Explaining Pascal’s Wager

September 27, 2013


“I thought we should name it “Blaise-ing Hot Gamble” but oh well.”

Let’s say that you are on your death bed and you are fairly sure that either Christianity is right or atheism. Your not sure which. Which should you choose? A philosopher from the 17th century named Blaise Pascal proposed we look at this decision like a wager. Since his time, this has been known by the creative name….. Pascal’s Wager. Here is an explanation.

A good way to measure financial investment is to multiply the odds of various decisions by the potential rewards. So say you have stock A that has a 50% chance of making $100 and stock B that has a 70% chance of making $70. Which do you invest in? The answer that MBAs like me would give you is to multiply each scenario out and see which had more value. For stock A that would be $100*.5 = $50 in value. For stock B that would be $70*.7=$49 in value. So I would recommend investing in stock A.

Well, if you are really decided between two choices, Christianity and Atheism and you are somewhere in the middle on which is right (say you are 30% sure that Christianity is right and 70% sure that atheism is right). Well let’s evaluate the results in each scenario:

If it turns out atheism is right the atheist gets blackness and nothingness at death. And the Christian gets blackness and nothingness at death.

So the net investment is a wash (or if you want to throw in the fun of this life that you may get from shagging guilt free there is that but even polls of happiness in this life are a bit of a wash between atheists and Christians). Let’s assign a number for blackness and nothingness on a happiness scale ranking 1-100. I would say nothing is smack dab in the middle (neither happy nor sad). Let’s say 50.

If it turns out that Christianity is right the results are infinite happiness for the Christian and eternal weeping for the atheist. This is clearly the benefit for the Christian. So on the happiness scale the atheist gets a 1 and the Christian gets 100.

So let’s evaluate which is a better wager.

The results for the person who is 70% sure that atheism is right and 30% sure that Christianty is right go like this depending on their choice:

If they choose atheism and are right they get 50 happiness points. If they choose atheism the best result they could get is 50 happiness points. And there is a 70% chance that they could get that. The value of the atheist investment is 50 minus a 30% chance of Christianity being right (or 100 happiness points times 0.3) so the value of that investment is 50-30 = 20.

If they choose Christianity the worst case scenario is 50. But then we can add to that that the chance that Christianity is right. 30% times 100 happiness points. That makes the value of the Christian investment 80%.

So, clearly, it would make sense to choose Christianity if you were approximately 70/30 split between the two on which is right.

In fact, (when you do the math) you will find it makes no difference what percent sure you are (90/10, 95/5 etc) unless you are 100% sure it always makes more sense to be a Christian.

This only wold be truly a valid measure on the death bed (taking this life out of the factoring). But if you accept the studies that show that Christians are more happy in this life, then it makes even more sense to be Christian.

You could even throw in some factor for another religion being right (say a 5% chance that Islam is right). You could do that calculation and unless the Islam percentage surpassed Chrsitianity. it would still make sense to be a Christian. If you are more sure that Islam is right than Christianity though you should become a Muslim. Say you are 70/20/10 atheism/Christianity/Islam you should be a Christian but if it went to 70/10/20 you should be a Muslim.

I would argue (as a Christian) that a wonderful thing happens when you enter a relationship with God. You become 100% sure. When you walk with God and know God the odds melt away. I am 100% sure that Christianity is right. I have zero doubt.


February 14, 2013

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say that the bible is a tool of oppressors and tyranny. But this is the opposite of the truth. To the contrary, the bible is written for and by oppressed people.

Here are some examples of the bible standing up for the weakest members of society (pretty unique stuff in ancient literature). Notice the theme that goes throughout the Old Testament (notice that it is not just in one book but the whole OT) regarding caring for the three groups of people who suffered the greatest in ancient societies – the widow, the orphans and the strangers (those of other nationalities and races within the midst of Israel).

Exodus 22:22-23 22 “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.

