Blaise Pascal, perhaps most renowned for a mathematical concept called Pascal’s Triangle, also wrote a short essay on a very serious topic: does God exist? In order to solve this eternal question, he devised an intellectual formula–a schema–to find an answer to this large question. This schema is an intellectual outline to consider the possible answers to that question and weigh the possible consequences to our answer. In essence, he lays out the possible bets we can wager on whether or not God exists. At the risk of oversimplification, let’s review the four possibilities of this wager:
- God Exists and You Do Believe In Him
- God Exists and You Do Not Believe in Him
- God Does Not Exist and You Do Believe in Him
- God Does Not Exist and You Do Not Believe in Him
God Exists and You Do Believe In Him
Result: This is arguably one of the better outcomes. You likely lived a good and virtuous life. Your efforts will be accounted for, and you will likely be saved as a son or daughter of God. Reward: Eternal salvation and asylum on the heavenly plane.
God Exists and You Do Not Believe in Him
Result: This is perhaps the worst outcome. God exists and, because you did not believe, you most likely will not be counted within God’s good graces on judgement day and likely will not be saved and instead live forever in agony. Nah, I’m just joking–we honestly don’t know what would happen, but at minimum, you wouldn’t be on God’s ‘short list’ for saving.
Reward: Best case scenario? You have a neutral existence past death, if we assume that our spirits and souls carry on after the physical body dies. Perhaps our atoms dissipate and join the orbits of other chemical bonds out in the universe and the pieces of us bond with pieces of others. Worst case scenario?You are judged as a soul unworthy of the kingdom of heaven and instead suffer for eternity under the heavy blanket of despair with whichever underworld god accompanies this reality: Satan (Christianity), or Hades (Pagan), or Osiris (Egyptian), or Supay (Incan), or Odin (Norse), and a smattering of others.
God Does Not Exist and You Do Believe in Him
Result: The is arguably better than other outcomes, although the rewards may not be as grandiose or infinite as you were promised. You, again, likely lived a good and virtuous life. While your efforts won’t win you any specific place on an heavenly plane, it likely brought you contentment in life and put you in the good graces of others.
Reward: Contentment. You also likely had less emotional and intellectual baggage at the time of your death than others did.
God Does Not Exist and You Do Not Believe in Him
Result: No harm no foul. You lived your life however you felt appropriate, without any intervention from deities. There’s really no way to know what happens after death in this case.
Reward: Whatever you collected along the journey of your life is your reward: possessions, relationships, memories, lessons.
Final Reflection: To Pascal, this wager illustrates that the Path of Least Risk and Maximum Reward is to believe in God, since both outcomes for believing in God result in net-positive results, whereas not believing in God results in a one net-negative possibility and the other is neutral.
Though, as some scoundrels might say: “Never tell me the odds.” Times are changing, as they always have and always will. Current trends show that younger generations have a more–if you’ll allow a pun–solo attitude toward religion and faith. Professor Hout observed that younger generations have, “…rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid.” (Masci, Pew Research Center) The 4-option wager introduced by Pascal is based in, and written during, a time when obedience provided shelter. The Church was the strongest and most powerful organization in Pascal’s world and competing with its idea(l)s meant you were ‘out in the cold’, so to speak.
In 2017, opinions on religion have warmed up to the idea that God need not necessarily exist for the world to keep on spinning. We continue to learn the nature of ‘What Is’, when religious organizations often focus their efforts on ‘What Should Be’. Medical breakthroughs allow us to adjust the chemistry of our own bodies and environments. Diligent work in data analytics allows us to see intrinsic patterns in behavior we had once chalked up to chance. Astronomical and cosmological advances continue to show us how little we have truly seen of the expanding universe in which we live. We have more of an impact on our future on an heavenly plane than we may realize.
If we apply ourselves to learn about ‘What Is’ instead of ‘What Should Be’, we start to observe more of the world as it is, and less how we want it to be. When we can be alright with the world as it is, perhaps there is a new update to these possibilities:
- Deities Exist and You Do Believe They Do To Feel Alright
- Deities Exist and You Do Not Believe They Do To Feel Alright
- Deities Do Not Exist and You Do Not Believe They Do To Feel Alright
- Deities Do Exist and You Do Not Believe They Do To Feel Alright
While these new definitions may irk a few, they seem nevertheless the most representative of ‘What Is’ at present. And with each, some new potential results and rewards. Though I am not the one to define each category for you. You’ve already likely cast your wager and are awaiting the results and rewards. Have you chosen wisely? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.