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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_wager describes Pascal's wager:

If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas if God does exist, he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).

According to Pascal, hypothetically, if God does not exist, it is not too bad for us Christians who have believed wrongly. However, on the other hand, according to Paul, hypothetically, if Christ has not been raised, it is really bad for us Christians.

1 Corinthians 15:

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

According to Pascal, we would only suffer finite loss. According to Paul, we would be the most pitiful people. Didn't Pascal agree with Paul that we would be pitiful? Pascal must have read 1 Corinthians, how are we reconcile these two concepts from Pascal and Paul? What about the possibility that we would be sent to hell while others who supposedly have believed properly would go to heaven?

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  • 3
    Christians of Pascal's time were not slaughtered or persecuted for their faith.
    – Lucian
    Aug 23 at 14:21
  • 1
    @Lucian - Try the Boston martyrs and many other examples in the 17th century.
    – Henry
    Aug 23 at 14:51
  • 1
    @Henry: In Pascal's time, Catholicism was the dominant faith in France, and France itself was a very powerful country.
    – Lucian
    Aug 23 at 15:05
  • 4
    Pascal is talking about the existence of God -- Paul is talking about the resurrection of Christ. Not equivalent concepts.
    – eques
    Aug 23 at 15:51
  • They are not asking the same question, so it is no wonder that they're providing different answers.
    – TKoL
    Aug 23 at 16:51
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Pascal's wager looked at the consequences of belief in God versus unbelief against the possibilities of God versus no God.

In 1 Cor. 15 Paul dealt with Greek philosophy that looked at death as releasing the spirit from the body and looked that the idea of a bodily resurrection as foolishness. Paul was not looking at God versus no God. He was looking at the Resurrection versus no Resurrection.

For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness,... (1 Co 1:22–23, NASB)

... because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” (Acts 17:31–32, NASB)

Paul gave the historic evidence for the resurrection at the beginning of 1 Cor. 15.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. (1 Co 15:3–8, NASB)

Paul gave the consequences of no bodily resurrection.

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Co 15:12–19, NASB)

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What does 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 state?

The apostle Paul wrote: "And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."

What does 'Pascal's Wager' state? What later became known as 'Pascal's Wager' is much misunderstood and misapplied in these days. To understand it, we need to know a little about the man, who died in 1662.

He is credited as being one of the great thinkers of the West, in the early 1600s. He excelled in mathematics and physics. He was an inventor, a writer and religious thinker. He worked out the theory of probability and, aged 19, invented the first workable calculating machine. On 23 November 1654 Pascal became a Christian; in his own words, having "a definitive conversion" experience.

After his conversion Pascale applied his inventive mathematical mind to understanding and defending the Christian faith. In 1656 he published 18 letters defending the Jansenist view of grace, and attacking both the Jesuits and the Thomists, not only on the question of grace but also upon how one should understand faith and conversion. It was through the Jansenists that Pascal was helped to faith, thus he was also condemned by Catholicism, as were the Jansenists.

Pascal was convinced that reason could only take one so far. Faith must come as a gift of God's grace. Science and reason might get one close to faith, but could not actually bring anyone to faith. Only God can do that.

Pascal wrote that God can be known through Jesus Christ by an act of faith, itself given by God. Man's need for God is made evident by his misery apart from God, who may only be known by faith (though there's plentiful evidence to support belief: fulfilled prophecies, miracles, the witness of history, the self-authentication of Scripture). He wrote that,

"We come to know the truth not only by reason, but still more so through our hearts... The heart has its reasons, which the reason does not know."

What came to be known later as "Pascal's Wager" only reflects a little of his philosophy. The Wager has been over-simplified by objectors, to avoid its real issue (viewing the unresolved question of a deity's existence as a gamble, and coolly calculating the odds) or (on the other hand) over-complicating it to imply that "Pascal was not much better off than an unbeliever", as one person did on Wikipedia. It seems like those who don't like the idea of God find Pascal to be a bit of a nuisance. http://www.blogos.org/churchhistory/blaise-pascal.php

Is there a case for "1 Cor 15:17-19 versus Pascal's Wager"?

According to the misrepresented presentation of the Wager in some answere and in your comments, yes.

According to his biblically sound beliefs in faith and the grace of God, no.

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  • I trust your answer :)
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 24 at 18:43
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There is a flaw in Pascal's Wager which 1 Corinthians 15 highlights. On its own terms, Pascal's Wager makes a reasonable argument for why people should be theists, but like many other apologetic arguments it does not lead people to specifically Christian faith.

