Monday, May 26, 2014

You Literally Bet Your Life: Thoughts on Pascal's Wager


Pascal's Wager is an oft maligned tool for seeking truth about God, recognizing that there are limits to what human reason alone can do. Basically, the Wager runs as follows:

Every person on the basis of how he or she lives their life is gambling on one of two propositions:

  • God Exists.
  • God doesn't Exist.

There are no third options like "choosing not to choose." One either lives as if they think God exists or they think God does not exist, even if they try to be agnostic about His existence.

Since you can't not bet, in what way should you bet?

Understanding The Significance of the Wager and the Stakes

Dr. Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli's book A Handbook of Catholic Apologetics created a good diagram (which I reproduce with less talent) for the four options:

pascals wager 1

Vertical Lines are if our Wager is True. Diagonal Lines are if our Wager is false

The breakdown would be as follows:

  • If the wager "God exists" is true then the right response is "We believe in Him." The wrong response is "We don't believe in Him."
  • If the wager "God doesn't exist" is true then the right response is "We don't believe in Him" and the wrong response is "We believe in Him"
  • Belief of course must be understood in light of James 2:19-20, rooted in faith and not in the concept of acknowledging His existence:

      Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?

      New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jas 2:18–20.

Now picking the right response ("God exists, therefore I believe in Him" or "God does not exist, therefore I do not believe in Him") means you win the wager. Picking the wrong response means you lose the wager. But, what you win and lose on the wager is not equal. It can be broken down as follows:

pascals wager 2

The Wager Has Unequal Payoffs For Winning and Unequal Penalties for Losing

Let's break it down:

  • If your wager was that God exists and act appropriately, and the wager was the right one, you win everything promised for that faith.
  • If your wager was that God exists and act appropriately, and the wager was the wrong one, you lose nothing. You might have lost out on some cheap pleasures during life, but none of it matters once you're dead.
  • If your wager was that God does not exist and act appropriately, and the wager was the right one, you don't win anything of worth. Whether you choose to wallow in physical pleasures or live selflessly, none of that matters once you're dead. The Deadbeat Drug User who fathered countless children on different women gets the same fate as the Nobel Prize winning Doctor who seeks to cure disease.
  • If your wager was that God does not exist and act appropriately, and the wager was the wrong one, you've lost everything promised for the faith in God and the things you chose to do acting on that wager will be revealed as worthless compared to what you lose.

So Pascal's Wager shows that, win or lose, betting on "God doesn't exist" is a really bad bet, whether the person who makes it does things that help people or not. The correct way to "bet" is to bet on God existing and living in accordance with that belief.

Understanding the Meaning of The Wager

Unfortunately, this sometimes gets misrepresented as "Fake it until you make it," and going through the motions and hope some kind of God shows up. And because of this, Pascal's Wager gets a lot of scorn. But that's not the point of the Wager. It can't (and shouldn't even if it could) compel someone to believe in God. The Wager on its own can't show whether the true Religion is Christianity, Islam or Judaism.

What it does tell you is what side of the Existence vs. non-existence debate over God a person should be investigating when searching for truth. If God doesn't exist, then trying to investigate arguments supporting atheism are a waste of time. If He does exist, then investigating arguments supporting atheism are a dangerous road in the wrong direction.

Wagering on God's existence also means you have more resources than your own finite intellect. Since you've decided that God existing is the more reasonable approach, you have the avenue of prayer open to you. You're not just stumbling along looking for clues in a whiteout blizzard. You're waving your lights around signaling for help as you search.

If the atheist scoffs at this point and says, "Well what if you pray and no help comes because God doesn't exist?"  Well, the answer is actually simple. "In the worst case, I'm in no worse shape for looking than you are for not looking. In the best case, I'm better off for looking than you are for not looking."

But God won't leave the honest searcher lost. His rescue will come at His time, not your convenience, but it will come. The important thing is to search out the truth. Unfortunately there are many religions claiming to be true. So you will have to investigate the truth of their claims.


As always, I share my faith that the Catholic Church is the Church God intended and established by His Son Jesus Christ. If I did not believe it I would not say it. However, I also know that an ipse dixit from me isn't going to cut it. So I urge you to remember that truth is to say of what is, that it is and to say of what is not, that it is not.

All too often, people make claims against the Catholic Church that do not meet the requirement of truth, and one who is incautious can be led away from truth by false claims made by those who oppose the Church and repeat old falsehoods that were never questioned.

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