Pascal's Wager

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For more information, see the Atheist Debates video on Pascal's Wager.
The argument was first formerly proposed by Blaise Pascal
A medieval Christian artist's conception of Hell.

Pascal's Wager is the argument that states that you should believe in God even if there is a strong chance that he might not be real, because the penalty for not believing, namely going to hell, is so undesirable that it is more prudent to take your chances with belief.

"Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. [...] But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; where-ever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness."

Blaise Pascal[1]
"What if your wrong? [Answer: What if your wrong?] Hey, I've got nothing to loose.[2]"

A crude form of Pascal's wager is based on avoidance of hell, which relies on an emotional appeal.

"And that they [in heaven] will live a very happy life without sickness, pain, sadness, or death; God will be pleased with them; and they will live there forever. So after this, how can a wise person risk loosing all these pleasures?! [3]"

The argument from pragmatism builds on Pascal's wager in an attempt to shift the burden of proof.


Background information

Based on simple probability theory, the argument was first formally put forth by Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century philosopher and mathematician. The concept of the wager derives from the Pensées, a collection of Pascal’s thought forged into a literary work. This line of argument forms a response to another proof of God known as Cartesian Thought. Pascal believed that Descartes's argument created a false notion of absolute certainty, which contradicts the concept of faith or belief. Pascal critiques the Cartesian doubt, by implementing no absolute certainty in God’s existence. Rather one must believe in God from a point of faith, without assurance. Thus why the term 'wager' was coined.

This is one of the most common arguments presented for God that atheists commonly encounter in the form of the question, "What if you're wrong?"



God might or might not exist. It is a gamble whether you believe in him or not. As with any gamble, we should consider the odds.

Pascal described the pay-off of this gamble as follows: If God does not exist, then you neither gain nor lose anything from belief or disbelief. In either case, you just die and that is the end. However, if you choose to believe in God, and you are right, then the reward is infinite: eternal bliss in heaven. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe in God, and you are wrong, then your pay-off is negative infinity: eternal suffering in hell.

To summarize:

Table of Payoffs Believe in God Don't believe in God
God doesn't exist 0 0
God exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)

Since the chance of God existing is unknown, but the pay-off/punishment scheme is infinitely in favor of believing in God, you should believe just in case he exists. That is the safe bet, per Pascal.


p1. Believers and non believers alike, agree that payoff is good, punishment is bad.
p2. if God is real, then you receive infinite punishment for disbelief or infinite pay-off for belief
a. if you believe, then you go to heaven for eternity.
b. if you do not believe, then you go to hell for eternity.
p3. if God is not real, then you really neither lose nor gain anything either way.
a. if you believe falsely that God does exist, then you have not really lost anything.
b. if you do not believe and it turns out God does not exist, then you do not really gain anything.
c1. Therefore, even if there is strong evidence against God, it is still better to believe.
a. the pay-off for believing if there is a God is infinitely better than the benefit for not believing if there is no god.
b. the punishment for not believing if there is a God is infinitely worse than the loss caused by believing falsely that there is a God.


Begging the question

Pascal's wager commits the fallacy of begging the question, by assuming in its premises, certain characteristics about the very god the argument is intended to prove.

Rather than the typical Christian god, what if we hypothesize the possibility of a god who rewards skeptical thinking unbelievers and punishes credulous believers? Such a god would be consistent with the fall-back response of theologians, "We cannot understand the ways of God," so it is conceivable that such a god would want to reward atheists. This god would not need to be malevolent, merely inactive (e.g., Eru Ilúvatar of J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium or Ao of the Forgotten Realms Pantheon). This also mirrors deism with regards to creation, and wanting to reward those who take a rational, logical, reasonable, and or skeptical approach to their beliefs.

The new table including a Maltheist god may look like this:

Table of Payoffs Believe in God Don't believe in God
God doesn't exist 0 0
Legalistic religious god exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)
Anti-conventional god exists −∞ (hell) +∞ (heaven)

The mere possibility of such a god makes the expected outcomes for each column undefined, but more importantly, equal.

