Would You Bet On Pascal’s Wager?

When chatting with some friends this week, Pascal’s Wager came up.  For some reason (probably the greasy burger) at the time I was having trouble recalling the problems inherent in this idea, but since then it’s come back to me.  So, I feel like writing about it.

 To ensure we’re all on the same page, this is essentially Pascal’s Wager:

Christianity[i] is either true or false.  We don’t know.  In the event Christianity is true, living as a Christian leads to heaven, while living otherwise leads to hell.  I would think many could make (and have made) their decision after only going that far.  But Pascal goes farther in his analysis.  Pascal recognizes that heaven and hell represent positive and negative infinities, respectively.  Furthermore, he recognized that if Christianity is false, the loss one experiences by living it is finite (you don’t get to sleep in on Sundays, for instance), and the gain experienced by not living it is similarly finite (you do get to sleep in on Sundays).  From this, one would seem to determine that a reasonable person (interested in logic, risk reward, etc.) should choose to live as a Christian because doing so offers infinite potential benefit with finite potential loss, while not doing so offers finite potential benefit and infinite potential loss.

Sounds simple, right?  It even sounds logical.  Infinite good balanced by finite loss, vs. infinite loss balanced by finite good?  That’s an easy choice.  Thanks, Blaise.  You’ve solved our dilemma.

But wait, what if we’re not interested in risk and reward, but rather in truth?  Does Pascal help us?  Doesn’t seem to.  Pascal’s Wager certainly doesn’t help us decide that Christianity is true.[ii]  And introducing the element of truth brings up potential risks that Pascal’s Wager does not consider.  The foolish mistake the Wager makes is assuming that if Christianity is not true there is no alternative religious truth.  In my experience, Pascal is not alone in that folly; I’ve heard many Christians, atheists, and those in between talk as if it’s either Christianity or nothing.

So the real problem with Pascal’s Wager is one that seems to be so common in so much of Christian (apologetic) thought: the False Dilemma Fallacy.  The premise of Pascal’s Wager is a false dilemma.  Christianity is either true or false.  Really?  Some might argue with this, but it is possible from some parts of Christianity to be true while others are false in any variety of combinations.  Alternatively, Christianity might be true now, but be untrue by the time we might experience our potential benefit or loss.  It’s also possible that our entire definition of truth relative to religious systems is incorrect.  But the problem in Pascal’s false dilemma goes deeper – part of his premise is actually unstated.  The analysis that Pascal follows in developing his Wager indicates that there are actually two parts of his premise.  What he is really saying is this: Christianity is either true or false, and if Christianity is false then there is no religious truth.  The second half of the premise – the if/then component – is also unsupported.  We simply have no reason to assume that God does not exist in the absence of Christian truth.

Thus, the entire premise of Pascal’s Wager is useless.  So, what then are some of the other risk/reward scenarios Pascal has forgotten about?  Well, my favorite scenario is one in which not practicing Christianity leads to infinite benefit, while practicing it leads to infinite loss.  That could easily be the case.  Any number of other alternatives could be possible as well.  And that is ultimately where the Wager fails – it flat ignores the virtually infinite variety of potential benefit and loss associated with practicing Christianity.

There is still another element to Pascal’s Wager that should turn people off: it is a childish way to approach religion and the divine.  Any apologetic or other explanation that appeals to the fear of punishment of the possibility of reward comes from one who is grasping for the final emergency ripcord in his/her theological parachute.  As with similar illogical attempts at explaining one’s faith, this argument ultimately does more harm than good.  Anyone who accepts Pascal’s Wager as logical, never needed logical support for their religious convictions in the first place (that is, they were already convinced) so they receive no real benefit from it, while the person who does need logical support will find none in the Wager, and likely be turned off by what appears to be either deceptive tactics or simple stupidity (possibly ignorance) on the part of the apologist.

It may be difficult to determine Pascal’s true motives for this slight of logic (although I don’t suspect he was necessarily trying to win converts or something similar).[iii]  It seems he may simply have been attempting a justification for a certain belief or practice that was not supported by evidence.  Whatever he was trying to accomplish,[iv] the possibility that many may have used such a scheme as a basis for their own decision to live as Christians is most certainly not one of their many mysteries.

If one can apply Pascal’s Wager without fallacy, it may very well be a useful tool.  But please, keep this sort of thing away from God.  It does no good.

 -GCC


[i] It might be more accurate to say that Pascal’s Wager addressed God, and not necessarily Christianity.  But, without applying a specific religious scheme, the Wager seems meaningless.  Given that Pascal was a Christian proselyte, it seems to makes sense that he would most likely have applied it to Christianity.

[ii] I’m not really sure that Pascal was trying to use this idea as proof of the truth of Christianity.  However, the existence of this argument does help me at least a bit in determining that Christianity is not true.  This is because it is further evidence of my thesis that fear tactics contrasted with a childish idea of eternal bliss in the clouds of heaven – something which is not indicative of divine inspiration – lie at the core of Christianity.  I mention this to a certain extent in my post: The Purpose of Eternal Hell.

[iii] Indeed, from what I can tell this is more of an intellectual exercise than anything else.  Please let me know if I’m wrong and this played a more central role in his religious life, theology, etc.

[iv] The link above seems to indicate this played a significant role in the development of probability theory and other cool things

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19 Comments

Filed under Grant

19 responses to “Would You Bet On Pascal’s Wager?

