It is a common lament that we live in a post-Christian era. This fact raises challenges to our witness to the world. Most of our audience thinks that, in G. K. Chesterton’s words, Christianity has been tried and found wanting (rather than found wanting and left untried). It is not considered a live option. How do we bear witness well in this cultural context? We might do well to reconsider one of the most enigmatic thinkers in Christian history, Blaise Pascal.

Pascal suffers from a public relations problem. As the source of Pascal’s wager, he is often considered a gambling man. He urges the non-believer to bet that God exists. What does one have to lose? In Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal, philosopher Douglas Groothuis shows that there is more to Pascal’s life and thought than his most famous argument. Groothuis demonstrates that we have much to learn from this brilliant thinker. Pascal, he argues, is a crucial thinker for our time.

Essential writings

Pascal came on the scene in the 17th century, during the early years of the Scientific Revolution. Several of his works contributed to this movement, including treatises on the geometry of conic sections, theories of probability, and conclusions to extensive experiments he had done to test the possibility of a vacuum. He invented the first functional calculator, which he had built to help his father with his work of assessing taxes.

His best-known works, however, focus on Christianity. In the Provincial Letters, Pascal defends the Jansenist movement, which was condemned by the Catholic church, against the Jesuits. The Jansenists emphasized that the depth of human sinfulness required a work of God for our salvation. The Christian life required sincere faith and obedience. His commitment to the Jansenists reveals the depth of his devotion to Christ.

The Pensées consisted in notes that were left unpublished at Pascal’s death. He was aiming to write a book on the defense of Christianity. These fragments include his criticisms of natural theology, reflections on other religions, insights about the condition of the human soul, and his famous wager.

Groothuis unpacks the breadth of Pascal’s work in 13 chapters. He adds a conclusion and an appendix with a delightful fictional dialogue between Pascal and Descartes (often credited as the father of modern philosophy) that takes place as they meet in heaven.

As one would expect, Groothuis devotes a chapter to Pascal’s wager. He places the wager in the context of Pascal’s broader project and answers a variety of objections. He also devotes chapters to Pascal’s thoughts on Judaism and Islam, political and social matters, and skepticism of faith. Central to Pascal’s thought, and to this book, is the “excellence of Christ.” Although this phrase is the title of chapter 10, the theme permeates the entire book. Groothuis has provided an excellent introduction to Pascal the man, his world and thought, and his importance for today.

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Three kinds of knowing

Three themes in Groothuis’s presentation are worthy of specific mention. The first is the “three orders of being and knowing.” Each of these orders concerns what we can know and how. Pascal agreed with Descartes that the mind is distinct from the body. While Descartes thought that all knowing was due ultimately to the mind, Pascal held that we know physical things through the senses, and the senses are physical capacities. Thus, the body is the first order.

The second, the order of the mind, “concerns rational principles and calculations,” writes Groothuis. This order focuses on rational calculation that is often expressed in deductive arguments. The third order is that of the heart. There are things that cannot be grasped by reason and senses alone. According to one of Pascal’s better-known sayings, which comes from the Pensées, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

The order of the heart is not opposed to reason or experience. It is a reliable path to knowledge. It is in this way that we know the first principles of things like arithmetic, space, and time. In addition, it aids our knowledge of God. Groothuis makes clear that the apologetical method of Pascal involves each of the orders of existence. Reason, experience, and the heart all have roles to play in displaying the compelling nature of the gospel.

The three orders lead to a second theme that the book develops well: Pascal’s criticisms of natural theology. This branch of theology involves attempting to establish the existence of God through rational arguments. Most such arguments begin with observations from the world around us.

Pascal rejected this project for a variety of reasons. First, the conclusions of the very best arguments in natural theology leave one far from the kind of knowledge that brings saving faith. The God of the philosophers turns out to be something less than the God revealed in Scripture. In a poem sewn into the lining of his jacket and found after his death, Pascal wrote, “‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of the philosophers and scholars.”

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Another concern with natural theology is that the knowledge it produces may also produce pride. In Groothuis’s words, even a successful theistic argument could “lead one to think that a sufficient knowledge of God is available apart from the work of the mediator.” It is a dangerous thing to try to reach God on our own terms without an awareness of our need for repentance and forgiveness.

Pascal’s rejection of natural theology leads to a third major theme in Beyond the Wager. Pascal’s own apologetic method focused largely on what Groothuis calls “the anthropological argument.” This argument highlights the plight of human beings. We are both wonderful and wretched. We are, to cite one of Groothuis’s chapter titles, “deposed royalty.”

The state of humanity is one of paradox. Even a quick skim through the Pensées shows Pascal juxtaposing our exalted status as divine image bearers and our miserable condition as fallen rebels. This paradox cries out for an explanation. Only the Christian story, with its beginnings in Creation and the Fall, has the resources to make sense of the human condition. Only the work of Christ in the Incarnation and Atonement can rescue human beings from this predicament. Once a person embraces her own condition, she is ripe to experience her need for a savior.

Throughout the Pensées, one finds passages reflecting on the futility of life. Some commentators have taken these passages to indicate that Pascal was actually a kind of a skeptical existentialist. Groothuis argues, wisely in my view, that Pascal was developing dialogues for his apologetic work. These passages, then, were likely being prepared to issue from the mouth of a skeptic. Apart from the saving work of Christ, the human condition is one of futility.

A thinker for our time

Groothuis is not afraid to part ways with Pascal along the way. One area of disagreement is with Pascal’s wholesale rejection of natural theology. I agree with Groothuis that there is a place for the use of traditional arguments for God’s existence. I also agree that Pascal teaches us that there is much more to our defense of the gospel than establishing the fact that God is real.

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Pascal is a thinker for our time. A new horizon in apologetics is emerging that reflects the distinctives of Pascal’s own methodology. This horizon begins with the human condition. It aims to raise questions about the place of goodness, truth, and beauty in human life and to point to the Christian story as the most compelling answer. This approach takes up Pascal’s notion that the heart, too, has its reasons.

Beyond the Wager is simply an excellent book. It is a well-written, compelling introduction to an outstanding, but often overlooked, thinker.

Gregory E. Ganssle is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspiration.

Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal
IVP Academic
Release Date
April 2, 2024
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