Reclaiming Pascal’s Wager
Christians should consider deploying Pascal’s Wager in evangelism efforts.
Evangelism is difficult today in America. Theological liberalism and moral relativism pervade academic circles, popular culture, and everyday thinking of many people, as illustrated by anthems like “You do you” and “Well, that’s my truth”. Breaking through the postmodern thicket with the Gospel’s truth is challenging; rather than fostering conversations about objective truth, Christians’ attempts to share Christ are often met with sympathy for their being “vulnerable” or gratitude for “telling their story”. Despite this conflict of frameworks, Christians must not refrain from proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, and that His death and resurrection offer salvation to sinners. But we need to think carefully about how best to share this good news in our cultural moment.
I’d like to propose an evangelistic reclamation project, one that may allow us to meet our unbelieving neighbors halfway. Rather than battle over first principles and whether there is objective truth, what if we enter the postmodern arena with tools of our own? My contention is that Pascal’s Wager may be useful to Christians seeking to engage their neighbors in a fresh way about faith and their need for a savior.
What is Pascal’s Wager?
“But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; 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…”
Found in his Pensées, Blaise Pascal’s Wager is an argument (or perhaps more precisely a set of “game-theoretic considerations”) concerning belief in God. It proceeds using probabilities and decision theory based on expected values. My summary of the Wager largely draws on Alan Hájek’s work, with slight modifications:
- First, there are two uncertainties:
- Either God exists (with probability P) or God does not exist (with probability 1-P).
- Either you wager for God (by choosing to obey Him), or you wager against God (by disobeying or ignoring Him).
- These two intersecting uncertainties are represented in the table below:
Reality Version 1: God exists (probability P) Reality Version 2: God does not exist (probability 1-P) Strategy 1: Wager for God Infinite gain Finite loss Strategy 2: Wager against God Infinite loss Finite gain
In addition, each “wagering” strategy provides either gain or loss in the case of God existing, and in the case of God not existing. These gains and losses are illustrated in the table below:
- Decision theory tells us the following (ignore if you hate math):
- The expected value of wagering for God is (P x infinite gain)+((1 – P) x finite loss)
- The expected value of wagering against God is (P x infinite loss)+((1 – P) x finite gain)
- As long as the probability that God exists (P) is a positive number, wagering for God delivers an expected value of infinite gain, greater than the expected value of wagering against God.
In short, the expected payoff of wagering for God (that is, repenting and choosing to follow Him as Lord) is infinite, and the expected payoff of wagering against God is an infinite loss. Thus, the rational choice is to bet on God’s existence. The finite loss one might experience in this life or in an afterlife sans God is well worth the possibility of infinite gain in the afterlife if God exists.
Before proceeding to the virtues of the Wager, two caveats are necessary. First, I don’t intend to provide a robust philosophical treatment or critique of the Wager (in large part because I’m unable to do so). Given its vintage, plenty has been said in defense and in critique of the Wager (including the now-infamous “many-gods objection”). Instead, I accept the generic version of the Wager for this piece, and hope that the reader will join me in doing so. Second, and more importantly, this is not a dog whistle encouraging Christians to use the prospect of Hell to scare nonbelievers into a faith commitment. Some might claim that such an approach is useful; I am not among them. I believe the merits of the Wager lie elsewhere. In particular:
(1) The Wager fits our postmodern context by making a theological argument, while recognizing the possibility that the Christian is wrong; and
(2) The Wager forces us to consider our mortality.
Virtues of the Wager
(1) The Wager fits our postmodern context by making a theological argument, while recognizing the possibility that the Christian is wrong. This is clear enough from the grids laid out above; the entire third column reflects a reality in which God does not exist. This is not to say that the Christian actually believes that she is wrong (leaving aside times of doubt); rather, deploying the Wager grants the postmodern premise that different people hold different beliefs about the divine, and objective knowledge (as we usually think of it) about who is right might not be uncovered in this lifetime. The Wager creates a hypothetical decision point where both possibilities (the Christian story and the nonbeliever’s account) are treated as live and valid options. This helpfully situates the conversation within the postmodern framework of our peers and allows the Christian to avoid appearing unrealistic or naive in asserting Knowledge of the Truth. We see such premise-granting in Scripture: When Paul addresses his Athenian audience at Mars Hill, he first acknowledges their plethora of deities, using their “unknown god” as a launching pad for his sermon (Acts 17:22-31). Rightly situating the discussion in our neighbor’s postmodern “home court” does as much to aid the tone of the encounter as it does the substance; it truly becomes a conversation, instead of the Christian merely waiting for a chance to jump in with their testimony. Granting that there is uncertainty about our spiritual claims prevents an up-front clash of worldviews. It also demonstrates the peace Christians possess even when confronting the world’s competing philosophies.
Yet if all that the Wager cultivated was subjective, “all truths are equal” conversations, it wouldn’t be distinctly useful for generating encounters that include transcendent Christian claims. Luckily, the Wager also countenances objectivity, quietly allowing the Christian to make her claims of Christ’s primacy in opposition to subjective truths. The Wager subtly asserts that only one account can be correct and that the Christian’s claim is fundamentally inconsistent with other worldviews. It does this by asking the listener to pick one set of beliefs on which to risk her future, without allowing for mixed strategies. And by assigning outcomes to each strategy, measured with the same units of “utility”, it implicitly claims that the goal is to select the strategy that accords with an objective reality (thus yielding the highest payoff). But the Wager does this only after setting up the competing principle that neither side offers a dispositive position by maintaining that this decision come down to probabilities, not certainties. At a minimum, this allows the Christian to maintain her commitment to Christ as the Way, while softening the blow of this truth claim. In sum, the Wager allows the Christian to meet the nonbeliever on his turf, but then elicits a dynamic response from the nonbeliever, pulling him from his home court to the Christian’s. My hope is that such a strategy allows faith conversations to progress further than they would otherwise.
