Revisiting Pascal’s Wager

As long as there’ve been religious discussions, there’ve been apologetic approaches to faith — arguments from reason and logic that one might use to defend their position. In the mid-17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal adopted one such argument, this being a “wager” of sorts, a profit-and-loss approach to whether or not God exists. Basically, he asked “what have you got to lose by having faith in God?” The argument has been roundly criticized, not only by atheists — who argue, among other things, that if there is a God, how do you know that you’ve got the right one? — but also by Christians who argue that a Wager-motivated faith is little more than “fire insurance”.

Now, to be perfectly clear, I agree that Pascal’s Wager stinks as an evangelism tool. There’s nothing more passion-stealing than marring out of fear of being alone, or going to college out of fear that you won’t be educated enough to support yourself. Same with faith. Why would you commit your life to a God and recognize Him as superior to yourself if you remain the center of your universe? Can you really claim to bend the knee to such a God when you do it for your own reasons, on your own terms?

But for all of the Wager’s faults, it remains a wonderful exercise in logic, and not without its merits. I find this to be especially true, considering my current circumstances. With my heart surgery looming — and the possibility of my finding out once and for all what’s on the other side of death — I have to admit to an extreme tendency toward self-examination, especially where faith is concerned. What if there is no God? What if I’ve got the wrong one? As the surgery date inches closer, the criticisms of Pascal’s Wager become more pertinent, the questions more troubling. But the longer I stare at the future through the lens of Pascal’s Wager, the greater my desire to look backward on my life and see just how the Wager has already played itself out… and oddly enough, it’s comforting. While the Wager gives no evidence of what the future holds, it illustrates, brilliantly and definitively, what the past held for me and what I would lose if God — real or fictional — hadn’t been a part of it.

My biological father stepped out of my life when I was still an infant. This was the source of a lot of fear, anger, and resentment for me. Without God, those feelings would have festered within me, driving me to bitterness, selfishness, and a good bit of self-loathing. I’d be just like Will Smith’s character in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air when he watched his father walk out on him — again — and he demanded tearfully of his Uncle Phil, “How come he don’t want me, man?” But through the lens of faith, I’ve been able to see Richard’s leaving as a blessing — perhaps not an intentional one, but certainly one of opportunity. Without his absence, I wouldn’t know the love of a father that chose to be my father, that went out of his way to keep me as his son even when his relationship with my mother fell apart. In Christ, I’ve been able to see my situation not as one of abandonment, but of loving self-sacrifice, developed over time, and lasting my whole life.

As you already know, I was born with a heart condition — the very one that I will have surgery for this week. Left untreated, it would almost certainly lead to my death, and even with surgery that remains a distinct possibility. It’s tempting to look at these remaining days through the lens of mortality, blindly panicking as my time remaining grows ever shorter. Without God in my life, I’m certain that I would have nothing but dread for this coming week. But with God, I find myself not looking forward to my possible death, but backward to the 43 years that I was never guaranteed in the first place. I’ve already lived a full life, and while I am confident that I have a whole lot more life to live, if my time were up. if I don’t get tomorrow, my disappointment would pale in comparison to my gratitude for the time I did get.

And what about the course of how my life has gone?

When I was 11, I found my grandfather’s stash of pornography in the basement of our house. Curiosity led to fascination, and fascination to an addiction that lasted seventeen years. To this day, I bear the scars of pornography, in how it warped my perception so that reality seemed less desirable in comparison — the instant gratification that porn offers in contrast to the delayed gratification of genuine relationships, the demand for an idealized female form versus the reality of women that are all too often less than perfect. A different woman whenever I wanted one. A woman who never said no. Fantasy is just as intoxicating as any drug, just as addictive when entertained, just as destructive. Without God, my views wouldn’t be scarred — they’d be permanently damaged. Without God, I would’ve been content to wallow in my addiction, to indulge my every fetish until mere mortal woman wasn’t enough. But with God, I’m able to deny that addiction — and no, I can never be a “former” porn addict, anymore than someone can be a “former” alcoholic. I’m able to see pornography for the poison that it is. I’m able to give my wife a man that can still appreciate her for who she is, not who I’d like her to be.

