“I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than being mistaken in believing it to be true” (Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, 292).
For the last three weeks, we’ve considered various aspects of Pascal’s work, noting what he says about death, diversions, and indifference. We now turn to what Pascal is most famous for—the wager! He says, “Let us examine this point, and let us say: Either God is or he is not. But to which view shall we be inclined. . . . At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager?” (p. 293).
Because most students learn about the wager in an apologetics or philosophy of religion class, it is often mistaken as an argument for God’s existence. But, while Pascal is interested in us wagering in favor of God’s existence, most philosophers note that the wager should not be thought of as an argument per se. As Pascal makes clear, “reason cannot prove either wrong” (p. 293). That is, Pascal thought that reason is incapable of showing either atheism or theism to be true.
If so, then what is the point of the wager? As noted in previous weeks, Pascal’s aim throughout the Pensées is to show us what we have at stake is the question of God’s existence. In the wager, he aims to show us that, as a matter of wisdom, one should wager that God does exist. He says, “Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist” (p. 294). In other words, consider the one who wagers for God’s existence. If he is right, he gains much—an infinite amount in fact. If he is wrong, he loses nothing. But now consider the outcome for the one who wagers against God’s existence. If he is right, he gains nothing. If he is wrong, he loses infinitely. So then, Pascal shows us that as a matter of wisdom, we should wager that God does exist.
Once again, Pascal is not making an argument for God existence. He is simply showing us that we all have something massive at stake on the question of God’s existence. Whether we want to or not, this is a question that we have to take seriously. We cannot divert our attention from it. We cannot be apathetic.
So then, how should we read and use Pascal’s wager? The wager is useful as we talk with people who appear to be uninterested in questions about God or in the Christian faith. Pascal reminds us how high the stakes really are and why ignoring God is so incredibly dangerous!