The House Always Wins

October 3, 2008

Christians often gain a false sense of security from a line of reasoning known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In short, it is an argument for belief based on possible consequences: If Christianity is false, you don’t lose anything for believing it; but if it is true, the reward for belief is immeasurable and the cost is similarly expensive. So, the argument goes, why not believe since a cost-benefit analysis clearly favors Christian faith? Thus, Pascal’s Wager is an often cited motivation for belief in Christianity.

I found this convincing—or more precisely, reassuring—in earlier days while I was a Christian. It seemed obvious that I could gain so much and risk nothing. It wasn’t until I began to consider the issue from the outside that I started to see the problems here.

Pascal’s Wager presents a false dichotomy. His options are:

(BELIEF)  Risk nothing in this life (cost); Gain everything in the next life (benefit).

(NON-BELIEF)  Risk everything in the next life (cost); Gain nothing in this life you wouldn’t have otherwise (benefit).

Each of these statements includes a cost and a benefit (or lack thereof).

For (BELIEF): cost = 0; benefit = ∞.

For (NON-BELIEF): cost = ∞; benefit = 0.

I would challenge the “cost” portion of (BELIEF) first on the assumption that there is nothing risked. Life as a Christian makes large demands on one’s life! Luke 14:26 has from Jesus’s mouth that a Christian (follower of Christ) must “hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also.” Even given a faithful/charitable understanding of this passage and granting that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, his point is that there are great demands on anyone who would follow him. Again, in the story of the rich young man of Matthew 19, Jesus’s point again and again is that the costs of discipleship are extreme! There are many more examples of “counting the cost.” So it can be fairly said that what it costs a Christian is far from nothing, and Pascal’s “cost” of (BELIEF) is wholly inaccurate.

As a real example of one such cost of Christianity, I offer a story from my recent life. Like myself, several of my non-Christian friends are friends with Christians. I have lately been hearing from these non-Christian friends how their friendships with Christians are suffering due to Christian faith. I understand their frustrations because I have been experiencing the very same thing with some of my Christian friends. The experiences we are independently having is that a Christian friend can build and maintain a friendship only as long as there is hope that the non-Christian will convert to Christianity. After enough time, the Christian comes to realize that the non-Christian friend does in fact understand Christianity and is still certain they don’t want to convert. Invariably, this has led to the Christian friend withdrawing from the relationship—much to the sad bewilderment of the non-Christian friend. Whether as an article of faith or just as a social/personality side-effect, Christians seem to inherently limit their relationships that cross religious lines. I think this is unquestionably a cost to Christian faith—or at very least, it is an example of something that could be gained in this life, contrary to Pascal’s “benefit” of (NON-BELIEF).

Aside from costs in this life, there is another elephant-sized objection to Pascal’s Wager: Rewards of the next life. Pascal assumes that options for the next life are binary based on faith in Christ: either reward or punishment; either eternal life or eternal suffering; either Heaven or Hell. Setting aside the belief of many Christians in the “middle ground” of Purgatory or something similar, one should at least admit the logical possibility of the truth of other religions’ claims. The options are far greater than belief or non-belief in Jesus’s redeeming work. They include all the other options of other religions. What if Islam were true? Then the “cost” of (BELIEF) in this life would result of the “benefit” of (NON-BELIEF) in the next life. Or consider if Christianity were true enough that Christians were rewarded with eternal life, but also—as C. S. Lewis suggests in Mere Christianity—people of other beliefs were also “saved” through Jesus. In this case, a person could live with (NON-BELIEF) in this life and still have the “benefit” of (BELIEF) in the next life.

Finally, the reason this argument might have its initial persuasive quality is because it executes a category confusion to allow begging the question and sets the “benefit” of (BELIEF) up against the “cost” of (NON-BELIEF), and vice versa. I’ve hinted at this confusion in the preceding paragraphs by sliding in the terms “this life” and “the next life.” For Pascal, the “cost” of (BELIEF) is something in “this life” alone; the “benefit” of (NON-BELIEF) is also something in this life alone (and vice versa). We are inclined to inherently value the realm of “the next life” more than that of “this life,” because (presumably) “this life” is finite and “the next life” is infinite. On those terms, the greatest sacrifice in “this life” would inherently be worth the smallest gain in “the next life.” In fact, the only thing at all that matters is what happens in “the next life.” So in framing the discussion in those terms, Pascal wins before he begins. If, on the other hand, there is no reward in “the next life” or there is no life at all after this one, when the cost of anything in “this life”—great or small—is weighed against an empty set of potential rewards in “the next life,” even the smallest cost in “this life” is an immeasurable loss compared to gaining nothing in “the next life.”

All of this suggests why Pascal’s Wager is only convincing (reassuring) to Christians, and utterly without value to thinking non-Christians. If you presuppose a Christian view of “the next life,” then Pascal’s Wager works by definition of the terms; but if you don’t assume the certainty of reward in “the next life,” then Pascal’s zero-cost assumptions about Christian belief in “this life” forfeit parts of living which have incredible value! Since “reward in the next life” is exactly what is in question, Pascal pulls a fast one in assuming that to make his fallacious case.


One Response to “The House Always Wins”

  1. Andrew said


    Very logical thinking.

    I personally believe in Christ as my savior, but certainly not for those reasons. The cost benefit approach above, as you clearly demonstrate, has many holes in it and is a poor basis for one’s faith or lack of faith.

    I particularly love your first point, about the costs of following Jesus. Though I consider it a privilege to follow Jesus, there have certainly been at least a few occassions where this has entailed a personal cost to myself.

    As the gospel makes clear, and as is well demonstrated by your article, following Jesus is not just a simple free ride.



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