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The most dangerous wager you’ll ever make


I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am to hear that legalized sports betting is chocked full of corruption. Who’d a thunk it?

According to a Wall Street Journal article about a month ago, “Less than six years after the Supreme Court opened the door for states to embrace legal sports betting, major U.S. leagues are already confronting the darker sides of sports betting with alarming frequency. And at the heart of the problems is the population whose ability to bet on sports is the most severely curbed: the athletes themselves.” The report goes on to say that the betting landscape has, “seen players across the major professional and college leagues drawn into a building avalanche of gambling scandals that showed just how perilous the new landscape has become.”

Both the NFL and NBA are replete with examples, and during this year’s March Madness —the biggest sports-betting event in America—the Temple University men’s basketball team was flagged by prominent gambling watchdog firm U.S. Integrity for suspicious wagering activity on its games.

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It sure seems like something in us is drawn to making wagers. Do just a little digging into the psychology of gambling and you’ll find a lot of research that talks about pleasure-seeking, escapism, and greed, all of which form a potent combination that makes for a powerful addiction.

But as bad as the damage from gambling can be in this life, there’s another bet that many make about God that’s infinitely and eternally worse. It’s captured well by the philosophical argument called “Pascal’s Wager”, which is often misunderstood and abused on both sides of the religious divide.

Place your bets  

Frenchman Blaise Pascal was many things – a mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and theologian. Before his death, Pascal had started writing a book that was to be a defense of the Christian faith. He never finished it, but others assembled his drafts and organized them into a book they entitled Pensées, which basically means “Thoughts”.

Entry #233 is Pascal’s Wager, which is an argument he aimed at the vast majority of his friends who were not Christians. Most who’ve heard of it and are asked to describe what Pascal meant generally say something like this: If you’re going to choose between belief in God and not, it’s a smarter bet to believe in God because if He exists you’ve gained everything and if He doesn’t you’ve lost nothing.

Nobody likes this explanation and for good reason.

The skeptic argues that putting your belief in something blindly because you might benefit in the end is a poor way to think and live, and they’re right. The Christian points out that simply choosing to believe God exists without any commitment to Christ and being born again is not saving faith, and they’re right.

So, is Pascal’s Wager a flop in terms of being a good argument for God? Personally, I think there’s merit to it, but not in the traditional sense as that most think about it. Let’s take in a little of what Pascal said and I’ll show you what I mean.

The gist of his argument begins a little way down in the text and starts with: “God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos that separates us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.”

Remember that Pascal is writing to his skeptical friends during a historical period when the Enlightenment was getting ready to kick off. Non-Christians during this period (as well as today) argued that the Christian believes by faith, but they, in contrast, believe things only because of reason and proof.

And Pascal says, sorry – incorrect: “according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions”. While the Christian cannot definitively prove God exists, the non-Christian cannot positively rule Him out either based on empirical evidence. In other words, the charge usually leveled at Christians by skeptics of “What’s the proof for your position?” can easily be turned back around with: “And what’s the proof for your position?”

Thus, says, Pascal, both the Christian and non-Christian are wagering their lives on faith commitments. Everyone is, in a sense, on a religious path.

So how does one smartly proceed to know which is correct?

Pascal answers very briefly that Christianity does enjoy a cumulative case for God when he writes, “…is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?” Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc.” If you’ve studied Christian apologetics for any length of time, you know that the historicity of the Bible and “the rest” he refers to add up pretty quickly and provide solid footing for those choosing God in his wager.

That said, even though Pascal was assembling content for a Christian apologetic (and thus believed in those arguments), he hints those pieces of evidence don’t necessarily unlock the door to God on their own. Instead, he says the path to God for the unbeliever oftentimes involves first asking the question of what is really holding them back from belief.

Pascal believed the answer to that involved a person understanding their specific motivations for unbelief and “not by increase of proofs of God”. Instead, a person is led to what he called “the abatement of your passions” – worldly things loved and practiced and an acknowledgment of them being a primary obstacle.   

But what about the third option: those who claim they’re Switzerland on the subject? Neutral – unwilling to make a decision either way?

Pascal says sorry, you’re in the game whether you want to be or not: “[You say]: The true course is not to wager at all. Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.”

He’s right – there is no neutrality. What Pascal’s Wager is saying to us is we have all developed life strategies and are making life commitments concerning God based on beliefs and faith.

So, what’s your wager?

If you’re not a Christian and are reading this, first, thanks for taking the time to look into a worldview different than your own. My hope and prayer is you’ll pursue a deeper search for God and not glibly discard Him based on personal preferences.

If you’re looking for my opinion on the subject, I’ll say this: having spent a very long time investigating the claims of Christianity (with plenty of life reasons to throw in the towel), the simple conclusion that I’ve reached and advice I’ll pass onto you is, in Pascal’s words:

“Wager then that He is, without hesitation.”

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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