Sometimes I think Pascal’s wager gets an unfair rap. It’s arguably his most famous and least understood idea. The basic argument of the wager was found in fragment form in his unpublished Pensées (thoughts). That fact alone should at least give us pause before declaring a verdict on it. Perhaps if he had lived long enough to publish it he would have cleaned it up and explained it in greater detail in order to avoid misinterpretation. But he didn’t.
The wager is usually explained along the following lines. Either God exists or He does not. All humans must bet their lives on whether He exists or not. But reason alone is not sufficient to provide a definitive answer to question of God’s existence. So how are to proceed? By considering the stakes and probabilities and attempting to minimize our loses and maximize our gains. What? Let me explain.
If we gamble that God does not exist then we live however we want in this life with no one at all to give account to or curb our impulses. Theoretically this should result in maximum earthly happiness in this life—assuming that by living for our own pleasure we’ll freely choose to do that which makes us most happy. And if in the end it turns out that we were right and God doesn’t exist then when our life is over and that’s the end of it—no lasting consequences.
If however, we gamble that God does not exist and live accordingly but it turns out that we were wrong then we may have increased our finite happiness during the brief span of our earthly life but we will reap infinite unhappiness as we endure the eternal punishment of God in the afterlife. Hardly as wise trade-off.
On the other hand, if we gamble that God does exist then presumably we’ll have to forgo some of the earthly pleasures that we would have otherwise enjoyed in order to obey the commands of God. That might be considered a finite loss. And if it turns out we were wrong then we lost out on the experiencing the maximum amount of pleasure here on earth that we might have experienced had we rejected the idea of God and lived accordingly.
If however, we gamble that God does exist and forgo some earthly pleasure as a result but then it turns out that we were right, the gains that we win are infinite. Having chosen rightly for the side of God we will inherit eternal life in paradise—well worth any short-term sacrifices we might have made on earth.
And so, the conclusion is mathematically obvious. Betting against the existence of God will result in finite gain but could result in infinite loss—the potential small gain is not worth the potential massive loss. Betting in favor of the existence of God will result in finite loss but could result in infinite gain—the small loss is massively outweighed but the possibility of infinite gain.
And so, even though it’s impossible to determine whether or not God exists by reason alone, one would have to be an absolute fool not to believe that God exists.
Did you follow all that? Do you buy it? Do you see any holes there? Do you think God would be fooled by someone who pretended to believe in Him in order to minimize losses and maximize gains? But my problem isn’t with Pascal’s wager. In fact, I really like Pascal’s wager. My problem is with people or with http://homebet88.co membership who explain it in the way that I presented it above (which is exactly how it was presented to me when I was in college). I think that to present it that way entirely misses Pascal’s whole point. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician (hence the talk of probability) but he was also a mystic (more on that later). And the whole point of the wager (in my opinion) was to highlight the self-authenticating truth of the gospel which is not unreasonable but which cannot be reduced to mere reason. Rather, it’s a metaphysical truth that’s vindicated and confirmed experientially through living it.
So it seems to me that far from being a cold and calculating defense of Christianity in order to maximize my payoff and minimize my losses, Pascal’s wager is actually right in line with the type of experience-based affirmation of Christianity that I’ve been proposing on this blog all along. That whole Greenland thing was, as far as I can tell, Pascal’s wager in narrative form.
In the next post I’ll explain what I think Pascal was doing with his wager and why I think it’s such a helpful approach to Christian faith. And I wager that you’ll find yourself agreeing with me. (Though I wouldn’t bet my life on it).
File this under “What Not To Do When Lady Doubt Comes Knocking”: Treat every question as if it’s of equal importance and start to cultivate an all-or-nothing mindset about every issue. What am I talking about? Let me explain.
It happens every time I read judges. I get to that bit about the fox tails and I just can’t do it. I can’t accomplish the herculean mental leap that would enable me to believe that it really, in actual historical fact, happened. What happened? This:
“So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails. And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards.” (Judges 15:4-5). That. Can you imagine the logistical nightmare of catching 300 foxes? Where would you find them? How would you catch them? Where would you keep the ones you caught while you were out catching the others? But that’s not even the half of it. HOW IN THE WORLD would you tie a torch between the tails of two foxes and not get your face scratched off in the process? And then once you’ve got 150 pairs of foxes with torches tied between their tails, what do you do? Light the torches one by one and send them out? How do you know which direction they’d run?
