Question of the Week

Question of the Week: Wagering much?

pw-jjEach Week on Saturday, I’ll be asking a “Question of the Week.” I’d love your input and discussion! Ask a good question in the comments and it may show up as the next week’s question! I may answer the questions in the comments myself.

Wagering much?

Okay, the title may be a little deceptive. I’m talking about Pascal’s Wager! I recently finished Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God by Jeff Jordan (and loved it- posts coming… eventually). That got me thinking quite a bit on Pascal’s Wager, of course! It also made me wonder why I haven’t really heard much about it in apologetic circles. Thus, the question:

What do you think of Pascal’s Wager as an argument for Christian theism (or bare theism)? Why? How much have you studied it?

I am, of course, a bit biased having just read a book I thought was phenomenal arguing that the argument is sound. Let’s hear what you have to think in the comments! I might chime in as well!


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


18 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Wagering much?

  1. I did a Pascal’s Wager post a few days ago and one of the comments I got raised and interesting question.

    I should add that I like Pascal’s Wager and think it’s a good and thoughtful quesrion.

    Anyway, the non-believer said that “if God knew me, loved ne, and wanted me to believe, He would use better evidence instead of just asking me to roll the dice.”

    The non-believer fuether asserted that, since God didn’t give evidence that was good enough, God somehow failed.

    I’m sure you will easily be able o tell, as I was, the many ways the non-believer misunderstands the nature and character of God, I thought it was an interesting response to the wager and wad wondering if it’s more common than I think.

    I have had people say they would “roll the dice” and assume there is no God but I don’t oftern run accross people who try to make their lack of belief God’s problem.

    Posted by I 53:5 Project | July 5, 2014, 7:39 AM
    • Thanks for the comment. I think the “roll the dice” argument is not necessarily a good one because it assumes that God must reveals Himself to people, when in fact God might have a reason for divine hiddenness instead being the case. Jordan argues to this end at length in the book, but I’ve also outlined some of this same concept in discussing the work of Paul Moser (I wrote this post over 4 years ago, so be aware that I would like to revise it or write a new one at some point in the future).

      Again, regarding the “God didn’t give evidence good enough”–this argument presumes much, because the objector has assumed that God would have no reason for perhaps not making it obvious that God exists.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 5, 2014, 4:56 PM
  2. Sorry for the typos in that last comment, I’m on a phone.

    Posted by I 53:5 Project | July 5, 2014, 7:40 AM
  3. As a non-believer, let me try to offer my honest opinion in a polite way. Pascal’s wager may be appealing to believers, but I find it flawed in several ways and may serve to put off non-believers.

    1. Which God? The problem is the wager can be applied to any number of Gods, because it doesn’t specify which God is the true one. In essence to follow one God, you will exclude all the rest. If the other God was the true one wont you end up in eternal damnation anyway?

    2. Even if we found out the correct God to follow, the most logical stance would be to live my life as if there was NO God and only convert to a believing Christian on my deathbed. That way I wont suffer either finite loss on Earth or infinite loss in Hell. There’s always a chance, however small, I might die suddenly, but a moment of conscious knowing is all I need………

    3. (This is my real problem with Pascals wager) It incentivizes people to convert to Christianity out of raw fear, rather than love of Jesus Christ. A God that rules His follower’s heart by fear of damnation rather than love of salvation is NOT a benevolent, loving God, imho. Are we even saved by this way?

    Just my 2 cents. Let me know what you think.

    Posted by Daren H | July 5, 2014, 7:57 AM
    • Thanks for your insightful comment. I’ll respond briefly (I have a post on the argument coming up in the not-too-distant future).

      1. This is perhaps the most frequently raised objection, but Jordan argues (and I would concur) that the expected utility of the wager in the positive is still greater than wagering in the negative, because a negative wager is guaranteed lack of gain. It’s much more complex than that, of course, but I’ll leave it there for now.

      2. Your point here seems to assume doxastic voluntarism–the notion that we may change our beliefs. I think that view is false. For example, I cannot simply–by willing it–decide to believe that automobiles are alive. Of course this is an objection to the wager as well (“I cannot simply choose to believe in God at will”), but it is also dealt with by Jordan and even by Pascal. Briefly, they would say that if you align yourself to start to do the things which believers would do, it may actually have an impact on your belief and lead you to ever-greater openness. Again, there’s much more to this.

      3. Pascal’s Wager is in fact not based on the threat of hell but is rather based upon gain. As Jordan pointed out, Pascal never formulated it as a way to avoid hell; rather, as a way to gain heaven. In that light, it is a benevolent argument which calls believers to seek the blessings of God.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 5, 2014, 5:01 PM
      • “expected utility of the wager in the positive is still greater than wagering in the negative”

        How do you know this? Do you know how many other gods there could exist and what are their rewards or punishments for (not) believing in them or believing in other gods?

