Conceptualized by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) in his Pensées (French for “thoughts”), Pascal’s wager is a pragmatic argument that supports belief in God by arguing that theistic belief is the only proper attitude to adopt when faced with the question of God’s existence. Theism here is considered to be the proposition that God, thought to be omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, exists.
Importantly, Pascal’s wager is not an argument for the claim that God exists. When it came to apologetics employing metaphysical arguments for God’s existence, Pascal thought it almost useless as a tool for the conversion of non-believers,
“The metaphysical proofs for the existence of God are so remote from human reasoning and so involved that they make little impact, and, even if they did help some people, it would only be for the moment during which they watched the demonstration, because an hour later they would be afraid they had made a mistake” (1).
Instead, rather than appealing to evidence or metaphysical arguments, the wager simply argues that belief in God is rational and that one should commit to believing that God exists. This commitment should, Pascal thought, result in the person not only believing in God but also becoming a churchgoer who engages in Christian religious practice.
Pascal’s wager is based upon deciding amid evidentiary uncertainty. Our world might be one in which God exists or in which God does not; as Pascal states it: “God is, or He is not”. When it comes to God’s existence, one must make a bet and roll the dice. In Pascal’s view, as human beings, we have no choice but to wager. Pascal invites us to “weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” There are four outcomes according to the wager (2):
- If I believe that God exists and it turns out that He does, then I have gained heaven at the small sacrifice of foregoing the pleasures of sin for a season.
- If I believe and it turns out that God does not exist, then I gain nothing and have suffered the finite loss of the pleasures of sin I have foregone.
- If I do not believe and it turns out that God does, in fact, exist, then I have gained the pleasures of sin for a season at the expense of losing eternal life.
- If I do not believe and it turns out that there is no God, then I have the finite gain of the pleasures afforded by my libertine lifestyle.
As Pascal maintains, belief in God is pragmatically the preferred choice, or the better wager to make. It is to believe and live as though God exists even if we are not convinced of that by evidence (3). Even if we think the evidence is against the existence of God, but also think it is at all possible that God exists, we should bet on God.
There are several criticisms of Pascal’s wager.
First, one cannot make oneself believe anything. Beliefs happen to us as a result of experience, reasoning, socialization, etc., so we cannot choose to believe that God exists (4).
“… it can be argued that we cannot choose to believe much, if anything, directly, let alone belief in God. Beliefs just don’t usually seem to be within our direct control. For example, suppose you were offered a large sum of money to believe that a pink elephant is right now sitting beside you. Can you do it? Of course you could lie and say so even if you had no such belief. But can you really choose to believe it? It doesn’t seem so. The same follows for virtually all beliefs” (5).
Further, just having belief in God is not enough,
“A mere unemotional belief that God exists would be the result of a failure to understand the greatness and goodness of God. To believe in God is not merely to think that God exists; it is to feel the awesome, even terrifying greatness of God; it is to feel the uncanny, eerie otherness of God; it is to feel the humbling contrast of God’s purity to our impurity; it is to feel one’s utter dependence on God; it is to feel deeply and appreciate profoundly the unmerited mercy and love of God” (6).
A moral objection asks whether or not it is morally wrong to try to acquire a belief in God not because of evidence but because one wants to gain or promote some valuable state of affairs. The argument from self-corruption contends that the wager requires the immoral action of corrupting one’s intellectual faculties by attempting to acquire a belief for which one lacks sufficient evidence. It is also claimed that society is harmed when people form beliefs without good evidence and that the duty to not harm others by forming beliefs in this way is violated by the wagerer.
Some respond to the moral objection based on the idea that it is permissible to form and maintain beliefs based on pragmatic reasons and not based on evidence (7).
Further, an objection regards whether the options and outcomes Pascal offers are the only possibilities. Philosopher Robert Sloan Lee asks: “why should we think that God rewards belief without evidence? Perhaps there is a deviant God who perversely punishes belief and rewards unbelief” (8).
The many gods objection points out that the Christian God is not the only God possible; the Gods of other worldviews need to be included in the decision matrix: “since all worldviews end up with the same perplexing expected value on this formulation of the wager, there is no reason to pick one over another” (9). Chad Meister explains,
“Namely, how is one to decide which religion, among the plethora of religions, one should wager on? Why wager on the Christian God, as Pascal proposed? Why not bet on Krishna, or Allah, or the dao, or nirvana, or all of the above? Given the many different and unique religious options which exist, how are we to wager? Pascal provides little criteria for making an informed bet given the pluralistic milieu which now encompasses much of the globe” (10).
From a Christian perspective, it is argued that an individual’s belief in God based on his hope for eternal reward and fear of eternal punishment is not what the Christian God desires for his creatures. Many claim that the Bible teaches the individual to love God with all his heart and mind, and desire a relationship with him, and not for what he can get out of God (such as eternal reward), or because his faith is based entirely on fear.
1. Jonathan Kvanvig. 2016. Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, Volume 7. Oxford University Press. p. 136.
2. Craig, William Lane. 2012. #298 Pascal’s Wager. Available.
3. Creel, Richard. 2013. Philosophy of Religion: The Basics. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 186.
4. Creel, Richard. 2013. Ibid. p. 186.
5. Meister, Chad. 2009. Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 160.
6. Creel, Richard. 2013. Ibid. p. 187.
7. Jordan, Jeffrey. 2010. “Pragmatic Arguments.” In A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition, edited by Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, and Philip L. Quinn. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
8. Lee, Robert Sloan. n.d. 11 Non-Standard Arguments for God’s Existence. Available.
9. Jackson, Elizabeth., and Rogers, Andrew. 2019. “Salvaging Pascal’s Wager.” Philosophia Christi 21(1):59-84. p. 63.
10. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 160.