If you can accept Pascal's Wager as a realistic reason to believe, that leads you to a point where you have no choice but to believe just about everything on the same grounds. Lacking specific evidence about the nature of the true religious faith, there are an infinite number of possible requirements for going to heaven and avoiding hell. Maybe only those who collect stamps go to heaven. Maybe you have to donate $10 a week to Iron Chariots for life. Why quibble about a few measly dollars if it will save you from eternal hellfire?

Belief is not rewards-based

The argument relies, to a certain degree, on the belief being genuine, and not simply feigned. Especially in the case of the Christian god, who rewards based not on works, but on grace (or so they say). People do not, generally, form their beliefs based on the rewards, but rather on the perceived probability of the truth of their beliefs. What happens with Pascal's wager, is that people will change their perceived probabilities, consciously or not, in order that they might think that they will reap the benefits of doing so.

Non-zero cost of belief

Main Article: Religion is harmful
Cectic strip illustrating some problems with Pascal's Wager.

One flaw with Pascal's Wager is that it makes the false assumption that belief costs nothing, and lack of belief provides no benefit. This is not the case.

For one thing, if you go through life believing a lie, that is a bad thing in itself. Besides that, there is more to being a believer than just saying, "Okay, I believe now," and getting on with your life. Serious believers spend a lot of their time in church, and contribute a lot of money as well. There is a reason why some towns have very affluent looking buildings for churches, and why large and elaborate cathedrals are possible: they are funded by folks who donate a tenth of their income throughout their lives to tithing. While some individuals may support the restoration and upkeep of architecturally and/or historically significant buildings, many others will surely view the expenditure as quite a waste if the object of worship is not real.

That is to say nothing of the persecution of other groups that have been instigated in the name of God throughout the ages. Also, in the U.S., churches generally do not have to pay taxes, including property tax. Property tax is what supports, inter alia schools, fire protection, and local police; so all the land that churches own provides none of the funding for these activities that would be provided if the same land was owned by most non-religious entities.

When "God did it" becomes an acceptable answer, there is little incentive to continue exploring the question. More damaging, the "success" of this theory encourages one to apply it to other areas of human understanding. Practiced in this manner, theism can actively discourage human knowledge by compelling people to follow an arbitrary code of conduct, rather than one based on logic and reason.

And by the way, religious belief can cost you pork, lobster, cheeseburgers, coffee, cola, physical intimacy, and myriad other pleasures.

Non-zero payoff on non-belief

The Wager also invokes the assertion that non-belief will not be rewarded in any way. For specific religions such as some Christian sects, it is frowned upon to use alcohol or drugs, or to engage in sex outside of marriage. Now, a non-believer who participates in these events might be seen to be getting rewarded for their disbelief.

Special pleading

Main Article: Which god?

Another flaw is that Pascal's Wager makes the assumption that the dichotomy of belief vs. disbelief with respect to one particular god is the only relevant one to consider. In particular, it invokes special pleading to apply the argument only to a specific religion's god. In reality, there is Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. so what if the person asking the question of, "What do you have to lose?" is, in fact, wrong in their assessment that the religion they chose is the true religion? You have quite a lot to lose if you are Christian and it turns out that Hinduism is the truth. How do we determine which religion to believe in?

Belief in one god often excludes belief in another. The Wager can be invoked by any religion that claims to reward belief and/or punish disbelief. One is not left with a choice only between belief and disbelief, but a choice between hundreds of different gods. In using the argument, one asks that it be applied only to his particular god, not all the others. This is special pleading.

The conclusion that belief is the safe wager also invokes special pleading in that it relies on the assertion that belief will be rewarded. The Wager could be used, equally validly, by a religion with an unconventional god who punishes faith and rewards conclusions drawn from evidence (the Atheist's Wager).

Apologists may say:

"[...] another problem is which god to believe in. I’d like to counter that by saying that isn’t the point of Pascal’s Wager. Belief in a god is better than belief in no god, because the probability for infinite reward still increases [...] [4]"

This assumes that the god of Pascal's wager is one of the known religions, which is not necessarily the case. Another response might be:

"The gods you have described can’t be God. God, by definition, is maximally great.[4]"

That is making assumptions about the attributes of God that the apologist has not yet established. If they attempt to argue that God by definition has this attribute, it is special pleading that only this conception of God should be considered. For all we know, God may actually reward or punish arbitrarily, so the cost/reward values could be absolutely anything.

