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Meditation 527
Will's Wager

by: Will Petillo

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Chapter 1: A Crisis of No-Faith

“But what if you’re wrong?” Jen asked me.

“So what if I am?” I replied.

“Then you’ll be sorry.” I looked at Jen skeptically and she continued, “Listen, Will, you can argue against God all you want, but when you die you’ll be sorry that you refused to accept our Lord and savior.”

“But I don’t believe in all that” I said. “Besides, I lead a good life. I mean, I’ve made mistakes and done things I wish I could take back, but I have never done anything really terrible and I always try to make amends. Isn’t that enough?”

“Will,” Jen said, sounding very concerned, “don’t you understand? It’s not a matter of good or bad. It’s a matter of saved or lost. If you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior, then you are lost. Please, accept Him back in your life and be saved.”

“But how do you know that is true?” I asked, “What if there is no God? There is no way to prove that God exists and I have never had a personal revelation, so why should I believe you?”

Jen replied calmly, “All right, think about it this way. If you have faith in God, then if God exists you will go to Heaven for believing. But if God does not exist, then you have nothing to lose. Maybe your life is a little less pleasant, but what is a few short years compared with eternity? Now, if you do not have faith in God and God exists then you go to Hell for all eternity. But if God does not exist, then you just die and gain nothing for not believing. Now do you understand why you should believe?”

Skeptical, I asked, “But what about all the other religions that claim to be the One True Faith? You say that there is either your God or none at all. What if it’s Allah or Buddah or Jupiter or some other God?”

Jen brushed this argument aside, saying, “All of those are false Gods; there is only one true path to salvation and that is by accepting Jesus as your lord and savior. But I do not wish to argue this now. Please, just think about what I told you while I pray that you see the light.”

I couldn’t sleep that night. My mind kept playing, over and over, my conversation with Jen. I could not get it out of my head. Soon, I began to fear the torments of Hell and felt my agnosticism had been shaken. I got out of bed and recited “The Agnostic’s Prayer.” As always, I found calm and solace in these words of reason and was soon able to rest.

Chapter 2: The Revelation

I awoke to the deafening sound of a great clap of thunder and was blinded by a brilliant flash of light. When I returned to my senses, I found myself face-to-face with the almighty God.

The moment I realized what had happened I immediately kneeled before my God and begged his forgiveness for my lack of faith. But in the middle of my appeal, God silenced me and said,

“Quit your groveling! I’m sick of you people and your constant whining about how sorry you are. Ugh, it makes me want to vomit.”

I resisted the urge to apologize for my mistake, deciding it best to wait in silence for whatever my Lord might reveal to me. God continued, “All right, I’m gonna get straight to the point. I got a message for you to deliver to the rest of the world; you think you can handle that?”

“I am your humble servant; forever yours to command.”

“Knock that off, I said no groveling! Anyway, the message is this: I don’t want to be believed in no more. All the wars, the nut-jobs, the hypocrisy, the self-destruction—all those atrocities committed in my name, my name! I sent my son to tell you to be nice to each other and stop worshipping that lousy book and you people nailed him to a tree! Listen, I’ve come to realize that there will always be good and evil and there will always be reason and ignorance among humans; I just don’t want to be responsible for it anymore. I feel like I’ve done everything to get people to stop believing in me. I made the universe ENORMOUS—you know how hard that was?—I’ve planted dinosaurs in the ground, I’ve made every last thing in such a way that it could be explained without me, but none of it has worked. Please, just get people to stop believing in me, that’s all I ask.”

“But my Lord, what if people don’t believe my testimony?”

“Fine, I’ll sweeten the deal. From now on, anyone who ceases to believe in me is getting into eternal paradise and anyone who takes themselves so seriously that they refuse to question my existence is going straight to Hell. How’s that for some incentive, eh?”

“So you want me to preach atheism?”

“What? Oh, hmm…actually, you better not. The communists were atheists and they were just as zealous as anyone. Listen…just think for yourselves, all right? You have no idea how hard it was to make those brains of yours. I ain’t holdin’ your hands no more, so you people gotta figure it all out for yourselves. And don’t worry about me or what happens after you die—trust me, I got that all taken care of. But listen, I only want free-thinkers at my table, you hear me? All right enough, I gotta get going. You tell ‘em what I told you, Will, spread the word.”

Chapter 3: The Protestant

“Hey Jen, you’ll never believe this, but I just had a personal revelation!”

Jen cried out, “Praise the lord!”

“No, don’t!” I exclaimed. She gave me a puzzled look and so I continued, “You don’t understand. I spoke to God and he told me that he does not want to be believed in.”

As I told her all about my revelation, Jen became very angry and said, “Oh stop it, Will. Why can’t you take anything seriously?”