(2) The Wager forces us to consider our mortality. Avoiding death has never been easier than it is today. Life expectancies remain exceptionally high compared to previous eras. The aged and dying are quarantined, out of sight and out of mind. Medical advances have eliminated many afflictions that used to be fatal. And obsessions with family and career planning presuppose that enjoyment of these blessings will never cease.
Such avoidance is delusional! We will all die one day. But forcing someone to confront their mortality doesn’t exactly grease the wheels of a dinner conversation you’d like to end in a discussion of faith. Herein lies another value of the Wager. Its disparate treatment of payoffs before and after death leads us (believers and nonbelievers alike) to confront death and mortality under the guise of a heady and abstract hypothetical.
Scripture repeatedly reminds us of our deaths (see, e.g., Psalm 103:15-16; Ecclesiastes 9:3-6; James 4:14), and numerous figures in Church history, as early as Tertullian, recommend memento mori (remembering your death) as a sacred practice. Works by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP and Matthew McCullough are two recent efforts to reclaim this tradition.
Contemplating death has inescapable effects on a person’s life, effects that Sr. Noble, McCullough, and others contend are sobering and humanizing. For instance, looking to our death exposes the vanity and fruitlessness of life, and the impotence of reason and human efforts to avoid it. Pascal himself recognized this in another section of the Pensées: Forgetting death leads us to “fear the most trifling things”, like the loss of reputation or a job. Pascal concluded that being overly sensitive to minor trifles while “strangely insensitive” to our inevitable demise was a “monstrous thing”, out of accord with reality. But remembering death can reorient our misordered thinking and place the temporary features of earthly life in their proper place. As McCullough puts it, “an honest awareness of death puts these enemies of joy”–petty worries and earthly cares–“in their proper place, so that in turn the victory of Jesus can shine in its proper light.” Such misordered thinking revolves around even positive pursuits, like cultivating a happy family life or leaving behind financial resources for children. These goods cannot keep us from dying, nor can they satisfy our hearts while we live.
The Wager’s ability to knock out earthly concerns also brings a crucial question to the fore: “Where is your ultimate hope?” The temporary nature of this life forces us to consider what happens after we die. The nonbeliever may respond that he’s been a good person or that there’s simply no afterlife; while the Wager-driven conversation might not displace these convictions, it at least exposes the need to answer these eternal questions. One must believe something about death and our existence postmortem, and the Wager unmasks these beliefs.
And if we’re lucky, a nonbeliever sharing their beliefs will afford us the chance to share our hope, based on Christ’s death and resurrection, for a joyful life to come. In so doing, we can invite our neighbor to hear the words of Christ found in John 11:26-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
One final benefit in this vein: the Wager allows conversations about death to remain detached and hypothetical, should either conversation partner prefer to steer clear of the fraught emotions associated with death. After all, the Wager (synonyms: gamble, game) creates a fictional binary decision tree, where life in all of its complexity is simplified into two options. The ensuing discussion of death can be as lighthearted as the participants want, while still getting it in front of the nonbeliever.
Many objections might be raised to my argument, and space only permits me to address one: “Doesn’t the Wager produce mercenary Christians, who are more interested in hedging their bets than glorifying Christ?” This is a common attack on the Wager, and I don’t doubt that the Wager can generate this attitude in the human heart. Yet a response remains. My claim is that the Wager can serve as a useful means of sparking interest in faith for a nonbeliever, and primes the pump for continued thinking on these topics. I don’t contend that it should serve as the ultimate foundation for faith in Jesus; rather, it should operate more as an alarm clock, waking unbelievers out of complacency in their attitudes toward death. Pascal himself did not see the Wager as the end of the road, and expressed a clear preference for concrete evidence for his faith, like the Resurrection.
Choosing belief simply to cover one’s bases and ensure maximum utility runs counter to Christ’s example and is antithetical to His call. But expecting an unbeliever to grasp this in an unrepentant state seems unrealistic. Appealing to self-interest doesn’t strike me as any worse a starting point than an appeal to nature’s beauty, the cosmos’s orderliness, or our idea of deity. None of these necessarily draw the nonbeliever’s heart to the Lord, but each has long served as a portico through which a believer first begins a wrestling match with the Holy Spirit. Further, the Wager has been useful in my own life in moments of doubt and despair; I do not rest on the Wager for sustaining my faith long-term, but it does help me cling to Jesus in seasons where I do not sense the Lord’s presence and peace.
I conclude without offering concrete recommendations for how you “use” the Wager; that is a topic for continued study and debate within Christian circles. However you choose to employ it, it must be done with prayerful consideration and submission to the Spirit, the one who makes hopeful evangelism possible. I hope that the Wager fosters conversation within the postmodern framework about death and what lies beyond, and serves Christians well in evangelism efforts. May such conversations prove fruitful, and draw unbelieving hearts to their Savior.Show Sources
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées §233, translated by W. F. Trotter (Dent, 1910).
 Ian Hacking, The Logic of Pascal’s Wager, 9 American Philosophical Quarterly 186–92 (1972).
 Alan Hájek, Pascal’s Wager, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/pascal-wager/>.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées 159, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (Penguin, 1966).
 Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope 27 (Crossway 2018).
 Aquinas’s 5 Ways; David Skeel’s True Paradox
Benjamin Meyer is a practicing corporate lawyer in Chicago. Prior to that, he clerked for the Honorable Frank H. Easterbrook on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He graduated from The University of Chicago Law School in 2018 and Wheaton College In 2013.