Taking Another Look at Pascal’s Wager

(photo: Register Files)

Taking Pascal’s Wager: Faith, Evidence, and the Abundant Life by Michael Rota, a Catholic philosophy professor, is an interesting consideration of whether one should choose to live a Christian life. Written for readers who have no formal training in philosophy or theology in a very accessible format, Professor Rota presents, in this newly released book, Blaise Pascal’s seventeenth century argument, which we now know as “Pascal’s Wager.” Pascal originally intended the wager to be for people who do not have a firm belief in God or are wavering in their faith.

Professor Rota makes this offer again in light of recent studies and evidence, and he begins his book by presenting his readers with decision theory. One uses decision theory to “form a judgment about how valuable various outcomes are,” and in this book Professor Rota uses decision theory to convince his readers to seek a relationship with God. He explains that Pascal’s wager can be summed up in this way: if there is a 50% probability that Christianity is true than “it is rational to seek a relationship with God and live a deeply Christian life because there is much to gain and very little to lose.” If God does exist, the gain of choosing a relationship with God is a higher chance of eternal happiness and an abundant, well lived life, whereas, if one chooses to not seek a relationship of God one can live as one pleases but risks losing eternal happiness forever. The gain of eternal happiness with God seems much more rational to choose than the loss of it forever.

While Pascal’s wager sounds reasonable, it also seems like a very strange way to approach whether one should start living a Christian life. It could seem very cold and rational to weigh the gains and losses against each other, and say to oneself, “this is where I will potentially gain the most so that is what I am going to do.” It really is a sort of gamble. And at first glance, it seems entirely opposed to what a living faith should be, and maybe for some people it is not the way faith should be approached. But I think that for certain people, this approach could be the very thing they need to take the leap into seeking a relationship with God.

In typical philosopher form, Professor Rota anticipates these types of arguments against his position, and presents strong defenses of what he has to say and explains it all very clearly. One particularly interesting point is when he uses the story of the Prodigal Son to defend one who chooses to seek a relationship with God for one’s own benefit. The selfish, destitute, son was welcomed home with open arms, and that model is precisely what Professor Rota hopes for those who take the wager and seek a relationship with God. 

Taking the wager is much more than simply believing in God, but it is taking the time to do the things that a committed Christian needs to do to really live a Christian life. It is going to church on Sundays, reading the Bible, reading other works that increase one’s knowledge of God and the Christian faith, it is taking part in a Christian community, and it is seeking a relationship with God through daily, regular prayer. When one takes the wager, one becomes like the Psalmist saying, “I stretch out my hand to thee; my soul thirsts for thee like a parched land, Make haste to answer me, O Lord! My spirit fails! Hide not they face from me” (Psalm 143:6-7). God will respond to one who seeks him and transform one’s initial decision to seek God to a deeper faith.

The idea is that if one does these things, then they will experience the beauty, the truth, the fullness of having a relationship with God and will be glad that they took the plunge.

After presenting the wager, and how it rational to take it if Christianity is more likely true than not, Professor Rota goes on to present his evidence for the truth of Christianity. First, he gives two arguments for the existence of God based in science and philosophy, including the most difficult part of the book on probability theory. Here, once again, it seems strange to begin one’s faith based on scientific evidence and probability, but it might be a great place to start for people scientifically and mathematically inclined or even people who have not had emotional or spiritual encounters with God. I think that the book could also be helpful for someone who has faith, but might appreciate a scientifically based argument for God’s existence.

Professor Rota then spends some time looking at the beauty of Christianity and the life of Christ in relation to the human condition and the moral teachings that Christ gave and lived. He responds to arguments against God based in divine hiddenness and the problem of evil. He then looks at historical evidence to defend the possibility of the Resurrection emphasizing that if God does exist, then of course he could bring a dead person back to life. Professor Rota also responds to the idea that the Resurrection is simply a myth.

The last section of the book is a look at the lives of three 20th century Christians in the face of difficulties. In the face of the atrocities that take place all over the world, it is very easy to dismiss the idea that there is a loving God who cares about us. If he really cared, why is there such suffering? Yet, Professor Rota presents three people who lived fully committed, Christian lives in the face of evil and found an abundant life because of it.

Finally, Professor Rota asks his readers, given all that he has argued and presented, is the wager worth taking? It is as straightforward as that. Pascal says, “Either God is or he is not,” and as Professor Rota concludes, “You can seek God or you can ignore him. You can wager for God , or against God. In the end, these are the only two options: to do nothing is to place one’s bets on the possibility that God does not exist.”

Is this book for everyone to read? Probably not, but I really think that it could help someone who is not sure whether to believe in God or not. It could give them the push they need. And for others, it could reaffirm for them the choice they have made. I can think of several people among my acquaintance for whom this book might be helpful for, and I plan to share it with them.