Betting on God

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 19:38-42
1 Corinthians 15:12-34

If you choose to believe in God, you stand to gain something of infinite value: eternal life. But if you choose not to believe in God you stand to lose everything. So here’s the wager: Bet your life on God and if you win (because God exists), you win everything. And if you lose – if there is no God – you lose nothing

Blaise Pascal, who was born in France in 1623, is one of the most widely known and famous thinkers in western history. He was a brilliant mathematician. Pascal began giving up his playtime to study geometry at the age of 12 and by age 18 he had constructed the first mechanical adding machine, a sort of early forerunner of the computer. He formulated the mathematical theory of probability that has influenced work in the areas of social statistics and modern physics. He developed theories on barometric pressure, which continue to influence the study of meteorology and hydraulics.

Pascal was the most distinguished mathematician of his day. But in the year 1650, he abandoned his mathematical and scientific pursuits to devote all his time and energy to writing and reflecting upon the Christian faith. Or, as Pascal says in his most famous work Pensees, he set himself to “contemplate the greatness and misery of man.”

During the Age of Enlightenment, many came to doubt beliefs based on tradition and faith. Pascal responded to these doubts by proposing a rational argument for belief in God that has come to be known as “Pascal’s wager.” In Pensees (the title means “Thoughts” in French), Pascal argues that belief in God potentially yields an infinite reward (salvation), whereas disbelief yields merely a finite reward (earthly existence). He argued that since it’s impossible to prove with absolute certainty whether or not God exists, a rational person should choose to believe in God because it yields the greatest reward. After all, it is always most reasonable to choose what potentially betters your situation. Believing in God, according to Pascal, does just that.

Put in simple terms, Pascal’s wager goes something like this. If you choose to believe in God, you risk losing very little and you stand to gain something of infinite value: eternal life. But if you choose not to believe in God, you gain very little and you stand to lose everything. So here’s the wager: Bet your life on God and if you win (because God exists), you win everything. And if you lose – if there is no God – you lose nothing, really. In fact, you won’t even know you’ve lost, because you’ll just be dead. But if you bet your life against God, you are risking everything to gain nothing. You won’t even have the satisfaction of knowing you were right because death will be the end of you. And if you are wrong, if you live as an unbeliever only to discover that God is real and the Bible is true, you will have forever to be sorry. So it makes sense to believe in God, doesn’t it?

Well, that may be an argument that only a mathematician could love. I must confess that while in a certain sense I find Pascal’s logic appealing, it finally doesn’t quite do it for me. For one thing, it’s not exactly accurate. There is a price to pay for believing in God. Faith demands that we commit our lives to the Lord, and that means we can’t spend them simply living for ourselves. That’s why the apostle Paul said that if Christian believers are wrong about Jesus Christ, “we are of all people most to be pitied” because we have wasted our lives following a fantasy. If there is no God, no life after this one, then, says Paul, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:19,32).

But beyond that, Pascal’s wager is a little too calculating, isn’t it? Human beings don’t always act in purely rational ways, especially when it comes to matters of faith or commitment. How often do you reason your way into friendship? Who ever fell in love as a result of a logical analysis of the potential costs and benefits? Faith in God is not a prudent investment in the afterlife, a heavenly insurance policy taken out by careful people just in case there happens to be a heaven and a hell. It’s more like falling in love. And sometimes it happens when all reason and sense would seem to argue against it.

Let me tell you about one such time. It involved two men: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who revealed themselves as followers of Jesus Christ – who, in effect, bet on God – at the most unlikely time, in the darkest hour of all, when it made absolutely no sense whatsoever to commit oneself to faith in the Lord Jesus. Their story is told at the end of the 19th chapter of the gospel of John.

38 After these things [that is, after the crucifixion and death of Jesus], Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Who were these secret disciples of Jesus who suddenly decide, at this most inauspicious moment, to go public with their faith? They were very atypical disciples. Unlike the fishermen and peasants from Galilee who made up the select group of Jesus’ disciples known as the Twelve, Joseph and Nicodemus were both wealthy (as the amount of costly spices they provided for Jesus’ burial clearly shows). These two men were also influential members of Jerusalem society. They belonged to the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin. But they were also followers of Jesus who avoided identifying with him openly. Nicodemus, you may recall, was the man who had come to Jesus early in his ministry to talk about spiritual things (John 3:1-21). But he made his visit at night when no one would see him getting too close to Jesus. And John tells us that Joseph of Arimathea kept his discipleship secret because he was afraid of the authorities.