Appeal to Emotion, Fear

Pascal's Wager fails to provide or describe any hard evidence that hell or god exist, or that non believers will go there. Instead it relies on a fallacy of relevance known as appeal to emotion aka argumentum ad passiones. The specific emotion targeted here is fear. This argument attempts to scare the recipient into believing the conclusion instead of providing sound logic or evidence that demonstrates that the conclusion is true. Thus the argument is a fallacious scare tactic and therefore is not a sound argument.

Belief is not a choice

Belief and disbelief is not a choice. You can't make yourself believe the Earth is flat. Similarly you can't just decide to believe in God. Pascal himself admits this difficulty but advises a person act as if they believe in the hopes of encouraging that belief i.e. to fake it.

"But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.[1]"

However, there is some disagreement on the validity of this rebuttal. You could surrender your intellectual honesty and make choices leading to belief becoming more probable.

Heaven precludes genuine charity

Main Article: Heaven precludes genuine charity

If there is an omnipotent and perfectly just God and an everlasting reward, there is no reason to act morally except to secure one's own well-being in the afterlife, i.e. loving your brother can only be a rational means to one's own ends not the well-being of one's brother.

"In addition, there is a theological problem with the Wager. Should one come to belief out of expectation of reward/fear of punishment? That kind of belief seems pretty contemptable, n’est-ce pas?[4]"

Evidence is not considered

The argument claims that the entity "God" exists or does not exist. However, it fails to consider any evidence for determining which option is true. It would be sensible to consider that when forming our beliefs rather than on an a priori proof by logic. Since we have access to evidence, it is arguable that Pascal's wager is irrelevant.

"[...] it is implicitly assumed that the truth of god(s) exist/god(s) don’t exist is a coin flip. It is not. The risk or reward is a product of probability and its consequences. If I were forced to attach a probability to the existence of god(s) it would be vanishingly small.[4]"

Other counter arguments

Atheist's Wager

The Atheist's Wager is a variant of Pascal's Wager that divides the gods who reward faith and the gods who reward works, finding that it is better to not believe and do good works, for maximum benefit. If one takes into account that rewarding and punishing based on faith in a deity without reasonable evidence to believe that a god is evil, then spending your time sucking up to a such a deity is a waste of time. If one discounts the possibility of a god who sends good people to hell for bad reasons, we are left with a completely different payoff table.


  • If one does not believe in God.
Table of Payoffs Good Life Evil Life
Benevolent God Exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)
No God Exists +finite -finite
  • If one believes in God.
Table of Payoffs Good Life Evil Life
Benevolent God Exists +∞ (heaven) −∞ (hell)
No God Exists +finite -finite

Regardless of one's belief about a benevolent god, the results still favor a good life. Pascal's Wager relies on the judgments of an evil god who sends good people to hell for not believing in him. Moreover, because there are an infinite number of possible such gods, the odds of getting the right answer are 1 in ∞. Even if a faith-rewarding god existed, believing in an incorrect faith-rewarding god might anger such a god more than not believing in any gods with good reasons.

Apologists have responded with the claim that a religious life's benefits outweigh the costs. This supposedly includes benefits to society and[4]</ref> On the whole, it is difficult to establish what the benefits and cost of complex behaviors such as religion.

Definitions: Belief

Even if one assumes that the wager applies to the Christian god, would he really accept the kind of faith it promotes? The wager does nothing to promote true, deep faith; it promotes merely a fake faith. The person simply pretends to be convinced because he or she is afraid of the punishment for not believing. The wager is simply an attempt to force the person to believe (see argumentum ad baculum). (Or, perhaps more accurately, it attempts to force the person to act as if he or she believes—that is, it serves as an instrument of social control.)

