Pascal’s Wager

Written by Drew on May 19th, 2006

Christian apologetics has been around for a thousand years, and over that period of time a number of compelling arguments have been made in favor of the existence of God. These days, more attention has been given to the teleological argument, which infers an intelligent designer of the universe just as we infer an intelligent designer for any product bearing evidence of “design” (i.e., a means to an end, thus the Greek telos). However, other areas need to be explored.

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was a French mathematician and physicist who is best known for his contributions to the fields of economics, social science and mathematics. But in 1654 he came to believe in Jesus Christ and devoted much of the rest of his life to writing a defense of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, he died before its completion, leaving behind hundreds of notes for the work. This came to be published posthumously as the Pensees.

Pensees reveals Pascal’s dissatisfaction with a priori proofs for the existence of God previously given by Anselm, Aquinas and Decartes. Putting these aside, he took a radical approach, arguing that, when the odds are even that God exists, the prudent man will bet on God. This approach has become popularly known as “Pascal’s wager.” Since Pascal was the founder of probability theory, it is no surprise to see him reasoning in this fashion. In his book, Reasonable Faith, William Craig described Pascal’s wager as follows:

If one wagers that God exists and he does, one has gained eternal life and infinite happiness. If he does not exist, one has lost nothing. On the other hand, if one wagers that God does not exist and he does, then one has suffered infinite loss. If he does not in fact exist, then one has gained nothing. Hence, the only prudent choice is to believe that God exists (p. 54).

I should point out that Pascal did not think of his “bet” as logical proof for God’s existence. Neither did he believe on these grounds alone. The mathematician was doing what he did best to try to get skeptics to understand pragmatically the reasons for pursuing faith in God. In the second half of Pensees Pascal sets forth the evidences of Scripture, miracles and fulfilled prophecy, more solid testimonies to the existence of God.

That being said, let’s turn to a criticism of Pascal’s wager. While it is good for stimulating thought, it faces some problems that keep it from being a serious consideration for the modern thinker.

First of all, it leaves out the possibility of any other god besides the God of Christianity. What of pagan deities or Allah? The Muslim could argue that, if God exists, the Christian has still bet wrong. For, to him, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet.” Such pluralism renders the wager insufficient without supplemental evidence to raise the odds on the Christian side of the ledger.

Another thought: Pascal’s wager is not compatible with the Christian doctrine of faith. According to the New Testament, saving faith involves firm knowledge–something very different from a “gamble”–of the tenents of Christianity (Heb. 11:1; 2 Tim. 1:12; Phil. 3:8; 2 Cor. 5:1; Rom. 8:28; et al). Therefore, should one choose to believe in God and Christ based on what is probable, his fate could still be infinite loss, despite the fact that made the right “bet.”

Pascal’s wager is a fascinating study of how one man used his brilliance to fight the skepticism of his day. It is true that, today, his arguments probably would not stand. But there are scores of other reasons to believe in God, some of which will be discussed soon in this forum. For now, we applaud a great philosopher of the past for applying his mental prowess to the cause of Christ.

 

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