As she started to leave, I pleaded to her, “Please, Jen, listen to me, you’re soul is on the line here! I know this must all sound silly and there is no way to prove that what I am saying is true, but I swear to you that I had a personal revelation and this is truly the Word of God.”

As Jen looked into my eyes, she saw my sincerity and her anger turned into concern. She asked, “Are you sure about this?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I have never been so sure of anything in my life.”

Jen hesitated a moment and said, “I’m sorry, I know you honestly believe what you are saying, but I am just not convinced.”

“But what if you’re wrong?” I said.

“So what if I am?” She replied.

“Listen, Jen, you can believe in God all you want, but when you die you’ll be sorry that you accepted Jesus as your Lord and savior.”

“But how do you know that?” She asked.

I replied calmly, “All right, think about it this way. If you have faith in God, then if God exists you will go to Hell for believing. But if God does not exist, then you have nothing to lose. Now, if you do not have faith in God and God exists then you go to Heaven for all eternity. But if God does not exist, then you just die and gain nothing for believing. No do you understand why you shouldn’t believe?”

Jen thought about this for a moment, then said, “Wait a minute, that makes no sense. Your argument is based on the assumption that if God exists then God does not want to be believed in.”

“But I just spoke to God, I know that’s true.”

“Maybe,” Jen said, “but I have not had this revelation, so it is not an assumption that I am willing to make.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “but if you can at least consider what I say to be a possibility, let’s write down all the possible outcomes.”

The following is what we came up with:

  1. You have faith and God exists and wants to be believed in = Heaven
  2. You have faith and God exists and does not want to be believed in = Hell
  3. You have faith and God does not exist = minor loss
  4. You don’t have faith and God does not exist = minor gain
  5. You don’t have faith and God exists and wants to be believed in = Hell
  6. You don’t have faith and God exists and does not want to be believed in = Heaven

When we had written down all the possibilities that we could come up with, Jen remarked, “That’s interesting…it all balances out.”

Not quite, I said, “Notice numbers 3 and 4. If you lead a life of faith and there is no God, then you have wasted much of your life, whereas if you don’t lead a life of faith and there is no God, then you can devote yourself to matters of this world. So, overall, my testimony actually comes out a little bit ahead.”

Jen was silent for quite some time. Finally, she said, “I don’t know about this, Will, I’m still not convinced.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “real conversion is not an instantaneous event anyhow. Just think about what I told you while I pray that you see the light.”

Chapter 4: The Catholic

As Jen was leaving, a voice called out from behind me, “Hey Will.”

I turned to see who see who had spoken to me and said, “Oh, hey there Alex, what’s up?”

Alex replied casually as he walked in my direction, “Not much, just chillin’. Say, what’s this paper you and Jen were looking at?”

I explained everything to Alex, my revelation, my discussion with Jen, and the list of outcomes that we came up with. Alex listened patiently to all of this and when I was finished he remarked, “Sounds kind of like Pascal’s Wager.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

Alex explained, “Basically, what Jen told you about it being in one’s best interest to believe in God because one who has faith has everything to gain and little to lose while a person who does not have faith has little to gain and everything to lose is essentially Pascal’s Wager—she didn’t give the guy credit for it, but it’s the same argument. The idea you presented about why one should not believe in God follows what is more or less the same reasoning as Pascal’s Wager but is made with a different underlying assumption and therefore a completely different conclusion.” Alex chuckled and said, “So I guess that makes it ‘Will’s Wager.’” Then Alex became more serious and said, “But both of those ideas, as you and Jen presented them anyways, are flawed because they don’t account for good works.”

“Good works?”

“Yeah, Will. I’m looking over your list here and I don’t see any mention about whether the person leads a good life or a bad one. Shouldn’t that be important?”

Slightly taken aback, I replied, “But Jen told me that all that matters is if you have faith. I figured when God told me that he did not want to be believed in, it was the same kind of deal.”

Alex sighed and said, “Yeah, that sort of thing might fly for Evangelical Protestants, but we Catholics—loyal members of the One True Church—believe that faith alone is not enough; you got to have good works to show that you really are a follower of Christ. I mean, if God is good and just, then do you really think he would allow shmucks into Heaven and condemn nice people into Hell? Come on, Will, that makes no sense.”

“Perhaps…” I said, “O.K., so if we assume, just for argument’s sake, that what you are saying about good works is true, then does that mean that this ‘Pascal’s Wager’ is wrong?”

“No, just misinterpreted” Alex replied.

I asked, “How so?”

“I think Pascal’s basically right, but it’s a little more complicated then he makes it out to be. I don’t remember his exact wording, but here is how I understand the Wager: If you lead a life of faith, then if God exists you will go to Heaven for believing. But if God does not exist, then you have nothing to lose. Maybe your life is a little less pleasant, but what is a few short years compared with eternity? Now, if you do not lead a life of faith and God exists then you go to Hell for all eternity. But if God does not exist, then you just die and gain nothing for not believing. You see the difference between that and what Jen told you?”