  1. Holly

    Maybe you should read Pascal’s _Pensees_. I think you would find his thoughts interesting and surprisingly modern.

  2. John

    Pascal’s Wager is “foolish, “useless,” and “childish?” Let’s show the man some respect, for goodness sake, and at least *quote* his ideas before bashing them to pieces!

  3. czf

    This is logic that we find all the time in today’s society, no place more specifically than in the climate change debate. If it’s real, we need to act now to stop our GHG emissions; if we don’t, we’re screwed. If it’s not real, well, we will still improve the human relationship to the natural world, which will lead to better lives in the future and a less resource depletion…etc. You may not like the argument, but it makes inherent sense. (of course, it can be broken down fairly quickly, if one were so inclined).

    I see no reason that the logical frame of the argument does not makes sense for religion. And I’ve always had a bit of a fondness for it’s simplicity in that, regardless of maintaining religion’s “correctness” (or truth or whatever you want to call it), it should lead people to live better lives, which I’m all for.

    Also. Isn’t there a sense in which Christianity is either/or? One can maneuver within definitions of Christianity all one wants, but Christ was either God or Not God, right? I don’t mean to oversimplify, as a non-believer. But a whole lot seems to hinge on that either/or. Which has always been what I’ve loved about Christianity (even after I left it).

  4. GCC

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Holly:
    Thanks for the tip. I was thinking the same thing. It seems like it’s a fascinating work. It’ll be on the even-growing reading list. I also hear you have new post for us. I’m looking forward to it!

    John:
    I feel the idea of Pascal’s Wager is a childish way “to approach religion and the divine.” I feel that way because of its emphasis on reward and punishment. That strikes me as very similar to the way in which we deal with children who have not yet developed a sense of right and wrong. As they are developing that sense, it seems common to use things like reward and punishment to guide their behavior. Once they become more mature, however, those motivators seem to largely disappear. So, to address the issue of religion with an emphasis only on reward and punishment seems to me to be addressing it in the same manner in which one might address such things with a child. For me, a more mature approach is to appeal to our adult sense of right and wrong. The ideas (i.e. infinity) in Pascal’s thought aren’t childish, it’s just the way they are applied to the divine.

    The part that I see as foolish is what causes the false dilemma: the lack of recognition of other possibilities. I don’t limit this to Pascal or the Wager. Foolish might not be a good word to express what I mean here. Seeing religious truth as either Christianity or nothing doesn’t make someone unintelligent, but it might make one uninformed, or it might simply mean that they are making an unsupported assumption. It seems to me that when one is dealing with something so apparently serious as to include negative infinity, that one should consider all possibilities. To do otherwise seems foolish.

    What I read of Pascal’s Wager did not state specifics about Christianity, but referred more generally to God. If we limit Pascal’s Wager to just the idea of God it is “useless” because we are not provided with any framework for what it means to live as if God exists. Because of that, the fact that the Wager assumes the existence of God also implies positive and negative infinites, and Pascal’s own religious affiliation, I took the liberty of applying his Wager more specifically to Christianity. (In that sense I was definitely not quoting Pascal’s ideas directly. And I assume I’m missing some more too. It is a problem that things get incorrectly cited and attributed to people, etc. etc. To that end, it isn’t important to me that this line of thinking is termed “Pascal’s Wager;” it could be from anyone or no one specific.) When applied to Christianity specifically, the Wager is useless as a logical argument because it is illogical. It does nothing to offer any reason to believe Christianity is true because the Wager could be applied with equal validity (or lack thereof) to any number of religions. The Wager also offers no independent reason to live as a Christian because one must assume that Christianity is true in order for the reasoning to make sense at all. And if one believes Christianity is true, no other reason is needed for living as a Christian.

    It is possible that the Wager has another use. And that brings me to my last points. You’re right about quoting Pascal more directly. It may very well be inaccurate to say, for instance, that Pascal applied his Wager to the divine the way I mention earlier in this comment. It may be that Pascal’s thoughts, words, etc. are borrowed and morphed into something that he would find odd. I was careless in not underscoring that possibility and insulating Pascal from potentially unwarranted criticism. You’re also right about bashing, etc. It’s not something I intend. I do, however, have a bad habit of typing in negative hyperbole. I appreciate you drawing my attention to it here. “Useless” is a good example of this. I could have been much more true to what I meant had I said something more like, “Pascal’s Wager does not carry much weight in Christian (or other) apologetics, as it doesn’t offer evidence of the truth of Christianity nor an independent reason to live as a Christian.” Something along those lines would also allow me to be consistent in my demands regarding precision in our use of language. I can’t expect someone to accept my idea (to be blogged about soon) that something like Sola Scriptura doesn’t make sense based on the exclusive nature of the term itself, while I myself use exclusive terms like “useless” while apparently expecting others to understand that I don’t quite mean what I say. To do so seems foolish and even childish – I can’t have my cake and eat it too!

    CZF:
    I think you’re probably right that we find this sort of “logic” in society all the time. And I think that’s a problem. The Global Warming example is a good one the way you present it, as it doesn’t recognize the potential negative on the other side. If Global Warming is not real and we move dramatically to prevent it we might have better lives in the future, but it is also possible that we will have worse lives in the future. And then it just starts to get subjective. That’s why I think its better to focus on the truth of things to all extents possible. I’m not sure that I would say something makes “inherent sense” if it can also be “broken down fairly quickly.” I would describe something like that as something that seems to make sense on its face but upon further examination does not make sense.

