Pascal's misleading wager

Faith & Inspiration | Simply betting on God’s existence does not give us saving faith
by John Piper
Posted 5/21/16, 07:59 am

Desiring God founder and teacher John Piper needs no introduction, but maybe this section of his new book, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Crossway, 2016), does—because it concerns Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, suggested that unbelievers should hope to come to belief in God: If they bet that God does not exist and were wrong, they would have eternal loss, but if they bet that God does exist and found themselves wrong, they would suffer little loss.

People have long thought about that notion, and whether it applies today when religions throw before us different concepts of God: If we were to bet, which would we bet on?

Piper, who is also chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minn., succinctly points out some strengths and weaknesses of the Pascal approach, concluding that our goal should be to enter “through the door of Christ, irresistibly drawn by the convincing and compelling foretaste of the enthralling beauty of God in the gospel.” —Marvin Olasky

Pondering Pascal’s Wager

I am moved by the concern that a complex historical argument for the truth of the Bible is out of reach for most people in the world. Most people don’t have the tools or the time to work out such an argument. Not only that, but such arguments yield only probable results and leave a person with the sense that his confidence in the Bible is only as firm as his grasp of the present state of historical studies. My concern, therefore, has been to find a way to have a well-grounded confidence in the truth of the Bible based on evidence that a person can see, even if he has no historical training and little time to devote to rigorous study.

How Do I Have Confidence in My Wife?

One way to think about this approach is to compare it to the confidence I have that my wife is faithful to me—that she is not having an affair with another man. How can I have a well-grounded confidence that she is faithful? One approach would be to hire a private detective and assign him to do the necessary surveillance to prove she is not having a secret rendezvous. But that approach leaves me worried that the private detective may not be thorough. Maybe he missed something. Maybe she suspects he is there and has found a way to send him on a wild-goose chase while she carries on her affair. This approach is going to leave me worried and unconvinced.

The only way to have the kind of well-grounded confidence in my wife that leaves me with complete peace of mind is to base it on a direct awareness of the kind of person she is. Over time I come to know her very deeply. I see the profound marks of integrity and holiness and the fear of God and devotion to Christ and to me. These are realities that no private detective can prove to me. I know them firsthand. I cannot quantify them. If I could, they would lose their force, because then I would always be wondering if I need a little more “quantity” to establish her character. It’s not like that. It is more immediate. More intuitive. But not merely subjective. It is based on countless hours and experiences together. This way of knowing the faithfulness of my wife produces a well-grounded confidence that I would stake my life on. I sleep peacefully without fretting.

If this is possible in the case of a wife who is merely human and is imperfect and sinful, how much more is it possible to know in a direct way the truth and faithfulness of God’s word, as the divine glory of his character appears through the Scriptures he inspired. In this chapter, I want to pursue this way of knowing the truth of Scripture by relating it to Pascal’s Wager. The reason I think this will shed more light on how we gain a well-grounded confidence in Scripture is that the inadequacy of Pascal’s Wager sends us to the Scriptures themselves with insights that deepen and strengthen our understanding of how we know the Bible is true.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal was a French mathematician and philosopher who died in 1662. His most famous work is Pensées (which means Thoughts). In thought 233, he proposed his wager, which has to do with how you decide whether to believe in God or not. In its popular form, it is, I think, quite misleading. That is why I deal with it here. In showing how it is misleading, we shed light on the process of coming to well-grounded belief in God and his word, not belief based on a venture.

The gist of the wager is that venturing to believe in God involves little risk and great possible gain. Or to put it another way: betting that God does not exist and finding yourself wrong results in eternal loss. But betting that God does exist and finding yourself wrong results in little loss. So venture on God. In Pascal’s own words, the wager goes like this:

God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. … 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 defend neither of the propositions. …

You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? … Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. … But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. …

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. … There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss. … 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 so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite at stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain. This is demonstrable; and if men are capable of any truths, this is one. (Pensées, 233)

The Wager as Simple and Misleading

Here is where the popular (and misleading) understanding of Pascal’s Wager ends. Why is it misleading?

It is misleading because it gives the impression that saving faith in God is a choice we make without seeing God as true and compellingly beautiful. The wager says, “You do not know if God is really there. God himself is not a reality to you. He is a possibility. When you look at nature, or at the gospel story of Christ crucified and risen, you do not see a divine glory that is convincing and beautiful to you.” Nevertheless, the wager says, “You must choose.” And it says, “Choose him. But when you do, the choice you make is not owing to a sight of glory that convinces and enthralls.”

