The question of life after death has always been one of the major bones of contention between Christianity and atheism. After we die do we remain dead, as the atheist claims, or will we, as the Christian claims, be resurrected from the dead to enter our final destinies believers going to Heaven and unbelievers going to Hell? Blaise Pascal, a Catholic mathematician and philosopher, in Section III of his Pensées took a unique approach to this question. Instead of setting forth arguments in favor of Christianity, he asks us to approach the matter as a gambler would in trying to determine where to place his bet. This Wager of Pascal is simply stated: If, as the atheist supposes, after we die we stay dead, then our theological beliefs will have no effect upon our final destiny; but if, as the Christian supposes, after we die we are resurrected by God to face His judgment, then our theological beliefs do affect our final destiny. Therefore, Pascal concluded that a smart gambler will bet on God. If God doesn't exist, he will not have lost anything. But if God does exist, he will have gained Heaven and avoided Hell. Because Pascal's Wager sounds valid, Christians have used it in their evangelistic and polemical forays, and believers have claimed that their pondering of Pascal's Wager has been instrumental in their conversion to Christ.
Much analysis of Pascal's Wager fails to get to the bottom of things, to find the foundation of the various surface ideas. In fact, there are even some thinkers today called anti-foundationalists who are opposed to looking at foundational matters! Fortunately, though, we have available to us the very careful thinking about these foundational matters by one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century, Dr. Cornelius Van Til, who served as Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary for many years. Van Til taught a careful deduction of ideas as they logically follow from Biblical theology, contrasted with ideas that flow from the presuppositions of philosophies that are antithetical to Biblical theology. This Van Til perspective is the tool we need to carefully examine theistic proofs such as Pascal's Wager.
The Van Til perspective lays great stress upon the principle that the ultimate foundation of all thought rests upon the cognitive validity of our knowledge-acquiring abilities (when used as intended and when functioning properly), of which we can only be certain if these abilities were designed and created by God. Let me use my favorite example to demonstrate this point: If the Christian epistemology is true, then it is easy to prove that grass is green. Since God is omniscient, He knows all truth, including the truth that the grass is green and the truth of how to make my eyes and optic nerve and the visual perception parts of the brain so that when I look at grass I will see it as green. Since God is omnicompetent, He is able to make these organs so that they perform correctly so that I see the grass as green. Since God is omnihonest and cannot lie, He does not deceive me by making my visual apparatus such that it would tell me something false about the grass. The Christian epistemology, therefore, is the only basis for real knowledge. It is the only basis upon which we can know that grass is green. (Perhaps it could be said, therefore, that only Christianity has a green epistemology!) If man got here by chance or if man was created by a finite god, i.e., one who is not omniscient, omnicompetent, and omnihonest, then we cannot be sure that our eyes are really telling us the truth about reality.
Begging the Question
The same principle, of course, holds for the other factors involved in the acquiring and verifying of knowledge. For instance, we can only be sure that logic is epistemically valid because God gave it to us. Anyone whose starting point is an uncertainty as to the existence of God cannot consistently set forth any kind of argument because he cannot be sure he knows anything or that his rational faculty is valid. Anyone advancing a theistic proof as a reason for believing in God is therefore guilty of begging the question because he must presuppose the existence of God in order to be able to advance it. But Pascal's Wager claims to be starting not with the presupposition of the existence of God but with an uncertainty as to God's existence. The Christian says, Believe in God because He exists. Pascal's Wager says, We don't know if God exists, but, your best bet is to go with Him rather than atheism. Therefore it is just as logically invalid as are the theistic proofs because it does not presuppose the existence of God.
