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 The basic argument of the wager was found in fragment form in his unpublished Pensées (thoughts).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 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).

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