The Bible never classifies gambling as a sin, and has virtually nothing to say about the subject. Surprised? I am surprised that there was such a universal taboo against gambling in Western civilization. I was surprised that there used to be such tough laws against it, and that those laws lasted so long, with so little Biblical basis for the morality behind those laws.
There are only two places where the Bible even mentions gambling. In Judges 14:11-18, Samson makes a bet with his groomsmen. Whoever loses Samson’s bet that they cannot answer his riddle must pay thirty suits of party clothes to the winner. And in Isaiah 36:8 = 2 Kings 18:23, King Sennacherib of Assyria tries to make a bet with King Hezekiah of Judah: “I will give you 2000 horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them.”
These are the only two examples of gambling in the entire Bible. There are no other bets placed or games of chance. The division of Jesus’ clothes at his crucifixion is not a case of gambling: the soldiers place no bets, they simply cast lots. (Matthew 27:35 = Mark 15:24 = Luke23:34 = John 19:24)
When a behavior is not named as sin in the Bible, and yet we know that the behavior was well-known to those to whom the Bible was first written, then we may wonder whether that behavior is a top-priority offense with God. Such is the case for gambling, which was far from unknown in the world of the New Testament, particularly dice games, but also sports betting. The Roman emperors Augustus, Claudius, and Nero were big-time dice gamblers. For much more detail, see Chapter Seven of my book, What’s on God’s Sin List for Today? (https://wipfandstock.com/what-s-on-god-s-sin-list-for-today.html)
Like the Bible, the early church is silent on gambling until around 200 AD, when suddenly it is loudly opposed by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and the anonymous author of the sermon De Aleatoribus (“About Dice-Players”). Clement condemns gambling as a product of laziness. Tertullian condemns it because it stirs up too much “frenzy” (Latin furor). And De Aleatoribus states, “If you say that you are a Christian when you are a dice-player, you say you are what you are not, because you are a friend of the world.”
Apparently gambling was not a normal part of the experience of the underground church before this time. But eventually, mainstream Roman life begins to infect the Church, and the anonymous author of De Aleatoribus breathes fire and venom against dice-playing as being totally incompatible with Christian faith. The preacher of this sermon argues that dice-playing is idolatrous, it often goes together with other evils such as theft and prostitution, it is an obsession/addiction, and it involves the waste of scandalous amounts of money. Until recently, we had this sermon only in Latin, but now I have translated a large portion of it, which you can find in Appendix Three of my book (see link above).Despite the lack of explicit teaching in the Bible against gambling, one can piece together a theological case against the practice. In wisdom teaching such as Proverbs 13:11, the Bible warns that “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle,” and gambling is a strategy for getting rich quick. Gambling tends to be fueled by greed, which the Bible already identifies as sin. Gambling is also an addiction (1 Corinthians 6:12: “I will not be enslaved by anything”), one that wastes huge amounts of money and victimizes poor people who cannot afford to lose it. Don’t let anyone claim that I said gambling is good!
Life is a gamble. I jokingly say that the only gambling I do is on where and when to buy gasoline and goods at the cheapest price. Our economy requires us to make productive gambles like investing in planting a crop, or investing in bonds or stock funds or businesses to earn a return. There is a distinct difference between productive gambling, where value is created, and pure games of chance, which produce nothing but “fun.”
(The term “lottery product” is a humorous self-contradiction. What’s the “fun” in a useless tiny piece of cardboard that almost always proves one to be an automatic loser? The only “fun” I can see is the false hope of winning that one gets for a short time. Perhaps you can tell, I’ve never tried it. But if you want to waste your money that way, that’s your business.)
Faith itself is a gamble. We are all forced to bet our lives on what we believe to be the Truth, and if we bet wrong, we lose big. We who place our faith in Christ to save us are betting our lives that God is real, and that Jesus truly rose from the dead. This is particularly true when we give systematically. I tell people from the pulpit, “You don’t have to go to a riverboat casino to do high-stakes gambling. You can do it right here in the offering plate. The difference is that your chances of winning are far higher with God.”
Epaphroditus “risked his life” for the sake of the Good News of Christ (Philippians 2:30). Likewise, James the brother of Jesus declares that Paul and Barnabas “risked their lives” for Christ (Acts 15:26). That’s the kind of gambling that thrills the soul of God, the kind of risk-taking that will never go to waste (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Gambling is actually the worship of Chance, a poor substitute for God. If the stakes are small, the risk is harmless. But that is true only if we are just playing games. Otherwise, it is better to bet your time, your resources, and your heart on Someone who truly matters. The stakes are eternal. We are playing for keeps.