Many Christians believe in God fundamentally because they sense his presence. But what if you don’t sense his presence? Or what if it comes and goes—at times deserting you and leaving you doubting? What should we do when certainty proves elusive? Should we commit to living a devout Christian life only if we are absolutely convinced that Christianity is true?
Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century thinker, famously addressed these very questions. An influential mathematician, scientist, and inventor, Pascal was also deeply religious. In his early 30s, he had a religious experience so powerful that he kept a written description of it stitched into his coat until his death at 39. Pascal left behind a major, unfinished work of apologetics, but notes for the project were found among his belongings, compiled by editors, and published as the Pensées.
In one of his notes, Pascal makes several attempts at a pragmatic argument that one should commit to living a devout Christian life even without certainty that God exists. “Pascal’s wager,” as the argument is called, can be summed up in a single sentence: For those who choose the way of Jesus, there is much to gain and comparatively little to lose.
What’s to be gained? Infinite happiness in heaven, as the wager is often presented. But a much stronger version goes beyond mere self-interest: if Christianity is true, then living a Christian life brings joy to God and can help other people in their journeys toward God. On the other hand, Pascal argues, if Christianity is false, one really hasn’t lost all that much. True, the person living a Christian life has a demanding moral code to follow, but that life has many benefits of its own. And anyway, the ...1