This post is part of a series.

Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ is often misunderstood, and maligned by anti-theists as an argument from lack of evidence, or worse, merely a threat of hellfire.

But on closer inspection, this theological conundrum elucidated by the great scientist, mathematician, and Christian well known for his intellectual Christian apologetic Pensees, is a masterful logical rebuke of atheism from a probability perspecitve – and Pascal is basically the father of the discipline of probability.

Blaise Pascal provides a serious evaluation of the reasonableness of seeking for God rather than foolishly betting against the odds that God exists.

1. What is Pascal’s Wager?

Simply put, Pascal’s wager can be said this way – since our reason is limited, and can neither confirm nor deny the existence of God entirely, we would be safer to bet that God does exist than wager our lives that He does not.

If we live as if God exists, and he does not, we lose little, and end up living good lives (as long as that living involves true spirituality, not the bondage of empty religion).  However, if we live as if God does NOT exist, and He DOES, the consequences are astronomical.

2. Pascal’s wager as a risk formula

Here’s an easy way to quantify what’s going on here.  In Project Management, there is a standard method for assessing risk, which is a simple mathematical formula for determining how great a risk is:

Risk = likelihood  X  impact

Likelihood is defined as ‘how likely, or possible is it that the negative event will happen?’  Highly likely, moderately, or not very likely?  Impact is defined as ‘how devastating would it be if this event actually happened?’

So, for example, let’s say that I ame building a dog house, and I want to ask myself, ‘what would keep me from getting this done this weekend?’  What could interfere?  Let’s say I identify three possibilities.

  • The hardware store will be out of wood
  • President Obama will spend more of my tax money
  • I will hurt myself with a power tool

To evaluate these, I might put them in a grid like so:

table3

As you can see, when either of the two factors is low, the total risk is low, but when both are moderate to high, the risk goes up quickly.

Pascal’s wager can be evaluated the same way:

table4

So, if you live Godly, Pascal argues, and there is no God, you lose very little (low risk).  But if you live like there is NO God and are wrong, the risk associated with being wrong is astronomical.

You’ll notice that I used a LOW likelihood that God exists, but this doesn’t actually matter because the more important factor, the impact of being wrong, is INFINITE if the Biblical God is real and we don’t acknowledge that.

That is, if the monotheistic story of judgment after death is correct, and failing in judgment means eternal (infinite) separation from God, then the risk is also infinite, since ANY likelihood multiplied by an infinite impact is infinite.

That is, unless the likelihood of God’s existence is ZERO.  Then, the risk is zero (0 times infinity = 0, although I remember from my calc days that this might not be strictly true – infinity is just a theoretical construct).

So atheists basically are betting on the proposition that the likelihood that the monotheistic or Christian God exists is ZERO. Pascal argues that, since you have absolutely NO WAY to use reason and science to PROVE that this God does not exist, you must allow for at least an infinitesimal likelihood that God exists, and therefore, your risk goes back to infinitely high.

Now, this is merely using reason and mathematics (two things Pascal was skilled at) to show that betting on the non-existence of God is an unreasonable choice.  And atheists, who claim to be servants of reason alone, ought to admit that their own logic would drive them to this same conclusion.  However, it often does not, and they raise objections which I will address in Part II.