An analogy to this would be a child that professes belief in Santa Claus out of fear that he or she will not otherwise receive presents, knowing full well that the presents left under the tree are really from his or her parents. Moreover, can we truly choose what we believe? If the reward for believing in the existence of unicorns was a ton of gold, would you believe? Or would you simply pretend to believe?

Moral implications

There are deep moral implications to Pascal's Wager if the argument is taken to its logical conclusion. It promotes the idea that beliefs are more important than actions — or, more precisely, that apostasy is the only unforgivable sin.

The central tenet of substitutionary atonement in Christianity means that you can spend your life murdering, raping, killing, waging genocide, etc., and as long as you accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior before you die, you are entitled to an eternity of pleasure in heaven.

On the other hand, a non-believer who spends a good honest life helping others is damned to spend an eternity being tortured in hell despite his or her good deeds.

This is illustrated in the Gun Slinger (Chick tract).

This version of “justice” may be absurd and impractical

According to the Wager, God punishes people who do not believe. Many people who affirm Pascal's Wager also argue that any act except apostasy and/or atheism can be forgiven. Thus rapists, child molesters, murderers, and terrorists can be forgiven but atheists cannot.

Let us then adopt this standard of justice into our legal system. What would it be like? All child molesters, armed robbers, rapists, serial killers, murderers, terrorists, con-men, et al. would all be released from prison, or would not go there in the first place if they sincerely believe. Instead, all atheists and people who believe in different gods would be arrested and sentenced to life in prison even if they committed no crime (murder, rape, robbery, theft, inter alia). Would it make sense to let rapists and murderers run around free while people are locked up just for not believing? Of course not. This is impractical and absurd. And if this model of justice fails to meet our standards, it does not meet any supposed higher standard. Therefore, God has very low standards of justice or he does not punish people based on their beliefs or lack thereof.

Pascal's Wager undermines Christian testimony

The popularity of Pascal's Wager, whether as a full philosophical argument or simply the fear of hell, gives an excellent reason to disbelieve Christians' testimony in support of their religion. Just as Pascal's Wager points a gun to the head of the skeptic to extract belief, the same gun is pointed at believers' heads. This fundamentally alters their reliability. Likewise, if a (literal) gun is pointed at a hostage, we have an enormous reason to doubt the accuracy when the hostage says something that the terrorists would want said. This is not due to having a general mistrust of the hostage, but simply due to recognizing the incentives.

Consequently, we have every reason to doubt a Christians' claim that they have a relationship with God, for they have every motivation in the world to fabricate such a testimony. We have every reason to disbelieve a Christian scholar claiming to have examined the historical evidence and found the Bible to be true. We have every reason to disbelieve a Christian claiming God has answered their prayers. We have every reason to disbelieve a Christian who claims there was a night and day contrast in their life before being saved. In each of these cases, Pascal's Wager gives them an extremely strong incentive to do whatever they can to fool themselves into prudently believing. In each of these cases, we certainly cannot automatically assume the testimony to be false. (This would be the Genetic fallacy.) But what we can do is automatically conclude it to be very unreliable.

Notably, this counter argument does not hinge on the validity of Pascal's Wager, but only on the extent to which Christians believe it to be valid. And so its conclusion comes with an exception. Pascal's Wager does not invalidate the testimony of someone who disbelieves in heaven and hell or who find the Wager to be completely and utterly without merit. Therefore, if a Christian wishes to share their own testimony without being automatically discounted, they must begin by refuting Pascal's Wager.

Pascal's wager justifies coercing people's belief

"One of the tragedies of life is how religious belief make good people do evil things. If you have false beliefs about the universe, if you believe we have immortal souls that are going to either going to burn in hell for eternity or else bask in eternal bliss, then actually you are doing other people a favour if you torture them to make them believe. [5]"

Apologists may point out that torture is an immoral action. However, if you were to work in other people's best interests, this argument holds. It is also an accurate description of how religions have actually behaved, with various means of coercion used to this day.


See Also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1660), translated by W. F. Trotter [1]
  2. Atheist experience 6/3/2007
  3. [2]
  4. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named jwwartick
  5. [3]

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes
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