Deuteronomy 24:17-22 17 Do not deprive the stranger or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. 19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Deuteronomy 26:12 12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.
Deuteronomy 27:19 19 “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the stranger, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Psalm 146:9 9 The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

Isaiah 1:17 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

Jeremiah 7:5-7 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever.

Jeremiah 22:3 3 This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Zechariah 7:10 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’

And in the New Testament, the theme gets even more pronounced with Jesus (God incarnate) personally helping widows (Luke 7), orphans (luke 18) and strangers (Mark 7).

The Apostle James sums up the whole Christian religion this way:

James 1:27 – 2:1 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
So. When you trash the Bible keep in mind that your attacks are lies (YES I used the word lie because I really believe it). The bible is not a friend of the slave owner or the oppressor. It is a friend of the slave and the oppressed.

For those of you looking for the biblical case complementarianism (male headship, elders, and leaders in the church), these articles might be helpful:

Introduction to the Debate
Who believes what?
The meaning of headship
The meaning of submission
Analysis of Ephesians 5
Headship before or after the fall
Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:12
Analogy with Slavery
Analysis of 1 Corinthians 14
Was Junius a Female Apostle?
Should Women Serve as Elders?

The Christian Century

July 29, 2012

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink.” – John Lennon

It seems to be common knowledge that Christianity is in decline. Once upon a time everyone was Christian but no more. Now the church is in free fall. Many are using this as a call to radical change. For example, Rachel Held Evans says that evangelicals are losing young people because we are focused on the culture war instead of being grace filled Christians. Others think we need to reinvent church. 

I hate to break it to everyone. Christianity is not in trouble. It is not declining. It is not shrinking. It is certainly not in free fall. John Lennon said in 1965 that Christianity will vanish from the earth. He could not have been more wrong. In fact, Lennon was in the middle of a century of amazing world wide growth of the church. There was so much global growth that sociologist Phillip Jenkins has started referring to it as the Christian century. 

Pew forum recently published an overview of global adherence to Christianity over the past 100 years. As a percentage of the world, the number remains almost unchanged (dropping slightly from 35% to 32%) and in Europe the drop in adherence was significant (from 95% down to 76%). And even in America where people still go to church and evangelicalism still has political clout the numbers dropped (from 96% down to 86%). 

When people see these statistics they are often surprised that the numbers are not worse but they generally feel that they affirm the “common knowledge” that the church is in decline. 

But if you stop there, you miss something major. You miss seeing the Christian century that we have just lived through. 

Let’s ask ourselves a few questions. If Christianity is a largely Western Religion (“Christendom” referred to Europe and the USA in centuries past) and Christianity saw 20% declines in Europe and 10% declines in the USA, how did the religion manage to only lose 3% of the whole? And now consider this. Not only were there percentage declines as a whole of Europe and the USA but both Europe and the USA declined as a percentage of world population. The center of gravity for world population shifted south (into historically unchristian territories) over the past 100 years.

In 1910, the global north made up 33% of the world’s population. In 2010, it only made up 19%. So even if Christianity had not lost a single percentage point in Europe of the USA, it should have dropped significantly as a percentage of world population. In 1910, Christianity was adhered to by 87% of the Global North’s population and 9.2% of the Global South’s population. If you held those percentages the same in 2010, Christianity would drop from 35% to 23%! A 12% drop without losing any percentages in Europe or the USA. 

So, in spite of the population shift (putting us 12% behind the 1910 percentage) and in spite of losing a significant percentage of Europe and the USA (an effective 3% of the world’s population) Christian adherence is not down 15% as would be expected. It is only down 3%. What accounts for this 12% difference from expectations?

Massive growth in the global south. Southeast Asia and Africa became Christian in many parts. SubSaharan Africa went from being 9% Christian to 63%. China, Korea, Malaysia, and many other parts of southeast Asia saw major gains in Christian adherents. Some estimates say that there are over 100 million Christians in China making it one of the most Christian nations in the world. The growth on almost every continent is stunning. Christianity went from being a regional religion to being the global religion in about 100 years. 

