Most To Be Pitied

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 (Pascal, Pensées, #233)

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Pascal’s wager is one of those rare ideas in philosophy that non-philosophers normal people instinctively intuit. I remember a conversation with a friend in high school who was wavering about the truth of Christianity in which I suggested a similar “wager.” If Christianity is true and you accept it, you gain an infinite blessing, but if it is false and you accept it, what have you lost? Only this brief life. At times, I even took this line of reasoning a step further – “if there is no God, living like a Christian is still the best way to enjoy a happy life.”

There is something to be said for this train of thought. It places the issue of eternity front and center, and it raises the contrast between finite consequences and infinite consequences. Anything that makes the people of our secular age contemplate life beyond this one has some value. And it is true that life in Christ brings many blessings in the here and now (Luke 18:29-30).

But I wonder about the legitimacy of this sort of wager.

If there is no god, no afterlife, no eternity, then is it true that nothing is lost if a person devotes her entire life to Christ, only to enter oblivion at death? I don’t think the apostle Paul would have agreed. In his discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he offers this series of questions:

Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (15:30-32)

Paul’s ministry in the gospel was filled with danger. Riots, beatings, imprisonment, attempted murder – this was Paul’s life as an apostle. To discover that some in Corinth were denying the resurrection in view of this litany of suffering was almost incomprehensible to Paul. Why am I suffering so much, he asks, if there is no future hope of resurrection from the dead. If that’s the case, he says, we should just indulge ourselves in pleasure as we lurch toward non-existence.

I don’t think Paul would have felt so sanguine about the wager I presented to my high school friend. And if I had said to Paul, “Even if Christianity is not true, it’s still the best way to enjoy life,” Paul would reply:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Such a wager has an appeal to those who do not have to pay a price in this life for following Christ. But for those who suffer tribulation for naming the name of Jesus, there is little comfort to be gained by the notion that if Christianity is not true, it’s still a great way to live. For Paul, commitment to Christ meant a lifetime of suffering (see the famous list of afflictions in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29). If this brief existence on earth is all there is, and Paul spent his few years of life in anguish for a cause that was an illusion, then he would have squandered his life for nothing. No wonder he says that if there is hope only in this life that Christians are “most to be pitied.”

If we give Pascal’s wager its most charitable reading, then we can agree with the notion that trusting in Christ in the midst of suffering make sense because of the infinite glory that is promised to us. If Christ rose from the dead, as history demonstrates, then we have every reason to believe in His promise that all of the suffering we endure in this life will fade in contrast to the glory that awaits us. Now that is a bet worth taking!

 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

 

 

2 Comments

  1. I was heavily criticized by an elder many years ago for saying in a sermon that if Christianity isn’t true I would rather “eat, drink, and be merry.” He took the position that you stated and I have heard many times, “even if it’s all untrue, the Christian life is still better.” I asked him to define “better” without God, in any objective way. I understand the point, but the truth is that what makes the good things of this life better is that God does exist and that a just world awaits.

    Thanks, Shane, for the good thoughts and historical context.

    • I used to think this “argument” (Pascal’s Wager) would have some merit with unbelievers, and so I sometimes suggested it (as you note doing yourself, Shane). However, one very astute atheist friend of mine observed that such in fact does the unbeliever no good. For if God is as we believers claim He is, then any avowal of belief must flow from actual belief in some measure, not just a feigned belief to hedge one’s bets. For, as he correctly noted, God surely would see right through the deception, as easily as we believers believe he sees through our own hypocrisy. And since no-one can truly believe what they actually and surely dis-believe, it is a hopeless bet to place from the perspective of the unbeliever. Now, maybe the unbeliever’s mind can be changed by the incessant small still voice in us that calls us to know God. I hope so. That is why I was in conversation with my atheist friend in the first place. Still and all, he put my arrogant silver bullet proposed by dear Blaise back in my apologetic gun belt, never to be loaded again, for I clearly saw the fallacy in trying to hedge one’s bets with God, or suggesting that others should.

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