Nothing is certain but uncertainty. – Pliny the Elder
Here it is, that grand day that cometh but once a year: April Fool’s Day, on which the only certainty is that someone is planning to make you look like a credulous idiot. Wait: can you really be certain of that? Well, maybe not, but as Damon Runyan said in a broadly similar context, that’s the way to bet.
April Fool’s Day is when we celebrate the leg pull, the 180-degree misdirection, the absurdity that preys on our willingness to believe just about anything if it’s stated prosaically enough. Yes, I’ve been caught by it. More often than I care to remember, actually. I’ve seldom managed to catch anyone else, though; it must be my Irish grin. (“When Irish eyes are smiling, you’ve probably just been screwed.” – James Hogan) But in the usual case, it’s all in fun.
However, this morning I have a rather more serious subject in mind. Tomorrow being Palm Sunday, Christians worldwide will begin something else that comes but once a year: Holy Week, the period that commemorates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, His final few days of preaching and miracle-working, and finally His Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. It’s a celebration both somber and joyous, for though Our Lord suffered the cruelest torments of His era, they had a purpose of overwhelming importance: the ultimate confirmation of His divinity and the redemption of the souls of men.
It’s a story that ought to prompt even a committed atheist to serious thought. The tale itself, regardless of one’s personal convictions, is the most exalting and humbling imaginable: “the greatest story ever told.” On the strength of that narrative alone, billions of people have embraced Christ and His Gospel. No other bit of history comes anywhere close.
But that’s purely prefatory. What I have uppermost in mind is the decision that flows from the narrative of the Passion and Resurrection: whether a man should bet his life on its veracity.
“Here’s where the chili meets the cheese, my friend. One of my heroes was C. S. Lewis, a man who began as a skeptic, much like yourself. At the end of his journey, you know what he said? If Christianity is false, it’s of zero importance. But if it’s true, there’s nothing more important in the entire universe.” – from The Case For Christ
The above is a simplified statement of Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was one of the finest minds of his place and time. Among his many achievements was an early form of Game Theory: the application of probability theory to strategy and tactics. His Wager is a proposition of the game-theoretic variety.
Without going too deeply into the specifics, Pascal’s Wager posits that to accept, in practical terms, that God exists and that Christianity is true is the more sensible position because of the available outcomes:
Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas if God does exist, he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).
Put that way, Pascal’s proposition has a great deal of force. However, it’s important to note that the dichotomy at the base of the Wager – i.e., the true / false judgment about the Gospel of Christ – is itself a premise. Consider some other possibilities:
- That Christ was a first-century snake-oil salesman;
- That His teachings are only partially correct;
- That heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be;
- That God is indifferent to Mankind.
- That an afterlife of another sort than the Christian vision awaits us;
- That other powers – Cthulhu, perhaps? – await us that really dislike Christians and Christianity.
Any of those alternate premises would radically alter the bet. Of course, they’re as incalculable as any other set of postulates one would think to ponder about ultimate things. However, we haven’t exhausted the universe of possibilities. There’s the context of this world to consider, as well.
Consider the story of a relatively recent Catholic martyr: Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, whose feast day is today:
Anacleto Gonzalez Flores (1888–1927) was the second of twelve children born to a poor family in Jalisco, Mexico. He was baptized the day after his birth. As he grew, a priest recognized his intelligence and recommended that he enter the seminary. Anacleto studied there for a time before discerning that he was not called to the priesthood. Instead he became an attorney, husband, and father, as well as an activist for his Catholic faith. He was a prolific writer and dedicated catechism teacher, and attended daily Mass. He joined the Catholic Association of Young Mexicans (ACJM) in addition to starting another Catholic lay organization committed to resisting the fierce persecution of the Catholic Church under the infamous Mexican dictator, Calles. Initially he participated only in the non-violent resistance against Calles, until four members of the ACJM were murdered in 1926. Their deaths spurred Anacleto to lend support to the armed resistance movement. Anacleto did not take up arms but instead gave speeches to encourage Catholics to support the Cristeros, the Catholic army fighting against Calles. Anacleto was captured during the Cristero War on April 1, 1927, and was brutally tortured before being martyred by firing squad.
Clearly, Gonzalez paid dearly for his faith. Others throughout history have paid similar or worse prices. The Wager had not yet been formulated when the Apostles walked the earth. The majority of them were martyred. So were many hundreds of other Christians who came after them.
The strength of one’s commitment to a faith is tested by the context of one’s life. If that faith is unpopular, it might limit the believer socially and professionally. If that faith is at odds with a prevailing faith hostile to it, things could get ugly. Finally, if that faith is openly being persecuted, such that believers are subject to great physical torments, the impoverishment (or worse) of their loved ones, and eventual execution…well, you really have to believe, sincerely and totally.
These contextual possibilities make the Wager a more complex thing than Pascal might have imagined.
The Founding Fathers of this nation were a mixed lot. Some of them were Christians. Others were Deists, or of some other inclination. Yet as a body they favored the advance of Christianity among the citizens of their new republic. We have well-verified statements from Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and others to that effect. Whether they were familiar with the Wager is unknown.
Christianity as a prevailing condition has characterized the most advanced and harmonious societies in recorded history. When Christianity has receded in a previously Christian country, things have gone badly for that country. Consider France in 1789 and the following years as a prime example. Another such is Weimar Germany and what followed there. There are other cases, all to the same effect.
The evidence suggests rather strongly that Christianity is good for a people – that we’re better off overall when the great majority of us believe it and live according to its teachings. Yet we have among us a growing number of militant atheists determined to drive Christianity and its propositions about good and evil from public view. Whether they’re familiar with what happens to nations that “de-Christianize,” I cannot say. I have little doubt that they’d dismiss the Wager.
The sociopolitical battle raging among us, regardless of whether the contestants are willing to say so explicitly, is about Christianity and its moral-ethical pronouncements. If the militant anti-Christians should prevail, history suggests that we won’t enjoy what’s to come. We’ve already sacrificed millions of unborn children, a degree of carnage to which no other historical atrocity can compare – and that’s despite the great majority of Americans describing themselves as Christians. What if the greater part of us were to abandon our faith completely? What could we expect then?
Leave aside the premises of the Wager. As I’ve asked once before, should we not wish, even if only for social, economic, and political reasons, that Christian convictions prevail among us?
The late Florence King, an atheist, once wrote that the dominance of Christianity in America was what permitted her to live as she pleased: i.e., as “a loose woman.” The sincere Christian may disapprove of such conduct, but he does not condemn it – or persecute it. Christ did not strive to inflict suffering on those who rejected Him. Neither did He allow His Apostles to do so:
And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people. Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast. And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him. And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him.
And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear.
Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?
It’s worth more than a passing thought.
The Wager is posed as an individual matter, a proposition in personal life strategy. But as I’ve suggested above, it applies in practical terms to the whole of a nation. Even if he’s personally an atheist, a man of good will should smile upon the Christian faith and its devotees simply for the well-being of his country. Viewed thus, the militant atheist determined to drive Christianity out of public life is not a man of good will. While we are commanded to let him go and do as he may please, his anti-Crusade must be opposed. We must concede him nothing.
Only a real April Fool would have it otherwise.