Granted, I’m no Samson nor http://www.bengkelbola.net member. Not by a long, long shot. I get it. But still, I had a hard enough time getting rid of one raccoon in my garage…I simply can’t imagine catching a fleet of foxes and turning them into roving wild torches aimed at my enemy’s crops. I just can’t get myself to believe that it happened that way.
Now here’s where the panic and fear-driven faith starts to set in. There is no shortage of people who would tell me (trust me, I’ve talked to them) “If you can’t believe in the flaming foxes, then you can’t believe in the resurrection.” The implication? If I think that Joshua 15 is anything other than literal, historical fact, then I may be putting myself outside of the household of faith and beyond the bounds of salvation.
And so then I’ll ask that person, “Do you believe about the 300 foxes?”
“Yes, of course I do, it’s in the Bible.”
“You don’t find it a little hard to believe?”
And here’s where the ultimate stopper line comes: “Listen, if you believe that God spoke the world into existence and raised Jesus from the dead then you should be able to believe that God could enable Samson to catch 300 foxes and tie torches between their tails and direct them to particular fields.”
Touché. I suppose. But that argument misses my point. Yes, I believe that God can do whatever He wants and therefore, yes, I believe that God could have empowered Samson to do that fox stuff. My question is not whether or not He could have. My question is whether or not He did. And my answer is: I DON’T KNOW!
Ah, that felt good. I don’t know. Those three words have proven to be three of the most faith-affirming words in my walk with the Lord. I don’t know.
And not knowing how God intends for us to understand the flaming foxes episode does not, in any way, cause me to doubt the fact that Jesus Christ the Son of God died for my sins and rose again on the third day. See? It’s not all or nothing. And not every question is of equal importance. And there is no slippery slope from fox denial to denying the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So just relax and breath and be honest about all of your biblical fox-related questions. It’s okay. God, and the Bible, can take it. Incidentally, I used the foxes as an example because it’s personally relevant (that story really does cause a minor faith criss every time I read it) and because it’s kind of funny (to me anyways). But you and I both know that the main place this happens for many people is in Genesis 1-3. More on that and whole faith-science thing later.
Here’s one unhealthy response to doubt: Be very afraid that your faith won’t endure to the end. I understand the impulse. If you think your eternal destiny hangs on the content of your beliefs, then any wavering in those beliefs is bound to produce anxiety. I was starkly reminded of this dynamic when I recently discovered my 8 year old crying in her room. When I asked her what was the matter she responded, “I’m worried that one day I’ll stop believing in God.” Heartbreaking. Understandable. But not necessary. Somewhere along the way she had internalized a misunderstanding about the nature of faith and the character of God.
I’ve been a pastor 10 years now that play poker in http://multipoker88.com which is long enough to know that it’s not just 8 year olds who worry about this. “What if I stop believing?” is a theoretical question that begins to take on flesh when little cracks of doubt begin creeping into your faith. Little nagging questions like, “What possible good could prayer do if God is sovereign?”; “Would a good God really allow what’s going on in Syria right now?”; “Does the doctrine of the Trinity actually make any sense at all?”; “What possible connection could there be between a crucified carpenter and my own ongoing sin issues?”; “Is the indwelling Holy Spirit really real or are we all doing that emperor’s new clothes thing?”
On and on the questions go. Sometimes they’re easily dismissed. Other times they claw at you. And they aren’t interesting theological puzzles. They’re issues upon which eternity hangs. It can be hard to silence the little voice that says, “If you stop believing the Christian answers to these questions, then you’ll find yourself outside of the household of faith.” And we all know people who have left the faith and not returned. Casualties in the war against unbelief. How could you not be anxious about these doubts? It’s my conviction that the whole preceding discussion puts the focus in the wrong place entirely. When I consider my reconciled relationship to God Almighty through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ, the primary gaze of my eyes should be on the character of God not the character of my faith. What I mean is, the proper object of faith is God and the unbreakable covenant promises that He has issued which are rooted in His perfect and unchangeable character. If I make my own faith the object of my faith then I’ve created an internal faith-loop that will never be able to transcend itself. I call that Möbius Strip Faith (MSF).
Are you familiar with a möbius-strip? Take a rectangular strip of paper. Now trace your finger along the entirety of the paper, front and back, without ever crossing an edge. You can’t do it. Whichever side you start on, you have to cross the edge in order to get to the backside of the paper. But now take the same strip of paper, give one end a half-turn and then tape the ends together. Now if you trace your finger on one side, you’ll cover the entire length of the paper, both front and back, without ever coming to the edge of the paper. You’ll keep returning to his starting point without ever transcending it. Some people have faith like that.
