Pascal’s Wager and the Restored Gospel

Hell to Heaven

We Latter-day Saints hold to a rather benign form of hell. I think this a feature, with traditional hell being the ultimate bug. However, one implication of our benign afterlife of second chances is that arguably this-worldly religious decisions have less “import.” If your decision to not be baptized leads to you burning in traditional hell for all eternity, that’s different then if you spend some time in spiritual prison while you are instructed and spiritually sensitized in preparation for receiving eternal ordinances. 

While the Latter-day Saint framework makes more sense to me in terms of mercy and reason, it does attenuate Pascal’s Wager for us. (Pascal’s Wager is the idea that everybody should be a religious believer because the cost of being wrong [hell] is eternally greater than the cost of being wrong in a universe without God). Pascal’s Wager smells funny and smacks of spiritual blackmail, but logically it seems pretty airtight. 

As a child I remember brooding on the issue before I ran across it formally (in saying this I’m not claiming I’m some Pascal–I’d wager many if not most thought experiments or theoretical concepts have been thought up by many random children before some 19th century white guy was the first one to put it in a book in a particular part of the world and have the concept forever attached to his name. Besides, Pascal is Pascal for much more than this thought experiment). I finally concluded that, while the fundamental premise of potential eternity being more important than any non-eternal thing is indeed correct, there is a lot of variation in the different potentialities for eternity. 

The way I framed it was: some New Religious Movement leader says that I should hand over my bank account to him or I will burn in hell. Even if there’s an infinitesimally small, one in a bajillion chance that he’s right, any probability greater than 0 would, given the premises of Pascal’s Wager, suggests that I should give him all of my money.

However, that assumes that the NRM leader is the only potential of eternity; my breakthrough came when I realized that one could argue that by giving him all my money I might incur hell, or by wearing black shoes on Monday, or one of many other choices that have an infinitesimally small probability of hellfire attached to it. At that point, as long as we’re connecting it to things of potential eternal worth, it all becomes a matter of what our religious priors are, of which religious option is the most likely one (I’m ignoring the mathematical finding that portions of infinity are all equal, since that would mean that every action has the same liabilities and benefits eternally). 

This is a variation of the “argument from inconsistent revelations” response to Pascal’s Wager. One of the giants of the moral skeptical school of thought (basically, people who don’t believe in objective good and evil) was ironically an extremely soft-spoken, Mr. Rogers type person who stated in response to Pascal’s Wager that “the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or the Mormons or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshippers of Kali or of Odin.” (He’s one of those atheist types who I would love to see crossing the threshold into the eternities and realizing that “the Mormons” were right.

However, as noted, Pascal’s wager is attenuated in our case because; while choosing correctly presumably has some eternal value, the extent to which our afterlife fate is eternal or modifiable is fuzzily defined in our theology (which, again, might be a feature instead of a bug), whereas in other cases the heaven/hell dichotomy is more clearly defined.  

However, while believing in a more harsh God that consigns people to an eternal hell of physical torture based on religious decision-making in this life might hedge against being exposed to that risk, the chance of that God being a True, all-powerful, all-merciful God is greatly weakened by His association with such a system. While the Latter-day Saint God’s afterlife is more second-chance oriented than other systems, it makes more sense to me and is much, much more likely to domain of a loving, reasonable, and True God, and I’ll take my chances with Him over another God who tries to force my obedience by threatening me with eternal torture. 

5 comments for “Pascal’s Wager and the Restored Gospel

  1. Another reason that Pascal’s wager doesn’t line up perfectly with the restored gospel is that once we begin to exercise faith the living charismatics elements of the gospel start working within us. And as we become transformed by that process we then have a much better reason for believing than the desire to escape hell.

    That said, I think a softer version of the wager could be useful in getting folks to consider what they might be missing out on. It’d be framed by a “what do you have to lose” sort of mentality. What do you have to lose by making an effort to discover whether or not there is a God? Because if he does exist–then wouldn’t it be worth everything to come to know him? And if he doesn’t exist then chances are you’ll not remember a thing about your existence after you’re gone. So don’t worry about a failed investment of time and energy. The mere possibility that there might be a God makes that investment worthwhile.

  2. Not only is doing the right thing out of love more pure than doing the right thing out of fear of hell, but I think it’s more motivating. I wonder if that just aren’t that many truly long-term, devout people that are primarily energized by the fear of hell. Maybe back in the day.

    I also agree with your “soft wager,” the people I don’t understand are the ones who are open to either possibility, but haven’t bothered to take the time to really think deeply about it one way or another.

  3. A friend of mine, when he left the church, used a sort of LDS version of Pascal’s wager but in reverse. Our theology he reasoned, “allowed for progression in the spirit world and so if using all my faculties in this life led me to determine the church to be wrong, and that there is no God but in the next life I find out it’s right and there is a God, then I’ll get another chance.”

  4. Michael,

    On the one hand, being the near universalist that I am, I believe that the vast majority of God’s children are going to be happy in eternity. But on the other, I believe that those of us who take the long way around the block (so to speak) run the risk of suffering from an horrifically deep remorse of conscience–as per the scriptures. So we’re still gambling against a hell of sorts, IMO. My guess is that the remorse will be so intense (for some–not all) that we’ll wish we had worked harder at receiving and/or being true to the testimony of Jesus.

  5. Pascal’s wager has both a downside and an upside. If our view of hell isn’t so bad (temporary and educational, though I suspect we underestimate how unpleasant it will be for those hardened in cruelty) does our view of heaven being so extraordinarily wonderful make up for it?

    The real problem with Pascal’s wager from the perspective of the restored gospel is that it’s selfish. That’s not a problem if all it takes to go to heaven is rote obedience regardless of motive, but we believe entering the Celestial Kingdom requires becoming the kind of person who won’t be all that motivated by Pascal’s wager. Fortunately, as others have noted, living the gospel for any reason will gradually transform us into that kind of person. If Pascal’s wager gets someone started on that path, that’s a win.

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