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Pascal contends that a rational person should adopt a lifestyle consistent with the existence of God and actively strive to believe in God. The reasoning behind this stance lies in the potential outcomes: if God does not exist, the individual incurs only finite losses, potentially sacrificing certain pleasures and luxuries. However, if God does indeed exist, they stand to gain immeasurably, as represented for example by an eternity in Heaven in Abrahamic tradition, while simultaneously avoiding boundless losses associated with an eternity in Hell.

(source: Pascal's wager - Wikipedia)

Let us now gather together all of these points into a single argument. We can think of Pascal’s Wager as having three premises: the first concerns the decision table of rewards, the second concerns the probability that you should give to God’s existence, and the third is a maxim about rational decision-making. Specifically:

  1. Either God exists or God does not exist, and you can either wager for God or wager against God. The utilities of the relevant possible outcomes are as follows, where f1, f2, and f3 are numbers whose values are not specified beyond the requirement that they be finite:
God exists God does not exist
Wager for God f1
Wager against God f2 f3
  1. Rationality requires the probability that you assign to God existing to be positive (and finite).
  2. Rationality requires you to perform the act of maximum expected utility (when there is one).
  3. Conclusion 1. Rationality requires you to wager for God.
  4. Conclusion 2. You should wager for God.

(source: Pascal’s Wager - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Is there any biblical basis for encouraging non-believers to consider embracing Christianity with the hopeful anticipation that, if it proves to be true, they may experience the promised reward of an afterlife characterized by eternal bliss in Heaven and avoid a potential infinite loss of an eternity in Hell?

Note: I'm asking this question as a follow-up to Can faith be based on hope rather than belief or intellectual assent?


Appendix

Pascal's views on faith and reason

Pascal begins by painting a situation where both the existence and non-existence of God are impossible to prove by human reason. So, supposing that reason cannot determine the truth between the two options, one must "wager" by weighing the possible consequences. Pascal's assumption is that, when it comes to making the decision, no one can refuse to participate; withholding assent is impossible because we are already "embarked", effectively living out the choice.

Inability to believe
Pascal addressed the difficulty that reason and rationality pose to genuine belief by proposing that "acting as if [one] believed" could "cure [one] of unbelief":

But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavor then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.

(source: Pascal's wager - Wikipedia)

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    "And immediately the father of the boy crying out, with tears said: I do believe, Lord: help my unbelief" Mark 9:23
    – eques
    Jan 20 at 16:42
  • The most common objection to Pascal's Wager is that salvation in Christianity is not a matter of belief. Christianity has many requirements of behavior before you are judged worthy to have faith. It might be a fine argument for a hypothetical religion that teaches salvation by belief alone, but it is not a good apology for Christianity.
    – Fomalhaut
    Jan 21 at 23:43
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    @Fomalhaut In the appendix I added a quote of Pascal addressing specifically the behavioral aspects of faith.
    – Mark
    Jan 22 at 0:13
  • @Mark What about Homer Simpson's argument against Pascal's Wager? "And what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we're just making God madder and madder!" youtube.com/watch?v=tgOROIe8DKc
    – Fomalhaut
    Jan 22 at 6:28
  • @Fomalhaut That's known as the "many Gods objection" (read section 5.1.5 here)
    – Mark
    Jan 22 at 6:59

3 Answers 3

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Is there any biblical basis for encouraging non-believers to consider embracing Christianity with the hopeful anticipation that, if it proves to be true, they may experience the promised reward of an afterlife characterized by eternal bliss in Heaven and avoid the infinite loss of an eternity in Hell?

Yes, there is abundant Scriptural support for a need to assist non-believers to convert to Christianity that includes appeal to such arguments.

Pascal's wager is a rational utilitarian argument favoring belief in and obedience to God. It includes the following attributes:

  1. An initial non-believing or uncertain stance
  2. Incentive of eternal reward for faithfulness
  3. Incentive of eternal punishment for unbelief or infidelity
  4. The rational argument that finite inconvenience or pleasure is eclipsed by infinite rewards or penalties, no matter how improbable one thinks Christianity to be (unless deemed infinitely improbable)

To find Scriptural support for Pascal's wager, we look for teachings and examples that align with or explicitly rely on these attributes.

Non-belief and uncertainty

In addressing the matter of belief, we first recognize that there are degrees of uncertainty. Is there anyone who has absolutely zero belief or capacity for belief in Christianity? Such a person, if he exists, is not eligible for Pascal's wager. We admit that, in order for Pascal's wager to be applicable to someone, he must at least admit the possibility of Christianity being true, otherwise the discounted future reward, even when infinite, would carry no weight (infinity times zero is zero). The ask of Pascal's wager is therefore not fundamentally the conversion from complete zero of belief to a saving belief, but rather, it is essentially to exert more action and sacrificial devotion towards a belief than one assigns to the intellectual probability of the belief being true, on account of the importance consequent from the belief if true. This is ultimately consonant with the definition of faith:

Now faith is the substance/assurance of things hoped for, the evidence/conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, KJV/ESV)

By definition, a person who is exercising faith does not already see the culmination of his desire. Rather, uncertainty is inherent in the exercise of faith, and he holds out hope in the thing being true, taking as evidence that which is as yet uncertain. We find this kind of faith in the plea of the father asking the Lord to cast out a tormenting spirit from his son:

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. (Mark 9:23)

Therefore some amount of faith can coexist with a near-paralyzing amount of unbelief. When we choose to exercise our faith in Jesus Christ, we are choosing to give priority or preference to the things which point to Christ, rather than to the things which don't. This is consistent with Pascal's wager, which invites us to emphasize belief and action consistent with the teachings of Christ, notwithstanding our uncertainty. This is an active rather than a passive view of faith. God does not judge us by what we lack, but rather, by what we do with what we have.

