Applying Pascal’s Wager to Mormonism

By Eric Johnson

Are Latter-day Saints willing to gamble with their eternal life that they are right? When dealing with staunch believers in Mormonism, including Mormon missionaries, I have presented a number of different apologetic arguments in a hope to find a chink in their theological armor and penetrate their innermost beings.

As it is known by many fellow believers who have attempted to share their faith with Mormons, it can be very frustrating to use the “Sword of the Spirit,” the term given by Paul in reference to the Word of God, and merely end up with what seems to be a dull piece of steel.

However, my goal when sharing the true Christian faith to any unbeliever, whether Mormon or not, is to make at least one good point that will make it hard for this person to get to sleep that night. One strategy that I use is derived from an apologetic tactic called “Pascal’s Wager,” which assumes that logical reasoning by itself cannot decide for or against the existence of God.

Since reason cannot decide for sure about truth, and since the question is of such importance that it must be decided somehow, then a person must “wager” for something that cannot be proved. And so the question goes: “Where are you going to place your bet?”

At the end of a conversation with a Mormon–especially when I feel that this may be my only opportunity to speak to this person–I have often used the following proposal before the Mormon shuts off any logical openness and begins to bear a testimony.

The strategy involves two parts:

A. Tell the Mormon: “Before we end our conversation, I would like to show you three possibilities in a comparison between our two faiths.”

1. First, it is possible that the Mormon and the Christian, while sincere, are wrong about Truth. Therefore, both Mormonism and Christianity would be false religions.

2. Second, it is possible that the Mormon is right about Truth and the Christian is wrong. If this is true, then Mormonism as brought forth by Joseph Smith is God’s restored gospel. Therefore, the Christian would belong to an apostate faith.

3. Third, it is possible that the Christian is right about Truth and the Mormon is wrong. If this is true, then the historic Christian faith is the only true Gospel. Therefore, the Mormon would belong to an apostate faith.

Despite LDS books such as Stephen E. Robinson’s Are Mormons Christian? and other “ecumenical” books which attempt to make Mormonism and Christianity appear to be the same, no fourth possibility (“Both are right”) exists because Mormonism and Christianity are in complete opposition to one another.

Some explanation may be needed regarding this last point. It should be noted that there are a number of major doctrines which separate the two faiths. These include: the nature of God (One God or many?), Jesus (God or “a” god?), scripture (The Bible or more?), authority (Where does it come from?), and salvation (Grace or works?). To say both faiths are right is impossible because one belief system invalidates the other.

This point can be made most clear in the idea of salvation. There are two types of salvation in Mormon doctrine: General and Individual. General salvation refers to the resurrection of all souls, both evil and good, which is said to have been made possible when Jesus sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, thus paying for the consequences for all mankind’s sins (Mormon Doctrine, pg. 669).

Individual salvation, on the other hand, is reaching the top level of Mormonism’s three-leveled heaven. This is known as the celestial kingdom. Within the celestial kingdom, there are three additional levels. True salvation occurs only at the very top of this celestial kingdom (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 116, 117, 669, 670).

According to Mormon teaching, true salvation in Mormonism can only be received by worthy Mormons via the LDS Church. On the other hand, historic Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no person can enter God’s presence except through a true faith in Christ (John 14:6; Acts 16:31). An inadequate belief in God leads to eternal death (hell). Therefore, the two faiths cannot be made synonymous.

B. Once these principles have been shown to be mutually exclusive–and I have never had trouble getting a Mormon to agree with the above set-up–the “Wager” should be explained. Tell the Mormon: “Now that we have established that there are three choices, let’s discuss the implications of each possibility.”

1. If the first possibility is correct, then both the Mormon and the Christian are wrong. Perhaps the Hindu, Muslim, or Jehovah’s Witness is correct, or maybe the other side of death is nonexistence. If this were true, both parties should explore all avenues since they are in need of Truth.

2. If the second possibility is correct, then the Mormon is right and the Christian is wrong. With individual salvation in mind as explained above, the Mormon would therefore have a chance to make it to godhood in the celestial kingdom if, as 2 Nephi 25:23 states, he is able to do all that he can do.