Christianity is not in decline. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the 21st century will be more remarkable. If you look at where Christianity grew in the 20th century, that is where the population is supposed to grow most in the 21st century. SubSaharan Africa, now a majority Christian, has the highest birth rates in the world. 

Christianity is not fading away. 

Source: Pew Forum 

Someone asked me to review this video. I thought my response might be helpful to others so I posted it here.

I had never heard of Matthew Vines before but he seems earnest and did a fine job presenting and he did a more thorough job of interacting with many of the common arguments against homosexuality than most who take his approach.

Before I get to the specifics of his biblical arguments on homosexuality, I would like to address the verse that he used to frame his whole argument. Early in his discussion, he took Matthew 7:20 “by their fruits ye shall know them” and stated that this verse was telling us that we can judge doctrinal teaching based on its results. There are two major problems with this. First, that is manifestly not what Matthew 7 is saying. Matthew 7 is saying that you will know the followers of Christ by their deeds. In the rest of Matthew 7, Jesus states that many people will claim to have good intentions but the fact that they failed to follow Jesus will condemn them. Far from telling us that God judges the truth of doctrine by its effects on people, Jesus is saying that God judges people based on their willingness to follow doctrine. The passage actually says the opposite of what Matthew Vines is using it to say.

But there is a broader and more telling issue with his statements here. He makes a philosophical assumption that is revealing because I think lies at the heart of this issue in America. He stated that “good teachings do not lead to emotional and spiritual devastation.” He is assuming that a feeling of emotional and spiritual wellbeing are evidence of that something is good (and conversely that which detracts from these are bad). At first glance, it seems that such a statement is obviously true. But is it?

Such a statement is actually quite Western and quite modern. For most of history and still today in most parts of the world, how something makes you feel has not factored into whether or not it has been considered moral. Morals were laws or precepts. Usually morals were determined by a god, sometimes by a king or a philosopher. But in most cases, feelings, emotional, and a sense of spiritual wellbeing didn’t factor in – at all. Throughout Jewish history and most of Christian history, this was the sense of morals that God’s people held to. Morals were determined by God. How we felt about those morals were not exactly something that factored in.

So how did we as a culture get to the point where Matthew Vines can say that and have us all sort of shake our head in complete agreement? We need to look back a few centuries to get the answer. Since the 17th century, there has been a broad desire in academia to find morals that did not come from God. Perhaps the most popular approach was outlined by John Stuart Mill. In his work, Utilitarianism, Mill states that an action that causes happiness is good. An action that causes pain is bad. And based on this rule, we can come up with a system of morals that would make a happy and healthy society.

The problem with this philosophy is legion. The first critique that was leveled by Mill’s contemporaries it is a philosophy of pigs. Pigs seek happiness and avoid pain. Aren’t humans called to be more than pigs? Are we not called to sacrifice? Aren’t humans called to do the right thing even when it is painful?

But the greater critique in my mind is that it is absolutely worthless in application. Try applying it to shoplifting. Shoplifting from a major corporation causes the thief great pleasure. And the corporation is so large that the theft causes almost no pain. Here is an act that causes much more happiness than pain. Is it good? How about adultery? Well, so long as the cheated on person doesn’t find out the cheating husband and his mistress get happiness and no one gets pain. Let’s go broader and apply to governments. The great tyrannical nations of the 20th century were quite utilitarian. The communist regimes said that they might have to kill a few thousand people to create the utopian communist nation. They did the utilitarian calculation and decided that tyranny was good. As you can see from these examples, there is a theme: the actor always considers himself just. It is a philosophy that has caused a lot of devastation in the world.

But despite these glaring issues, Mill was incredibly influential. His approach has become part of our culture. People repeatedly appeal to certain behaviors as good based on the happiness they cause or the pain they avoid.

