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Misunderstanding Pascal’s Wager

I first met a simplified version of “Pascal’s Wager” when I was a teenager. Someone put a short line and a long line on a blackboard, encouraging us to give our lives fully over to God with words akin to: “If I’m wrong about God, I’ve wasted this much (pointing to the short line); but if I am correct, those of you who don’t give yourselves fully over to God, you’ve wasted this much (pointing to the long line)”.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, and a deeply spiritual Christian.

His Wager is usually presented like this:

He argued that people can choose to believe in God or can choose to not believe in God, and that God either exists or he does not. Under these conditions, if a person believes in the Christian God and this God actually exists, they gain infinite happiness; if a person does not believe in the Christian God and God exists, they receive infinite suffering. On the other hand, if a person believes in the Christian God and God does not exist, then they receive some finite disadvantages from a life of Christian living; and if a person does not believe in this God and God does not exist, then they receive some finite pleasure from a life lived unhindered by Christian morality. …Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Britannica – Pascal’s wager

His Wager was published in Pascal’s Pensées in 1670. But do note, in 1654, Pascal had a faith experience that would have made such an interpretation of his Wager odd. After Pascal’s death, an account of this faith experience was found sewn inside his jacket:

The year of grace 1654,

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,


GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

Pascal’s Night of Fire

Thank you to those who helped me find the French original of Pascal’s Pensées. Unsurprisingly, I think there is a difference in the way that he can be translated into English.

The English translation repeatedly talks about “happiness” (mentioned 144 times in this English translation):

You have two things to lose, truth and good, and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your HAPPINESS (my emphasis); and your nature has two things to avoid, error and misery. Since you must needs choose, your reason is no more wounded in choosing one than the other. Here is one point cleared up, but what of your HAPPINESS? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in choosing heads that God is. Let us weigh the two cases: if you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.

But, here is the original:

Vous avez deux choses à perdre : le vrai et le bien, et deux choses à engager : votre raison et votre volonté, votre connaissance et votre béatitude ; et votre nature a deux choses à fuir : l’erreur et la misère. Votre raison n’est pas plus blessée (puisqu’il faut nécessairement choisir) en choisissant l’un que l’autre. Voilà un point vidé. Mais votre béatitude? Pesons le gain et la perte, en prenant croix que Dieu est. Estimons ces deux cas : si vous gagnez, vous gagnez tout ; si vous perdez, vous ne perdez rien. Gagez donc qu’il est, sans hésiter.

Note well: Pascal uses the word “béatitude” which in the English version is given as “happiness”. But Pascal (the Pascal of the Night of Fire – above), I suggest, is not offering something as shallow as the emotion of happiness, not even happiness that goes on and on and on without end. The French béatitude (as also its English equivalent, both having derived from the Latin beatitudinem – a state of blessedness) has meanings of (yes, happiness, but more so of) blessedness, bliss, joy, well-being, delight, and so forth…

Choosing for God, this man of the Night of Fire appears to be arguing, is throwing in our lot with God in the hope of blessedness, bliss, joy, well-being, delight, and yes, happiness.

I’m immediately reminded of the disastrous Jerusalem Bible translation of the Beatitudes (there’s that word again!!!) in Matthew 5. The Jerusalem Bible 1966 translation had:

5:3 ‘How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage.
5:5 Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted….

Henry Wansbrough, the editor of the New Jerusalem Bible (which abandons “happy” for the better “blessed”) revealed that “despite claims to the contrary, it is clear that the Jerusalem Bible was translated from the French, possibly with occasional glances at the Hebrew or Greek, rather than vice versa.”

Whether we have had our own Night of Fire encounter or not, we need not be surprised if, following the path of Jesus, we are not experiencing non-stop happiness, but we can, with Blaise Pascal, hope for something deeper: blessedness, bliss, joy, well-being, delight…

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