Van Til Tool

Using the Van Til Perspective as the tool to discover what life means and how it ought to be lived.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Pascal's Wager Examined From The Van Til Perspective



by Forrest W. Schultz

The question of life after death has always been one of the major bones of contention between Christianity and atheism. After we die do we remain dead, as the atheist claims, or will we, as the Christian claims, be resurrected from the dead to enter our final destinies – believers going to Heaven and unbelievers going to Hell? Blaise Pascal, a Catholic mathematician and philosopher, in Section III of his Pensees (a French word meaning “Thoughts”) took a unique approach to this question. Instead of setting forth arguments in favor of Christianity, he asks us to approach the matter as a gambler would in trying to determine where to place his bet This Wager of Pascal is simply stated. If, as the atheist supposes, after we die we stay dead, then our theological beliefs will have no effect upon our final destiny; but if, as the Christian supposes, after we die we are resurrected by God to face His judgment, then our theological beliefs do affect our final destiny. Therefore, Pascal concluded that a smart gambler will bet on God. If God doesn’t exist, he will not have lost anything. But if God does exist, he will have gained Heaven and avoided Hell. Because Pascal’s Wager sounds good, there have been Christians who have used it in their evangelistic and polemical forays, and there have been unbelievers who have claimed that their pondering of Pascal’s Wager has been instrumental in their conversion to Christ.

It is unfortunate that so much of the thought devoted to serious matters, such as Pascal’s Wager, has been superficial: it fails to go below the surface of the matter to get to the bottom of things, to find the foundation whence the various surface ideas are derived. In fact, there are even some thinkers today – called “anti-foundationalists” -- who are opposed to looking at foundational matters! Fortunately, though, we have available to us the very careful thinking done about these foundational matters by one of the most brilliant men of the twentieth century – Dr. Cornelius Van Til, who served as Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary for many years. His thinking involves a careful deduction of the ideas which logically follow from Biblical theology and how these contrast with the ideas which flow forth from the presuppositions of various philosophies which are antithetical to Biblical theology. This “Van Til Perspective” is the tool we need to carefully examine matters such as the theistic proofs and Pascal’s Wager. -1-
The Van Til Perspective lays great stress upon the principle that the ultimate foundation of all thought rests upon the cognitive validity of our knowledge-acquiring abilities, of which we can only be certain if these abilities were designed and created by God. Let me use my favorite example to demonstrate this point: green grass. If the Christian epistemology (doctrine of knowledge) is true, then it is easy to prove that grass is green. Since God is omniscient, He knows all truth, including the truth that the grass is green and the truth of how to make my eyes and optic nerve and the visual perception parts of the brain so that when I look at grass I will see it as green. Since God is omnicompetent He will be able to make these organs so that they will perform correctly so that I will see the grass as green. Since God is omnihonest and cannot lie, He will not deceive me by making my visual apparatus such that it would tell me something false about the grass. The Christian epistemology, therefore, is the only basis for real knowledge. It is the only basis upon which we can know that grass is green. (Perhaps it could be said, therefore, that only Christianity has a “green” epistemology!) If man got here by chance or if man was created by a finite god, i.e. one who is not omniscient, omnicompetent, and omnihonest, then we cannot be sure that our eyes are really telling us the truth about reality. The same principle, of course, holds for the other factors involved in the acquiring and verifying of knowledge: for instance, logic. We can only be sure that logic is epistemically valid because God gave it to us. Anyone whose starting point is an uncertainty as to the existence of God cannot, therefore, consistently set forth any kind of argument at all because he cannot be sure of knowing anything at all or of certainty as to the validity of his rational faculty. Anyone advancing Pascal’s Wager (or any kind of argument at all) as a reason for believing in God is therefore guilty of begging the question because he must perforce presuppose the existence of God in order to be able to advance it (or any argument at all). But Pascal’s Wager claims to be starting not with the presupposition of the existence of God but with an uncertainty as to God’s existence. The Christian says “Believe in God because He exists.” Pascal’s Wager says, “We don’t know if God exists, but, your best bet is to go with Him rather than atheism.” Therefore it is just as logically invalid as are the theistic proofs.