Pascal's Wager treats faith like a mathematical problem, inviting us to be actuarial scientists, weighing probabilities and pros and cons. But Christianity can't be approached this way. Christianity is about submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It's about clinging to your redeemer. It's about staking your future on the hope of the resurrection. Christianity demands we go beyond intellectual assent to the acquiescence of our wills, the shifting of our affections to see as beautiful what we once saw as repulsive, and the repentance of our actions to live as exiles in this world, serving our king even if it may cost us our lives. So yes, if there is no resurrection, then we are most to be pitied for submitting our wills to a dead man, for thinking beautiful the lies of a fraudulent God, and for living in such a way that the world will hate us for no benefit at all.

Pascal's Wager only promotes theism, which from the perspective of Christianity, does not actually give any benefit. So not only does it not help us understand the true costs of becoming a Christian, it wrongly shifts the benefits of being united to Christ to merely believing in God's existence. We would do well to heed the words of James:

James 2:19: You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

(Pascal likely said much more about the specifics of Christianity; in context his Wager might not have these problems. But when used today, disconnected from everything else he wrote, it is a very flawed apologetic tool.)

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  • Theism isn't necessarily a dead end road "for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." Aug 24 at 11:37
  • 1
    @MikeBorden Right, and Paul was able to move from the Altar to the Unknown God to the Gospel. But those steps must be taken, simply remaining as a theist will do you no good.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 24 at 11:59
  • For sure, but it's hard to go from atheist straight to Christ without at least a few steps along the theism path. Aug 24 at 15:28
  • Pascal's Wager only promotes theism.... Yes, but looking at the logic of the wager we can substitute the first line with "Christ is, or Christ is not the only way." and when we "wager" we not only "gamble" but really follow Christ as a Christian should. Line 6 that says "But some cannot believe" can be reinterpreted to pray like Mark 9:24. Aug 24 at 16:45
  • 1
    Pascal's Wager treats faith like a mathematical problem.... I don't think so, when looking at the list of uncertainties table (in the wikipedia article), and when looking at the larger context. Pascal simply points out the inadequacy of reason. He also uses heart shown in a famous quote : Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point. ("The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know"). In fact it becomes the title of this book which covers Pascal in chapter 1 section title "The Grandeur of Reason and Pascal's Mysterious Heart" Aug 24 at 16:53
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Interpreting 1 Cor 15

We have to read 1 Cor 15:17-19 in its larger context, at least at the paragraph level: 1 Cor 15:12-19. Then it becomes obvious that for verse 19, the "we" in "we are of all people" refers to Paul and the apostles, NOT the Corinthian church.

Chapter 15 is about Paul's response to several Corinthians who believed that there would be no resurrection of the dead (v. 12). Paul is arguing that if there is no resurrection (v. 13), all we have is our earthly life, hence Paul's wording "if our hope in Christ is only for this life" (v. 19a). In the context of the paragraph,

  • the people to be pitied are the preachers of the gospel (v. 12, "... since we preach ...") because then "... our preaching is useless ..." (v. 14) and "we apostles would all be lying about God ..." (v. 15) "... then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins." (v. 17).
  • the people whose faith are useless (in v. 17) are the Corinthians.

Comparison with Pascal's wager

Pascal talked about a person who is only half convinced about the gospel but who needs to make a decision before he/she dies. There are 3 groups of people in 1 Corinthians whom we will evaluate whether they could use Pascal's wager.

  1. Paul and the Apostles (preachers of the gospel) mentioned in 1 Cor 15:12-19. They certainly had no doubts about following Christ, so Pascal's wager didn't apply to them. They were also in no doubt about which gospel to preach.

  2. The Corinthians who had heretical views about the resurrection of the body, to which Paul said in 1 Cor 15:17 "And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins." In this verse Paul refers to a hypothetical scenario of believing a false gospel, even though the Corinthians were NOT at risk of rejecting the gospel. Because they DID still believe (albeit a corrupted gospel), Pascal's wager doesn't apply to them either.

  3. The potentially false apostles ("builders") mentioned in 1 Cor 3 esp. verse 15: "But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames"). This is about what happened if an apostle ("a builder") preached the wrong gospel, where they would still barely saved themselves but didn't receive any reward for their sacrifices.