    The Wager doesn’t work for religion because it can be applied to nearly any specific religion, and can’t really be applied to religion in general. It doesn’t really bring us to anything. And, it doesn’t seem reasonable to assume that living a religious life will lead people to lead better lives. To get to that point, one would first have to decide on a religion. And as I just mentioned Pascal’s Wager does not help us in that regard.

    Attempts to make religion simple make me nervous. Religion is not simple. God is not simple. But, to be clear, I’m not interpreting you as suggesting that either really are simple.

    For most people Jesus was either God or not. For others (say docetists, adoptionists, arians for instance) it might be more complicated. But in any case, what does that really mean? Does a lot really hinge on that either/or? What does it mean if Jesus was God? What does it mean if Jesus wasn’t? Do we really have concrete answers to those questions? Does Jesus himself even really answer them? Or are we interpreting things and doing what we can to apply what we interpret to these questions? And if that’s the case, what are we basing our interpretation on? History? Tradition? Feelings? Love? Fear? Does Christianity hinge on the either/or surrounding Jesus’ divinity? Or is it really that some people’s personal faith hinges on that dilemma? For me, if Jesus was God, that fact alone is not enough for me to embrace Christianity. On the other hand, if Jesus was not God, that fact alone is not enough for me to reject Christianity. For me personally, Christianity hinges on a lot more than an either/or proposition surrounding Jesus’ divinity. Others see it differently I’m sure.

  5. czf

    I find no difficulty in there being sound logical arguments that are easy to breakdown.
    That’s what logic is all about.

  6. Grant, I agree that it would be a foolish mistake to conclude that if Christianity is not truth, then it should be assumed that no other religion is truth. Perhaps, as you present, this is what Pascal is saying, but I don’t know enough about his writing to wager on that. Nevertheless, I can say with confidence that I do not completely subscribe to your understanding and application of either/or in the context of Christianity as you have presented it.

    There is mention of my primary disagreement in your first footnote, but perhaps viewed with a different lens. The significance of the either/or proposition is not in relationship between God and Christianity, it is in relationship between God and Jesus – Jesus whom I call the Christ. God does have an identity (one we can know abundantly, but not exhaustively). When Jesus claims to be God, we should ask: Is Jesus really part of God’s identity? Is it illogical to say Jesus either was or was not God? No. So, why shouldn’t the question be as valid and worthy as any other question as we seek to know God? A paramount question is: What are the implications of the either/or proposition of Jesus being God?

    I genuinely appreciate all the questions you pose in your last comment. As can be inferred from the last paragraph… yes, I believe a lot – Truth – hinges on Jesus either being God or not being God. How could it not? Would I not have a more incomplete and flawed understanding of God if I believe Jesus is God and yet He is indeed not God? Does the way we think and believe not influence the way we act? With these thoughts and questions in mind, do you care to elaborate on you comment that “if Jesus was God, that fact alone is not enough for me to embrace Christianity?” If you came to believe Jesus was God, would you embrace Jesus as the Christ, but not the religion “Christianity?” I’m a “Christian” and for me, I don’t know what else but Jesus Christ that such a profession hinges.

  7. GCC

    Oh OK, CZF, I think I see what you’re saying: breaking a logical argument down into its components. I thought you meant “breaking down” as to show that an argument is not logical. That’s what I mean (now at least) when thinking about breaking down something like Pascal’s Wager: It is not logical.

  8. GCC

    T:

    I didn’t think you’d “like” that! I’m happy to elaborate, but I’ll have to get to it this evening.

  9. GCC

    I think the key to this stuff is to understand that these questions (particularly Was Jesus God or Not?) do not stand alone. Many of them require other questions to be answered before they themselves can be answered, and they generally require subsequent questions for them to have any significance in the first place. This got a bit discombobulated as I wrote, but I think all of your questions helped me flesh out my thinking. I’ll go through some of this below as I address the questions in your response (which I’ve put in quotes at the beginning of each paragraph).

    “When Jesus claims to be God, we should ask: Is Jesus really part of God’s identity?”
    This is a great question. But it implies at least to things: 1.) We know the identity of God. 2.) We have a definition of what it means to be a part of that identity. So, this is not the first question. There are at least two that must come before it. 1.) What is God’s identity? 2.) What does it mean to be a part of that identity? However one answers these questions, they must be answered and understood before one can ask whether or not Jesus is a part of God’s identity.

    “Is it illogical to say Jesus either was or was not God? No. So, why shouldn’t the question be as valid and worthy as any other question as we seek to know God?”
    I don’t see this question as invalid, unworthy or unimportant. I do, however, see it as short and simple. It has a yes/no answer. What is interesting and also important is why one comes to his/her own answer to that question. In answering the question “Was Jesus God or not?” one goes through a number of other questions. And those questions are where I think the focus should be directed. If one starts with the question of whether or not Jesus was God and then goes and tries to figure out why they’ve chosen their answer, it seems there’s a high likelihood that their investigation of the other questions will be colored by the pre-determined end they might be hoping to support. In order to view things more objectively, it would seem that one should start far away from the question of whether or not Jesus was God. Furthermore, as important as the question of whether or not Jesus was God is, it is by no means the last question. If we determine Jesus to be either God or not God, we are still left with something that has essentially no meaning on its own. So, we see that this is neither the primary question, nor the ultimate question.

