The Resurrection of Christ and the Vanity of Pascal’s Wager
“And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins! …
If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most pitiable.” 1Co 15:17, 19
The Crux of History
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was the divine proof of the declaration of victory Christ made from the cross, “It is finished!” (Joh 19:30). If there were no resurrection, the efficacy of the crucifixion to provide forgiveness and eternal life would be in question.
Paul makes the point in Rom 4:23–25:
“Now it was not written for his sake alone that it [righteousness] was imputed to him, but also for us. It [righteousness]
shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up
because of our offenses, and was raised again because of our justification.” (emphasis added)
Put in the simplest of terms: The cross of Christ was required, in the justice of God, due to our guilt—both personal and collective. If forgiveness was to be offered, then redemption in full was demanded.
In the same way, once justification was purchased through the death of the Savior, resurrection was also required, for death no longer reigned.
“For if by one man’s offense [the sin of Adam] death reigned through the one, much more [with greater reason] those who
receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” Rom 5:17
At the cross, the “reign” of sin was broken, along with the dominion of Satan over those who were dead (Heb 2:14–15). The irrefutable evidence of this victory was the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the tomb:
“So that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness
to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Rom 5:21
Paul’s argument to the Corinthians in the opening text is that, without the historical event of the resurrection, the victory of the cross is nullified and our faith is in vain. If, as Christians, our faith only gives us hope during the course of this life, we are the most deluded and, therefore, the most to be pitied among all mankind.
The Vanity of Pascal’s Wager
I am sure that most of you are familiar with what is known as “Pascal’s Wager.” It is an argument taken from Blaise Pascal’s reflections in the book Pensees, in which he argues that it is a better bet to believe in God, even if He might not exist. If we believe in Him, and He doesn’t exist, then we have lost nothing in the end, and probably have had a more upright and fulfilling life. On the other hand, if we reject the existence of God, and live purely for self, and in the end find ourselves accountable to Him, we lose everything.
I have often used this argument, as many Christians have, without giving it the full consideration it deserves. It seems like a good argument on the surface; however, Paul flatly rejects it. In fact, he turns the tables on Pascal and declares that to hope for eternal life, if based on a lie, makes us the most miserable of all men. In this case, our whole lives would be lived in a vain hope that would be crushed in the end.
In his book, Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a leading philosopher and probability theorist, points out the fallacy of Pascal’s Wager. Allow me to quote at length:
“This allowed me to finally figure out this business of the Trinity. The Christian religion, throughout Chalcedon,
Nicea, and other ecumenical councils and various synods of argumentative bishops, kept insisting on the
dual nature of Jesus Christ. It would be theologically simpler if God were God and Jesus were man, just like
another prophet … But no, He had to be both man and God; the duality is so central it kept coming back …
So it appears that the church founders really wanted Christ to have skin in the game; He did actually
suffer on the cross, sacrifice Himself, and experience death. He was a risk-taker. More crucially to
our story He sacrificed Himself for the sake of others [his own emphasis] … a god who didn’t really
suffer on the cross would be like a magician who performed an illusion, not someone who actually bled after
sliding an icepick between his carpal bones … This argument (that real life is risk taking) reveals the
theological weakness of Pascal’s Wager, which stipulates that believing in the Creator has a positive
payoff in case He truly exists, and no downside in case He doesn’t. Hence the wager would be to
believe in God as a free option. But there are no free options. If you follow the idea to its logical end,
you can see that it proposes religion without skin in the game, making it purely academic and sterile
activity. But what applies to Jesus should also apply to other believers. We will see that,
traditionally, there is no religion without some skin in the game” (pp. 120–121).
Mr. Taleb’s reasoning, purely from the philosophical standpoint, surpasses much of what passes for theological insight. He also captures, inadvertently, one of the most overlooked, scriptural gems in the debate over sovereign determinism versus free will. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God entered into His own creation, not from the power of absolute sovereignty, but from the position of self-limitation (see Phi 2:5–8). In effect, the sovereignty of God from outside of time was fulfilled by the humility and vulnerability of Jesus Christ in time.
“Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken
by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” Act 2:23
His victory would not be from the standpoint of absolute power, but rather from a position of weakness. He came to battle Satan and all the fallen hosts, as it were, with both hands tied behind His back—and He won! It is this lesson that Paul learned, through much questioning and struggle, when he said:
“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest
upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in
distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2Co 12:9–10
God taught Paul the value of the resurrection power of Jesus Christ by making him—like his Lord—weak and vulnerable. He also learned that, for his message to be credible, he had to have what Taleb calls “skin in the game.” A message of eternal life that is not worth risking one’s life for is simply not credible.
He is Risen!
As we approach Resurrection Sunday, let us consider and apply the words spoken by the angel to the women at the empty tomb:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!” Luk 24:5b–6a
It was impossible that the Lord of life could be held by the power of death (Act 2:24). And yet, He was willing to “taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9b) so that everyone might have the opportunity of eternal life through faith in Him.
Jesus Christ has demonstrated that life comes after death, and the cross must precede the crown. Those who proclaim Christ, while amassing personal comfort and wealth, will never have true credibility. They have no “skin in the game.” To see the true power of the resurrection message, consider those around the world who gladly lay down their lives for His sake.
And if you want to enter more fully into His resurrection power, then enter into the lives of those who suffer for His sake:
“Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—
since you yourselves are in the body also.” Heb 13:3
We may not be called on to give our lives—yet. But nothing except our selfishness could keep us from praying and giving for the relief of those who do. It is high time for us—in these days of increasing persecutions—to have some “skin in the game.” If, indeed, the resurrected Christ reigns in the midst of His enemies (Psa 110:2), then let us pray that He will also reign in us. It is only as we decrease that He is exalted (Joh 3:30), and only as we die daily to self that He lives through us (1Co 15:31; Gal 2:20):
“… that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Rom 6:4b
He is risen indeed!