Eternal Rewards

The Bible is filled with references to the Lord and His servants promising eternal rewards on condition of faithfulness. The Lord likens the Kingdom of Heaven to:

  • Laborers in a vineyard working for a penny (Matthew 20:1-16)
  • A tree planted from a tiny seed that grew (Matthew 13:31-32)
  • Treasure hid in a field which a man found and then bought after he sold all that he had, and a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46)

The Beatitudes given in the Sermon on the Mount are in this vein. The Lord promises to those who assimilate His attributes that they will:

  • Inherit the kingdom of heaven
  • Be comforted
  • Inherit the Earth
  • Be filled
  • Obtain mercy
  • See God
  • Be called the children of God
  • Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, having great reward in heaven

(Matthew 5:1-12)

The writer of Hebrews reports that some did not accept release from torture and death, "that they might gain a better resurrection" (Hebrews 11:35).

The Lord's invitation to the rich young ruler takes exactly the form conveyed in the parables of a quid pro quo of finite possessions or actions in exchange for eternal life and wealth:

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. (Matthew 19:21)

Eternal Punishment

The Bible is full of warnings, examples and teachings that the wicked will suffer unspeakable torments if they do wickedly and do not repent, including the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), the preaching of Jonah to the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), the judgments of the Cities of Galilee (Matthew 11:20-24), the plagues of Egypt, the warnings of Isaiah and Jeremiah and many, many other passages.

In parables, the Lord warned about consequences of rebellion against God:

  • A Householder destroying wicked husbandmen who did not deliver the fruit of the vineyard, and who rejected and killed His messengers (Matthew 21:33-44)
  • A King who made a marriage feast for His Son, and bade all to come, but few came, and He punished those who rejected His invitation (Matthew 22:2-14)

Therefore God uses threats of destruction, including death, famine, overthrow and enslavement in addition to the judgments of the wicked in eternity and their sufferings as incentives to entice unbelieving people to repent.

Trading finite inconvenience for infinite rewards

In the above examples, possibilities including both threats and promised rewards are held out to those whose uncertainty is manifested in a lack of commitment, vocalized belief, or trust in God as shown in their actions. The threats have permanent consequences of death and suffering, and the rewards are also permanent. The changes one needs to make are in the now and during this short mortal lifetime. All of God's teachings encourage and incentivize us to do what is right -- a temporary inconvenience -- in exchange for infinite promised blessings.

Is acting on such a possibility or even probability an act of faith?

Yes!

In the case of punishments, it is faith because the punishment, while real, is not yet seen. Scoffers may easily disregard warnings, including of temporal destruction, dismissing it all as delusion and militating against the prophets, as many have done, and yet their sufferings are assured if they do not repent. Taking hold of this assurance and repenting, as the hitherto unbelieving people of Nineveh did, is an act of real and saving faith in response to a "wager" of cost.

In the case of rewards, it is also faith because, for example in the case of the disciples who gave their lives as martyrs, they did not see or experience the fullness of their blessings in advance of being willing to sacrifice even their own lives in exchange for those blessings.

In summary

Pascal's wager is an invitation to have faith, or to exercise more faith than one currently has, in view of eternal realities (of which one is at least initially uncertain) relative to finite inconvenience.

Some would argue that because Pascal's wager does not appeal exclusively to pure altruism but instead invokes incentives of punishment and reward, it cannot result in saving faith. The examples given in Scripture, while they teach the importance of altruism, contradict this exclusion of benefit to self. Our initial motivations do not determine our final destiny; our choice to exercise faith and repentance, our trajectory of choices and how we treat inspired invitations, do. The incentives outline in Pascal's wager, their permanence relative to the finiteness of mortal experience, and the use of such arguments in addressing uncertainty or unbelief, find their basis and abound in Scripture.

While quid pro quo utilitarian arguments are not the only reasons advanced in Scripture for faithfulness, it is exceedingly common to see such contrasts and arguments of finite sacrifice in exchange for infinite rewards and avoidance of infinite punishment, including to the unbelieving and those who struggle to muster the faith to act on prophetic invitations.

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There is no Biblical support for belief in God to be a wager of any kind.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. - Romans 1:18-25

The Biblical picture is one of universal, willful, and inexcusable rejection of knowledge and evidence which is both in us and shown to us. It is not, as Pascal said at the beginning of his wager, "God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives". The Bible paints a picture of deliberately rejected knowledge which needs to be repented of so that belief may take its place.