    “A paramount question is: What are the implications of the either/or proposition of Jesus being God?”
    This is a question that I think goes to the idea of Christianity hinging on the either/or of Jesus being God. This starts to go to what you’ve asked me to elaborate on which I will do below. I don’t think that Christianity hinges soley on this either/or proposition. I don’t think that this either/or creates a subsequent either/or (e.g. Christianity is either true or false, good or bad, etc.). If you rephrase this question as “What are the implications if Jesus was God?” I think you have something much more paramount. I think that might be what you mean anyway. If that’s the case, you’ve underscored my point that a question such as “Was Jesus God?” is only important in the context of other questions.

    “I believe a lot – Truth – hinges on Jesus either being God or not being God. How could it not?”
    Truth doesn’t necessarily hinge on Jesus’ identity. God is God whether or not Jesus is God. When it comes to pretty much everything else, “a lot” just seems rather subjective.

    “Would I not have a more incomplete and flawed understanding of God if I believe Jesus is God and yet He is indeed not God?”
    It’s possible that this is a distinction without a difference, but I would say that the either/or of importance when it comes to the “completeness” or “flawlessness” of one’s understanding of God is not an either/or surrounding the identity of God. Rather the either/or at issue – in this context – is that one either believes Jesus was God or one does not believe Jesus was God. (I happen think that particular either/or is a false dilemma, but I’m ignoring that for now.) The key is that someone’s flaw in their understanding of God does not come from God’s indentity, but rather from the individual’s own belief about God. Of course, the truth of the identity of God does play some role in this, so, as I said, this might be a distinction without a difference. At a minimum though, it seems to me that the priority sits with the belief which is then confirmed (or not) by the true identity of God. Similar to the way in which we define our realtionships with God, I think we define our understanding of him too, not the other way around.

    “Does the way we think and believe not influence the way we act?”
    Yes, but our belief about the identity of God doesn’t. We don’t behave in a particular way because of who or what we think God is. We behave in a particular way because of how we want to relate to that God. A belief in God of any identity can manifest itself just as easily in active rejection of God and God’s will as it can in acceptance of God and God’s will. (As an aside, this is one reason why the idea that “faith saves” makes very little sense.)

    “With these thoughts and questions in mind, do you care to elaborate on you comment that “if Jesus was God, that fact alone is not enough for me to embrace Christianity?””
    I also said that knowledge that Jesus was not God is also not alone enough for me to reject Christianity. This is actually very simple, and I do not think it’s unique to me. We are free to choose God or not (whatever, for now, that means precisely). But to be free to chose God, we must first have knowledge of God. So, if it’s our knowledge of God (with a bit of free will thrown in) that allows us to chose God, it cannot be that our knowledge of God alone automatically bring us to embrace that God, even less so a system surrounding that God’s worship, etc. To make my point, I only need to show that there is one other question to ask besides “Was Jesus God?” (Or, “Is there a God?”) so, rather than going on and on, I’ll keep it to just one: “What was Jesus’ (assuming he was God) will?” I think everyone would (does) ask this as well. Indeed, a knowledge of God seems a bit meaningless without a knowledge of God’s will. So, it seems to me that the assumed fact that Jesus was God is not alone enough for anyone to embrace Christianity. And that’s why it’s not the either/or on which Christianity hinges. Christianity does not live because Jesus was God. Christianity lives because a number of people have perceived what they think to be God’s will, and have accepted it. There would be no Christianity if those people do not perceive something to be God’s will and then accept that thing (and do it, by the way). But, if those people rejected it, it wouldn’t make Jesus any less God. So, we see that it is not Jesus’ divinity (or lackthereof) that makes (or breaks) Christianity, it is the people’s recognition of and acceptance of the teachings of Christianity as God’s will.

    “If you came to believe Jesus was God, would you embrace Jesus as the Christ, but not the religion “Christianity?””
    This question requires a lot of defenition to answer. For example, what does “Jesus as the Christ” mean? Or, how do we define Christianity, does its very name imply that one accepts a Christ, or maybe not? Is “Christ” a part of Jesus’ name, so Jesus must be the Christ of Christianity? I think in common culture would say yes, but that’s not inherent in the name itself, so it needs definition. I think that at this point what we commonly refer to as Christianity implies a lot more than just the word “christ.”

