Fri 9 Apr 2010
Remove the fear of death and punishment, and are you left with any belief?
The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal explained the odds of a wager for faith. You have two choices in faith: believe or disbelieve. And there are two outcomes: Either God exists, or He doesn’t.
The gamble is obvious: If you believe, and there is a God, you stand to gain much, but if you disbelieve, you have lost much. If God does not exist, either choice is equal. Therefore, your bet ought to be belief, in case you are right and against that awful scenario where God exists and you have disbelieved.
There is something intuitive to this gamble. Why not believe? What harm can it do?
And yet, this concept has been sharply criticized. What if you believe in the wrong God? Should you believe in all religions, just in case? What if God will not accept a kind of faith that is placed on odds?
And would you waste your life by believing in a God that doesn’t exist? Wouldn’t you then squander your time, your energy, your money, your choices? How much could you have done with those so many Sundays, going to church and reading Bibles, when all along you could have pursued a hobby, taken trips, or flown kites?
In one sense, the gamble seems reasonable. In the other, it seems like a stacked deck.
In his book, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life, Gregg A. Ten Elshof recalls a sign advertising a church apologetics class for young adults. The sign proclaimed, “Find Out WHY You Believe What You Believe!” He writes,
“…What a curious thing to find out from someone in a class! How do they know why I believe what I believe? I bet most of the people enrolled in the class had never heard of the arguments presented in the class prior to having attended. But then how could these be the reasons for their belief? …They’re coming to the class to acquire reasons for their conviction. But why?”
Elshof explains that this is a product of rationalization. We hold beliefs and afterwards justify our beliefs by making persuasive arguments for belief, and claim that those arguments are what led us to believe. And yet for most of us, those arguments weren’t the thing that caused us to believe. They supplement our beliefs, and make them seem more convincing and palatable, but they aren’t the cause of our faith.
I think it is safe to say that we rationalize because internally, we are playing Pascal’s wager. We look at the odds, recognize the payoff, and hope for the best. But we’re not fully convinced of the gamble – at least, not enough to be proud that the gamble itself is our reasoning. So we pretend we have better reasons, and we hope that if we are convincing enough, and if we forget our wager, perhaps God will be forgiving enough to count it as faith.
We don’t feel comfortable admitting that our faith might be based on intuition, on a certain sense of rightness about the existence of God. As children of a scientific age, it seems disingenuous to have that kind of a foundation for a belief, so we believe for one reason but argue our faith from another.
All the same, we often aren’t quite sure which beliefs we must hold. Those nagging doubts, the cracks in the façade that we’ve built around our foundation, creak and groan and demand our attention. Which beliefs are right? What if I don’t believe all of the right things? Will my wager be insufficient?
The safe bet, we believe, is to hedge our bets further. If a doctrine comes our way from an authority we trust, we add it to the list. If it’s plausible, add it on, just in case. Ambiguity isn’t an option, because it leaves one more open spot on our roulette table. God might just care very deeply about that particular issue, so we’d better figure out once and for all what we believe about it.
Christian doctrine teaches that God is a forgiving God, and that he desires to show mercy. It teaches that a person can be “saved”; that is, forgiven of one’s sin. But do we believe that? It seems that we believe God has a standard He judges His own children by, but He also withholds the scale from us, so we can never be sure when we’ve finally lived up to the invisible standard. It’s like the big reveal on a reality show, where Surprise! this one is good enough, and Surprise! that one is the loser. The condemned man believed, but unfortunately didn’t believe the right things.
If fear forces us to feign belief, then how can we be sure that we have faith at all?
It’s one thing to say we have faith. But it’s another to describe what we have faith in. It’s safer to keep it undefined, it seems. And yet, this kind of faith is unsteady and wavering. It’s exactly the kind of faith that Jesus argued against.
If we say that we place our trust in God, it will be demonstrated by actual trust. We must no longer fear death and punishment. Faith precludes it! So why do we continue to fear? Why is that the basis of our faith?
We act as though God is bound by some even greater power, some law that he is forced to comply with, almost as though an even greater, unknown God were behind Him, needing to be obeyed. “I have no choice,” this middle-God would say. “I’d like to forgive this or that mistake, but I just can’t.”
This popular concept of faith based in fear encourages a disingenuous attitude. Just say you believe, and fake it as well as you can – until you convince yourself – and it just might be enough to save you.
For many Christians, a belief in a literal hell forces the concept of the Pascal’s wager. But what would happen if we removed the fear of hell, if we chose to believe based on the merits of faith itself? Would it be insufficient to convince the so-called believer? If we aren’t saved from something as permanent and horrific as hell, and instead are only saved from our own griefs and sins – “saved from this wicked generation,” as Peter explained – would it be worthwhile?
Is hell necessary for us to behave like Jesus? Are we really that corrupt and irredeemable?