The Biblical Lottery

"I don't believe in heaven and hell. I don't know if I believe in God. All I know is that as an individual, I won't allow this life - the only thing I know to exist - to be wasted." - George Clooney

On more than one occasion, I have been asked "what if you're wrong?" What if my beliefs are wrong and my Christian counterparts are correct? It's a good question and deceptively simple. After all, belief is all that is required. What obstinance prevents me from just saying "yes" to salvation? If Christians are correct, they get eternal bliss in heaven and I burn in hell. If Christians are wrong, they've lost nothing. Under this premise, believing in Jesus, for example, would be a win-win situation because the believer stands to lose nothing. If there was such a thing as an "I told you so" moment in the afterlife, only the believer would be in a position to use it. Believers would apparently reap the additional benefit of being comforted in the face of death by the prospect of eternal life, whereas a non-believer like me wouldn't be eligible for that kind of comfort.

I refer to this line of questioning as the Biblical Lottery - you can't win if you don't play. It has a better, more well-known name however: Pascal's Wager. The 17th-century French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Blaise Pascal asked this very question in defense of the Christian religion. Before his death, Pascal had been working on a book in which he laid out a set of criteria supporting his religious wager. These criteria were published posthumously in Pensees which literally translates to "thoughts". Here is the logic that Pascal laid out in Pensees:

1. Either there is a God or there isn't

2. A game is being played and either heads or tails will turn up

3. Neither logic nor reason can defend either of the options

4. You must wager on one or the other.

5. Weigh the potential gain and loss in the event that God is real. If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing.

6. Wager then that God is real.

According to Pascal, the odds are 50-50 so why not simply play the odds and believe in God? A modern day example could lie in the scenario of having the odds of winning of the next Powerball lottery at 50-50. If that were the case, wouldn't it make sense to go ahead and buy that lottery ticket?

There is a moral dilemma here that I don't want to overlook - fear of being wrong shouldn't be the reason why we believe in God. That being said, the bigger problem with Pascal's Wager is the faulty premise of an either/or situation. Pascal has only given us two choices: believe in God or don't believe in God. As a Christian, he hasn't given us a choice of any other god beyond the Christian god. If you recall from the introductory chapter of this book, I claimed that it was one thing to believe in the potential for a divine creator, but it was something entirely different to make the definitive claim that we know which one is correct. Keep in mind that it is the Judeo-Christian god who reveals Himself to us and tells us that He is a jealous god and that we may have no other gods before Him. If I believed in the Hindu god Shiva, that belief alone would have satisfied Pascal's Wager in a generic-deity manner, but the end result would not be blissful simply because the god I professed my belief in would be the "wrong" one. There is an unequivocal issue between deism and theism at this point. Once we factor in all of the gods that mankind currently professes belief in along with gods that have long since come and gone, our 50-50 odds have been eviscerated. If our religious options were actually limited to one god, Pascal's Wager might hold some logical weight, but that is not the world that we find ourselves in. Our odds of winning the wager are now much more akin to a Biblical Lottery.

Pascal said "If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is..." As stated earlier, the choice of believing is not optional. We must make a wager. If Pascal was correct, this poses another dilemma. If God is infinitely incomprehensible, there stands to reason that none of our religions are correct and God is ultimately unknowable. An "infinitely incomprehensible" god presents us with an infinite number of potential religious doctrines, each with an equal chance of being correct. Under this scenario, it becomes quite probable that mankind has not yet found the true God. Perhaps the true God rewards those based upon the totality of their lives instead of irrational belief. If, as my Christian friends might say, God has given us the ability to use reason and logic, why would it be virtuous to completely abandon those capabilities in favor of blind faith?

If Pascal's Wager weren't fundamentally flawed, the skeptic would now be confronted with the very real issue of inauthentic belief. Even if I answered the short-sighted question "What if you're wrong" by professing my belief in Jesus Christ, if I can't do it honestly, then why bother with the facade? It wouldn't be genuine faith. I would be faced with the incredible challenge of trying to convince myself to ignore everything that I've ever learned that could potentially conflict with the specific tenets and assertions of my faith. Even if I could deny every rational conflict, wanting something to be true isn't a sufficient basis for actually making it true. As Voltaire said "the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists."

To those who wish to play the Biblical Lottery, I wish them the best of luck. Their odds of "winning" are roughly equal to mine. The next time I am asked the deceptively simple question "What if you're wrong?" the most appropriate response will simply be "What if you're wrong?" As Jay Leno once quipped "How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?" Sometimes a deceptively simple question requires a deceptively simple answer.