    “I’m a “Christian” and for me, I don’t know what else but Jesus Christ that such a profession hinges.” I’m going to have to read into what you’re saying here. I think you mean the divinity of Jesus Christ is the thing on which your profession hinges. Let me know if that’s wrong, but for now I’m just going to go with it. I don’t think you’re alone in this. But this is merely one view of Christianity, one view of Jesus, one view of God, etc. Others can have Jesus be absoltely central to their faith, theology, etc. without ascribing importance to his potential divinity. That might seem strange to some people (Christians and non-Christians alike), but there are many other ways to view these things too. That fact then becomes very important when it comes to either/or. In order for an either/or statement to function it must be surrounded by other definitions. And, in this case for it to work, we must have a set definition of Christianity or what it means to be a “Christian.” But the problem is that there are those who could (and would) disagree with whatever definition we set yet still call themselves Christians. Sure, with faith in our definition we might not call them Christians, but our definition of them does not make them any less (or more) Christians. Our definition of them does not affect their realationship with and to God (or Jesus as the case may be). They define that relationship for themselves, just as we do for ourselves. So, as I said earlier, what hinges on the either/or of Jesus’ divinity is not Christianity, but rather personal faith and relationship to God. For some people, a discovery that Jesus was not God (or resurrected, or born of a virgin, or whatever else) would be a death blow to their personal faith. For others, it couldn’t be less significant. Those two people might not understand eachother’s faith, but that misunderstanding doesn’t diminish either one. And of course, we can’t forget the spectrum of people in between.
    (Incidentally, the God of Abrham, Isaac, and Jacob sets up a system to avoid these issues – Deut. 17:8-13. But Christianity rejected that system. It seems from history that it then realized that not having such a system didn’t function very well, so it established one – Papal Infallibility, etc. And then, because that system was man made and not from God, there were people who didn’t like it and were thus free to reject it – The Reformation. And then again today, it seems we have people trying to reinsitute a more subtle version of such a system – statements of faith, official positions on social issues, the “you must believe X to be a Christian” attitude, etc. But because Christianity is so splintered, none of them carry any universal weight, and people can simply pick and choose what it is they want without any authority around to tell them that which is correct and truly the will of God. As a result of its rejection of the system God set in place, Christianity has become a faith that is free to the whims of individuals, treating God and scripture as a cafeteria, picking what they want and leaving behind what they don’t, and establishing widely divergent theologies. One might notice that this is another one of that factors independent of Jesus’ divinty that would play into my embrace or rejection of Christianity. And even this one could go both ways. This could be seen as negative just as easily as it could be seen as a positive. John, please feel free to chime in here about the Pope, The Reformation, etc. if need be!)

  10. John

    Far too glib, Grant, but then again you knew I’d say that!

    Infallibility is widely misunderstood. The requirements set forth in canon law are incredibly specific, and I believe the pope has only spoken “infallibly” twice (the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception). Also, one could argue that any “system” was set up by Jesus himself and merely specifically delineated later on. This is certainly the view of the Papacy, which traces its legitimacy back to Peter, the rock, the keys, and Rome. But that’s a whole other issue, and one I argue about with my Greek friends on a regular basis!

    As regards the Reformation, “the system” was not really thrown off (at least not in the 16th century and arguably not even the 17th). Luther believed in the real presence, affirmed Mary’s immaculate conception, prayed “The Hail Mary,” wanted church structure and authority, approved of the censure and killing of heretics, the persecution of Jews….no point getting into all of it here, but I’ll be glad to wade into it later.

    A word about citation and bashing, etc. I have no problem with bashing dead writers and calling them names–I do that all the time in lecture. It’s fun! BUT, I have always first read the works of those I bash. How can one even attempt to discuss/criticize/support Pascal’s Wager (or any other theory) when one has not actually *read* it in the first place? Reading materials *about* the Wager is insufficient. _Pensees_ is online at: http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/pensees/pensees.html ; the Wager is in Section Three. Get the knowledge and *then* slam that conceited Jansenist!!!

  11. GCC

    You see, John, what you’ve hit on is the problem with kids today. They’ve got their iPhones, and their blogs, and their twitters, and whatever, and they just don’t have the time to actually research things and read stuff! Duh! You know you can’t expect they actually read things before commenting on them!!! It is good though, that you have at least bent a bit in their direction by providing a link to an “e-book.” I think it’s more likely that such a thing will be read! You’re so right, my friend.

    I’m sure you’ll also like to know that next to “papal infallibility” I had the term “sola ecclesia,” but because I thought of you, I did a bit of “research” and it appears that might be a term that was inappropriately applied to the Church by her detractors, rather than a doctrine of her own. I don’t think New Advent even had it listed! Thanks as always for the insights.

    You guys should come out this direction. There is reason to celebrate, after all: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=16299

  12. I mean no disrespect, but it is glaringly obvious that one must investigate and attempt to answer many other questions before even attempting to answer the question whether or not Jesus is God. Just like any other question, this question cannot live in isolation. Furthermore, like any other question, this question demands intellectually and spiritually honesty as we investigate it, attempt to answer it, develop our worldview and apply it to our way of life. It would follow then, that I would agree that we must have some understanding and/or belief as to God’s identity and what it means to be part of God’s identity before we can answer whether or not Jesus is God.

    I really don’t care if you find the question whether or not Jesus is God to be short and simple. What I do care about regardless of our answers, however, is that we find the question significant and meaningful with profound implications. Yes, in our pursuit to answer the question at hand, we should direct our resources toward investigating and answering other related questions – the process of discursion – but for the purpose of answering the original question. Isn’t it only fitting and proper to start with a focal question (whatever it may be) and follow it with a multitude of other questions in attempt to answer it?

    Your statement “it seems there’s a high likelihood that their investigation of the other questions will be colored by the pre-determined end they might be hoping to support” is nothing more than an assumption. Even if your assumption is true, I think it would be a great disappointment (this is why I emphasize intellectually and spiritually honesty), and it doesn’t necessarily negate the Truth of one’s conclusion. If one has an understanding and/or belief of God before they encounter Jesus, is it wrong if their ultimate or primary question is whether or not Jesus is God? I think you may be inappropriately using an “ought.”

