Pascal’s Wager is a fairly well known concept set forth by the French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662). In Dinesh D’Souza’s [recently released] book “What’s So Great About Christianity”, Pascal’s Wager is defined and addressed in a very succinct, effective and clear manner. In the spirit of using something like this from somewhere else instead of trying to reproduce my own commentary (a reproduction which probably wouldn’t be as good anyway), I’ll provide D’Souza’s treatment of the Wager.
From the chapter named “A Skeptic’s Wager: Pascal and the Reasonableness of Faith”, D’Souza says (the particularly bold assertion he makes is that [paraphrasing] ‘no rational person would refuse to have faith in God’):
Pascal argues that in life we have to gamble. Let’s say you are offered a new job that may take your career to new heights. It looks extremely promising, but of course there are risks. There is no way in advance to know how things will turn out. You have to decide whether to go for it. Or you are in love with a woman. You have been dating for a while, yet you cannot be certain what marriage to her for the next several decades is going to be like. You proceed on the basis of what you know, but what you know is, by the nature of the matter, inadequate. Yet you have to make a decision. You cannot keep saying, “I will remain agnostic until I know for sure.” If you wait too long, she will marry someone else, or both of you will be dead.
In the same way, Pascal argues that in making our decision about God, we will never understand everything in advance. No amount of rational investigation can produce definitive answers, as what comes after death remains unknown. Therefore we have to examine the options and make our wager. But what are the alternatives, and how should we weight the odds? Pascal argues that we have two basic choices, and either way we must consider the risk of being wrong.
If we have faith in God and it turns out that God does not exist, we face a downside risk: metaphysical error. But if we reject God during our lives, and it turns out God does exist, there is much more serious risk: eternal separation from God. Based on these two possible outcomes, Pascal declares that it is much less risky to have faith in God. In the face of an uncertain outcome, no rational person would refuse to give up something that is finite if there is a possibility of gaining an infinite prize. In fact, under these conditions it is unreasonable not to believe. Pascal writes, “Let us weigh up the gain and loss involved in calling heads that God exists. If you win, you win everything. If you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate, then: wager that he does exist.”
The ingenuity of Pascal’s argument is that it emphasizes the practical necessity of making a choice. This necessity is imposed by death. There comes a day when there are no tomorrows, and then we all have to cast our votes for or against the proposition on the ballot.
I don’t see how any person could read the previous excerpt and not get some strong feeling out of it - Christians one of comfort and vindication… atheists one of disgust, anger and potentially discomfort.
Now… on to the complimentary topic, The Point of Contact. What am I talking about here? Again, unsurprisingly, this is something I’ve gotten from another source. In the book “Reasons of the Heart – Recovering Christian Persuasion” the author William Edgar put this name and a solid description to this concept. In doing so, he’s tied in a portion of the book of Romans that has always been particularly interesting to me. So, using his words, what are we talking about here? We’re talking about “…an ancient preoccupation in apologetics, matching the message to the audience or making a ‘point of contact’.”
What does Edgar assert that The Point of Contact is? Again, I’ll let him describe by quoting from Chapter 5 – A Rich Palette:
Over the centuries people have debated about where that point of contact is. Is it because people are reasonable and so we can communicate when we properly use reason? From Pascal’s phrase, reasons of the heart, we realize that unaided, unqualified reason is not enough; people are more than rational machines. Besides, our rationality is tainted by our motives, sin and self-interest.
… If the point of contact does not lie in unaided reason, where is it? Simply put, the Bible sees it in the knowledge everyone already possesses of God’s reality. According to Romans 1:19-21 all people know God, being surrounded by his revelation. Whether or not they fully acknowledge him or process the information correctly, every person is aware of God just by virtue of being human.
… This point is no doubt controversial. The Bible states it baldy without any explanation, yet the knowledge of God is not readily apparent in many unbelievers – because of a complicating factor. Though it is perfectly true that human beings have God’s revelation, it does not follow that they process it correctly. Again, according to Romans 1, though we know God, we refuse to acknowledge him or give him thanks. What Paul literally says is that we suppress the truth, “holding” it in unrighteousness. The Greek word means something like “put into prison.” That is, in refusing to be thankful to the Creator, we put the truth behind bars.
Thus in effect, Paul says that in various ways and through various expressions, all people are somehow hiding from the God they really know. We live in a kind of contradiction, a paradox: On the one hand, everyone has a religious impulse, whether overtly religious or not. Yet on the other hand, somewhere that impulse has gone wrong.
I would feel remiss at this point if I did not mention one other point the author makes. He contends that we not only fail in our apologetics if we stop at the unmasking of unbelief, but that we are being unbiblical and cruel because we are leaving people in a hopeless position. He addresses this notion by providing a positive follow up to this ‘unmasking’, something he calls ‘Coming Home’. I’ll not give any more detail about this, as this begins to skew from the original subject and intent of the post, but like I said, I felt like I would be quoting the author out of context in a way that he would not approve of if I didn’t at least mention the ‘Coming Home’ concept.
Okay then, back to the original intent of the post, which is that I see quite a complementary relationship between Pascal’s Wager and The Point of Contact. Pascal’s Wager, especially as summarized by D’Souza, seems convincing enough to me to warrant a person at least bring some humility and genuine desire to the table in terms of seeking God. But then, when you combine the Wager with the The Point of Contact, or that is to say when you combine the Wager with the bold and [likely] offensive commentary the Creator God provides about the nature of the beings He created, this begins to feel to me like it would be quite a prickly and bothersome tandem for an unbeliever.
To be clear, I’m not asserting that any of this is enough for an unbeliever to take in and then simply flip some internal switch which then allows them to be a believer. But, as I said before, it seems like more than enough to bring some humility and a genuine desire to seek God to the table.
A better way to describe this than “prickly and bothersome” can be found by going back to a piece of the aforementioned scripture (verse 20 of Romans 1 - ESV): “So they are without excuse.”