Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan maintains the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, an extensive collection of theological classics that can be read online for free. Whether you’re looking for a pithy quote from Saint Athanasius for your blog, or an alternative to computer solitaire during those low-energy afternoons in your cubicle, CCEL is the place for you.
I came across this resource via James Kiefer’s thumbnail biography of Blaise Pascal at The Daily Office yesterday, which is worth quoting below for its elucidation of an often-oversimplified argument:
Pascal’s WagerLately I’ve been wondering if salvation is more of a continuum than a bright line between sheep and goats. What Kiefer calls the Lollipop theory sounds like some sermons I’ve heard in evangelical churches where the official line is that only Christians are saved.
One argument used by Pascal has been much ridiculed and (in my judgement) much misunderstood. It has come to be called Pascal’s Wager, and may be stated thus: “If Christianity is true, then you stand to gain infinitely by accepting it. If it is false, then you stand to lose only a finite amount of well-being by accepting it. Therefore the odds make deciding to become a Christian the sensible move.”
This has been attacked with great bitterness and vigour. First, it is said, this argument makes the Christian a cynical opportunist, who accepts Christ, not out of love or gratitude, but out of a calculation of which side his bread is likely to be buttered on. Second, it is said, it supposes that the world is ruled by a Power who rewards those who are lucky (or opportunistic, or sycophantic), while punishing the others. Third, it is said, the proposed argument is logically as well as morally defective, in that it simply assumes that Christianity and secular humanism are the only possibilities to be considered. Let us introduce the theory that the universe is ruled by a Power who detests Christians, so that if you die a Christian you will boil in oil forever, but otherwise you will party forever. Now the choice is not so simple as Pascal would make it.
On a Lollipop theory of heaven, these objections make sense. By a Lollipop theory, I mean one that views heaven and hell simply as arbitrary rewards and punishments handed out, like giving toys and sweetmeats to some children, “because they have been nice,” while giving switches or lumps of coal to other children, “because they have been naughty.” Those who understand Heaven and Hell in a Lollipop sense are (on my view) quite right to find the Wager argument wanting.
But suppose that by heaven we mean an eternal union with Christ. When persons seek to understand (by a study of the Scriptures or by participation in the life of the Christian community, or by seeing what is perhaps Christ at work in the lives of Christian friends) what Christ is like, or what it would mean to be in a right relationship with Him, some of them (not all) conclude that to be in such a relationship is such a glorious prospect that it is indeed worth making the central goal of one’s life.
They are in a position rather like that of an athlete who has made winning the Boston Marathon his top priority. If you want to win the Marathon, then you train for it. You eat a healthy diet, and all that. Perhaps this is a waste of time and effort. Perhaps there is someone in Germany who is so much faster than you that you will never beat him no matter how well you prepare. Perhaps the Boston Marathon will be called off because of a Third World War or an invasion from outer space. All you know is that you have a better chance of winning if you train than if you don’t. And if the Boston Marathon is all you care about, then that is all you need to know.
Suppose that I have made the goal of union with Christ all that I care about, or more probably, have decided that it is a great enough good so that it ought to be all that I care about. Then every course of action is to be judged by the single criterion, “Will it move me closer to my goal of union with Christ?” Obviously, if Christ is an illusion, then nothing will move me closer to him, and it does not matter what I do. But if He is not an illusion, then obviously seeking to love Him, trust Him, and obey Him is more likely to get me into a right relation with Him than the opposite strategy. And so it will be the one I take.
Basically, the default scheme is that everyone goes to hell except those people who have accepted Christ. But what does that acceptance actually consist of? Abiding in Christ and being remade in his image is a slow, bumpy, lifelong affair. To discourage constant paranoid scrutiny of one’s religious feelings (“is my faith enough to be a saving faith?”), some preachers will distinguish between the decision for Christ, which gets you in, and discipleship, which is more of a long-term process. In my opinion, that reduces baptism to a magic formula, a form of works-righteousness, where we force God to move us from column A to column B via external acts that have not yet transformed the whole person (for how could they?). It severs the logical connection between faith and its reward.
It seems to me that faith is recognizing that eternal union with God in Christ is the most desirable of all goods, and heaven is experiencing that union. God doesn’t need to send people to hell because they idolized lesser goods. Darkness isn’t the punishment for being blind, it is being blind. As C.S. Lewis might say, at the end of time, we will all see what gods we really worshipped. Some Christians may be surprised. I hope I’m not one of them.
…oops, typo. “Or” in last stanza should have read “Nor”…
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Pascal’s Wager, to me, always seemed like a clever way to stop people for a moment. Often, I think, keeping us running is the best way the evil one has to prevent us noticing the great light right there in front of us. Or to use a different analogy (Lewis’ from The Screwtape Letters) – in hell there is no silence. Stopping, looking, listening – then we can hear the still small voice, the knock on the door of our hearts.
And for people with lives and minds run by logic, reason, carefully constructed thought and system, it might take something like Pascal’s interesting proposition to put on the brakes, turn down the volume, open our eyes. It might start out with, “That’s silly!” but it might linger in the mind, a seed planted for later. I can’t say what effect it might have had on me, I had already returned to Jesus after the late teenage years in the wilderness, but I can picture it growing inside people who lived in that place.
And, finally, Pascal’s Wager seems a fitting route for man to consider God. To quote from “A Man for All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More says, “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” Amen. And few minds have served him as wittily, or made such interesting paths through the tangle, as Blaise Pascal. Thanks for writing this post.