    I think it is tremendously obvious that Christianity hinges on Jesus Christ, by which I mean who He was, is and will be, and what He has done, is doing and will do. Perhaps I’m some rouge “Christian” who has created some hybrid-Christianity, but I really don’t think so. If Jesus isn’t the Christ, then Christianity would lose all value to me (I’d imagine for others too), and I’d immediately convert to Judaism – like NOW. What else would be of value in Christianity if Jesus is not the Christ – God – that Judaism couldn’t offer and in full measure? Why wouldn’t I simply revert to my roots – Judaism?

    With that said, isn’t it also obvious that Truth doesn’t necessarily hinge on Jesus’ identity? I definitely think so. You say, “God is God whether or not Jesus is God,” but what does that even mean if Jesus is God? I’d argue that it represents convoluted reasoning and has no meaning. It’s almost like saying God is God – yep. Because the question whether or not Jesus is God is asked, and because the Truth has importance and implications in our relationships with people and God, it deserves our attention and an answer. So, it should (and I believe it does) matter whether or not Jesus is God, which is precisely my point. Or, do you suggest that it is better to ignore the question altogether? Jesus said He is God. I know you dispute whether or not Jesus even said He was God, but even if I understand and/or believe that Jesus said and/or implied that He is God, and understand and/or believe that Jesus is indeed God, then my understanding and/or belief of God hinges on Jesus, which should consequently matter, both in my relationship with other people and God.

    If you can agree that our understanding and/or belief in/of God matters (which, unfortunately, I’m really beginning to question that you agree), then the question whether or not Jesus is God matters significantly and I’d certainly hope you would try to correct me from having faith and hope in a false God. At the very least, I think you would agree that God would be disappointed (perhaps with some profound implications, which I understand and believe) if I knowingly reject the first two of the Ten Commandments and place my faith and hope in a false God. As I’ve quoted Steve Garber before, because it is true and important, “knowledge of, means responsibility to, means care for.”

    I will address some of your other comments in my next reply.

  13. GCC

    No disrespect taken off the top, my friend! I also think it’s glaringly obvious that these questions don’t live in isolation. Where we differ is then what the context means for the questions themselves, I think.

    When it comes to intellectual/spiritual honesty, the identity of God, etc, we run into difficulty when one’s first exposure to God’s identity comes in a predetermined context (e.g. Jesus is God, Krishna is God, Mithras is God, Sun Myung Moon is God, God is God, etc.). Once we begin working from the position we are given, it becomes very difficult to approach things impartially (which is what I assume you mean by intellectual and spiritual impartiality).

    What I’m trying to say regarding the question of Jesus’ divinity is that the question itself does not have significance, meaning or profound implications. If the answer to the question is “no,” then the question has no more significance than if we asked whether or not I am God. (And we already know the answer to that!) If the answer to the question is “yes,” then the significance only comes once we understand what Jesus’ will, as God, is. So, to me the significant question with profound implications is not “Was Jesus God?” but rather “What did Jesus teach, represent, demonstrate, etc? How did he act, speak, etc.? Who was Jesus?” And I don’t mean to have that last part be confusing about what I mean. When I say, “Who was Jesus? I do not mean anything about his assumed divinity; rather, I mean to seek out who he was as a person. Surely if God chose such a thing as to become incarnate in human form what God wants us to focus on is that element of humanity. Otherwise there is no reason for such shenanigans.

    It does make sense to start with a focal question. I thought of this in my last response, so I probably should have said then, that it does make sense to have a particular question as an impetus to investigate other questions. But, given that, there is nothing special about the question of Jesus’ divinity. The question itself provides us no reason to investigate it over any other question. To find a reason that we should investigate that question above others we must first answer other questions; so again, the question of Jesus divinity is not of primary importance.

    You asked whether or not it is wrong if someone who has a pre-existing understanding of God has the question of Jesus’ divinity as his or her primary question. So, is it wrong? No. Does it make sense? No. Is there any inherent reason for it? No. Is there any reason why one with an understanding of God would investigate the world’s other man-god claimants? No. This question is only important if there is some other contextual impetus for it. At that point it may make sense to have it as a focal question. (Again though, I don’t think the answer is that important either way.) But if that’s the case then it is not the question itself that has the significance, but rather the circumstances of the person that are then applying significance to the question.

    You say you think it’s obvious that Christianity hinges on Jesus. I agree; Christianity hinges on Jesus. Sure. But what does that mean? (It’s worth noting that you did not say that Christianity hinges on whether or not Jesus was God.) You give an answer, that it means who he is/was/does/did (plus the future tense). But what does that mean? I personally think the definition is great. But it’s not a definition that makes the question of Jesus’ divinity any more significant. Indeed, the vagueness of that definition (again, which I think it great!) downplays the significance of Jesus’ divinity because it doesn’t even mention it.

    When you talk about whether or not Jesus is or is not “the Christ,” one must still ask what it means for Jesus to be “the Christ.” One can’t know whether or not Jesus is the Christ until one knows what that means. Also, the value of Christianity is largely dependent on how one defines what it means to be “the Christ.” Jesus might very well be “the Christ” yet still have nothing to do with Judaism. And there might be nothing wrong with that. (Kind of as an aside, I’d say that I don’t think Judaism is the roots of most Christians, but from what I know I do think that even is Jesus was who Christians think he was that Judaism offers not just everything that Christianity does and in full measure, but that Judaism offers much more – from a purely spiritual, religious point of view at least.

