Pascal & His Wager
Blaise Pascal, 1623 A.D to 1662 A.D., noted author, thinker, mathematician, and philosopher, is famous for positing a thought argument about death, judgment, heaven, and hell that has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager.” Pascal said any rational person would live as if God exists so that one, perhaps, could live in heaven. This is a summary of Pascal’s Wager:
God is or He is not. If He is, heaven is possible, an eternal paradise in which one is forever happy, having every desired totally fulfilled. Even if one is an agnostic or an atheist, one should act now on this earth as would a true believer, in a way which would merit such everlasting happiness – and avoid, if it exists, any eternal punishment, hell, or everlasting fire. One should “bet,” not knowing the outcome, that heaven does exist. One should place this eschatological wager because the possible winnings, the mega-millions of eternal happiness, far outweigh the possibility of nothingness after death.
Pascal contended that any intelligent person would see the wisdom and truth of this, and would, accordingly, live a life of virtue to “win” the wager for the afterlife.
Pascal was not the first thinker to posit the wager. Protagoras, a sophist philosopher (c. 490 B.C. – 420 B.C.) lived an implicit version of the wager. Although he was an agnostic, he still continued to worship the gods of ancient Greece.
Arnobius of Sicca, an early Father Of The Church who died around 330 A.D, stated the wager explicitly in his writings. Because of his North African Berber origins, Arnobius is also known as “Arnobius Afer.” He was a convert from paganism to Christianity.
In the only book of Arnobius to survive, Against The Pagans, he states his version of the God/eternity wager:
Since, then, the nature of the future is such that it cannot be grasped and comprehended by any anticipation, is it not more rational, of two things uncertain and hanging in doubtful suspense, rather to believe that which carries with it some hopes, than that which brings none at all? For in the one case there is no danger, if that which is said to be at hand should prove vain and groundless; in the other there is the greatest loss, even the loss of salvation, if, when the time has come, it be shown that there was nothing false in what was declared.
Arnobius vigorously defended monotheism and Christianity and the divinity of Christ, particularly by asserting the rapid spread of Christianity to most of the then-known world, its civilizing influence on even barbarians, and its agreement with some of the best then-extant philosophies. He wrote Against the Pagans (also known as Against The Heathen) during the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians to rebut and demolish pagan arguments that the woes of the times were caused by the wide promulgation of Christianity throughout the Roman empire.
Arnobius’s Prayer – Sometimes We Must Be Silent
Perhaps more uplifting than his God/eternity wager is a sublime prayer written by Arnobius. It implicitly states many positions of faith going beyond human understanding, especially the wisdom to be preferred to some of the then-current atheistic teachings and agnostic philosophies. This prayer has been described by one scholar as “worthy of admiration”:
O greatest, O Supreme Creator of things invisible! O You who are Yourself unseen, and who are incomprehensible! You are worthy, You are verily worthy — if only mortal tongue may speak of You — that all breathing and intelligent nature should never cease to feel and to return thanks; that it should throughout the whole of life fall on bended knee, and offer supplication with never-ceasing prayers. For You are the first cause; in You created things exist, and You are the space in which rest the foundations of all things, whatever they be. You are illimitable, unbegotten, immortal, enduring for aye, God Yourself alone, whom no bodily shape may represent, no outline delineate; of virtues inexpressible, of greatness indefinable; unrestricted as to locality, movement, and condition, concerning whom nothing can be clearly expressed by the significance of man’s words. That You may he understood, we must be silent; and that erring conjecture may track You through the shady cloud, no word must be uttered. Grant pardon, O King Supreme, to those who persecute Your servants; and in virtue of Your benign nature, forgive those who fly from the worship of Your name and the observance of Your religion. It is not to be wondered at if You are unknown; it is a cause of greater astonishment if You are clearly comprehended. ( Against the Heathen)
There have been many criticisms of the logic and presuppositions of the Arnobius/Pascal Wager. Still, even for adamant and determined atheists, there must be that nagging little voice that says (like that silly tiny voice that periodically tells one to buy at least one lottery ticket): “Place your bet because it might be true, you might win, and the prize is infinite.”