Your support is helping expand Progressive Christianity. We are one of the largest sources for progressive theological perspectives, as well as our thousands of resources. It is hard to overstate their value – every time you donate it expands our ability to do all those essential offerings even better. DONATE NOW!

A New Wager (or perhaps not)

Blaise Pascal wagered that it is better to believe in God as if God existed than not believe as if God didn’t. He argued that if God exists and we believe, then we are positioned by our beliefs to gain eternal happiness; whereas if we don’t believe, then we might have positioned ourselves for eternal torment in hell for not believing. The gains or losses are therefore infinite if God exists.

If God doesn’t exist, then our gains or losses are finite. So if God doesn’t exist and we still believed, then we only might miss out on some finite gains and pleasures that the unbeliever enjoys.

Pascal argues that while we can’t rationally know if God exists or not, it is rational to believe God exists based on the possibility of infinite reward as opposed to infinite punishment if we don’t believe; and that it is more rational to base our decision-making on possible infinite gains or losses rather than probable finite gains or losses.

Unfortunately, Pascal assumed a sort of God, like the culture he lived in, who would eternally reward or punish people based on their short-lived (in comparison to eternity) earthly beliefs. This supposition about God hardly seems fair or reasonable — especially if we consider God to be benevolent, just, and reasonable.

Given that humans have tried and failed to sufficiently prove or disprove God, this consternation would also have considerable weight in any judgments by God as we have assumed God to be. To treat any being who is not omniscient based on their ignorance of things only an omniscient being could know is hardly just or reasonable, much less benevolent.

If God exists and is not benevolent, just, and reasonable then it seems whatever course of life we lead is a crapshoot. If God even bothers to determine our final destiny, it would seem whimsically based, and there is no guarantee we will award ourselves God’s good graces if we believe or not, much less whether we live a good life or not.

But if God does have these admirable virtues, then we need to consider what kind of decision-making such a being would make. If God is benevolent, we can safely assume that God is kind, and probably also compassionate, forgiving, and merciful. If God is just, then we can assume that fairness, proportionality, equitability, and egalitarian values are high on the list of values. And if God is reasonable, then it can be assumed that socio-cultural-psycho-emotional-spiritual-physio-cognitive developmental context, i.e., one’s life limitations and experience, would be considered strongly in passing any judgments on others — especially those who are inferior to oneself in all of these capacities.

Given these assumptions, Pascal’s God does not fit these attributes. No being would condemn any person eternally for wrong beliefs who was benevolent, just, and reasonable. That would contradict these virtues, especially given that even a 100 year life is infinitesimally small compared to forever.

This would also be true based on one’s wrong actions. To make a forever decision based on a minuscule amount of time of wrongdoing is the opposite of benevolent, just, and reasonable. Given a thousand, million, or hundred trillion years (also infinitesimal numbers compared with forever), one may have seen the error of one’s ways and changed.

Indeed, the very concept of eternal reward or punishment based on non-eternal criteria is so antithetical to the traits of God that we have assumed as to make heaven and hell figments of irrational and toxic imaginations rather reasonable and just. Heaven might be conceivable given a benevolent God, but hell is surely out of the question unless it is not within the domain of God to determine.

So all these centuries of Christian speculation on Pascal’s wager have been for naught if God is characterized by the sort of virtues we now assume of God.

We don’t know if God exists or not, but if so, then it only makes sense to believe in a God that is either removed from intervening in human experience (e.g., deism, pantheism, panentheism, etc.) or one that intervenes (e.g., theism) but is benevolent, just, and reasonable to human experience. A theistic God who is whimsical rather than reasonable and just, or malevolent rather than benevolent, is not worth any wager.

Given the atrocities of genocide, torture, and other evils that have punctuated human existence, it is difficult for many, myself included, to conceive of a God who intervenes in human history. The “why?” question simply does not seem resolvable given a benevolent, just, and reasonable God — unless that God is severely limited in power to change things, or simply has chosen not to intervene ever.

I don’t find a God that is limited in either of these two ways intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually appealing; so pantheism or panentheism seems more attractive to my experiences and reasonings than the other options. But as these do not conceive of a divine being that judges us so as to determine our final destiny, one may wonder what to do with thoughts of our final destiny, and how we should live our lives if there is no being to make a decision on this matter.

Frankly, the question of final destiny is not of interest to me given my assumptions and values. If I am to live my best life, I should not be considering my rewards or punishments, but rather doing the right thing come what may. To need an ulterior motive to be good does not mesh with my notion of what it is to be good. If one has to be convinced of reasons to be good, one obviously is not good in my book.

And if, by chance there is a divine being that is benevolent, just, and reasonable that determines my fate, then I fully suspect, while I find no motivation in the notion, that such a being would judge one more favorably who admitted he didn’t know if such a God existed and still decided to be good, rather than those who believed rightly and acted well because they sought reward or aversion to punishment. Indeed, there is a Jewish tradition that claims the 33 most righteous are those who doubted or disbelieved in God’s existence but were good anyway.

The question about how I should live, therefore, does matter — as I think it would for anyone who values virtue in and of itself, and not as a condition for obtaining reward or avoiding punishment.

For some, the problem of this perspective is that it is difficult to get converts. There is no motive to be good other than the motive of goodness itself. If someone is not naturally good or has not come to already see the value of goodness based on their prior experiences and reasonings, it will be difficult to convince them of the goodness of being good.

Agreed. Consequently, my objective in relating to other people is not to convert them, as much as I’d love to see that happen, but rather to be good to them regardless if they ever get the inspiration to go and do likewise. If they can’t see the value of being good for its own sake, I do not know how they will ever be convinced by this through argumentation or by being a good example to them. And any attempt on my part to coerce or force them to be good would not only defeat the purpose of them actually being good, but would also undermine my own goodness.

Jesus did not force people to be good, even though he did sometimes encourage them with thoughts of reward and discouraged them with thoughts of punishment; if the words written about him in the gospels are accurate.

But my guess is he used these ulterior motives to pragmatically get them to see the light of being altruistic and benevolent rather than actually thinking that rewards or punishments were themselves good reasons for being good. The Golden Rule and the Great Commandment, which he espoused as the precepts by which spiritually perceptive and mature people are to live their lives, neither one promised receiving reward or avoiding punishment. They were regarded as good in themselves — whether as duties to God or goodness itself, or as a constitutive precept of the virtue of compassion revered by all the world’s religions.

So, to my thinking, there need to be no wager in which we calculate our rewards or punishments based either on our beliefs in God or being good because we believe there might be a God.

If there be anything I’d wager, it is that being good is its own blessing, for self and others (if pragmatism must be considered), and that if there is any God which theistically exists, then it stands to reason that one defined by benevolence, justice, and reasonableness would choose a virtuous agnostic over a self-serving believer.

Of course, whatever be the case, it won’t change my outlook. My real wager, one I can’t see losing whether I’m right or wrong in my beliefs, is to consider the good and virtuous life as good in itself. If I’m right, then I’ve lived as I should have — as well as I could, with love, peaceableness, justice, compassion, loving-kindness, etc. If I’m wrong, I lived in the best possible way, as well as I could, and my inaccurate belief helped both myself and others. While that is not much of a wager, it is a win-win for everyone — whether my beliefs are right or wrong.

— Rev. Bret S. Myers

Review & Commentary