Pascal’s Wager – A Leap of Faith (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

If you’ve heard anything of Pascal, it is probably his famous “wager”:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 67-68). . Kindle Edition).

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 68). . Kindle Edition)

According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost.—”But,” say you, “if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.”—He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 70-71). . Kindle Edition).

Pascal’s Wager has been criticized by many.  The basic argument is that if you believe in Jesus and are wrong, if there really is no God, then you lose nothing for after death you no longer exist.  But if you believe there is no God and are wrong, you risk hell.  This alone, so it goes, means you ought to believe.

Now if this was how Pascal actually formed things, it would be a faulty argument.  But I don’t think this is what he meant.  First, for Pascal, both belief and unbelief can make at least some sense.  So Pascal’s starting point is a rational examination that leads to the conclusion of uncertainty.  If you think and read and study and conclude that you still aren’t sure, the wager becomes a relevant argument.  It is not an argument made in the face of any rational belief.  Instead, it is an argument made when rational belief has taken you some of the way there but you can’t get any farther.

I suppose if you employed your rationality and concluded you were certain there was no God, the wager would not be for you.  But Pascal would not agree that rational argument leads to where you think it does.

Once again, the wager comes at the end of a long search which the searcher deems at least somewhat inconclusive.  You think there might be a God, but aren’t convinced.  You find some of who Jesus is and what he said convincing, perhaps you find other arguments and ideas intriguing.  But the problem of evil and suffering or some other such problem leads you to balk.  What do you do?  You must make a decision, for even not making one is to make one.

If you take Pascal’s wager you are taking a sort of “leap of faith.”  It is a dive into uncertainty, embracing the mystery, and believing in this leap you will find God.  I don’t think the wager works if you leave it as a mere rational point, if at the end of thought you simply choose to “believe”.  In other words, the wager does not lead to belief as a mere assertion of agreement (I believe 12 eggs are in a dozen, the sky is blue and God is real).  Instead, the wager points to a belief as a radical trust, more akin to the relationship with a spouse: I am not sure what the future holds but I trust that as I leap into this future, you are with me.

What do you think of the wager?


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