    Can we apply Pascal's wager to their CHOOSING which gospel to preach? If so, the scenario is similar to Paul's hypothetical in 1 Cor 15:19 (whether the true gospel includes resurrection of the dead). But 1 Cor 3:15b is clear that if the preacher's gospel turns out to be in error (but they with good conscience kept following Jesus), they would still go to heaven, but only barely. It's just that there is no reward for their hard work. Therefore, the "infinite loss" option is not applicable here. So Pascal's wager doesn't apply here either.

Answering your questions

Question 1:

Didn't Pascal agree with Paul that we would be pitiful? Pascal must have read 1 Corinthians, how are we reconcile these two concepts from Pascal and Paul?

Answer: There is nothing to reconcile. But yes, if the gospel turns out to be wrong both Paul & Pascal agree that:

  • Paul & the apostles need to be most "pitied" since we learn from Paul's letters that they sacrificed themselves a lot, being beaten, imprisoned, etc. (ex. 1 Cor 15:31: "For I swear, dear brothers and sisters, that I face death daily.")
  • We also need to be "pitied" but only to a lesser extent, pitied for the "finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.).", unless we have sacrificed more than St. Paul.
  • But I disagree with you on "if Christ has not been raised, it is really bad for us Christians" since true Christians have joy in the midst of testing and trials.

Question 2:

What about the possibility that we would be sent to hell while others who supposedly have believed properly would go to heaven?

Answer: Pascal's wager is NOT about believing "properly" (example: choosing the "right" teacher/apostle/denomination), but about deciding whether to commit to God along with the necessary sacrifices that we have to make. Pascal's wager MAY apply to apostles who are unsure which foundation (gospel) to build on.

Let's consider each possibility for people who have NOT made a decision to follow Jesus (Pascal's audience):

  • Gospel is true and they took the wager: infinite gain
  • Gospel is false and they took the wager: finite loss
  • Gospel is true but they don't took the wager: infinite loss

Secondly, let's consider each possibility for people who have already made a decision to follow Jesus (not Pascal's audience):

  • Gospel is true and they persevere to the end: infinite gain
  • Gospel is false: finite loss
  • Gospel is true, but they don't persevere: infinite loss

Thirdly, let's consider each possibility for apostles / teachers who have chosen what they think is the TRUE gospel to preach and to sacrifice their lives for in the context of 1 Cor 3:12-15 and 1 Cor 15:12-19 (also not Pascal's audience):

  • Their chosen Gospel is true: infinite gain
  • Their chosen Gospel is false: finite loss (they don't go to hell, but their work were all burned up, i.e. they labor for nothing)
  • N/A: infinite loss
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  • @TonyChan Did I address everything in your question? If not, let me know and I'll update my answer. Aug 24 at 16:38
1

Paul and Pascal are addressing different audiences. Paul is writing to believers to whom he has preached about the resurrection. Pascal is primarily writing to those who were trying to decide between atheism and Christianity. Pascal is making a broader argument about risk and reward with regards to eternity. If God exists, believing that he doesn’t entails an unimaginable consequence – eternal damnation. If God doesn’t exist, no harm, no foul, we’ll never even be aware of it after death. Paul is more focused on this life, saying that if there is no resurrection, he and his disciples have suffered for that belief in vain – a miserable way to spend one’s finite life.

Both arguments are good for evangelism which is one of the principle works that Christ calls us to carry out. Pascal uses logic to show that it makes sense to invest the limited years of life, believing and obeying God since the reward is so great and the risk of not doing so is so horrible. Paul shows his faith in his belief in Christianity and in the resurrection by being willing to suffer terribly in this life and even die for it. He would only do that if he had very good evidence of the truth of the Gospel.
He maintained that conviction to the end of his life.

2 Timothy 4:6-8: 'For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.'

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Both of the negative consequents are immaterial because the precedent is untrue. This is simple logic.

Both statements reduce to this:

If this thing that is true were not true, then (insert some arbitrary prognostication here).

The fact is that the latter statement can never be evaluated, and will never be evaluated, because the purported condition that supposedly invokes it is impossible. If we were running a computer program, the latter statement would never execute, and is incalculable, and hence arbitrary, and hence meaningless.

What both Paul and Pascal purport would be true if what is true were untrue is therefore immaterial. They could substitute literally any kind of nonsense in the consequent because we would already have discarded logic if we were to believe the consequent of an untrue precedent.

Let's also try a little empirical sampling over these arguments, shall we?