        Only way you I can see how one could assert what you just did is if that person has knowledge of what sort of things other gods could do according to if people believe in them, don’t believe in them or believe in gods that don’t exist. Unless you have that knowledge I can’t see how you can make such an assertion.

        “because a negative wager is guaranteed lack of gain”

        Only if gods absolutely demand worship. If they settle with people just living decent lives following the golden rule there should be zero negative effects for not picking a god to follow. If gods do punish for non-worship even if someone lives by golden rule then that god is an evil tyrant not worthy of worship. Only reason to worship a god like that would be out of fear.

        If you intend to claim that people absolutely need to believe in a god to get to heaven you open up the question of what happens with people (and other animals?) that lack the capability of even comprehending what god *is”. Namely young children or people with severe mental issues. Are they doomed to not get to heaven by default?

        “Pascal’s Wager is in fact not based on the threat of hell but is rather based upon gain”

        I can’t see the difference, really. Let’s assume that eternal life in Christian heaven isn’t one of the worst punishments imaginable and comparable to death. Let’s assume it’s the greatest place ever as believers keep asserting for some reason. Assuming all that, isn’t forbidding people from getting there in afterlife a threat in itself? I really can’t see the difference and would love to see a better explanation on it.

        Posted by Kalle Last | July 6, 2014, 7:51 AM
      • Thanks for the comment. We are now straying a bit from the start of this chain of thought so I’m going to concentrate on the issues we began with.

        Regarding other gods, I of course am glossing, as I have admitted before. These are complex issues and trying to solve them at paragraph-length is impossible. So the argument I’m trying to make is that overall the expected utility is higher on belief than on unbelief. Again, this is not an appeal to a particular religious tradition as being correct; it is rather saying that suppose 1 is correct, if you “wager” on any of the possibilities, your expected utility is higher than if you choose to not wager at all (or wager against). Again, I am vastly simplifying, and I think the argument works for Christianity specifically, I’m just focusing on a single issue in brief. Let me be clear on that.

        Your argument about gods demanding worship is off-point because it is discussing “belief in” rather than “worship of”–belief as trust, of course. But that’s outside of what we started so I’m going to set this aside for now.

        My comment about Pascal’s wager being based upon gain is that this is how Pascal himself formulated it. Your argument seems to simply be “Look, I can see the glass half empty instead!” Well, perhaps you may see it that way, but that hardly brings into dispute the fact that the argument is based on a “half full” rendering.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 7, 2014, 11:07 AM
  4. I don’t think apologists use it because they see the inherent weakness in it. What sort of a God is it that will “save” people just because they believe in him, as an insurance policy etc..Even the Devil believes in God. If anything it just shows even very intelligent people can come up with weak ideas. That’s why apologists don’t use it.

    Posted by Steve | July 5, 2014, 8:50 AM
  5. Utterly terrible. Revelation 21:8 lists “cowardice” first and “faithlessness” second for what qualifies you for a nice long stay in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. Cowardice because it prevents conquering (one who conquers), faith because if you aren’t expending your conquering strength consistently in one direction, you are not seeking after God. Who’s going to fight to the death, or fight through martyrdom, over a wager? Does one wager and then deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus? Maybe there’s a way that this works, but based on my understanding of human psychology, it’s utterly ridiculous. “Even the demons believe that God is one, and tremble.”

    Posted by labreuer | July 5, 2014, 9:41 AM
  6. I like Pascal’s Wager. I have not used it in many years, but when I did my challenge to the person was to ask God for faith. It was an easy argument, because of Romans 12:3… “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Granted, this was a statement made to Messianic Jews whose faith was being “reported all over the world” (Rom. 1:8), but if all who are saved have had their measure of faith given to them by God, then everyone who ever will be saved will at some point be given a measure of faith by God as well. So my form of the challenge to the unsaved is to pray for that measure of faith.

    What I noticed when using the wager was that for quite a while, not a single person took me up on it. They were completely convinced that no one would hear them, so there would not be any point in asking, because they would be asking nobody. It felt foolish, and they said it required faith to even say the prayer. So they didn’t ask… but notice that the wager did not fail; they simply talked themselves out of it.

    I have one exception to this. An agnostic/atheistic friend took me up on the wager on the stipulation that I not dictate what constitutes a prayer. I agreed. I never asked him what happened, but I am convinced he did it, and that God answered it. Now, is he Christian today? No, interestingly, he is not. But, he believes in God now, which is all the wager is about. Being Jewish by birth, he now attends temple, and takes up good causes for people because he has a good heart. Should he ever come to know Jesus personally, he won’t have to change much. Something indeed happened.