If I make my faith the object of my faith, well then I’m going to have some problems crossing the edge of my faith and transcending myself. (I know I’m goin’ all metaphysical on you here, but hang in there). The fear that my faith will one day give out is driven by the underlying and unspoken assumption that the object of my faith is my faith itself.
This is the whole point of that wonderfully satirical song from The Sound of Music that says, “I have confidence in confidence.” (I promise you that I never watched musicals until I had daughters). To have confidence in confidence is to have confidence in nothing since confidence needs to be rooted in something other than itself in order to have substance. Faith is like that too. To have faith in your faith is to have faith in nothing. Faith needs to transcend itself and be rooted in something other than itself.
So let me wrap up this overly philosophical post by telling you what I told my daughter. (This is a paraphrase of a longer conversation.) “Honey, you know how even though we try to be good, we’re never good enough to meet God’s perfect standard? And so we have to count on God’s grace for the forgiveness of our sins instead of our own good works? Well, faith is like that too. We’re not counting on our own ability to get ourselves to keep believing in God. We’re trusting God to keep holding on to us because of the covenant promises that He’s made to us. You know how you’re always my daughter no matter what you do or say or think? And how I love you all the time no matter what? And how I always will? Well God’s like that but even more. So you don’t have to worry about one day not believing. Because if God’s holding you now then He always will and He’ll never let go. The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). And God loves us perfectly even if we don’t love Him perfectly. So you and I don’t need to be afraid. The important thing isn’t that we’re holding God but that He’s holding us.”
This obviously doesn’t answer all questions about doubt, faith and apostasy. In fact, it raises some important questions. Turns out I can’t solve the problem of faith and doubt in 1000 words or less. But I think this post gives us a rather important starting point. When you begin addressing questions of faith and doubt, make sure that your faith is properly aimed at the appropriate object of faith which is God, His character and His promises. It’s never a healthy thing when faith turns in on itself as its own object.
Today I was filling out a form and I was asked to define who God is, explain Jesus Christ’s relationship to the church and discuss my own personal faith commitments in 250-500 words. My first thought was, “That’s a ridiculous assignment.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it should be possible to articulate the essentials of the faith in relatively few words. It would, of course, take multiple volumes and a whole lifetime to explain all the mysteries of the faith. I, for one, don’t think we’ll ever plumb the depths of those mysteries. But still, we should be able to assert the essentials of what we believe without wandering off into a philosophical discourse on the problem of evil or the nature of the Trinity. And so I went for it. It came out to 355 words. I didn’t use any reference works or a Bible and I didn’t cite verses–though I hope (and believe) that all of the content is biblically defensible. I just wanted to see what came out from inside me. I think if I spent a little more time on it I could tighten it up. But this is what came out. Thought you might like to see it.
“God exists eternally in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the author and sustainer of all things. He is infinite and therefore we creatures cannot know Him comprehensively. And yet, He has condescended to make Himself known to us through creation, the Scriptures and the sending of His Son. “God’s character is unified and perfectly consistent within Himself. Perfect love, mercy and goodness meet with perfect righteousness, holiness and justice in the Triune God of the Bible. All of these qualities same as http://www.speedbet88.net were on full display through the sending of Jesus Christ the Son of God to live a perfectly loving and obedient life and to die as a gracious and merciful provision to atone for the sins of God’s people. God’s justice and opposition to evil was upheld while at the same time His mercy and grace were displayed on the cross of Jesus Christ. “My Christian commitment begins with Jesus Christ who is my Lord and Savior. Through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit I have called on the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of my sins, was made an heir of the promises of God and have become a follower of Jesus.
“The church universal is Christ’s Body here on earth. His visible witness and the primary means through which He is accomplishing His will on earth, gathering His people and building His Kingdom. Jesus Christ is the head of the church and He has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. “I personally believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh and died and was raised again. That He died for my sins in order that I might be reconciled to God. I believe in the truth and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. I affirm the creeds and confessions of the church that have united Christians throughout the centuries. And I believe that one day Jesus Christ will come again to claim His Bride and will establish the new heavens and the new earth in which there will be no more sin, suffering or dying and we will worship Him in His presence forever. “Amen.”
Well, that’s it. Not a defense or an explanation of my faith or my poker addiction in http://citipoker88.com Just a plain old assertion: This is what I believe. What would you write if you were given that assignment? Try it. Seriously. I think you’ll find the exercise extremely edifying and faith building. I did.