Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623—August 19, 1662) was a French mathematician, inventor, scientist, and theologian/philosopher. Although he suffered from poor health, Pascal made major contributions in mathematics and physical science including the areas of hydraulics, atmospheric pressure, and vacuums. Pascal also insisted upon strict empirical observation and the use of controlled experiments. As a mathematician he helped develop differential calculus and probability theory. As an inventor, he developed a digital calculator to aid in commerce that could handle the French monetary units, which were not base 10. He also invented the syringe and the hydraulic press.
Pascal was raised as a traditional Roman Catholic but as a teenager came into contact with some Jansenists (a Catholic splinter group named for the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen) who taught that salvation was by grace, not by human merit. Pascal embraced this faith, but some who study his life today see little impact of his faith. However, on November 23, 1654, during the night he had what some call a “second conversion” when he said that he yielded himself totally to Jesus Christ. He kept a written record of this event sewn inside the lining of his jacket, and it was not discovered until after he died.
After his conversion experience, Pascal did not abandon his scientific studies but spent a significant amount of time in theological reflection and writing. He joined a Jansenist community that soon after became embroiled in a controversy with the Pope, the Jesuits, and most of the ecclesiastical leadership in France. Under the pseudonym Louis de Montalte, Pascal began publishing a series of letters (eighteen in all) defending the Jansenists and attacking the Jesuits. The letters were conversational in tone and used wit, sarcasm, irony, and humor. None of these things were common in French theological discourse at the time. The Letters were well-received, but ultimately the Jansenists were condemned by a papal bull and all but eradicated in France. These letters today are known as Les Provinciales or Lettres Provinciales (“The Provincial Letters”) and are available in English online.
Next, Pascal began work on what he hoped would be a comprehensive apology for the Christian faith. This work, published after his death, was called Pensees (“Thoughts” or “Reflections”). In this work Pascal did provide evidences for the Christian faith, but he rejected the idea that one could get to the truth by rational processes alone. After reviewing all the evidence, he said, we are still left with a measure of uncertainty. It is here that we must make a choice, and it is his argument at this point that has made Pascal’s most lasting impact on Christianity. Pascal’s Wager, as it is called, explains that it only makes sense to wager that God exists. If a person “bets” that God does not exist and is wrong, he loses everything. On the other hand, if a person “bets” that God does exist and is wrong, he really loses nothing. Pascal also points out that there is no middle ground; everyone must make a bet one way or the other.
The wager is not a blind leap of faith because there is evidence to support God’s existence—just not enough to rule out all uncertainty. The wager is not a proof of God’s existence; rather, it is a wise choice given the stakes and the probabilities. Some atheists counter that the person who “bets” on God and is wrong stands to lose a lot, including fun and happiness in this life, intellectual honesty, and self-respect. However there are great numbers of believers who have all these things along with love, joy, and peace. If atheism is right, when we die it is all over and a happy believer is no worse off than a happy unbeliever, even if the believer was wrong all his life.
Pascal’s Wager encourages those who are struggling with the existence of God, the truth of Christianity, or the possibility of eternal life to consider all the evidence and then proceed on the basis of the only choice that makes sense. It should also give comfort to believers who occasionally experience doubts. Rather than abandoning oneself to a life of atheism or unbelief, one should keep trying to find God, who promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).