Q Here’s a quote I read on YouTube in regard to a Christian rock song I was listening to. I found it interesting and intriguing: “I’m a Christian, and if I’m wrong about my beliefs, I have wasted me life. But if atheists are wrong about their beliefs, they have wasted eternity.” I found this too philosophical for a YouTube commenter, so I enlisted Google. Apparently this is a riff on the lyrics from a song done by the Christian rapper Lecrae, “If I’m wrong about God, then I wasted my life. If you’re wrong about God, then you wasted your eternity.” This sounds too profound for a rapper! Do you know, Rabbi, if it’s from some other piece of music or literature?
— J, via email
A When I am asked by my wonderful and patient readers to respond to their questions about aspects of Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist beliefs, I can usually get close to the neighborhood of the right answer, and I am certain to be corrected by loyal readers if I don’t. However, questions about the origins of rap lyrics are definitely, positively, above (or below) my pay grade. So, normally I would just take a pass on your intriguing question, but the astounding truth here is that I think I actually do know the answer to your question.
The saying you quote in both its Googled iterations is actually a version of a medieval philosophical aphorism called “Pascal’s Wager.” Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French philosopher and mathematician who began his intellectual life as a skeptic of religion but then on Nov. 23, 1654, he experienced a profound religious revelation of the truth of God and of Christianity for his life. He became a believing Christian to the end of his life.
Pascal’s writings on religion are collected in his unfinished manuscript the “Pensées.” There, in sections 418 and 433, he sets forth what became known as “Pascal’s Wager.” The idea of the wager is that, according to Pascal, we humans cannot determine either the truth or the falsity of religious claims through the unaided use of human reason. We just can’t prove and so we just can’t know if God exists, but one of the two alternatives is clearly true. God is either real or not real, and each of us must decide which theological option is true for our life. If we decide to believe that God is real and we are right, then our immortal souls are likely to be ushered into an eternity of bliss in heaven after death. If, on the other hand, we choose to deny God’s existence and we are wrong because it turns out that God is real, then our souls are banished with other non-believers to the pit of hell. So Pascal concluded that the prudent course is to believe in God even though one cannot prove that this belief is true. If it turns out that God is not real, we have lost nothing. That is Pascal’s wager in brutal summation.
Pascal’s wager sounds like a prudential response to the failure of reason to definitively prove or disprove the existence of God. We just take the least risky option, which in this case is to believe in God. As a believer in God, I wish it were that simple, but I fear such is not the case.
God may well decide to take the souls of good people into heaven even if they did not count themselves as believers in their lifetimes and keep out those who said they were believers but who were in fact just calculating skeptics who were just “hedging their bets.”
Also, God may decide that the quality of our moral life is what qualifies our souls for heaven and not any particular stated belief or lack of belief in God. The Jewish tradition in fact teaches that, “The souls of all the righteous ones will have a share in the World to Come.” The World to Come (Hebrew: olam habah) is the Jewish term for heaven. Christianity also makes room in its conception of heaven for all those who never encountered Christian teaching and thus never had the opportunity to accept or reject it.
My view is that human reason can get us a long way to belief in God. Einstein looked at the universe rationally and then thought of God and said, “Could so great a symphony have no conductor?”
I also believe that there is a leap of faith at the end of reason’s path to God. It is a leap of hope and not intellect. It is a leap of love and not calculation. It is a leap of the will and, most assuredly, it is not a wager.