Pascal's Wager is also theologically objectionable, for two reasons. First, like the theistic proofs, it does not treat God as God. Since God is the ultimate being, He ought to be treated as such in everything we do including the way we frame our arguments. This means that, as the ultimate being, God should, in all our arguments, be regarded as the starting point, the foundation, not simply as the conclusion. Proponents of both theistic proofs and Pascal's Wager claim to believe that God is the ultimate being, the ultimate foundation of all reality, the ultimate truth on which all other truth rests, etc. Yet, in their reasoning they treat God as though He were uncertain, but they treat something else as certain and ultimate, and then they try to derive the existence of God or some truth about God from this other basis. That is, these inconsistent arguers want their hearers to believe in God, but their arguments don't treat God as though He really were God. Whether the existence of God is proven or merely a good bet and the only safe bet, in both cases these apologetes, by the way they argue, undermine their cases because they are not treating God the way He must be treated if He really is what we say He is.
There is a second, closely related, theological flaw in Pascal's Wager this one of a more personal nature. Genuine Biblical conversion involves more than an intellectual belief in the existence of God. It also involves in fact it centers on a personal relationship with God, a relationship which, among other things, grants due honor unto God. If we have even a glimpse of what this must mean, then we will surely need to conclude that anyone who comes to God solely on a Pascal's Wager type of reasoning is actually insulting God. In fact, it is rather dubious, to say the least, that such a person has really been converted at all. Biblical conversion is not a mere betting on the existence of God, just to be on the safe side in case He exists. Nor, can the covenant of grace be reduced to a mere Hell insurance policy. Biblical conversion involves genuine repentance and faith, which involves a radical spiritual change.
This point should be so obvious that it is surprising Pascal's Wager could ever be taken as seriously as it has been by otherwise godly and astute men. Again, if we want people to come to God in repentance and faith then we must treat Him as God or else we are guilty of misrepresenting Him. Anyone with even a modicum of spiritual insight should be able to recognize this. In fact, there are even some atheists who appear to see it more clearly than some Christians. For instance, in his primer for atheist debaters, B.C. Johnson assesses, God may damn anyone who bets' on his existence merely for reasons of prudence. He may consider such a bet' to be an insult.1
Thus, when examined from the Van Til perspective, Pascal's Wager is seen to be not only philosophically superficial but spiritually superficial as well. In fact, it is highly doubtful that the gambler even appreciates what the stakes really are. Does he know what makes Heaven Heaven and what makes Hell Hell? Probably not. Although it is appropriate that Heaven be a beautiful place because God cares about beauty, this is not what makes Heaven Heaven. It is Heaven because believers there will be in the fullest possible fellowship with God unimpeded by any depravity from within or by societal or satanic opposition from without. In short, it is God and our love for God and His love for us that makes Heaven Heaven. C.S. Lewis in his novel The Great Divorce showed that if any of the unsaved were permitted to leave Hell and go to Heaven they would not be comfortable because they were not adapted to live in Heaven, and so they would choose to go back to Hell. In short, he showed that for the unsaved Heaven is not Heaven. But, you see, Pascal's Wager only looks on the surface. It says bet on God, because if He exists, you can go to a place with beautiful trees and streets of gold instead of to a place with burning sulfur. In this framework God is seen only as the means to an end, not as the End Himself. Pascal's Wager does not indicate what Heaven is really like (being in vital relationship and vibrant fellowship with God with all that entails) and what Hell is really like (the horror of being cut off from God and, thus, never finding fulfillment), thus it cannot be taken seriously because it doesn't tell us what the stakes really are. And if it were to tell us what these stakes are, then it would refute itself, because it would show that it is not possible to get into right relationship with God by seeing Him as a prudent bet. Pascal's Wager would see that genuine conversion genuine repentance unto faith is not consistent with such a bet.
The Van Til perspective helps Christians to understand the roots of such theistic philosophies, which are in the final analysis just as misguided as their secular counterparts. And there are several excellent resources for learning more about Dr. Van Til and his teachings. Two by Van Til himself that are very helpful are his The Defense of the Faith and A Christian Theory of Knowledge. The two about Van Til I recommend are R. J. Rushdoony's By What Standard and Robert L. Reymond's The Justification of Knowledge. Two essay collections I recommend are The Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective edited by Gary North, and the Festschrift for Van Til titled Jerusalem and Athens edited by E. R. Geehan.
1. B.C. Johnson, The Atheist Debater's Handbook, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981), 97.