Interestingly enough, if the Mormon is right, the Christian’s eternal destiny appears to be pretty secure. Since I appear to be a good person with good morals and a sincere heart, several Mormons have told me that I probably will make it to the second level of heaven known as the terrestrial kingdom.

McConkie would agree since he said,

“Honorable men of the earth who are blinded by the craftiness of men and who therefore do not accept and live the gospel law” will achieve this level (Mormon Doctrine, pg. 784).

While this level is not as desirable as the Celestial Kingdom, the presence of the Son is evident there (D&C 76:77). One returned missionary even told me that I would shoot myself in the head to get there sooner if I had the chance to peek into this glory for merely five seconds.

3. This brings us to the third choice. However, unlike the previous possibility, no good is in store for the person who loses this bet if this possibility is true. If the Christian is right and the Mormon is wrong, it is the difference between heaven and hell. According to the Bible, heaven is the place where believers will abide with God for all eternity in His presence. Only true believers in Christ will be allowed entrance (Hebrews 12:23; John 3:16-21; Rev. 2:11; 20:6).

It should be pointed out how real hell is for unbelievers (Matt. 8:12, 25:41-46). It is eternal separation from God in a painful and final state (Rev. 14:10-11; 2 Thess. 1:9). It is, in actuality, a second death (Rev. 21:8). Those who will belong to this state include every person who did not have a true belief in God (John 3:18). And, despite the faulty interpretation many Mormons have concerning baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29, biblical Christianity leaves no room for obtaining salvation after rejecting it in this life.

In other words, if Mormonism is true and Christianity is false, the Christian doesn’t have much to lose. True, he or she may not be eligible for exaltation, but then again, it must be admitted that most of the millions of Mormons now living also will NOT be eligible for this state.

This is true because a majority of Mormons do not even possess valid temple recommends–a certain celestial kingdom requirement–let alone “do all they can do.” Despite the umpteen requirements it takes to be a Mormon, being a good person appears to “do the job” to make it to the second level. But, not all is lost for all of those who are destined for the terrestrial kingdom; indeed, this populace will be allowed to abide in the glory of Jesus and comfortably exist in an eternal state.

However, if Christianity is true and Mormonism is false, the Mormon has everything to lose. Hell is a real place and every person who does not believe in the true God will go there.

As might be expected, the above presentation appears to shock most Mormons. In effect, too many Mormons risk losing an eternal existence with God simply because they have blindly based their eternal destinies upon the reputation of Joseph Smith. Too few Mormons have done adequate research into the possibility that they might be wrong.

While this tactic cannot–or should not–coerce belief or be proof that Christianity is true, it can be an incentive for the Mormon to take another look at the essentials of his or her faith and compare it to the historic Christian faith. To do any less would not make a safe bet.

Response Kevin Graham

Preface: The following is a response to Kevin Graham’s article, which on 8/16/02 was posted at http://www.anti-mormonism-revealed.com/wager.htm  but apparently is no longer available. Still, the article is reprinted here for context.

I have been using Pascal’s Wager for more than a decade, often with great success. Originally, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put together his “wager” during a very skeptical period of history. (I notice that the title of Graham’s article is entitled “Eric’s Wager.” Though I have modified Pascal’s argument, I am certainly not the creator of this apologetic tactic.) Pascal realized that many skeptics of his day chose to remain agnostic. What did it matter? they asked. The motto of his (and perhaps our?) day was, Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Pascal’s Wager was given prominent attention in his apologetic treatise Pensees, which was written in 1660.

Although Pascal used many evidential arguments, including the use of biblical miracles and prophecies along with other logic, he used his wager in a fideistic approach to take a step beyond reason. Having eliminated agnosticism, or weak atheism, as a genuine possibility of true belief, Pascal said that there were really only two alternatives of truth: atheism or theism. He asked, What does a person have to gain from believing in atheism and being correct? The answer is annihilation, which is the same fate awaiting the theist if he is wrong. The same test is given to the theist. What is the most the Christian can gain if God truly exists? The answer is heaven. As far as the atheist is concerned, though, eternal hell is his consequence. (I highly suggest the Internet article by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft located at http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/pascals-wager.htm)

Having met many Mormons whose ideas are very similar to those who lived during Pascal’s day, I modified this wager to work with Mormons. I first used my version in 1987 during a conversation with a returned Mormon missionary who had personally invited me to talk with him at the LDS Church administration building in Salt Lake City. After an hour of exchanging ideas in a very friendly manner, I asked him about the state of my destiny if I happened to be wrong and Mormonism was indeed true. He looked at me, smiled, and said to the effect, You really appear to be a good person. You don’t murder, you are sincere, and you seem to want to do good works. I truly believe that you are headed to the terrestrial kingdom, a place so wonderful that if you could peek into this kingdom for just 30 seconds, you would want to go home and shoot yourself in the head in your haste to get there sooner.

