Wagering on Pascal

Why should we believe in God?

I usually start my first theology class by asking my students this.  Most of them have spent years in Catholic school, but they are flummoxed to find an answer.

“Because the Bible says so.”  But I respond that Muslims, Hindus, and others have their scriptures that contradict ours.  Why should we believe theirs?

“Then where did we come from?” I respond that we just always existed  (This is frustrating for the students, because many of them never considered this possibility, and don’t know how to refute it.)

“Because our parents raised us this way.” But I point out that this doesn’t prove that it is true.

By the end of the first day, many of the students are agitated because they are unable to articulate the solid reason for belief.

I then suggest Pascal’s Wager to them.

Most of us have had discussions with non-believers about God’s existence.  One of the most popular arguments in the 20th century is Pascal’s Wager.  Blaise Pascal was a brilliant Catholic philosopher.  His famous wager is brought up often in classrooms and religious discussion groups.

For those who are unfamiliar, the argument goes like this:

1. Let us assume that we cannot know at all if God exists.

2. So we have to assume 2 possibilities to reality:

God exists or God does not exist.

3. I then have a choice:

I believe that God exists or I believe that God does not exist.

4. This leaves us with 4 possibilities to life:

  • a. God exists and I believe He exists
  • b. God exists and I do not believe He exists
  • c. God does not exist and I believe He exists
  • d. God exists and I do not believe He exists

5. The reality of death forces us to confront the conclusion to each possibility.

We are all going to die and it forces us to be on the side of belief or unbelief.  If I say “I’m not sure if I believe,” but I die in that state, then I die in unbelief.

To borrow and analogy from Peter Kreeft, Romeo asks Juliet to marry him and she says “I don’t know; come back tomorrow.” He returns every day for 99 years asking the same question and getting the same answer.  Then Romeo dies. By not choosing, Juliet chooses NOT to marry Romeo.

Not choosing belief that God exists is choosing NOT to believe at the time of death.

6. Therefore, there are 4 possible final outcomes

  • in possibility a. I will be rewarded with heaven when I die
  • in possibility b. I will be punished with hell when I die
  • in possibility c. I will never know that I am wrong.

If the atheist is correct, then there is nothing after we die.  We will be like computers that have been shut off.

Think about the end of Terminator 2 (spoiler alter).  The Schwarzenegger robot is lowered into molten steel and melted.  As it is destroyed, we see its point of view.

Its display screen flickers and then shuts off.  He doesn’t go to Terminator heaven. He ceases to exist.

If I die in this state, when I step over the threshold of death, I will not know that I am wrong because I will not be there to be disappointed because I will cease to exist.

  • in possibility d. I will never know that I am right.  I won’t feel any vindication because I will have ceased existing.  I won’t be there.

7. So Pascal concludes

After a simple cost-benefit analysis, if you cannot know the truth of God’s existence, it is better to believe than not believe.  Because

  • if I believe that God exists, I have everything to gain (heaven) and nothing to lose (non-existence)
  • if I believe that God does not exist, I have nothing to gain (non-existence) and everything to lose (hell)

When I present this to my students, they tell me that it makes sense.

But they are uneasy.  When I press them, it is difficult for them to articulate why they are uneasy.

I ask them if Pascal’s Wager is the basis for the faith of the saints.  They all say no.

So what is the difference?  What’s missing?  Why isn’t Pascal’s Wager enough?

“Because you’re believe for the wrong reasons,” someone says.

“But is it wrong to want to go to heaven?” I ask.

“No,” they respond.

I then use this analogy to the ladies in the room:

You are 23 years old and have been dating a handsome, kind, rich man for three years.

He asks you to marry him.

You ask why he wants to marry you.

He says, “Well, I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis of what my life would be like with you and without you and I found that I would have an aggregate higher level of happiness and lower level of sadness with you rather than without you.  Will you be my wife?”

I ask the girls if this answer is problematic.  They say yes (I don’t use this analogies with the guys, because the response is usually, “You said she’s hot, right?  I’m cool with it.”).

They tell me something is missing.  What is it?  Love!

And that is what is missing from Pascal’s Wager.

It lacks the element of love and relationship.  This is the basis of the faith of the saints.

Mother Teresa did not do a cost benefit-analysis to find God.  Fr. Larry Richards once told a story that he heard Mother Teresa tell.  Someone in the crowd heckled her and told her that he no respect for her because she was doing everything for a God who doesn’t exist.

Rather than give the man something like Pascal’s Wager, she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  But my Jesus loves you.  And He wants you to know it.”

John 3: 16 says “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”  Christ does not say “whoever believes that God exists” but “whoever believes IN Him.”

If your friend asks if you believe in him or her, you can say yes.  But if a random stranger walks up to you at a bus stop and asks if you believe in him, you cannot say yes.  You cannot believe IN someone unless you enter into a relationship.

So is Pascal’s Wager wrong or bad?

Many people dismiss the wager as too much of a cold calculation.  Actually Pascal was much wiser than this.

The wager is, to my mind, a giant practical joke.  I do not mean that it is wrong or mean.  But Pascal offers someone without faith a pragmatic reason to at least live as if they had faith.

What Pascal understands about human nature is that how we act changes who we are.

As Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  In other words, what we do defines us.

If we live as though we have faith, eventually we find we have faith.  If we live as though we love someone, eventually we find that we do, in fact, love them.

Pascal doesn’t prove God’s existence in the same way that Thomas Aquinas did. But what he does is open an invitation to the leery unbeliever to dip their toe in the waters of faith.  And Pascal is convinced that once they swim in those waters they will be so warm and inviting that he wagers that the unbeliever will fully embrace His love.

Copyright © 2012, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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