Pascal's wager has long been used by some people in Christianity as a way to reach out to unbelievers with an appeal to logic. Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century French philosopher who broke quite a bit of new ground in his approach to philosophy and apologetics (the defense of Christianity). His "wager" was more of a sidenote at the end of one of his writings but it has some serious staying power, still often referenced almost 400 years later!
His idea was to look at the long-term upside/downside of being right or wrong about God's existence. For example, if God doesn't really exist:
--Believing in him costs us nothing -- even though Christians are technically wrong, we'll all just disappear after we die
--Not believing in him doesn't cost us anything either, nor gain us anything. Again, we all just disappear after death.
In this case, it's a wash between believing or not believing. Nobody wins.
However if God does really exist:
--Believing in him gets us into heaven. HUGE reward.
--Not believing gets us into hell. HUGE punishment.
In this case, believing "wins" in a major way.
His logical conclusion is that it's much safer, and smarter, to adopt the Christian faith rather than live as an atheist. Think of it as an eternal insurance policy, just in case heaven/hell are real. I continue to hear Pascal's wager referred to in discussions of faith, and my personal opinion is that this is unfortunate, because I think the wager doesn't really work. At least not for me. And on top of that, I can turn the wager around to justify a totally different approach to faith.
First, the reasons why the wager doesn't work for me:
-- It's entirely uninspirational. Looking at faith as an insurance policy? No thanks. Belief about God is such a deeply personal issue that I have a hard time applying a coldly logical, safety-focused method to determining what I should believe. And even if I applied the logic and decided that it's safer to believe, what kind of life-long behavior will that really motivate? For me, it'd just be going through the motions in the hope that this heaven thing works out.
-- It would seem to lead to extreme legalism. If safety is paramount and should be the top priority, then where do I draw the line on what is "enough" to get into heaven? Maybe belief alone doesn't cut it. Add baptism. And church worship style. And appropriate clothing. And who you marry. And what you eat/drink. You get the picture. Pascal's logic would demand that every single issue, no matter how small, may possibly play out very important in the end, so they all must get large priority.
-- It only works in a Christianity/Atheism context. Bring any other religious options into the mix and it really muddies the waters! How do I pick which option is "safer" in a world with so many religious choices? What if they are mutually exclusive? If I'm a really good Mormon, will that cover me if Islam ends up actually being correct? Would I still get my room in paradise with virgins? Would they be lesser virgins, like a roomful of middle-aged male Star Trek fanatics? Okay, I kid, but the reality of the 21st Century is that not many people are only trying to weigh Christianity/Atheism. There's a lot more to it that would have been difficult to imagine 400 years ago.
I could go on but I don't want to come across as bashing a very accomplished philosopher. He made some great strides for his time, but we live in a different world today.
Now for how I can turn the wager on its head.
Instead of focusing on whether or not we'll receive eternal rewards, how about focusing on how we are viewing God? Pascal's wager demands that we view God as maximally harsh. If we want to be safe, then we must assume that the slightest infraction could merit his wrath. Therefore we should follow the most conservative path to avoid eternal punishment.
On the other hand, my spirit today tells me that God is in fact very loving and very graceful. Jesus said we are to forgive each other without limits, even if they don't ask for it. I figure that if I am to forgive people without end, God does that and more. I assume the very best of God.
The interesting thing is that some Christians look at this as heresy and say that if I think God is too graceful, then his grace won't actually fall on me. Pretty ironic!
So I turn Pascal's wager around. If I am to make an error in judment about who God is, would I rather think of him as too harsh, or too graceful? I'd rather think of him as too graceful. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and if I've overestimated his ability to forgive, so be it. I can live with that error.
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