    I also agree that it is obvious that Truth doesn’t hinge on Jesus identity. But when you ask if it matters whether or not Jesus is God if he is, I have to answer, No – at least not from a practical perspective. What matters it what we recognize as God’s will as a result of the realization that Jesus is God. The emphasis on the specificity of this identity seem to be one of Christianity’s the flaws of. Because of the focus on a person, many Christians seem to have forgotten that what’s important is not how they understand God Godself, but rather how they understand God’s will.

    When you reduce things down to your own understanding of God and suggest that it should matter, I agree. I would say that yes, it matters. But it matters only to you. It doesn’t matter to Christianity necessarily. It matters even less to Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. etc.

    I also agree that our understanding of God has significance. But I have a hard time ascribing a particular significance to it. And there are many many variables that go into it. And I believe that God may reveal Godself in a variety of ways, so it becomes even more difficult to place particular significance on any one person’s understanding of God.
    When it comes to correcting someone from having faith and hope in a false God, I immediately think that that kind of thing is only important if one believes that there is only one path to God, and all others lead to some form of damnation. If I don’t believe that Christianity leads to damnation then there is no reason for me to try to “correct” a Christian’s potentially mistaken faith. (It seems that Christians think that believing in Christianity that turns out to be false would condemn then to damnation, but that is funny to me given that if Christianity is false then those who profess it are the last people who we should expect to have any idea about what will or will not happen to them as a result of their faith.) There’s also the question of whether or not Christians believe in a false God or have just created a skewed image of the one, true God. There’s plenty more to this. I think about it a lot.

    Regarding violating the first two of the Ten Commandments, I could first say that the Ten Commandments weren’t given to you precisely, so you don’t really have an obligation to keep them. (I do though always find it amusing when Christians bring them up. It seems that the confidence that “the Law” has been “fulfilled” does fade away rather quickly. But that is neither here nor there.) What’s important is not that God would be disappointed that a person slipped up in keeping one of God’s commandments, that’s obvious. Of course God would be disappointed. What matters is what God’s reaction to such a failure is. Fortunately for us, God knows how God created us, so God knows what God can expect from us. And God then reacts accordingly. God did not set up a system under which we were bound to fail, so he could delight in punishing us. If all God wanted was to punish us there would be no need for the system (commandments). God knows we will fail at times. God also knows we are fully capable of success. But God does not need or expect us to be perfect. If we were perfect, our fulfillment of God’s will and our return to God after our failures would be of no value. The Bible says clearly what God’s reaction to human failure is. The good news is that it does not say the following: we must be perfect; we will be damned for our failures; we must have blood sacrifice; God will reject us; there is only one path to God; we are inherently sinners; we must die in our sins. The message of the Bible is much much different than all that.

  14. Yes, everyone comes to the question of who is God not as a blank slate. It may be difficult for people to approach such a question impartially, but that doesn’t mean that the question should be asked, or that there isn’t a more complete and accurate answer. I’m not sure why you give this topic such attention when it’s really not at the heart of the matter at hand. It also seems like a very rudimentary idea that reiterates something that is already known, or should be known, – that you and I both cannot approach the question of who is God as blank slates.

    Regarding the importance and implications of the question whether or not Jesus is God, it is clear that we disagree. Even if I were to investigate who Jesus is with deep curiosity and dedication, and with intellectually and spiritually honesty, and decide that His words and deeds were good and godly, but attributed them to nothing other than a man who walked the face of the earth, then who He is really doesn’t have much significance, meaning or implications. But, if Jesus is God, then His words and deeds have significance, meaning and profound implications – to the supreme extent.

    The question whether or not Jesus is God, albeit apparently strange to some, if not many, is a very valid question and has significance in itself because it should cause several other questions to be asked so that one can attempt to answer it. From your positioning and numerous rebuttals, it appears that you are trying to reduce the value of the question whether or not Jesus is God. If this were not the case, I don’t know why you’d go on the way you have, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t just ask the next question in line to answer the question that is worthy of an answer, and significant and meaningful with profound implications in its own right.

    The most comforting thing in my mind out of all of this is that we agree that the questions: “Who was Jesus?” or “Is Jesus God?” cannot be answered without investigating the words and deeds of Jesus. Hooray! The interesting thing is that I, along with other Christians I know, would say that the purpose of asking the question whether or not Jesus is God is to encourage people to investigate who Jesus is and who God is, to which we would say… they’re the same – God. This is the reason why I think you’re assuming too much regarding the motive and meaning behind the question whether or not Jesus is God.

    So, now you agree that Christianity does hinge on Jesus – wonderful. You say, “It’s worth noting that you did not say that Christianity hinges on whether or not Jesus was God,” but you’re assuming too much, whether you’re reading into things too much or not enough. Let me be clear, at least for me and my brand of “Christianity,” which is my faith unless ever convinced otherwise, when I say that Christianity hinges on Jesus, I’m also saying Jesus is God. Christianity is predicated in the belief that Jesus is God, not that He is just a good guy, prophet or great teacher. It’s not like Christians place their faith in and worship one (or perhaps all three) of the latter three descriptions of Jesus. If they do, I’d suggest to them that they should not refer to themselves as Christians for Christianity sake. On a bit of a tangent, as a discursionists would have it, when a Christian says that Jesus is God, it is like saying God is God – an ordinary and obvious conclusion.

