Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Aren't You Afraid of Going to Hell?"/Pascal's Wager

The primary emotion I experienced in my journey from Christianity to Atheism was fear, specifically fear of going to hell for denying the existence of God. The origins of this fear rested solely on some of the religious and spiritual instruction and teachings I experienced as I grew up. As a child, I had different adults teach me many different things regarding what was true religiously and spiritually. This mostly created in me a confusion about what was true.

When I was very young, I remember my parents held to some conservative and literal interpretations of the Bible, however over time, their beliefs became increasingly flexible, less literal, and more inclusive of other religious beliefs. They focused mainly on the good messages of morality in the Bible and didn't discuss the more rigid and violent verses of the Bible. Most people who were closest to my parents were flexible as well, more interested in the messages of love taught in the Bible.  Of course I was exposed to the beliefs of others who thought differently from my parents. I remember a Sunday school teacher telling our class that everyone is continuously sinning all the time. I remember being quite confused of this statement, but it was there, presented as truth.

As I became older, I became aware that others had more literal interpretations of the Bible and I wondered whether they were correct. They told me that hell was an an actual place and that demons and devils were real. They told me that the only way to get into heaven was through accepting Jesus as your lord and savior. I also learned that the Bible clearly states the one unforgiveable sin is denying the existence of, or committing blasphemy towards, the Holy Spirit, earning such a person a sure ticket straight to hell after death. Yes, different Christians place different emphases on this verse and differ on the degree to which it should be interpreted literally, but this admonition seems rather important, as it's in the New Testament in three different places (Matthew 12: 31-32, Mark 3:29, and Luke: 12:10.) Given these influences on myself, it is very understandable that others would ask me if I was afraid of going to hell because I was an Atheist.

Yes, I certainly used have this fear. I used to pray frequently over many years for God to give me some evidence of his existence to put my doubts to rest, but I never received any. I also sought out many other people for the reasons why they believed, thinking they may have some idea or secret which would give me peace, but nothing they said was compelling. In fact, all reasons people gave were often not rational, no logical, were contradictory, and the evidence they posed was never direct and necessary evidence for the existence of a god. There seemed to be better and simpler explanations for their assertions, which didn’t require faith in the supernatural. Step by step I inched towards Atheism, until one day I realized that while I was by no means perfect, I was a good and moral person and believed a good and moral God would not condemn me for doubt when there was no evidence whatsoever to belief in God's existence.

As I proceeded out of my belief in God and began telling people that I was an Atheist, I remember some of their faces. Many seemed so shocked and then the inevitable question would come. What I noticed was that the fear I had was also the fear of many other Christians. There was also a recurring reason for belief which people gave me, which was, “While I don’t have absolute evidence of God’s existence either, I’m going to believe to be on the safe side, in case there is a God, so I don’t go to hell.” This reasoning is nothing new and is a variant of what is known in philosophy as Pascal’s Wager.

This argument was named after Blaise Pascal, who was a 17th century French philosopher. Pascal reasoned that whether the existence of God was possible to prove or not, it is statistically best to believe in God and reap whatever rewards of this there would be. The variant of Pascal's Wager, namely "Aren't you afraid of going to hell?" can be plotted on a decision matrix graphic with four outcomes, but for the purposes of this article, I will describe the matrix and outcomes.

Outcome One: God exists. God punishes doubt with hell. Result: Belief in God favored. Atheists are hellbound.
Outcome Two: God exists. God doesn't punish doubt with hell. Result: Neutral.
Outcome Three: God doesn't exist. God punishes doubt with hell. Result: N/A.
Outcome Four: God doesn't exist. God doesn't punish doubt with hell. Result: N/A.

From these premises and matrix, we see that those who profess to be Atheists are taking a risk, while theists are safe with any outcome.

However, there are fundamental flaws in this example of Pascal’s Wager. First, the argument is based on the assumption that the god in the matrix is the Christian God. It doesn't take into account that other gods may be the ones who actually exist. Therefore, if any other god is the real existing god, and historically there have been thousands of gods, then the Christian will fare no better than the Atheist.

Another flaw is that people who use this decision tree as a reason to believe, do not really believe. They are just playing it safe and obviously any god would know such a person's belief was not genuine and would likely not include them in the reward.

Ultimately, the idea that a good god would send people to hell for eternity for finite misbehavior became unfathomable and unacceptable. Yet it was Richard Carrier who summed my thoughts up much better by saying heaven wouldn't be any better than hell because, "If I had to sit in heaven forever, knowing that there are these people - millions and millions, probably billions of people - suffering these eternal horrible torments, and there was nothing I could ever do for them...that, to me, would be hell."


  1. *REPOSTED FROM SAGAN JR, September 6, 2009 9:01 PM:

    A nice and concise critique. Good bit of writing. Another flaw in Pascal's idea is that he assumes a dichotomy of afterlife destinations: Heaven and Hell. For all we know, there could be three, like the old Catholic doctrine. Or four. Or five. Or seventeen.

  2. Thanks for the comment Eric. The afterlife point is good. I never considered that.

  3. *REPOSTED FROM DOC, January 17, 2010 4:07 PM:

    Another point is that the assumption that believing does no harm to the believers even in the absence of a god. This is a false assumption as it is possible that believers may have led a more enjoyable life had they not believed and would not have caused harm to others who did not believe (e.g. homosexuals, atheists).

  4. DOC:

    Yes, exactly. I am writing a series about the benefits of being an Atheist. The next one touches on the point you're making. Thanks for your responses! :)