or self-interest. But recall that Pascal’s wager is addressed to someone who doesn’t firmly believe in God, or who is wavering. If that’s your situation, you have two options: either commit to God or don’t. (Straddling the fence is just another version of not committing.)
Not only does taking the first option make rational sense, it’s also the best way to end up with the right sort of attitude toward God. The wager isn’t just good philosophy—it’s good psychology. In the long run, how we act influences what we believe. And Pascal realizes that for a person who harbors doubts about Christianity, living a morally upright life can remove obstacles to real faith.
Living an ungodly life creates cognitive dissonance between one’s sinful actions and belief in the sort of God who disapproves. You’ll resist believing in God if your actions don’t line up with his standards. On the other hand, striving for moral goodness and seeking God (no doubt with the assistance of grace) bridges the gap between belief and action, leaving your heart open to the movements of the Holy Spirit. With time, a belief in God rooted partially in self-interest can grow into a love of God for who he is, rather than for any benefits he might bestow.
My father, who doesn’t attend church, is a loving and affectionate man, and we have serious conversations about all sorts of subjects. At some point during my college years, as I became more interested in God, I must have challenged him about his lack of concern for the next life. “The next life?” he said. “I’ll worry about that when I get there!”
Pascal’s wager shows why such a response is unwise; by the time you get there, it may be too late. The chance at eternal life with God is too valuable to ignore the question of God now. In the right contexts, the wager can be a powerful evangelizing aid. For someone who finds Christianity plausible but has not yet committed to Jesus, Pascal’s argument provides a nudge to take a definitive step. And even for an agnostic who thinks Christianity is possible but unlikely the wager still gives an excellent reason to begin investigating religion seriously.
Yet Pascal is also relevant for committed Christians. For many of us, the truth of the gospel can be powerfully evident at times. When things are going smoothly, faith in God and his goodness comes easily. And then the waters get rough. Peaks and valleys are common. You’re not the first person to say, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). What is one to do in such a situation?
Certainly we must always care about the truth. If we encounter credible objections to anything important we believe, we should take them seriously. But Pascal’s insights show that we should also consider what’s at stake. Just as a husband shouldn’t leave his wife simply because he thinks she might be having an affair, a Christian shouldn’t reject God simply because he thinks there is some evidence Christianity is false.
If I find myself thinking that Christianity might be false, I remember that it might be true, too. Do I want to take a real risk of turning my back on Jesus? Never.
Michael Rota teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of Taking Pascal’s Wager: Faith, Evidence and the Abundant Life (IVP Academic).
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