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Understanding Pascal’s Wager

Every now and then, especially after I’ve given a presentation on the existence of God, I’ll encounter someone who tells me that they’re struggling to believe that God exists. They want to believe that he does, but they find the arguments for his existence equal to the arguments for atheism.

This email I received recently sums up the sort of predicament I’m referring to.

I started doubting my Christian convictions several months ago, and intellectually feel as though I have lost my faith completely. I do not want to be an atheist although in my private thoughts I’ve even started self-identifying as a nonbeliever. I need help. I’m very advanced in the area of apologetics and know most of the point-counterpoint chess moves of secular/theist dialog. Do you have any practical advice for someone going through this?

When I get these emails, or chat with these people after an event, I try to provide some helpful resources for whatever particular challenge the person is facing. Other times, I help them come to terms with what faith is (trust in a God we don’t always understand) and what it is not (a blind leap in the dark against of all available evidence).

And sometimes I’ll draw upon a reason to believe in God that comes from the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal—a reason that is now known as Pascals Wager. This, I think, is a helpful approach to take with those who think the evidence for God and for atheism is evenly balanced.

Would you bet your life?

Pensées is French for “thoughts” and is the title of Pascal’s defense of the Christian Faith. Though he died before completing it, his notes were published in 1670 (although scholars have debated their exact order). The Pensées is notable among Christian apologies (or defenses of the faith) in that it stresses the value of personal experience. Pascal was skeptical that logical argument alone could change a person’s mind, so he focused instead on removing logical barriers to the Faith.

In section III of the Pensées, which most editors call “of the necessity of the wager,” Pascal puts forward several logical arguments against atheism but does not mount any arguments to prove that God exists. Instead, he asks a question to those who can’t decide one way or the other:

To which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? . . . Let us 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.

Keep in mind that Pascal is not offering an argument for God’s existence. Instead, he is offering an argument in favor of the prudential value that lies in the belief that God exists. This is important, because many people mistakenly think of the wager as a proof or argument for God’s existence. In their Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli show why this isn’t the case. After presenting several arguments for God’s existence, they write:

Suppose you, the reader, still feel that all of these arguments are inconclusive. There is another, different kind of argument left. It has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager. We mention it here and adapt it for our purposes, not because it is a proof for the existence of God but because it can help us in our search for God in the absence of such proof (91).

Pascal also points out that this is a forced wager. Unlike the games of chance you might see in Vegas, “not playing” is not an option here. Scripture says, “[I]t is appointed for all men to die once and then the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Therefore, since we all die we all must prepare for this possible judgment. So what should we do?

At this point we should examine a misconception that many people have about the wager (including myself at one point). Many people believe that the essence of the wager is that if you believe in God you risk nothing, but if you don’t believe in God then you risk everything by being damned for all eternity. Therefore, it is better to wager for God and possibly receive infinite happiness but, more importantly, avoid infinite unhappiness that could come from unbelief.

But in the Pensées, Pascal never mentions damnation. His point is simply that you have nothing to lose in having faith. The only loss you should fear is the loss of a good, Christian life in not believing in God.

Some atheists may counter that believers do give up many things, such as certain sexual behaviors or the ability to sleep in on Sunday, and so it’s not true you have “nothing to lose.” But those “trade-offs” are easily made up by social science data such as those from the Pew Research Center, which showed in a 2010 poll that those who attended religious services on a weekly basis were happier on average than those who seldom or never attend services.

Pascal says of this objection:

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and 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 wouldn’t this apply only to “true believers”? Probably, but it’s possible that the behavior of the one taking part in Pascal’s Wager may conform his mind and help him be predisposed to God’s gift of faith. C.S. Lewis gave similar advice to those who wanted to grow in holiness in his book Mere Christianity:

When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feel friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. . . . Now, the moment you realize “Here I am, dressing up as Christ,” it is extremely likely that you will see at once some way in which at that very moment the pretense could be made less of a pretense and more of a reality (189).

There are several objections atheists tend to make against Pascal’s Wager, but most of them rest on a faulty understanding of the wager, of God, or of probability in general. Let’s take a look at three objections.

