Pascal’s Wager

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; 

fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

An important atheistic argument for why faith is not rational starts with the observation that the existence of God can neither be logically proven or disproven. Atheists focusing on this observation prefer the term, agnostic, which in Greek means “not knowing,” suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to make a faith decision. 

Priorities Reveal True Beliefs

Contrary to the definition of agnostic, the agnostic is not a neutral observer. Every human being has a set of priorities in which the first priority defines how the rest are interpreted. The number one priority is often to remain in control of one’s own life; alternatively, it is a spouse or other person or something like work. 

For the Christian, the number one priority should be God, as proscribed in the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3); if it is not one has committed an act of idolatry. Idolatry is dangerous because, if one uncritically has accepted a number one priority other than God, this idol will invariable break and produce an “existential crisis” that will result in anxiety, depression, even suicide. Why? Because a broken idol deprives one of identity and meaning—one’s god has been smashed. Loss of a spouse or work is hard; the additional loss of one’s god is devastating. This is why the term, existential crisis, is appropriate.

The professed agnostic is accordingly at risk of an unexpected, existential crisis that would normally not affect the Christian. The current epidemic of anxiety, depression, and suicide in Western society should accordingly be seen as a spiritual crisis requiring spiritual, not just psychiatric, intervention.

Personal Experience

As a young person, I experience an important challenge to my faith when the elders of the church dismissed my youth director in my junior year in high school. This youth director had encouraged me to take an active role in the youth group and to take my faith seriously. When she left the church, I bitterly resented her dismissal and became angry at God. My experience with the church had accordingly posed an important barrier to faith as a young adult.

Even in my absence from the church and bitterness at God, I felt his presence. As time passed (about three years), I realized that the bitterness was directed at the leadership of the church who had dismissed my youth director, not at God. Sorting out my own anger permitted me to accept God back into my life and I sought a new church. 

Pascal’s Wager

During the period of my anger with God, atheistic arguments never seemed real to me, even when I repeated them, because I knew God first hand and I knew that I had been blessed when I came to faith. Pascal’s Wager, which was directed at atheists, made perfect sense to me, even when I had turned my back on God.

Pascal used probability theory to argue that the agnostic argument is logically false in that faith is a fair bet (hence the term, Pascal’s wager)—if God exists and you believe, then you win heaven, but if God does not exist and you believe, then you loose nothing. In other words, faith in God has a positive reward even if the probability of God existing cannot be established—just so long as the probability is believed to be a non-zero, positive number.  Betting that God exists is therefore rational from a gambling perspective.

Going back to the agnostic’s assertion that the evidence for God is inconclusive, Pascal’s wager breaks the tie. The preponderance of evidence suggests that living as if God exists provides a net benefit. Ignoring that benefit accordingly reveals a bias against faith.

Pascal’s Wager

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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  1. I would disagree. God can be logically disproven, and only by bending philosophy can a slight advantage to theism be detected, if that’s what one wants to detect. I kinda like the way you think, but faith before knowledge always gives god a free pass when there is no evidence.

        1. Jim:

          I understand your point. Those who try the hardest to live a Christian life often come away disappointed.

          When I professed to be an atheist in college, I discovered that I was angry at God because of things that the leaders of my church had done. When I realized that my anger was misplaced, I returned to the church. A detailed account of my faith walk and call to ministry is the subject of my memoir, Called Along the Way (2017).

          I would encourage you to try less hard to be faithful, but rely more on God. Each time that we experience pain in this life, we have a decision: do we turn to God in our trial and give the pain over to him or turn into our pain and get angry? Humility consists of giving over space in our lives to God–forgiveness, humility, patience, all work to let God have space. Without humility, we are just believing in our own ability to have faith.

          Don’t despair. Thanks again for stopping by.


          1. I have bags of humility and am very cautious in my observations. Deferring to god in all things is imo, is part of this huge mess the world we are in of failed religious ideals. Deferring too quickly and expecting someone else to solve our problems when the power is already in us. Let’s stay in touch. I like your approach and I can further understand the religious mindset

  2. Very interesting… I did notice you used the Atheist and Agnostic tags and as such it is going out to those Atheists and Agnostics on the WordPress reader.

    If you are going to be using Pascal’s Wager, it is to your benefit to believe in all Gods and not just the Christian God because what if the Christian God is not the true god? That turns into a tangled mess.

    We have many priorities in life and it takes a great deal of balance to address them all. If a Christian places “God” as their 1st priority, great. That does not mean the Christian will be free from any existential crisis. Have you done any counseling? Of course the Christian faces issues of anxiety, depression and even suicide.

    Most people make their life and well being as their first priority. Right up there with “Life” and “Well being” being number 1 priorities are: The well being of others, having a job/career to take care of their well being. Obviously, if you make your life and well being #1, then there may be less chance you are going to sacrifice it because it will affect so many others. Of course that doesn’t make anyone immune from suffering.

    While God may be your first priority, please do not bear false witness against others who are living happy productive lives without a belief in a god.

    1. David: Thanks for checking in and giving me feedback. This post is part of a larger writing project called Simple Faith, where I try to tie up various loose ends and understand myself better my own position. Please stay tuned in. Stephen

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