    Now this brings me Daren’s questions above. First off, which God did my friend pray? I like how C.S. Lewis handles this one in The Last Battle: To use Lewis’ metaphor, I would say that my friend did not know whether he prayed to Tash or Aslan, but it did not matter, because what he did was with a heart that could not be accepted by Tash, and was exactly the kind of heart sought by Aslan.

    Question 2: Why not then to convert until one’s deathbed? A person who takes this approach is basically not taking the chance that God exists. They are in reality turning the wager down. In fact, it is an excellent example of James 2:14-17, which tells us that faith without works is dead. In context, I take this this to be describing someone who has realized enough about God to be held accountable for their decision to reject His transformation of their heart. Such a decision would manifest in their works, and Jesus tells us we will know them by their fruit. Indeed we will.

    And this brings me to Daren’s question 3. I have no problem with someone seeking God out of fear. If they are sincerely searching for Him, then when they find Him, the reason for their search will not matter. I was once motivated in my search by fear… today I am motivated by Christ’s love within me. Surely, a fear-based search is not what God wants, but what Satan would use as a wedge to keep people from even engaging in the wager (as I have some many do), God will use that fear for good… and eventually remove it.

    I see Pascal’s wager as an effective way of separating the wheat from the chaff, and I believe we all engage in our own version of the wager, whether we call it that or not.

    Posted by Mike | July 5, 2014, 11:37 AM
  7. Before I look at any comments, I’ll very briefly say why Pascal’s Wager seemed deficient to me the first time I heard it, and still does to some extent. It seems to me that one cannot make a belief into a wager. In other words, since it is faith or belief in Christ that saves the Christian it seems that one cannot make a total life (heart, mind, soul) commitment, which true faith requires, while having it still qualifying as a wager. It’s sort of like faking a commitment in order to not lose a potential reward (albeit eternal life is more than just a reward!). That might appear a bit confused, but it just seems that the reasons behind the type of faith that goes into a gambling paradigm like the wager is not real faith.

    And secondly, it seems that the wager is not based on warranted true belief. It is based on a high stakes potential gamble. It is not based on following the best fit for all of the evidence, wherever that may lead. It is going for the best bet that has the highest yield. That type of gamble could well apply to other world-views or faiths, such as Islam or Mormonism (OK, maybe not Mormonism).

    So those are two reasons that I have struggled with the Wager. Other lesser reasons also come to mind, but I’ll stop with these.

    Posted by williamfrancisbrown | July 5, 2014, 2:41 PM
  8. The Wager, if memory serves -and it could be totally wrong – was offered at the end of an exensive dialogue between Pascal and an unbelieving friend. It was not intended as a stand-alone argument but as a final appeal to someone who has heard the various arguments for Christianity, sees the merit of them, but for some reason just cannot seem to cross that bridge and is hesitating, suspending judgment either out of hope that a rebuttal to those arguments will be forthcoming or because of any host of emotional reasons. It is an appeal meant to draw someone over the hump, so to speak. At least that is how I see it even if that was not in fact the historical basis for why Pacal formulated it. I know it is the way it has aided me personally.

    Posted by Jim | July 7, 2014, 8:29 PM
  9. Pascal’s wager kept me tethered to the idea of God before I knew the wager had a name. As a teenager I basically said “well, if I believe in God and I’m wrong then I end up with exactly what I get if I believe there is no God and I’m right.”

    Obviously this is an incredibly shallow level of faith and insufficient to really do anything with other than prevent one from becoming an atheistic evangelist (an incredibly stupid thing to do imo).

    I think the best way to use Pascal’s Wager with young people is help them see the logic focusing first on reading and learning everything they can about the evidence for Christianity.

    Use it as a logical way in how to spend one’s time investigating God. In other words, one can spend time reading Apologetics / Evidentialist / Defending the Faith material or one can spend time reading New Atheist / Naturalist material. Pascal’s wager makes focusing efforts first on the ‘for God’ side of the argument the logical choice….and then once that side has been fully researched and developed comparing it to the ‘No God’ side of the argument.

    The evidence ‘For God’ and Christianity is tremendous for anyone who takes the time to do the research. It is a circumstantial case with many different lines of evidence pointing to God the Creator being the most logical answer to all the evidence and Jesus Christ being exactly who the Bible says He is.

    Easy book to start with would be Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.

    Posted by Andrew | July 7, 2014, 9:56 PM


  1. Pingback: Pascal’s Wager: The Utility Argument Explained | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - July 28, 2014

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