Why do we have so little time to reflect on things? After all, our lives are filled with fast cars, microwaves, and the glories of the Keurig machine. You’d think we'd have more time!
Blaise Pascal, in the 1600s, argued it’s because we want to be busy, not because we have to be.
Reflecting on Pascal’s insights, the Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft writes (1993), “Hell is not populated mainly by passionate rebels but by nice, bland, indifferent, respectable people who simply never gave a damn” (p.196).
If that offends us, it should! Blaise Pascal was an offensively profound thinker. His famous “Pascal’s Wager” is often touted as a shallow play at the odds, but what is Pascal really saying? And why – in the words of a Christian philosopher – should we give a damn?
At this point, I won’t lie. Pascal was love at first sight for me. Or rather, love at first hearing. The first time I heard of this crazed mathematician was when a Pentecostal preacher reflected on the fact that Pascal had something sown into his coat pocket, discovered at his death.
It was a note.
“FIRE. The God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and of the learned.”
This was something he’d written in response to a vision he’d had in 1654. It was Monday, Nov. 23rd. We know this because he recorded the exact date for himself to remember. It shaped him.
That’s radical, isn’t it? Pascal died when he was 39. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t. Here’s his wager, and what it really means:
Simply, it goes like this. You have one life. Invest it. If you invest it in a search for God, you gain everything if He is real and lose little if He isn’t.
BUT if you don’t seek him, you lose everything anyway, whether He exists or not. Therefore, invest it in a search for God.
Now, why isn’t this shallow? Here’s why.
First, Pascal was right about people. He wrote, “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” Once again, a deeply misunderstood statement. He isn’t saying emotion trumps reason.
What Pascal meant was that people aren’t rational, PERIOD. They are rational, COMMA.
People are more than machines that process information. We are psychological reasoners. That is, we are beings whose wills, minds, and hearts are bound up with our experience and intuition to make us who we are.
We’re temples of worship. There are two reasons why God is worthy of the greatest wager. First, because God unlocks the human paradox. Second, because we DON’T have just one life.
God unlocks the human paradox
After my recent debate in Seattle (before a crowd of about 300 – mostly atheists), I was approached by many atheists with many questions. In fact, I debated all night. In-between the debate and the Q&A, on my way down to my book table…let’s just say, I got a lot of feedback. One remark came from a man who said I shouldn’t have used a remark that I did.
In my debate I made a comment about the finitude of human reason, that we can’t foresee the consequences of even the smallest of life’s details. I used an illustration: a woman’s nose once changed history. It was Cleopatra’s. After all, if her nose had been long and pointy, Mark Antony wouldn’t have fallen in love with, fought a civil war over her in Rome, etc.
Ironically, the atheist remarked that I shouldn’t use stories like that in my debate, but that instead I should use more philosophy. The irony is that it WAS philosophy: Blaise Pascal’s!
It was a page right out of his book, so to speak. In fact, it was Pascal’s very own illustration. Pascal hit the nail on the head about what people are. He called us a “paradox.” In fact, all of Pascal’s life is somewhat of a paradox.
He belittled philosophy, but was deeply wedded to it. He scorned reason, yet utilized it. He mined the depth of humanity, but came out on the other end with “Pascal’s Wager.”
A paradox, however, is something that only seems contradictory but isn’t. We just lack the key to understanding it. Christianity, for Pascal, is the key to the human condition. It fits the human lock, and it opens us.
How so? Because, Pascal says, we are small yet great. Like Cleopatra’s nose, people turn the tide of history and yet are petty as a pimple. We are greater than the universe itself, because we can comprehend it. The universe is indifferent, blind and dumb. And yet, we’re stuck inside of its vastness. Similarly, we’re valiant but cowardly; greatly evil, and wonderfully good.
Pascal saw us as a deposed royalty. This condition of ours, it only makes sense if (1) we were made from something great, for something great and (2) we are fallen creatures.
It is to creatures such as these, not indifferent calculating machines, that the wager comes. Christianity offers so much more than a ticket to heaven. It offers a way to make sense of your life.
We don’t have just one life
Furthermore, the wager speaks into the best of us, not the worst. We all have two lives. The ones we lead, and the ones we ought to be leading. The way we are, and the way we were meant to be.
Simply put, we were made for something more. We were made for something precious, and God offers that preciousness in Himself.
In my previous post, I reflected on God’s search for us. If I lost one of my three young daughters in the woods, I’d never say, “two out of three is good enough," and go home. I'd search all night. That’s how God searches for us. Pascal’s Wager should be similarly understood in light of our search for God.
If the sheriff told you that there was only a 1% chance you’d find your missing child, would you still send out a search party? Of course you would. Because you realize it’s worth the risk. Your child matters.
In the same way, your life matters. It isn’t about weighing the odds. It’s about abandoning the odds for a moment and stepping back. We are a paradox, aren’t we? Many of us are too busy to realize it. Maybe, as Kreeft writes, we don’t give a damn, because we don’t want to face that. It’s offensive. It’s hard. But it’s true.
Then comes Pascal, and he offers you a better way to live. A higher way to live. It is worth it?
It’d bet my life on it, and so should you.
“There are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him.”
– Blaise Pascal
Kreeft, Peter. Christianity for Modern Pagans. Ignatius Press, 1993.
Fernandes, Phil. On Apologetic Methodology: An Interview with Phil Fernandes. http://www.apologetics315.com/search/label/Phil%20Fernandes