When I was 25, I married my first wife. Yes, if you did your math correctly, you’d see that my first marriage and my porn addiction overlap. My first wife did have that idealized form and personality, and I still fed my pornographic addiction. Granted, that didn’t end our marriage — she was even more damaged than I was — but it certainly contributed to it. When we were in the process of getting divorced for the second and final time, I was suicidal. Without God, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I would’ve followed through. But with God, I was able to see that sometimes crap just happens that is beyond our control, and for all that it seems as if things will never get better, suicide can only guarantee that reality. With God, I was able to see that the sun shines on the evil as well as the good, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust. The same water that gives life to the crops floods out the cities. The same sun that nourishes us can burn us. The same trials that drive a self-centered man to suicide drive a humble man to shrug off the burden of those things he has no control over anyway.

When I was 33, my wife was pregnant with our second child. The doctor was certain she had miscarried. Without God, I would’ve grown bitter, resentful, angry at Mary for killing my baby, angry at the doctor for not saving him. But with God, I was able to see that, like my marriage to my previous wife, there’s only so much we can control, and beyond that, all the plotting and scheming and outrage and ranting would change nothing. With God, I was able to surrender to whatever happened next. As it happens, all that anger — and whatever I said or did in that state — would’ve been for nothing anyway. The product of that surrender will turn 10 this May.

I know me better than anybody knows me. I know how selfish I can be, how shallow, how spiteful, uncaring. There’s only three people on the planet who’ve ever seen the full range of my explosive temper — blessedly, Mary and the kids ain’t among them. When people see me, they don’t see who I would be without God. They don’t see my dark, sadistic nature, or the evils I’d planned when I let that nature hold sway. What they see — at least, what I hope they see — is what God made me: a loving person who goes out of his way to give of himself for someone who he has no expectation of paying him back. They see someone who doesn’t “lend” money, but gives it, because I don’t want the other person to feel “obligated” to pay back something that I wanted to give them in the first place. If I never see that money again, I’ll never miss it, and if I ever do see the money, it’ll be a blessing that I had no right to expect. And “blind faith”? Hah! If anything, my faith in God has opened my mind to greater possibilities than I could’ve considered as a man without faith, eager to explore not only what is, but also the limits of what could be.

All that to say… whether or not God exists, and whether or not I’ll see Him upon my death (may it be a long time in coming), MY LIFE IS BETTER FOR HIM BEING IN IT. I am a better me, not because I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, but because I have the example of a loving God who owed me NOTHING but contempt, and yet gave me everything at grave expense to Himself.

Is it possible that there is no God? Sure. But if there is no God, then I’ve lost nothing for having faith in Him — not anything worth keeping, anyway.

Is it possible that there is a God, but I have the wrong idea about Him? Sure. But of all the other religions that I’ve researched, those other Gods all respect diligence toward “a” God. Even Islam respects Christianity — not as an equal, of course, but as people of faith who errantly follow the same God.

Is it possible that there is a God, that I worship the right one, but that I do so by the wrong formula? Sure. But even if I follow by the wrong formula (ironic, as I don’t think there’s any right “formula’), I do so with confidence that even if my errors cost me, I follow what appears to be the most consistent path that scripture lays out.

All these things are possible… but I don’t think they are. I have confidence that I do know the right God, I do have a proper understanding of Him, I do live in submission to Him, and in those places where my submission to Him slips, He makes up the difference — not because He makes exceptions, but because He makes the impossible possible. So when I consider what all I might have wrong, my faith is bolstered by what He has already done for me in my life — answering Pascal’s Wager, “what have you got to lose” with stark evidence of what I WOULD HAVE lost — and my dependence upon Him is summed up in the words of a father who once begged Jesus to heal his child… “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

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