    In relation to the prior sentence… you say, “You give an answer, that it means who he is/was/does/did (plus future tense). But what does that mean?… Indeed, the vagueness of that definition downplays the significance of Jesus’ divinity because it doesn’t even mention it.” I know you have an understanding of the “Judeo” portion of what I would call the Judeo-Christian God. If you know who the “Judeo God” is (pardon the amateurish description), then take everything that is and apply it to Jesus. Essentially, that is who Jesus is – God, everything that He was in the past, everything that He is now, everything that He will be in the future (e.g., Alpha-Omega, the same yesterday, today and forever, the everlasting one, Almighty God, Truth, etc…), everything that He has done (e.g., Creation, provided The Law, provided an atonement and grace for our sins, etc…), everything that He is doing (e.g., working to soften our hearts to live how we ought to live – in love, justice and peace, etc…) and everything He will do (e.g., redeem all things unto Him, bring everlasting love, justice and peace, etc…). Again, I think you’re assuming too much. I don’t think it is fair for one to say that I’ve downplayed Jesus’ divinity just because I didn’t go into the details regarding Jesus’ identity, or who He was/is/will be and has done/is doing/will do. Rather, what would be fair is to ask more questions and for me to expect and hope that more questions will be asked. So, with all this in mind, should the significance of the question whether or not Jesus is God be reduced in any way, or not be at least an important question, if not a primary question for one interacting with the Christian faith?

    I dislike to beat a dead horse, but the obvious continues. You say, “One can’t know whether or not Jesus is the Christ until one knows what that means.” Yep, I agree. It seems obvious. I’ve never disputed that. Perhaps you’re just pointing it out for some who may need to consider that, or just thinking out loud, which are both good in their own right. Yes, the value that one places on Christianity is largely dependent on how one defines what it means to be the Christ, which is why the question whether or not Jesus is God should follow. Yes, Jesus may be the Christ and still have nothing to do with Judaism, but that’s not what I believe, so I would hope that a Jew would want to explore that topic in discursion. And, yes, the debate around who Jesus was would greatly color how a Christian and Jew would understand and ascribe importance to Jesus in relation to Judaism – it’s not would, it does. You say, “Judaism offers not just everything that Christianity does and in full measure, but that Judaism offers much more – from a purely spiritual, religious point of view at least.” To which I would reply, the Christian would say that Christianity offers much more – from a purely spiritual, religious point of view at least. Now this is obvious. This is the reason for the debate. So, Grant, why do you think that’s the case? Could it be surrounding the question whether or not Jesus is God? I think so, which is why I wholeheartedly believe so, and which is why it is a primary question with significance, meaning and profound implications. I’ll say it again, if Jesus is not God, then sign me up for Judaism immediately – like NOW.

    You say, “The emphasis on the specificity of this identity [Jesus’] seem to be one of Christianity’s [flaws.] Because the focus on a person [Jesus], many Christians seem to have forgotten that what’s important is not how they understand God Godself, but rather how they understand God’s will.” So, if I focus on Jesus, and if He is God (which I understand/know/believe), am I somehow automatically deficient in understanding God’s Will because I pay attention to His identity? Or, could it be that if someone doesn’t understand/know/believe Jesus to be God that they may be deficient in understanding God’s Will? Again, just a reminder, I believe Jesus is God, so for me it’s like saying God is God. So, what do you suggest then, that as a “Christian” I’m emphasizing God’s identity, or God’s identity too much? Which one is it?

    You seem to contradict yourself the paragraph before you say, “I also agree that our understanding of God has significance.” So, you agree it has significance – wonderful. Yes, there may be many variables as to the particular significance of this, but please at least entertain the following idea. If there is a God who is the one and only God, and if that God demands that there be no other gods, then wouldn’t that God care if someone who is not God claimed to be God, and would He not care if others worshiped this god as God? Wouldn’t the worshipers of this god be worshiping less than what they could and ought? Wouldn’t the others who worshiped the one and only true God be worshiping a more complete God than the others worshiping god? Shouldn’t then both the others care about what God or god they’re worshiping?

    Regarding the Ten Commandments… I believe that they were given to the Jews, but intended to be beacon of God to all. I find it amusing that you find it amusing when Christians bring up the Ten Commandments. So, you find it amusing that Christians view God to be God and that they would find universal moral instructions and Truth from God in the Ten Commandments? Has my confidence in the Law being fulfilled remotely faded if God came to earth as Jesus and lived the moral Law to perfection? That Jesus fully embodied the meaning and intent of the Law? That’s amusing? Really? What is the point of the Law? Is it not to provide direction away from things we ought not to do against God and man, away from sin, and towards righteousness?

  15. iblase

    Pascal’s Wager is, I think, severely misunderstood and underrated. There is some good literature on it though:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/search?index=books&linkCode=qs&keywords=0199291322

  16. GCC

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, iblase! That looks like a very good (although very expensive!) book. This topic definitely warrants some more reasearch.

  17. GCC

    T:

    We’re way off topic here. Should we condense this into a new post?

  18. I think we’ve discursed well my friend. This is your post, and you have free will, so you don’t have to respond to my questions at all. But, I would appreciate a reply, whether it be in a new article or additional comments here.

  19. GCC

    OK, cool. I want to keep going on this, this just isn’t the right spot for it anymore…

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