Bianchi’s Wager

Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French mathematician, physicist and Catholic philosopher. (CR file/public domain)

My five-year-old recently came up to me, and in a cheerful tone, asked, “When are we going to be killed by the coronavirus?” I was caught in a moment of shock, and barely mumbled out, “Baby, we are not going to be killed by the coronavirus.” She smiled and bounced away as if we just had a conversation about our favorite colors.

In the past few weeks, we have all had a greater awareness of our own mortality. The pandemic has forced us to focus on a reality that was always true: we are not going to live forever. Meditating on this truth should not be depressing or morbid, and it should not be avoided. I would argue that we should reflect on it every day, in times of pandemic or not. Why?

Right after we die, we are going to close our eyes to this world and open our eyes to the next. At that moment, we are going to see Jesus face to face. What a moment!

Students take hours to plan for a short presentation. Lawyers prudently spend hours rehearsing for a trial. Couples take years to prepare for marriage. But what about the afterlife? People don’t spend much time preparing for eternity.

I have always found Blaise Pascal’s wager a powerful reflection on eternity. Pascal started with the idea that one cannot have absolute certainty in God’s existence, and similarly, one cannot have absolute certainty that God does not exist. Yet, we must pick one side, or in his words, we must make a wager.

What is the outcome of this wager in the most simplistic terms?

If theists die and God exists, then they are rewarded with heaven. They get to spend an eternity experiencing perfect love and happiness, which is an infinite gain. Conversely if they are wrong, believers will have comfort in their dying moments and still expect to see Jesus after their death, but when they die, they will experience nothing. There will be no disappointment or regret, nor will there be a realization that they were wrong. Theists will not be disappointed after death. They will be vindicated in heaven or they will be wrong and have no consciousness. In Pascal’s equation, theists bet this finite life to gain an infinite reward in the afterlife, and thus, if God does not exist, it is a finite loss.

What about atheists? If God exists and they are wrong, then they will suffer for eternity after they die, an infinite loss. If God does not exist and they are right, they will never know it. If there is no God and no afterlife, they will cease to exist at the moment of their death. There will be no vindication or taunting of theists. There will be nothingness. The best-case scenario of the atheist is oddly similar to the worst-case scenario of the theist. Since atheists, however, do not spend any time attending religious activities, Pascal determined that it is a finite gain for atheists, if God does not exist.

Pascal’s wager has numerous limitations, and its most problematic aspect is the assumptions that all believers go to heaven and all nonbelievers go to hell. I want to address another flaw in his argument, and one where there is a degree of certainty: his claim that believers can suffer a finite loss in this life.

What is the motivation for anyone to wager against God’s existence? Atheists will reply that theists have to give up a lot when they believe in God. Theists sacrifice time and resources dedicated to religious activities that could be spent doing more enjoyable activities. A common belief is that these religious requirements result in atheists having a more fun, happy and joyful existence than theists. The general language of Pascal’s wager supports this analysis. That is, theists suffer a finite loss in this life to gain an infinite reward. But, is the life of an atheist in this world better than a theist?

Pascal’s wager has been altered by secular scholars. Michael Martin formulated the Atheist’s Wager in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. He replaced the choice of believing in God and not believing in God with living a good life and living an evil life. He claimed that a benevolent God would reward a good person with heaven, an infinite gain, and that a good life without no God would result in a positive legacy, a finite gain. Catholics have a different view of justification, but I agree with Martin over Pascal, that leading a good life is a net positive on its own terms.

Justin P. McBrayer formulated a new version of Pascal’s Wager. His main objective to Pascal’s wager is that the rewards and punishments assigned to God cannot be known with certainty. He flipped the wager to only look at this life. “Pascal’s Wager fails because it relies on unjustified assumptions about what happens in the afterlife to those who believe in God versus those who do not. A renewed wager can avoid this difficulty by relying solely on well-documented differences between those who believe in God versus those who do not. Social scientists have put together an impressive set of data that shows that theists do better in terms of happiness, health, longevity, interpersonal relationships, and charitable giving. Hence, most people have a strong reason to believe in God regardless of the evidence.”

I would keep Pascal categories, and his analysis on what happens if God exists. I propose changing his language regarding this life, and that choosing to believe in God could be a finite loss.

I love Catholicism, and I find it beautiful. My faith brings me consolidation and gives me peace. I love Catholic traditions. I love Catholic rituals. I love Catholic communities. I love Catholic culture. I do not see living a life of faith as losing out on something. I see it as providing me with a fuller life.

You can try Pascal’s wager. You can embrace God out of a fear of hell and a hope of heaven, and you can accept his idea that you need to lose this life to gain the next.

Here’s my version of the wager. Embrace an authentic Catholic attitude and see how it impacts your life now. Throw away the bucket list. Give up the rat race of trying to get the biggest and best next thing. Focus instead on increasing your love of God and neighbor. You cannot lose and you will hedge your bet. You will have a richer and happier life now, and you be prepared for an eternity of happiness in the next.

It’s counter-intuitive but as Jesus said betting on him you will save your life whereas those that seek to save their live will lose it (Luke 9:24).

Hanael Bianchi

Hanael Bianchi

Hanael Bianchi is a history professor at a community college in Maryland. He earned his doctorate in modern British history from the Catholic University of America and his master’s degree in modern German history from the University of Connecticut. He is a proud father and husband and author of the Catholic Review's "Fertile Soil" blog.