To Live is to Choose

I was reading the description in a very fine novel of a death and burial when the thought crossed my mind: Is it possible to be unafraid of dying yet fear being dead?

I’ll make this personal. I’d not hesitate to give my life for family, friends, or faith, but the thought of being in a box six-feet underground is frightening: so cold and dark.

I suppose all that means is I don’t really know what to expect when I die, beyond ultimate joy if I die well. Dying well is good. But one thinks of the haunting statement of Isaiah, repeated by St. Paul (Is 64:3/1Cor 2:9-10):

Eye has not seen, ear has not heard,
Nor has it entered the human heart
what God has prepared for those who love him.

One must assume the same is true about Hell for those who hate God. If only they knew the truth!

I suppose if you’re a Satanist, you may actually want to go to Hell, although that seems to me a clear case of cutting off your joy to spite your misery. Something like that.

Which brings me to Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise Pascal, of course, was the remarkable 17th-century French mathematician,  physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and Catholic theologian. Among his inventions was the Pascaline, a counting machine he designed at age 19 to help his father in his work as France’s chief tax official. A 20th-century computer language is named after him.

But it was his theological work that has endured, especially that “wager,” which states that everybody wagers whether or not God exists and what that means in the way they live and die. Toss the coin. (N.B. Pascal’s Wager is not a proof of God’s existence.)

Pascal states the questions that haunt (or have haunted) all of us:

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which precedes and will succeed it – memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis [remembrance of a guest who tarried but a day] – the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?


In Pensées, part III, Pascal offers his bargain “according to natural lights”:

  • God exists or doesn’t, and it’s difficult to decide.
  • It’s like a coin toss: heads or tails.
  • But you must wager. Everybody does.
  • Weighing the gain or the loss in wagering that God is makes it clear that if you gain (God does exist), you gain all; if you lose (i.e. God doesn’t exist), you’ve obviously lost nothing.
  • So, wager without hesitation that He is, because there is infinite happiness to be gained against a finite number of chances to lose (through sin), and it may be that that loss is also infinite – and horrifying.
  • Thus, those who now can’t believe should seek assiduously to convince themselves to believe.

Whence cometh belief for the unbelieving bettor? Study of Scripture and reception of the Sacraments, i.e., through practice.

Does this suggest acting with the pretense of faith? Yes, until the pretense is transformed by faith into certainty. Pascal writes:

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly, you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

That’s a wonderful description of grace, isn’t it? Rem viderunt, causam non viderunt, he writes: they saw the thing; they did not see the cause.

It may be the case that a vision of Hell, such as Our Lady of Fátima showed the three children, may be more effective in convincing somebody to turn to God, but it’s very unlikely that it will be given to any of us. Besides, it is immeasurably better to live for love than by fear. And anybody who studies Scripture must surely note that no one spoke more about Hell than Christ, and that no one spoke more about Heaven.

If you are in, you are in for both.

Now it may be that as an evangelical tool Pascal’s Wager is only marginally better than Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological proof for the existence of God, which is, concisely: “Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived [i.e., God] exists in the understanding alone, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. Obviously, this is impossible. Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

Convinced? I didn’t think so. St. Thomas Aquinas, writing nearly two centuries later, thought it not so much ontological as tautological.

What I wrote here seven years ago (St. Anselm: Man of Premises), can as easily apply to Pascal’s Wager: “you’re unlikely to encounter many people who say: ‘Yeah, it was Anselm’s ontological argument that first brought me to Christ.’” But both he and Pascal make you think, and that’s a start.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say. As Pascal wrote, J’aurais écrit un essai plus court, mais je n’ai pas eu le temps. I would have written less about this, but I didn’t have the time.


*Image: Portrait of Blaise Pascal by François Quesnel the Younger, c. 1690 [Château Domaine national de Versailles, near Paris, France]

You may also enjoy:

St. John Henry Newman’s None Was Equal to the Weight but God

David Warren’s On Belief Without Faith

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.