The mercenary objection

First, there is the “mercenary objection.” This is the claim that it does no good to believe in God in order to escape hell or earn heaven, because God will reward only people who sincerely believe in him because they love him. God will not reward those who only believe in him because it is the most prudent choice to make in this life.

But Pascal, along with modern defenders of the Wager such as Kreeft, would counter that the point of the wager is to provide someone the encouragement they need to know God exists and then cultivate a relationship with him.

Besides, why think that God won’t reward someone who believes in God because he wants to escape the punishment for sin he knows he deserves? After all, the Council of Trent acknowledged that what theologians refer to as ”imperfect contrition” is sufficient to have one’s sins forgiven. The Council said imperfect contrition commonly arises either from the consideration of the heinousness of sin or from the fear of hell and of punishment, the council declares that if it renounces the desire to sin and hopes for pardon, it not only does not make one a hypocrite and a greater sinner, but is even a gift of God and an impulse of the Holy Ghost, not indeed as already dwelling in the penitent, but only moving him, with which assistance the penitent prepares a way for himself unto justice (Session XIV).

Finally, God can perfect our initial imperfect contrition. He will not punish authentic love for him just because it began out of self-centered concerns, nor will he refrain from helping imperfect love become perfect love that desires the Good. As Kreeft has noted, “God stoops to conquer.”

The “wrong God” objection

“Okay,” says the skeptic. “I’ll believe in God, since I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, but now, which of the thousands of gods am I supposed to believe in? This wager can’t even get off the ground, since I don’t know in whom I am supposed to believe! What if I’m damned for making the wrong choice?”

A few responses can be made to this. First, Pascal would have probably said that there is more historical evidence for Christianity than for other religions, so one does not choose which God to believe in as one would choose a space on the roulette table to bet on. In fact, Anthony Kenny, one of the most prominent atheists of the twentieth century, said, “The evidence for the Resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity” (Did the Resurrection Happen? 85).

At the very least, there is no harm in an atheist believing in the perfect ”God of the philosophers” and then trying to seek out how this God may have revealed himself to mankind. Just as the Christian loses nothing important through his faith, the deist (or the person who believes in a generic god) loses nothing, either. More importantly, he gains the comfort of knowing that his life is not an accident and that there exists a standard of perfection that he ought to emulate as best he can.

The “why faith” objection

At this point an atheist could offer a rebuttal: “Why should it matter to God what I believe?” Kreeft and Tacelli address a similar objection that making salvation dependent on belief in God is as arbitrary as a father promising his son ten expensive cars so long as the son believes his father is a 3,000-year-old Martian. They write, “Faith is not just intellectual belief, and salvation is not just future rewards. Faith is letting God into your soul; and salvation, or eternal life, is having God in your soul. The connection is natural and necessary, not external and arbitrary” (Handbook of Catholic Apologetics 341).

This is not to say that it is impossible to spend eternity with God if one has not believed in him in this life. The Second Vatican Council taught in Lumen Gentium, “Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with his grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (16).

Finally, when one “bets on faith” he open himself up to receive grace that can help him survive the temptations in this life that lead one away from God. Moreover, as Pascal said, not believing entails missing out on the joy and comfort God offers us when we have a personal relationship with him. Salvation is not about receiving an “eternal jackpot” but about believing in the God of love who created us to delight in him for all eternity.

We must decide

If you or someone you love is struggling between faith in Christ and atheism, I hope you’ll consider or share with them Pascal’s Wager. The fact is, there are many times in life when we have to make decisions about what we will believe without having conclusive proof. Such proof is a luxury that we often don’t have. If you waited, for example, to have conclusive proof that a prospective spouse will always be faithful to you and never betray you, then you will never get married.

In fact, in trying to obtain conclusive proof you would likely crush the relationship before you were even engaged. At some point, you must decide that you have enough evidence to make the commitment and choose to embark on a life together. Given the fears and anxiety that often accompany the act of getting married, many people find themselves in a situation where, at least at the moment, they dont know how to evaluate the evidence anymore, and they must take a leap of faith to marry.

Something very similar applies to the decision to believe in God. Like marriage, it is a momentous, life-changing choice, and that can interfere with our ability to rationally evaluate evidence. When that happens, deciding based on self-interest is rational.

God understands that. In fact, in the Gospels Jesus appeals to our rational self-interest, asking, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, KJV).

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