As an out-of-the-closet atheist, I’ve been asked many times before by well-meaning Christians, “But what if you’re wrong?”
There is an argument called Pascal’s Wager, which suggests one would be safer to believe in God only to find out he doesn’t exist than not to believe and find out he does. This argument is extremely common, and I myself used it quite often as a Christian. It always seemed to me very foolish to “refuse” to believe in God.
And I readily admit – if I’m wrong, and there is a god, and he is the God of the Bible, then that would really suck. If I’m wrong, I’m going to hell for not believing.
But Pascal’s Wager is more fallacy than philosophy. The most obvious problem with this argument is the assumption that the Christian God is the only god. It does not suggest you believe in every single god known to man to be on the safe side; it implores you to believe only in a certain god. Usually this refers to the Christian God, though it has been used in other religions, such as Islam.
For Pascal’s Wager to be more logically persuasive, it would need to encourage belief in as many gods as possible. But we all know this won’t work. The dominant religions to this day and age, at least in the West, are monotheistic and explicitly prohibit belief in any other gods apart from their own. Therefore, the first answer I have for those who ask me “What if you’re wrong?” is that the chances of their god being the one I should believe in are so incredibly slim, I’d be just as safe putting my faith in Ra the sun god or Allah or Joseph Smith or the comet Hale-bopp.
To put a finer theological point on it, Pascal’s Wager has an even deeper problem: If we go ahead and accept the premise that the Christian God is the God we ought to believe in, and thus the Christian Bible is true, then the essence of this question isn’t about Pascal’s Wager (if you’re wrong, you lose nothing; if you’re right, you gain everything) but about the nature of faith itself. In my book, I wrote a chapter addressing this very topic.
My fear of hell was diminishing. It had mostly disappeared, except that every now and then, fear still momentarily struck my heart. I am literally playing with fire, I’d think. I’d get a sense that I better repent quickly just in case it all turned out to be true after all.
What I will lose if I wager wrongly! There is an eternity of suffering waiting for me should I wager against God and be wrong. What do I lose by following God and there is no God? Very little. What do I lose by not following God should there be a God? Everything. On these little occasions, I panicked about how I had played my cards, as the fear of hell crept back up on me.
Pascal’s Wager almost makes some sense, except the wager overlooks two important issues. First, it assumes that the only God worth wagering on is the Christian God, ignoring the possibility that a different religion might be the right one. Still, that issue aside, the second thing it overlooks is that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Yet faith is a gift from God, it is not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8). Therefore, I cannot please God without faith if he does not choose to give it to me. I could wager that God was real and keep following him as I had been doing for the past three years, but I would not be saved, for anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists (Hebrews 11:6). Pascal’s Wager is useless without faith.
Anyone who believes seriously that the Bible is God’s inerrant word would have to agree that “believing” in God solely on the off-chance that he is real is not true faith at all. They would also have to agree that faith cannot be faked.
Try to insert “free will” into that wherever you like, but it really can’t alter the Biblical “facts.” You could try to believe, to muster up faith on your own, but unless God gives you faith, you’re up a creek without a paddle, according to Ephesians.
“You could at least try, though. God would answer a sincere request for faith.” I’ve heard that too. I also believed that once. And for three years, as my faith in God began to unravel, I hoped and prayed for that outcome earnestly. I requested faith more sincerely during those three years than one could possibly imagine. Yet oddly enough, once the innate belief in God started to diminish, God mysteriously stopped answering my sincere request for faith. It turns out that faith isn’t even a gift you can ask for and reliably receive. We aren’t actually capable to placing a meaningful wager on God, since it all hangs on his choice to wager on us.
There is one more aspect to Pascal’s Wager that ought to be mentioned. It claims to be based on logic, but at its core it is based on fear. To conclude my thoughts on the fatal flaws of Pascal’s Wager, I give you the rest of that chapter above.
Sadly, it was fear, not love, that sporadically warned me to reconsider God. God’s love had been gone from my life for a long time. Abandonment and silence echoed in the cavern where love once dwelled. But fear could still make me draw in a sharp breath, as it sliced through my heart like a paper cut. When I paid this fear some attention, it gathered like a thundercloud inside my head and struck my conscience with forks of lightning. I asked myself, Do you really want to bet your life on this and end up languishing in excruciating damnation for your sinful pride, your worldly “wisdom,” your pitiful human understanding, for all eternity?
Fear is a powerful tool. Yet if God’s plan for restoring my faith was fear-mongering, I was even less inclined to believe he was the God of Love I once knew – or thought – him to be. If it were the love of God striking my heart, drawing me to him, there would be something in it worth carefully considering. However, the fact that only the fear remained seemed psychologically obvious. It was neither God himself, nor his Holy Spirit, calling me back, but thirty years of theological manipulation. Hell is the scariest and most effective tool for keeping the righteous in check. Heaven’s promise pales in its alluring.
The revoked love of God in my life and the dubious possibility of heaven were not enough to draw me back to faith. The fear of hell and the almost certainty of God’s wrath, however, left me quaking. With the cards of my still unfinished life lying on the table, I could still change how I placed my bets. Yet if the God of the Bible is the one true God, my bets don’t matter in the slightest. God chooses whom he loves and whom he hates. He chose Jacob but hated Esau (Malachi 1:2-3). The cards on the table were never mine to choose from.
And we call this agape.
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Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children and vindictive cat. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.