The Fallacy of Preaching Pascal
Preachers and authors in the religious community sometimes commit inadvertent fallacies in what they teach and write. These can stem from a lack of understanding of vital fields, such as biblical languages, church and secular history, psychology, and philosophy. While some of these fallacies are harmless, others can do more damage to a person’s soul through their inaccuracies than if nothing had been said at all. One such fallacy is that of mistakenly “preaching Pascal.”
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French scientist, mathematician, and philosopher. He was a brilliant young man whose father educated him, and who published his first work, an essay on geometry, at the tender age of sixteen. He continued to publish works in the fields of science and mathematics, but he died before publishing his most important philosophical works: Pensées and De l’Esprit Géométrique. Theologically, Pascal was a Jansenist—i.e., a member of a group within the Catholic Church that followed the views of Cornelius Jansen—and spent much of his time refuting the Jesuits. Pensées [Thoughts] is the title posthumously given to a series of notes that Pascal originally intended to publish under the title Apologie de la religion chrétienne [Apology for the Christian Religion] (Popkin, 1967, 6:51-52). It was in these notes that Pascal’s now-famous “wager” was constructed. The wager, simply put, goes something like this:
- If it is impossible for a person to believe with certainty that God exists, then that person should believe in God anyway—“just in case” He does exist.
- If it turns out that God does exist, the believer “wins” the wager by receiving an eternal reward.
- If it turns out that God does not exist, the person who believes has lost nothing (except perhaps some temporal pleasures, the loss of which is outweighed by freedom from the angst of unbelief).
- If God does not exist, and a person does not believe, then he may gain some temporal pleasures.
- If God exists, and a person does not believe, then that person is punished eternally for his unbelief.
Who never “loses” the wager? The believer. Why so? If God does exist, the believer “wins” by going to heaven. If God does not exist—the believer lives and dies, end of story—again, he has lost nothing (except a few finite pleasures). In both cases, the believer wins because he chose the “safe” thing to do.
But who loses 50% of the time? The unbeliever. If God exists, he “loses” by not believing, and therefore goes to hell. If God does not exist—the unbeliever lives and dies, end of story—he (like the believer) has lost nothing.
One of the two “gamblers” never loses; one loses half the time. Thus, Pascal concluded, it is safer to believe in God that not to believe. [Pascal continued in his reasoning by suggesting that if someone does not know how to believe, then he should follow the customs and rites of those who do believe—as if he himself were a believer. Eventually, then, according to Pascal, the person will become a believer (Pascal, 1995, pp. 121-125).]
|One believes||One does not believe|
|God exists||Eternal reward||Eternal punishment|
|God does not exist||Freedom from angst||Temporal pleasures|
Some ministers of the Gospel preach Pascal’s Wager in an effort to convert people, suggesting that belief in God makes more sense than non-belief because of the 50% risk that is involved if God does exist.
What does this show, and why is it wrong to use Pascal’s line of reasoning in the conversion of non-believers? First, preaching this seems to show a lack of faith on the part of the minister himself. If a preacher’s argument for the existence of God is based on a gamble—even if it is not his only argument for God—then he should re-examine his own beliefs and see if he has truly built his faith on the solid rock of the moral, cosmological, and teleological proofs for God, or if he has built his faith upon the sands of guesswork (Matthew 7:24-27). This is damaging to the congregation for which such a man preaches, because a solid congregation needs a solid man to preach solid truths, and believing in God just because it is “prudent” to do so, shows a lack of solidarity.
Moreover, what of the man who believes in God because of preaching Pascal’s Wager? Since “faith is the substance of things hoped for” and “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), a pseudo-belief in God based on statistical risk and/or wager produce a pseudo-Christian. Faith is based on knowledge and certainty, not on probabilities, and someone who believes based on a wager is someone who cannot possess true faith in God and His existence. Paul said that we will be “above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard” (Colossians 1:22b-23a). Pascal’s Wager does not produce a faith “grounded and steadfast,” because it does not build faith. However, faith in God is easy to build through other means, “because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20).
As Christians who are called to handle the Bible correctly (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17), let us not give in to philosophies that are not in keeping with God’s Word (Colossians 2:8). In our preaching, let us be honest with people and teach them to “hold fast” to faith and truth (1 Corinthians 15:1-2), and not let them be led into believing in God just because it makes the “best sense in a gamble.”
Pascal, Blaise (1995), Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin).
Popkin, Richard H. (1967), “Pascal, Blaise,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: MacMillan).