But according to the Scriptures, such a choice is of no eternal value. It is not saving faith. It is a purely natural thing, not a supernatural thing. We are drawn to something that we do not know. We are hoping for an eternal extension and improvement of the happiness we have here in the things of this world (since we do not know God). But saving faith is not like that. It is rooted in the sight and foretaste of happiness in supernatural reality—God himself. According to the Scriptures, living faith is created in the dead soul by the miracle of new birth. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). That’s how faith happens.

Without this new birth, we are merely flesh—merely human, merely natural. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). And the mind of the flesh cannot submit to God (Rom. 8:7); it cannot please God (Rom. 8:8); and it cannot see the things of God as anything but folly (1 Cor. 2:14). “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

In order, therefore, for saving faith to come into being, God must grant repentance. “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). That is, he must make the spiritually dead come to life. “When we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). This new birth, “through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23), gives the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

This supernaturally given, spiritual sight of the glory of God in Christ is the ground of saving faith. God is seen with the eyes of the heart as truly as the eyes of our head see the sun in the sky. And this sight of the glory of God in Christ compels us. It is no more resistible than the enjoyment of your favorite food is resistible when it is in your mouth. And so it is when God becomes your favorite, by the opening of your eyes to see his convincing and enthralling beauty. To see him as supreme in beauty is to desire him above all.

Therefore, the popular and simple view of Pascal’s Wager is misleading. It gives the impression that you might actually have an eternal happiness in God by simply choosing to believe he exists, when you have neither tasted nor seen his convincing and enthralling glory. But according to the Scriptures, that is not saving faith. Groundless faith does not display the trustworthiness of the one trusted. The “faith” of the wager does not embrace God as true or beautiful. God is an unknown risk. But that is no honor to God and, therefore, is no saving faith, because saving faith glorifies the reliability of God to keep his promises (Rom. 4:20). The only faith of eternal value is well-grounded faith. But Pascal’s Wager, in its popular form, gives the impression that one can have eternal life on a venture.

The Wager as Complex and Challenging

But, in fact, Pascal was aware of this problem with his wager, though most popular uses of the wager do not take note of this. To be fair to him, we need to make this clear. He pictures his listener responding to the wager,

“I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?”—Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. “Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?” (emphasis added)

Pascal answers,

True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured.

It is not easy to know from the brevity of Pensées precisely how Pascal conceives of this “cure” for unbelief. His basic answer is: Set out on the road of faith as if you believed, and you will soon have eyes to see the certainty of it all.

I will tell you that … at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

I would like to think that Pascal means: Pursue the miracle of new birth by immersing yourself in the word of God through which the miracle of sight and certainty comes (1 Pet. 1:23). But I am afraid that is not what he means. His Roman Catholic sacramentalism laid out a different path. He counsels the seeker: Follow those who have acted “as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe.”

I think that is not good counsel. But the wager, in its true complexity, is a wise and sobering challenge. The challenge is not to seek faith through holy water and masses. The challenge is to realize that infinite things are at stake. Saving faith is essential, and it is not a wager. Rather, it is an entering through the door of Christ, irresistibly drawn by the convincing and compelling foretaste of the enthralling beauty of God in the gospel.

Pascal’s Wager applies not only to faith in God but also to faith in the word of God. Venturing on the Bible, with no good ground for doing so, is no honor to the Scriptures. God’s word is not esteemed if one believes it by the toss of a coin. Indeed, such “belief,” as we have seen, would not be a belief of any value. It would be like a man’s choosing which of two women to marry by tossing a coin. The chosen one would know she was not chosen because of any good reasons. The faith in God’s word that honors God has foundations. We have seen its divine glory. We have seen “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” And we cannot turn away to another. In this way, Christ and his word are honored.

Unnamable Experiences and Serious Doubts

However, this does not mean that there are no doubts along the way. Nor does it mean that the conscious experiences of all who embrace the Bible as God’s word are the same. One may come to a well-grounded confidence in God’s word and never have even heard the term “glory of God.” One may never have heard of terms such as “self-authenticating” or “internal testimony” or “compelling and irresistible evidence” or the like. The experience of seeing God’s self-attesting reality in Scripture is vastly different from being able to explain that experience. They are not the same.

Millions of people have come to a well-grounded confidence in the Bible and have not been able to find sufficient words to describe that experience. I do not even claim that the words I am using here are sufficient to do it justice. So let it be clear: the miracle of seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” through the Scriptures can happen to a person who never will be able to explain sufficiently why he trusts the Bible. His trust may be well-grounded without his knowing how it is. 

Content taken from A Peculiar Glory by John Piper, © 2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

John Piper

John is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary.

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