Pascal’s Wager is also theologically objectionable, for two reasons. First, like the theistic proofs, it does not treat God as God in the way it structures its argument. Since God is the ultimate being, He ought to be treated as such in everything we do including the way we frame our arguments. This means that, as the ultimate being, God should, in all our arguments, be regarded as the starting point, the foundation, not as the conclusion. Both the proponents of the theistic proofs and the proponents of Pascal’s Wager claim to believe that God is the ultimate being, the ultimate foundation of all reality, the ultimate truth on which all other truth rests, etc. Yet, in their reasoning they treat God as though He were uncertain and they treat something else as certain and ultimate and then try to derive the existence of God or some truth about God from this other basis. That is, these inconsistent arguers want their hearers to believe in God but in the way they argue they don’t treat God as though He really were God. Whether the existence of God is considered to be proven or merely a good bet and the only safe bet, in both cases these apologetes, by the way they argue, undermine their cases because they are not treating God the way He must be treated if He really is what we say He is.

There is a second, closely related, theological flaw in Pascal’s Wager – this one of a more personal nature. Genuine Biblical conversion involves more than an intellectual belief in the existence of God. It also involves – in fact it centers in – a personal relationship with God, a relationship which, among other things, grants due honor unto God. If we have even a glimpse of what this must mean, then we will surely need to conclude that anyone who comes to God solely on a Pascal’s Wager type of reasoning is actually insulting God. In fact, it is rather dubious, to say the least, that such a person has really been converted at all. Biblical conversion is not a mere “betting” on the existence of God just to be on the safe side in case He exists. Nor, can the Covenant of Grace be reduced to a mere Hell insurance policy. Biblical conversion involves genuine repentance and faith, which involves a radical spiritual change, to say the least!


This point should be so obvious that it is surprising that Pascal’s Wager could ever be taken as seriously as it has been by otherwise godly and astute men. Again, if we want people to come to God in repentance and faith then we must treat Him as God or else we are guilty of misrepresenting Him. Anyone with even a modicum of spiritual insight should be able to recognize this. In fact, there are even some atheists who appear to see it more clearly than some Christians! For instance, in his primer for atheist debaters, B.C. Johnson provides this assessment of Pascal’s Wager: “…God may damn anyone who “bets” on his existence merely for reasons of prudence. He may consider such a ‘bet’ to be an insult.” (The Atheist Debater’s Handbook, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981, page 97).

Thus, when examined from the Van Til Perspective, Pascal’s Wager is seen to be not only philosophically superficial but spiritually superficial as well. In fact, it is highly doubtful that the gambler even appreciates what the stakes really are. Does he know what makes Heaven be Heaven and what makes Hell be Hell? Probably not. Although it is appropriate that Heaven be a beautiful place because God cares about beauty, this is not what makes Heaven Heaven. It is Heaven because believers there will be in the fullest possible fellowship with God unimpeded by any depravity from within or by societal or Satanic opposition from without. In short, it is God and our love for God and His love for us that makes Heaven Heaven. C.S. Lewis in his novel The Great Divorce showed that if any of the unsaved were permitted to leave Hell and go to Heaven that they would not be comfortable there because they were not adapted to live there and that therefore they would choose to go back to Hell. In short, He showed that for the unsaved Heaven is not Heaven! But, you see, Pascal’s Wager only looks on the surface: it says bet on God because then, if He exists, you can go to a place with beautiful trees and streets of gold instead of to a place with burning sulfur. In this framework God is seen only as the means to an end, not as the End Himself. Until Pascal’s Wager indicates what Heaven is really like (being in vital relationship and vibrant fellowship with God with all that entails) and what Hell is really like (the horror of being cut off from God and, thus, never finding fulfillment), it cannot be taken seriously because it doesn’t tell us what the stakes really are. And if it does tell us what these stakes are, then it will refute itself, because it will see that it is not possible to get into right relationship with God by seeing Him as a prudent bet. It will see that genuine conversion – genuine repentance and faith – is not consistent with such a “bet”.
Let me conclude by saying that if you are the kind of person who is not content with a surface look, but who wants to “get to the bottom of things”, then you need to get and to use the necessary tool for this – The Van Til Perspective. If you don’t have this tool, you need to get it. If you have this tool, you need to use it. If you want to learn about the Van Til Perspective, I recommend the following pairs of books. Two by Van Til himself which are very helpful are his The Defense of the Faith and A Christian Theory of Knowledge. The two about Van Til I recommend are R. J. Rushdoony’s By What Standard and Robert L. Reymond’s The Justification of Knowledge. Two essay collections I recommend are Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective edited by Gary North and the Festschrift for Van Til titled Jerusalem and Athens edited by E. R. Geehan. If you enjoy thinking, you will like these books!

Forrest W. Schultz has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering degree from Drexel University and a Th.M. in Systematic Theology degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 770-583-3258 or



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