Pascal’s Wager: Misleading, But Challenging

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Thinking about Pascal’s Wager helps us clarify our relationship with God. The Wager is not simple. In its true complexity, it is a wise and sobering challenge. But in its popular simplicity, it becomes misleading.

The Wager goes like this — in Pascal’s own words (Pensées, 233):

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 to 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.

The Wager as Simple and Misleading

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

According to the Scriptures, that kind of choice is not saving faith. It is a purely natural thing, not a supernatural thing. We are drawn to something we do not know, assuming an extension of the happiness we have here. But saving faith is not like that. It is rooted in the sight and foretaste of happiness in supernatural things — 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 the faith happens.

Saving faith is rooted in the sight and foretaste of happiness in God.

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 (Romans 8:7); it cannot please God (Romans 8:8); and it cannot see the things of God as anything but folly (1 Corinthians 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 Corinthians 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 Timothy 2:25). In other words, he must make the spiritually dead come to life. “When we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). This new birth “through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 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 Corinthians 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. Being favorite and being enjoyed are one. And so it is when God becomes your Favorite, by the opening of your eyes to see his convincing and enthralling beauty.

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.

The Wager as Complex and Challenging

But in fact, Pascal was aware of this problem with his Wager. He pictures his listener responding,

“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. Endeavor 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 the 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.

But I wonder if Pascal means this: Pursue the miracle of new birth by immersing yourself in the word of God through which the miracle comes (1 Peter 1:23). I am afraid that is not what he means. His Roman Catholic sacramentalism laid out a different path. He counsels the seeker to 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.