Pascal: "If there is no God..." But wait, there is a God. Therefore ignore what follows, it can't and won't happen, period. "If there is a God..." There is a God. So let's apply the modus ponens rule of logic, and obtain that the entire so-called wager is equivalent to the statement affixed as the consequent to the true branch.

Paul: "If there were no resurrection..." But wait, there is a resurrection. Therefore ignore the preposterous consequent; it is unreachable. "If there is a resurrection..." There is resurrection through Christ. Therefore keep these consequents and simplify out the first conditional; it has already evaluated as true.

By simple logic and mathematical reduction, both arguments have reduced to what is true, and the speculations about what is untrue have self-eliminated. The speculation is moot.

We could say that if God did not exist, the Universe would crash because of a division by zero. We could also claim to be unicorns. Any and all statements placed in the consequent are inherently meaningless. You could pour all the junk in the world into them without changing the meaning a whit. Because they will never be evaluated, you can regard them as a write-only memory.

The expectation, or better yet, the assured outcome, is that the faithful Christian will experience never-ending happiness because of his faith in Christ, while those who hold no such faith will endure endless torment on account of their denial of self-evident reality. Both a sampling-based procedure and vanilla logic prove this to be unconditionally true. Even when sampling "probabilistically", the expectation yields certainty.

If something that is true were untrue, then anything goes. If what is true is true, then reality holds.

So in that regard the two statements are equivalent.

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  • 1
    Have you ever worked with proof by contradiction?
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 26 at 15:11
  • @TonyChan Yes. This is a valid point related to this argument, that the existence of contradictions arising from accepting the false precedent proves its falsehood; although in this case I am working it from the other end, showing that since the precedent is untrue, it does not matter what claims are contained in the consequent, since they can be arbitrary, and hence the two arguments are similar. The purpose of the OP wasn't to prove the existence of God (as could be done in a proof by contradiction), but rather to see whether Paul's and Pascal's arguments could be reconciled.
    – pygosceles
    Aug 26 at 17:22
  • Good point +1 :)
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 26 at 18:30
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There's no contradiction here

Pascal says, "If there is no God, we have a finite loss." Paul says, "If there is no resurrection, we are the most pitiful people." There's no contradiction. Just because the finite loss (our lives) is potentially a great loss, that doesn't mean that it isn't finite.

Pascal doesn't disagree with Paul. Paul merely emphasizes the cost of following Jesus (if, indeed, we are wrong) while Pascal minimizes it. Which is his entire point - the value of our short lives is negligible when compared to the infinite gain in heaven or the infinite loss in hell.

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  • Did Pascal allow the possibility that Christians would be sent to hell while others who supposedly have believed properly would go to heaven?
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 24 at 15:49
  • @TonyChan IIRC, Pascal made the assumption that one would choose the correct god, form of worship, etc. It's arguably a fatal flaw in the argument, but it doesn't mean there's a contradiction with Paul. Aug 24 at 16:23
  • Where did I say that Pascal contradicted Paul?
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 24 at 16:25
  • @TonyChan Perhaps that's not what you meant, but "how are we to reconcile these two concepts from Pascal and Paul?" sounds like you believe there's difficulty in accepting both - which there isn't, as there's no contradiction. Apologies if I misunderstood. Aug 24 at 16:49
  • No problem. I did have difficulty in accepting both concepts. I didn't think that the great Pascal would contradict Paul. That's why I sought the wisdom of this forum to enlighten me :)
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 24 at 17:03
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What about the possibility that we would be sent to hell while others who supposedly have believed properly would go to heaven?

In this case, the Christians are of all people most to be pitied. Such a person will have not only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), but also losing eternal life. Apparently Pascal didn’t considered this possible scenario. The Muslims would win since Jesus didn’t die on the cross according to them.

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  • Welcome to Christianity SE and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Aug 24 at 2:14
  • This is the area for substantial and supported answers. Fresh questions should be asked above.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 24 at 15:40
  • The purpose of Pascal's argument was not to compare religions but to help people make a decision about whether Christianity was true or not. There are more useful ways to compare religions. There is a lot of evidence regarding the validity and historicity of the Bible. Jesus, the Son of God, was born into the world as was prophesied hundreds of years before. He died and rose again so that we could be reconciled with God. So we serve a God who was willing to die for us. All his disciples were willing to suffer and die for him in the end. They were convinced of the truth of the Gospel. Aug 31 at 4:01
  • @Solomon This is the truth with the strongest evidence. It would not be wise to bet against it. Aug 31 at 4:32

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