So fear made both these men hang back. But now fear is gone; caution is thrown to the winds. There comes a time when secret disciples must become open ones, though Joseph and Nicodemus picked an interesting moment to do that. All the other disciples had disappeared when Jesus was arrested, except for John and several of the women, including Jesus’ mother Mary. When the time of testing came, fear struggled with faith, and fear won. Now Jesus was dead, his cause was in ruins, his claims thoroughly discredited. Yet it was at just this moment that Joseph and Nicodemus chose to identity with Jesus, boldly going to the Roman governor and asking for Jesus’ body so that they could give it a decent burial. The fearful secret disciples become heroes of faith. What a time to choose Jesus, when all they got for it was a corpse!

Why do you suppose they did that? Why would anyone bet on God when it looks for all the world like he’s dead and gone? There is only one possible reason, which turns out to be the only reason for any of us. It was because they loved him. Not pure reason or cold logic, not policy, not self-interest; love makes us choose Jesus Christ.

Before his retirement Dr. Lewis Smedes was for many years a professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California in the U.S.A. In addition to being in great demand as a lecturer and preacher, Dr. Smedes has written many books, including the best-sellers Forgive and Forget and Keeping Hope Alive. Words of Hope’s David Bast spoke with Dr. Smedes about a number of subjects, including the reasons why he still has faith and hope in God despite the pain and evil that fills our world.

David Bast: Why are you a Christian?

Lewis Smedes: Sometimes I don’t know. But I know that I could not “not be.” My big problems with Christianity are usually centered on the old question of why some people have to suffer so much and of people’s attempts to answer that question in piety, that is, not by thinking it through but through piety. Most of the answers that are the most lovely answers of faith don’t convince me, not intellectually, but, I mean, I’m not trying to tell you they don’t convince me intellectually. They don’t convince me experientially.

Bast: They don’t satisfy.

Smedes: They don’t satisfy. I am doomed, I guess, by some kind of destiny to say, “but on the other hand.”

Bast: Do you think part of the reason is that a lot of the pious answers don’t take the suffering really seriously enough, and we can certainly respect people and believe they mean them.

Smedes: Well, they’re looking for a beautiful and meaningful answer. I’ll give you a little illustration. I recall how one time my mother said to our minister, “I believe that God takes special care of widows.” And I puzzled over that. And when reminiscing with my sister about our mother, we often say, “How in the world did she do that? Go to work every day and bring up us five kids? How did she do that then?” And my sister’s response was to say, “I think that the Lord had it planned that way, that this would bring out in her the ability to do what she did and somehow we all turned out okay.” And immediately in my mind, it’s kind of a curse, I guess, that I thought that if God takes that much special care of widows, why did he let her become a widow in the first place?

Bast: Couldn’t he have found out an easier way to bring out the best?

Smedes: Yes, I talked with a woman recently whose young daughter was killed by a drunk driver and I asked her how she was doing. And she said, “Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that God had some lessons to teach me. This is the only way he could do it.” Something in me said, “He has to kill somebody’s daughter so she would grow?” In the sixties, they would have called what I’m looking for as authenticity, not what you ought to believe, or what you don’t deny, but what you really live by. You know, I’m from the Reformed background, as you are, and the Reformed tradition has a way of looking back to God. God is the sovereign and he does all things for his glory. There’s a Latin phrase, “Soli deo gloria.” And then when you come to these terrible things, the question is, “Why did God decree that to happen? Or why did he let it happen? Because letting something happen when he could do otherwise. . .

Bast: . . . is all and the same as decreeing it.

Smedes: Yes. Right. It’s just kind of an end run around the question.

Bast: An attempt to distance God somewhat from the causality of these terrible things. On that point, I remember the first time I actually read Calvin, you know, as a seminary student, in the Institutes. When I read on providence, it kind of made my hair stand on end because I had always held out that as, well, God didn’t cause that to happen, he just permitted it. And Calvin, with his sometimes ruthless logic. . .

Smedes: Calvin called on that. You’re not really saying anything different.

Bast: No. That’s right.

Smedes: He thought it was a weasel-ly way out. But in any case, that’s the kind of question you ask if your notion of God is the eternal one back there who has written a script for the human drama beforehand.

Bast: So you’re saying maybe we need a different model?