And this is a philosophy that sits at the heart of the homosexual argument. Matthew Vines articulated it right up front. He says that heterosexuals get these great romantic relationships and homosexuals don’t. This causes homosexuals sadness, loneliness, and pain. So when he comes to Matthew 7, it seems self evident to him that a doctrine that promotes something that causes sadness, loneliness and pain and prohibits romantic love must be a bad fruit. This full embrace of utilitarianism as a framework by which to judge biblical interpretation is a bad start and I think it distorts his whole approach.

The Christian view is that often the thing that we think will bring us the most happiness is the worst possible thing for us. St. Augustine once wrote that we are constantly trying to fill our hearts with things that are not God. Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. Our hearts seek something other than God for our happiness. That is the heart of idolatry.

Ok. Now for the more specific passages. I am not going to spend a ton of time addressing each one of his biblical discussions but I will touch on some of them.

For Genesis 1-2, he argues that because God said “it is not good for man to be alone” that therefore it is not good for homosexuals to not have a gay partner. But this doesn’t hold up to logic. Loneliness doesn’t automatically make sexual expression right. A man away from his wife on business cannot say, ‘it is not good for a man to be alone’ as he goes to a prostitute. And there are all sorts of sexual relationships that Matthew Vines would join with me to condemn (bestiality, children, etc) that cannot be called right based on the principle that being alone is not good. Furthermore, sometimes being alone can be good. Paul talks in 1 Cor 7 about how he wishes everyone had the gift of being single. Paul was called to be single. Jesus was single. Was this not good? Of course this doesn’t follow.

God gave Adam a wife. Matthew Vines seems to suggest that Adam just happened to be a straight man and therefore it made sense to make Eve but if God had made a gay Adam then maybe another guy would have been appropriate. But I think this fails also. Adam and Eve are not just two random people. They are the prototypes of all humanity. The name Adam literally means human. God created an order to the world. He created things as they should be. And he gave Adam a wife not because Adam asked for a wife or because Adam felt lonely but because God wanted Adam to have a wife. It was not good for Adam to be without one. It had nothing to do with Adam’s feelings or emotions.

When Vines moves to Leviticus he seems to get very confused in a way that many people get confused. What in the Old Testament still applies and what does not? Tim Keller wrote an excellent article on this (you can check it out herehttp://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/newsletter/?aid=363). Keller’s basic point is that there are three aspect s of the Old Testament Law: 1) Laws relating to the temple and ceremonial cleanliness, 2) Laws relating to the punishment of sins and the operation of Israel’s legal system, 3) Moral commands. Since Jesus fulfilled the temple (Hebrews 10), the laws relating to the temple and ceremonial cleanliness are no longer necessary. Since we are not ancient Israel, the laws relating to the operation of their government are not good for us to follow. But the third division of the law, is still quite relevant to Christians. Jesus repeats the moral law to the Rich man in Matthew 19 is told to follow the 10 Commandments. Paul throughout his epistles reaffirms the morals of the Old Testament even defending the use of the Old Testament for moral law in Romans 7:7 saying, “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” And since the first century, Christians have held tight to the 10 Commandments (a summary of the moral law). So, what is Leviticus 18 that condemns homosexuality? Which category of law is it? It is clearly moral law. These commands do not apply to the Temple or the government. These are issues of living the moral life. And these morals are repeated and assumed throughout scripture including in the New Testament.

Matthew Vines’ biblical arguments do not get any better as he moves to the New Testament. His efforts on Romans 1 (that the problem Paul is touching on is heterosexuals giving into gay sex) is an old argument that has been rejected by many scholars for the reason that Paul (nor any other ancient) had any concept of a homosexual identity or a heterosexual identity. Vines acknowledges this argument and tries to get around it but in order to do so he has to keep using the phrase that Paul was opposing “general sexual chaos”. This forces the question – what does that mean? How do we know what is sexually ok and what is not? Historically Christians have looked to the Old Testament. Specifically Leviticus 18 (that includes homosexuality). The New Testament says little about sexual morals other than a general assumption of the morals of the Old Testament. How would we know “general sexual chaos” if we saw it?

