There are a lot of arguments, both Christian and otherwise, for the existence of God. Most of the arguments have had a long and robust life. There’s the argument from design, the argument from contingency, the argument from morality, the argument from ontology…. You may not even know what some of those mean. That’s ok. I don’t really get all of them, either. Part of the mystery, I guess.
But while some of the arguments can be kind of heady, there is one argument that’s almost crassly easy to grasp. It’s called Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal was a truly brilliant Frenchman. A prodigy from a young age, he was a mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and (no surprise here) a Christian philosopher.* But he was also somewhat of a gambling man. And so, from the mind of this brilliant Christian thinker/mathematician/gambler came the famous “Pascal’s Wager.”
The wager goes something like this: you have a choice between believing in God and not believing. And it’s not a simple choice. Amazingly smart people can be found in either camp with all sorts of arguments in favor and against. So, either way, the choice is one of uncertainty.
But this question is the very last thing you want to be uncertain about. If God is real, you wouldn’t want to make the mistake of completely ignoring the person who made you and holds your soul in His hands for eternity. If God is not real, then all there is in life is this which you see: life, death, dust to dust.
So here is where the wager comes in. Which bet gives you the best chances of really winning? Do you fold or go all in? If you choose God (as envisioned in the Christian faith), you gain community, joy, peace, and a host of other things in this life, and if it’s right, eternal bliss in the afterlife. If you choose God and He doesn’t really exist, what do you lose? If you are the average person living in Western civilization, not much, if anything. Sure, you let go of a few things that never really made you happy anyway once you think about it, but you gain all those things already mentioned minus eternal bliss. Not bad.
Now, if you choose atheism, what do you gain? Not much more in this life. Christians are normally just as happy as the general population. You have the freedom to do whatever it is you want to do when you want to, but history shows that getting everything you want when you want it doesn’t always fill the soul, which is what most people really want. If atheism is right, your end is the same as the Christian’s. But what if you are wrong? If you are wrong, then you will have made a mistake that has eternal consequences. Even under a kind of universalism, where some believe everyone will be saved, surely those who truly commit themselves to God in this life would get the lion’s share in the afterlife. The choice is obvious. Choose God – if for no other reason than self-preservation, which is what this wager is all about.
Pascal’s Wager is laughed at by at least the atheists I’ve read and, on it’s own, could never really bring a person who doesn’t believe in God into the kind of love and devotion Christianity really demands.** So why in the world am I talking about it? I’m talking about it because, as I look back on my life, there have been times when Pascal’s Wager has been all that has kept me from chucking my faith.
I didn’t know it then, but going through my college years, the wager was ever before me. All these smart philosophers saying so many interesting things! So many people disagreeing with my faith! It was jarring. I had grown up in a sheltered Christian environment, and here were confident people, seemingly happy and normal, telling me I was wrong. But especially now, in my Catholic tradition, I find so many good, intelligent people and arguments on the side of the Christian faith – just read Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways”.
But in my reading, I kept looking for the silver bullet. What ultimately proved the Christian faith wrong or atheism wrong? I could see there were difficulties in believing in Christianity, but there seemed to be difficulties in believing anything any philosopher ever said about life. No sooner would one come up with a brilliant way of understanding the world than another would crop up explaining why that person was wrong and he right.
I have, and continue to find – more so every day – real, abiding joy following God. I find that, even when I don’t quite understand what He is calling me to, I experience joy and peace eventually in choosing His path and obeying. I’m not looking for a way out. Christianity answers the deepest questions and longings of my heart.
So the choice, if not simple, was at least obvious. Why leave the uncertain faith I have which gives me peace for the uncertain world that doesn’t? Neither side seems compelling enough to convince me. But, while it can’t unknot every conundrum, Christianity is compelling enough to have convinced some of the greatest thinkers and, to boot, inspired some of the greatest social movements and works of culture – art, music, literature, etc. – the world has ever seen. If beauty is truth, Christianity has truth in spades.
We can pretend we will believe only what we know is certain, put our faith in science, and demand empirical evidence for everything, but no one can really live that way. When you think about it, what major decision in life isn’t a wager? We face these life-altering questions all the time: should I marry this woman I think I love or should I not? Should I take that exciting, risky job in the big city or stay at this secure, but not-so-exciting one in the suburbs? Questions likes these are vastly important, and we must choose, because even not to choose is still a choice and can have dire consequences. Every important decision in life is a bet on probabilities.
In the end, I know that this is a leap of faith. But it’s a leap I have rarely regretted, and I see now that if I didn’t leap there, it would only mean I’d have to leap somewhere else.
*That’s straight out of wikipedia, by the way: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Pascal
**I personally have issues with the underpinnings of Pascal’s Wager. It doesn’t quite reflect the nuance of the Catholic view of salvation.