Smedes: I’m not saying we need. I thought that I did and I think that I do. I discover, you know, that all along, at least growingly in recent years, I tend not to face up to questions by giving that kind of an answer. We will understand it better by and by. You know, like the mosaic, you look at it from up close and it makes no sense. You see it from a tower and it’s a beautiful mosaic. The tapestry that looks all scraggy and nonsense on the back, you turn it around and there’s a beautiful tapestry. No. So you say, “Well, what then?”

I know that there are theologians who develop this but I didn’t get this by reading a theology and saying, “Yes, this is a better theology.” I tend to latch onto the biblical themes of God which I think are expressed in both the Old and the New Testament and I think that’s what the Bible is about, hope. More than belief in the sovereignty of a God who is in charge of everything, who has everything under control. Don’t worry, since he’s a good God that will somehow seem good. I think that the Bible is always looking for vindication of God in the future, and I have found that really is true of me. You know, if you want to find out what a person believes strongly, you could do no better than to listen to him pray, or her pray. I don’t say, “God, give us patience to believe that this will all work to good.” I say, “When are you going to come to fix it? It doesn’t work well. It’s broken. Why don’t you come and fix it now?”

Bast: “How long, O Lord?”

Smedes: How long?

Bast: A very biblical motif!

Smedes: Yes, and that’s a very strong biblical motif. And then when I look at September 11 and the catastrophe of that day, I don’t ask myself, “Where was God in that? What purpose did God have for that?” I didn’t come up with a Jerry Falwell notion of, “Well, he was punishing America.” I feel a moral revulsion to think that anybody would think that God, in order to teach America a lesson, kills more than 3,000 people.”

Bast: Many of whom were not even Americans.

Smedes: Yes. I mean in my own thinking, I just don’t ask that question, “Was God in it?” God is somehow in everything. Did God permit it? No. Not in the sense that he permitted the devil to wallop Job. And it’s a very basic ancient thought that there is evil and good in this universe and that good comes from God and the evil comes from the devil, and God’s having a tough time of it.

Bast: It’s a very real fight.

Smedes: Yes. It’s a real fight. And that makes me say also for myself again, this is why it’s important to be a Christian. You’re joining a fight. I hate those militaristic words but that’s what it is. And at that moment, at a quarter to nine on September 11, evil got the upper hand here, but it’s gotten the upper hand in a lot of places all through history. We are hoping God is going to win. But, you say, “Well, you know, what are you basing your odds on, past performances, like a horse race?” No. I don’t know whether God would look like a winner from our finite, limited point of view. We can’t survey history and say “where was good and where was evil in the contest?” The only basic reason for betting on God is the resurrection of Christ.

Bast: Yes.

Smedes: That’s for me.

Bast: One of the little things that irritates me about this whole turmoil and aftermath of the attacks is to hear them repeatedly referred to as a tragedy.

Smedes: Yes!

Bast: I don’t think it was a tragedy. A tragedy is when you get cancer.

Smedes: Things that happen to you that you can’t help.

Bast: This was a heinous act of evil perpetrated by evil people whose thinking is incredibly perverted and twisted, I mean, who thought that they were honoring God in doing what they did? That’s not a tragedy. That’s an obscenity.

Smedes: That’s exactly right. I agree with that. I’m a Christian, when it comes down to it, because of that word. I’m not much impressed by C.S. Lewis’s old image that now it’s just a mopping-up operation – that’s what he calls it somewhere – if it’s a mopping-up operation, it’s sure going badly. I mean, it’s more like the Battle of the Bulge.

There have been other dark days since the one when Joseph of Arimathea begged Pilate for Jesus’ dead body, carefully took it down from the cross, and then laid it lovingly in a garden tomb just outside Jerusalem. One of the darkest days of our time, a day which none of us will ever forget, was last September 11. Another more recent one took place (like Good Friday 2000 years ago) on Passover Eve as a suicide bomber walked into a dinner party in a seaside hotel in Israel and murdered two dozen innocent men, women and children. What do we say to these things? How can we believe in God in a world where such events are allowed to happen? How can you bet on a God who seems powerless to prevent tragedy, or what is much worse, who seems indifferent to its occurrence?

The only answer for Christians is faith; specifically, faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The message of the resurrection is not that God fixes it so that bad things never will happen. Jesus died in agony. For him there was no avoiding crucifixion, no miraculous escape. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” That’s how his enemies taunted him as he hung there dying. Just so.

The resurrection does not mean evil never triumphs. What the resurrection does mean is that evil will not triumph in the end. God has the last word, and that word is life. He has already spoken it in Jesus Christ. Someday he will speak it for us, and eventually to the whole world. That is what we hope for. That is who we hope in. That is why we hope.