His work on 1 Corinthians 6:9 is simply poor scholarship. He rejects mainstream scholarship on the meaning of “malakos”. For example, my lexicon lists this definition, “effeminate, unmanly; especially of a man or boy who submits his body to homosexual lewdness catamite, homosexual pervert”. These lexicons are not put together by fundamentalist republicans seeking to bash gays. They are put together by crusty old scholars at places like Oxford and Cambridge who eat sleep and drink ancient literature. Matthew Vines did not point to a single lexicon to support his very unique translation because there is not a single lexicon that would support it. I have five separate lexicons that I checked and all gave some variation of the definition given above.

His discussion on 1 Corinthians 7 is also curious and points to an inability to define what is sexually immoral. He suggests that Paul saying it is better to marry than to burn with passion justifies homosexuality fails to understand what Paul is saying. Paul is saying it is better to marry than to act in sexually immoral ways. But there is a presumption in Paul’s writing that we know what is immoral. Where would we get that answer? How would we know what is moral and what is not? The Old Testament is the only possible place. And the Old Testament is clear that lying with a man like you would with a woman would fit the category of an immoral thing to be avoided rather than a moral thing to solve the possibility of immorality.

Last point: He says that “straight Christians somehow assume that gay Christians are somehow inferior to them.” This is untrue. I don’t think I am superior to Matthew Vines in any way. He might be better than me. He might be a nicer guy. He might be harder working. He might be smarter. He might be kinder. He might give more to the poor.

But he and I are both broken. Sin is the first great equalizer. We both deserve nothing. The second great equalizer is that God extends his grace to us. Freely. Not based on what I did or do but based on what Jesus did. I cannot brag. I cannot say I am better.
Jesus calls on us first to trust in him as Lord and then to take our cross and follow him. Following him means following his commandments (1 John 2:4) as best we can and repenting when we fail. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian killed in a concentration camp for fighting against Hitler, once wrote “When God calls a man he calls him to come and to die.” We are not called to be Christians so that we can go do whatever makes us happy. Often the Christian walk is a painful one. Often it is one of sacrifice and trouble. But the reward of the Christian walk is immeasurable. CS Lewis said it best, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” My statement to people struggling with homosexuality would be to keep struggling. As I keep struggling against my sins. And understand that you worship a God who knows every temptation (Hebrews 4) and sympathizes with you. Understand that you worship a God that died for you when you were still a sinner. Understand the grace of God.

Isn’t it rude and closed-minded for Christians to say that Jesus is the only way to God? This is a common complaint that I hear about the Christian faith. People say that Christians should be more open-minded and recognize that there are many ways to God and that all religions are equally valid. I am convinced that, while this may sound nice, there is nothing rude or closed minded about the claim that Jesus is the only way.

Imagine a doctor prescribing a particular medicine that could save the life of your child. On your way home from the doctor’s office you walk past street venders selling, among other things, alternative medicines and remedies. Each vendor claims that your child could be saved by their special mixture of herbs and vitamins. You get home and call the doctor and ask her if her prescription is really the only cure for your child. Is it closed minded or rude for your doctor to insist loudly that the various vitamins and herbs being sold are unable to cure the particular disease that your child has and that only the medicine she has prescribed can cure? Of course it is not. In fact, if she did anything else she might be charged with malpractice. It is important to tell the truth. There is nothing rude or closed minded about it.

All of humanity has a particular sickness called sin. The scriptures tell us that the death and resurrection of Jesus provided the cure to that sickness. And Jesus stated that he was the only way (John 14:6). Like the good doctor we are called to be honest about these facts. It is important to tell the truth. We should do so with kindness and understanding but with the firmness that comes from the conviction that faith in Jesus is what is really needed to heal the wounded soul.