I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life. — Deuteronomy 30:19
Imagine a conversation between a Christian and an atheist. The Christian begins by asking, “Do you believe in God?”
The Atheist replies, “I don’t believe there is a god.”
The Christian says, “But, what if you are wrong? If you are wrong, you will spend all of eternity burning in hell. But, if there is a God and you choose to follow him, then you will spend all of eternity in heaven enjoying yourself forever. Are you willing to take a risk on being wrong?”
The atheist shrugs and says, “Yeah, I am willing to take the risk because if I become a Christian, I would have to stop drinking, and smoking, and having sex with my girlfriend. I think today’s pleasure outweighs a potential of infinite pleasure in eternity. Besides, if there is a hell, all my friends are going to hell and I want to party with them!”
“Are you a gambling man?” The Christian replies. “Wouldn’t you rather bet on Jesus and increase your chances of winning?”
The atheist says, “I don’t believe in god and I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I’m not going to lose out on having fun here on earth on the off chance that there is a god.”
The Christian replies, “Do you believe in gravity? It is there whether you believe or not. Even if you say you don’t believe in gravity, you will still fall if you jump off a building.”
“The existence of gravity can be empirically verified,” explains the atheist, “I just don’t see any evidence that god is real.”
“So, you are willing to risk an eternity of pain in hell if you are wrong?” asks the Christian.
“I just don’t see the need to purchase fire insurance for a fire that is probably not real,” shrugs the atheist.
The Christian has the final word, “I would rather have insurance and not need it than need it and not have it.”
The above conversation, which I actually had, lays out a dilemma that is known as Pascal’s Wager.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was an intellectual giant and his inquisitive mind delved into many different disciplines. He was a brilliant scientist, mathematician, inventor, and philosopher. He developed mathematical theorems on geometry and probability theory that are still used today by economists and social scientists and he invented a mechanical calculator. He studied the properties of vacuums and is known for his logic and reasoning. Yet, despite his brilliance, Pascal’s life was not an easy one. His mother died when he was three years old and he was sick for most of his adult life. He also had a gambling problem.
At the age of thirty-one, Pascal had a supernatural conversion experience. On November 23, 1654, he was reading John’s Gospel, chapter 17, and while he was doing so he had an encounter with the living God. He wrote an account of how he got saved on a piece of paper and had the paper sown into the lining of his coat so that he would always remember the event. This is what he wrote:
From about half past ten at night to about half an hour after midnight,
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” not of philosophers and scholars
Certitude, heartfelt joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
The world forgotten, everything except God.
“O righteous Father, the world has not known You, but I have known You” (John 17:25)
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
After his salvation experience, Pascal wrote his Pensées, a series of thoughts about God and philosophy that were gathered up and published after his death. In this work, Pascal proposed the idea that is known as “Pascal’s Wager.”
Because of his gambling days and his work on probability theory, Pascal was deeply interested in making bets. In the wager, he bets that it makes more sense to be a Christian than it does to be an atheist. This is what he wrote:
Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not” But to which side shall we incline?[…] A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? […]Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional […] Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager them without hesitation that He is. “That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.”—Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.
Admittedly, Pascal’s language is a little difficult to process—it is the language of a philosopher and of probability. More simply, the elements of his bet are as follows:
Premise A: God may or may not be real.
Premise B: If God is real and the Bible is true, then I risk an eternity of life and happiness if I do not serve Him. (More than that I also risk an eternity of infinite misery in hell.)
Premise C: If God is not real and I live as if He is, I only lose a finite amount of happiness here on this earth.
Conclusion: Therefore, since the infinities of heaven and happiness and of hell and torment outweigh the finiteness of life on earth, I will wager there is a God, and live my life accordingly.
Let’s consider the four possibilities the wager allows for:
Bet 1. If there is a God, and you choose to follow Him, then you will maximize your chance of receiving eternal life, you will make God happy, you will benefit from answered prayers, you will feel God’s love in this life, you will be rewarded in the next, and you will be able to help others find salvation.