“Not really” I replied.

With a bit of pride at his cleverness, Alex said, “Notice how I replaced ‘have faith in God’ with ‘lead a life of faith.’”

“So what?” I asked, “What difference does that make?”

Alex exclaimed, “It makes all the difference in the world! To lead a life of faith, it is not enough to simply have faith; one must also lead a moral life and confess one’s sins.”

I thought about this for a moment, then said, “There’s one thing I have a problem with in that statement, Alex. When you say that leading a life of faith implies leading a moral life, you seem to be suggesting that morality is dependant on faith in a divine being. But that’s not necessarily the case, because there are systems of morality that do not invoke God. Kant, for example, argued that—”

Alex snapped, “I’m familiar with the categorical imperative, Will. You don’t need to patronize me.”

“I’m not trying to patronize you,” I said, “I’m just saying that I disagree with your unstated assumption that there is a connection between leading a life of faith and leading a moral life. Personally, I tend to associate faith with bad things like persecution and intolerance.”

Alex, starting to sound exasperated, said, “All right, fine. My point is that the arguments for and against believing in God that you and Jen have made are flawed because they don’t factor in good works like Catholicism does. In the case of God existing and not wanting to be believed in as presented in ‘Will’s Wager,’ for example, a good person who has faith will go to Hell and a bad person who does not have faith will go to Heaven. I think that’s against Jesus’ teachings and just plain unfair.”

I asked, “So how does Catholicism deal with those sorts of problems?”

Alex looked at his watch, took a deep breath, and said, “All right, I’ll tell you. But I’m warning you, this is going to get a little complicated. Let’s start with someone who has faith in Christ but does bad things during their life. If this person has not confessed their sins, then they are not really following the faith, in which case they go to Hell. If the person did confess, then they go to Purgatory where they are punished for what they did, but ultimately get into Heaven. Now, as for someone who leads a good and virtuous life but does not have faith in Christ, they go to a kind of Limbo where they are not tortured in any way, but have no hope of getting into Heaven either. In this way, both faith in God and good works are important, just as they should be.”

“But wait a minute,” I said, “I’ve read through the bible and I never saw anything about Purgatory.”

Alex replied, slightly hesitantly, “Well, yeah, the Purgatory bit was added later by the Church. But the thing about the bible is that it is really complicated and one needs to look at it contextually in order to really understand it. Purgatory may not be explicitly mentioned in the bible, but the Church believes that it is consistent with some of the underlying ideas that the bible presents and, as a Catholic, I believe that the Church is correct in this interpretation.”

I thought about this for a moment and then said, “Now that you mention it, it does bother me that, in my revelation, God did not explicitly say that one had to lead a good life to get into Heaven. But if the bible can be interpreted as you suggest, then perhaps my revelation is open to some interpretation as well. In fact, the more that I think about it, the more I think that God was implying the necessity of leading a good life. After all, the reason he seemed to not like religion was because of ‘All the wars, the nut-jobs, the hypocrisy, the self-destruction—all those atrocities committed in [his] name, [his] name!’ So maybe those ideas of Purgatory and Limbo can be applied to ‘Will’s Wager.’ Let’s start with someone who has no faith but leads a bad life. If this person does not understand that the things they did were wrong, then they are just as bad as any fanatic, in which case they go to Hell. If the person does understand their flaws and at least tried to make amends, then they go to Purgatory where they are punished for what they did but ultimately get into Heaven. Now, as for someone who leads a good and virtuous life, but is a devout believer, they go to a kind of Limbo where they are not tortured in any way, but have no hope of getting into Heaven either. In this way, both lacking faith and good works are important, just as they should be.”

Alex replied skeptically, “Perhaps…but I still don’t believe that what you are saying about God not wanting to be believed in is true.”

“But can you prove that it is false?” I asked.

“No…”

“So then it could be true. And if Will’s Wager could be true, then I think we can see without writing out all the possible outcomes that the version of it with Purgatory and Limbo balance out the Catholic version of Pascal’s Wager just as the version of Will’s Wager without those additions balances out the Evangelical Protestant version of Pascal’s Wager.”

Still doubtful, Alex said, “I suppose...but that still doesn’t mean that I should believe you.”

And that’s when it hit me. I said to Alex, “You’re absolutely right, Alex. You don’t have to believe me, just as I don’t have to believe you. But what I think that ‘Will’s Wager’ does demonstrate, however, is that there is no point in using scare tactics to convince someone to believe in something that is based on unstated assumptions and cannot be proven because such reasoning can be used to support any claim or the opposite.”