You are going to die.
Your life is quickly passing away, and your death will be for eternity. And the moment of this death is unpredictable. It could come 50 years from now or 5 minutes from now.
It’s this sobering fact that forms the starting point of one of the most famous proofs for God’s existence: Pascal’s Wager.
Okay, so it’s less a proof for God’s existence than it is an argument for acting as if God exists.
Let me explain.
The famous mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) laid out his “wager” in part III of his Pensées. He prefaces his argument with a reflection on the “foolishness,” “blindness,” and “weakness of mind” of those who were untroubled by their impending death.
Just like today, many in Pascal’s time lived as if they were never going to die. They went about their existences wholly consumed with the challenges, anxieties, and enjoyments of the day-to-day. (And indeed, that’s what many of us are raised and educated to focus on.) “The sensibility of man to trifles,” writes Pascal, “and his insensibility to great things, indicates a strange inversion.”
But according to Pascal, it is unconscionable to be indifferent to death. Because of its eternal nature, he thought that one must take some definite position on it, and guide one’s life by that position:
“For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal, whatever may be its nature; and that thus all our actions and thoughts must take such different directions according to the state of that eternity, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.
There is nothing clearer than this; and thus, according to the principles of reason, the conduct of men is wholly unreasonable, if they do not take another course.”
But what course to take?
As Pascal puts it:
“‘God is, or He is not.’ But 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?”
According to Pascal, agnosticism isn’t really an option, since we’re already involved in the “game”: death is coming. That then leaves only two viable alternatives—theism or atheism—which have four possible outcomes:
1) Believe that God exists, and if he does exist, you gain eternal happiness.
2) Believe that God exists, and if he doesn’t, you face eternal annihilation.
3) Don’t believe that God exists, and if he does, you face eternal damnation.
4) Don’t believe that God exists, and if he doesn’t, you face eternal annihilation.
In sum, Pascal thinks atheism is a bad bet, because the one who wagers on it doesn’t really get much. Sure, the atheist may get to partake of some more “pleasures” and have a bit more “freedom” than the religious person. But those things are fleeting, along with his life. Plus, statistically speaking, religious people tend to report being “happier” than non-religious people.
In Pascal’s mind, only theism is worth wagering on: “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” As he concludes, “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” (You can see that Pascal draws a Christian worldview and plan of salvation for his argument, though I think its basic framework can be applied to most major world religions.)
Do you find Pascal’s argument compelling? If not (or even if you do), what are some objections that can be leveled against it?
Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.