Bet 2. If there is no God, and you choose to live as if there is a God, then you still get all the benefits of religion, including an ethical system that produces life satisfaction and happiness, and the satisfaction of belonging to a group. However, you do lose the time spent sitting in church and various types of pleasure, and do not live as free as you could have.
Bet 3. If there is no God, and you chose to live as if there is no God, then you will not waste time in useless religious ceremonies, you will control your life, and you get to do activities that the church thinks are sinful with no eternal consequences. In other words, you can drink alcohol, use cuss words, and have sex with whomever you choose and not incur any eternal consequences.
Bet 4. If there is a God, and you choose to live as if there is not a God, then you lose the opportunity to live in heaven for eternity, you make God sad, you fail to live up to the ideals of your Creator, you miss out on the benefits of answered prayer, you miss out on God’s love, you will regret how you spent your life here on earth, and you will never find meaning in your life because you are searching in the wrong places.
Four possible outcomes, but only two choices–either believe God exists or do not believe God exists. Thus, if (1) you choose to believe in God and God does in fact exist, you gain infinitely. If (2) you choose to believe in God and He does not exist, your gains and losses are even. If (3) you choose to believe God does not exist and He does not exist, again, your gains and losses are even. If (4) you choose not to believe in God, and God does exist, you lose everything. Based on these alternatives, according to Pascal, it would be foolish for you not to believe in God.
Pascal’s bet makes a lot of sense to me. A Christian singer, Marcos Witt, told a secular news anchor, “I choose to bet my life on God’s existence. You can bet your life on anything you want to, but I’m betting that God is real, the Bible is true, and there is life after death.” Betting on God is the only rational way to bet. Christian Hip Hop artist, Lecrae, observed, “If I’m wrong about God, I wasted my life. If you are wrong about God, you wasted your eternity.”
Problems with Pascal’s Wager.
Some flaws with Pascal’s wager have been proposed:
1. The Christian God and eternity are not the only options. Pascal’s Wager works equally well when applied to Mormonism, Islam or any other theistic faith. This introduces the problem of which religion should one make a bet on? In examining this problem, Michael Rota concludes, “Practice the religion that seems to you, on careful examination and reflection, most likely to be true.” When Christianity is held up against every other religion, it emerges as the most likely to be true.
2. Belief in God could be faked. It has been proposed that Pascal’s Wager leaves open the idea that God can be fooled by pretend belief. The solution to this flaw is that God is all-knowing, and therefore He knows if you believe with sincerity or not. However, Christian faith is not merely intellectual, but it practically changes how a person lives. Believing in Jesus includes the choice to love, be kind, be generous, have patience, extend forgiveness, be repentant and much more. To fake belief in God would mean doing all these things, but somehow being fake about them too. Such an experiment would be exhausting to fake believers.
Daring to believe
One of my atheist friends asked me, “How do I choose to believe if I do not believe? The reason I do not believe is not because I don’t want to believe, it is because I can’t believe.” I answered him by saying, “If you feel you cannot believe, ask the God you do not believe in to give you the faith to believe. If you ask, I am confident He will reveal Himself to you.”
Jesus once said to a man, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The man responded, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). This man acknowledged that at the same time that he believed, he was also struggling with unbelief. Doubt and problems with belief are not insurmountable problems to God. The key is to not allow your lack of belief or faith to keep you from going to God. There is a proverb that says “Lean not on your own understanding: In all your ways, acknowledge [God], and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). This means that when we are struggling with unbelief, we have two choices: we can trust our doubts, or we can take that unbelief to God—acknowledging it to Him. If we choose to trust in our unbelief, we will never start believing. But if we take our unbelief to God, He can show us the way to Him.
If you have doubts, or are having difficulty believing, God is on your side. He is not against those who do not believe. As it says in John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” The only question that remains is: Will you DARE?
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About the Author: Dr. Daniel King is a missionary evangelist who has traveled to over seventy nations in his quest for souls. His goal is to lead 1,000,000 people to Jesus every year through massive Gospel Festivals, distribution of literature, and leadership training. Because of his experience and research on evangelism, he is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in mass evangelism. As an evangelist, he has a deep interest in using apologetics to convince skeptics that God is real.