If one remains in willful rejection of God's existence (ala Romans 1) and decides to blindly 'wager' on the safe side just in case He is real, this is not exactly an act of faith which should expect a response on God's part. After all, the demons know that God is one (which implies certainty rather than a wager) and they gain absolutely nothing. That is not to say that God will not respond to such a gambler as Pascal supposes, after all He appeared to the murderous zealot Saul, but it is as much a safe Biblical prescription for approaching God as to suggest persecuting the Church so that God will appear and save you.

Steps of obedience based upon received revelation, however tentative, are much safer than the "get out of jail free card" represented by Pascal's Wager. The "wager" is ultimately the inescapable result of an over reliance upon human reason:

Pascal asks the reader to analyze humankind's position, where our actions can be enormously consequential, but our understanding of those consequences is flawed. While we can discern a great deal through reason, we are ultimately forced to gamble.

Whereas faith says:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. - Psalm 19:1-3

Pascal's Wager is saying that it cannot be known, by reason, whether the universe had a creator or not and that it is more to my profit and less to my detriment to act as though it does have a Creator. The Bible says that the existence of God and the invisible things of Him are clearly seen in and by what has been made. This renders an approach to God based upon a Wager a fool's gambit since at its heart the Wager retains the rejection of revelation in favor of reason which makes the Wager 'necessary' in the first place.

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  • You seem to support the notion that God's existence can be established through reason alone, which is in line with the disciplines of natural theology and apologetics. However, this view is highly debated and controversial (e.g., Blaise Pascal disagreed). If a philosopher who is a skeptic, atheist, or agnostic, sincerely finds the arguments from natural theology not sufficiently persuasive, how would you move forward with such a person? Would you advise them to read the arguments more carefully?
    – Mark
    Jan 20 at 18:52
  • A relevant concurrent discussion.
    – Mark
    Jan 20 at 20:14
  • 1
    No I don't hold that notion at all. Mankind's reason is not unbiased it this area. It's not that God's existence can be established through reason, it is that God's existence has been rejected through reason. " Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.". The return is a new birth through the apprehension of faith which restores reason and renews the mind. Jan 21 at 13:47
  • 1
    "how would you move forward with such a person?" I would put a soda can down in front of them and say, "No one made this can. It just happened." That really is the simplicity of the issue...the reasoning that says the universe has no need of a creator. Jan 21 at 13:50
  • New question
    – Mark
    Jan 21 at 13:59
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What has been presented in the question as to what Pascal's Wager is, gives a misleading impression and lends itself to popular misconceptions about it. Before being able to determine if there is scriptural support for Pascal's Wager, it must be clearly understood what he does claim, and so avoid what it does not actually claim.

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 it could not actually bring anyone to faith. Only God can do that.

One particular misunderstanding is due to people not knowing (or admitting to) how 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. However, there is plenty of evidence to support belief - fulfilled prophecies, miracles, the witness of history, the self-authentication of Scripture etc.

It might not be surprising, therefore, that people who do not have that kind of faith but who are keenly interested in "experiencing the supernatural" would home in on Pascale as a champion of supernatural experience. It would not be surprising either that those who disdain the idea of God and Christ, and faith in God, should latch on to a modern distortion of what has commonly become known as "Pascale's Wager". The popular sound-bite version has been simplified by objectors, to avoid its real issues. Those are side-stepped in order to present Pascale as being not much better than an unbeliever, or to view the matter of God's existence as an unresolved question, best settled by a gamble - safer to place your 'bet' on God existing so that, if he does, you'll benefit if that turns out to be the truth, whereas if you dismiss the idea of God, it will be the worse for you when you discover he's real.

A good source for learning about Pascale is https://www.blogos.org/churchhistory/blaise-pascal.php The accurate definition of his argument has loads of scriptural support, but not the modern myths that have arisen. Those should be thrown out, like dirty bath-water, but the "baby" kept safely in the tub.

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  • "The accurate definition of his argument has loads of scriptural support, but not the modern myths that have arisen" Can you please present this accurate definition of the argument and the 'loads' of scriptural support for it?
    – Mark
    Jan 21 at 15:46
  • @Mark Once you present the accurate definition of the argument in your question, then I shall present the scriptural support for it.
    – Anne
    Jan 21 at 16:32
  • No problem. Can you please share a link to an accurate definition of the argument? Would this work?
    – Mark
    Jan 21 at 16:45
  • Anne, I have edited the question with the addition of a quote from that site.
    – Mark
    Jan 21 at 22:47
  • @Mark I am becoming increasingly wearied with OPs who - upon receiving information in some answers that present unforseen problems - then change their Q. At the start, you gave no link for your quote about the Wager. Now one is given but the original quote has gone. I shared a link re. my answer. Why are you asking for one? Why should I start looking at your new links? Why should I rehash my perfectly sound A to accommodate the way you are playing this, as a game? I'm not on this site to play games. I answered your original Q and that's it. Finito.
    – Anne
    Jan 22 at 10:28

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