I then asked if there was even a possibility that he was wrong. His answer was typical of what hundreds of other Mormons have told me throughout the years: “Well, I guess we’ll all find out at the end, won’t we?” This pat response is frustrating. Being the true fideist that he is, the Mormon planted his flag on his “burning in the bosom” testimony. He recounted the faith he held in Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Mormon Church as well as the prophet at that time, Ezra Taft Benson. His beliefs obviously held preeminence over any perceived “facts,” which he obviously gave second-class status whenever they contradicted his personal religious views. For me, Pascal’s Wager came alive as I showed him a very similar version that I write about at http://www.mrm.org/multimedia/text/pascal.html.

In his Internet rebuttal, Graham writes: “The fact that McKeever and Johnson slipped this little argument in the back of their book, demonstrates their own lack of confidence in the book’s preceding arguments.” First of all, common sense dictates that something has to be at the end of a book. Pascal’s Wager is merely one piece of evidence in a whole line-up of possible argumentation. (Obviously, not all of the evidence that can be used to support the theistic idea of the Christian God was used in Mormonism 101 due to space limitations.) Graham makes it appear that we purposely stuck this witnessing at the end of the book to try to hide it, inferring that we are somehow embarrassed by it. If we were embarrassed by it, then why would we put it in at all since there is no hiding material at the “back of the book.” (Obviously, since Graham found it, we must not be very good at this hiding game!)

Graham complains in a rejoinder that he feels Pascal’s Wager is a “scare tactic” that “feed(s) off the emotions of the timid.” He writes: “Why doesn’t Eric simply admit that this is what his wager boils down to? In telling people that exclusion from your religion carries worse consequences, than those involved with exclusion from our religion, this is nothing more than a scare tactic.”

Yet very clearly in my original Internet article I state, “Of course, Pascal’s Wager has its limitations and is not the strongest reason for a person to become a Christian. I also do not believe that Pascal’s Wager should be taken literally as it would be akin to trying Jesus on for size, which is certainly not scriptural.” We say the same thing on page 275 of our book: “While this tactic (Pascal’s Wager) cannot—or should not—coerce belief or be proof that Christianity is true, it can be an incentive for Mormons to take another look at the essentials of their faith and compare it to the historic Christian faith.”

Although he tries to neutralize Pascal’s Wager with a wave of his hand, neither Pascal nor I would say that a person should become a Christian merely for fire insurance purposes. Rather, this tactic should be used as a thinking tool, to give motivation for the skeptic to (at the very least) consider the possibility—no matter how remote one might think this is—that he or she is wrong. If the Mormon is wrong, what are the implications? I can’t help it if Graham feels this tactic is invalidated because he thinks it only scares people. Although Graham was recently married and doesn’t (as far as I know) have children, I’m wondering how he will one day tell his future adolescent daughter about the possibilities of burning her hand if she touches the hot stove. Shouldn’t telling her about the consequences of this action be a part of his lecture? The result is real, as fire plus flesh equals a very painful result. Yet there is a chance that he is wrong and his daughter could be right—that touching fire or hot surfaces is fun! Despite differences in opinion, sometimes it IS appropriate to explain the consequences to certain actions while certainly understanding that you should never make a decision based on your opinion but rather on facts. Truly, Pascal’s Wager can be an effective tool to help the Mormon consider the possibility that Christianity might be correct and Mormonism is wrong.

I like how Peter Kreeft closes his article on Pascal’s Wager with this story: “An atheist visited the great rabbi and philosopher Martin Buber and demanded that Buber prove the existence of God to him. Buber refused, and the atheist got up to leave in anger. As he left, Buber called after him, ‘But can you be sure there is no God?’ That atheist wrote, forty years later, ‘I am still an atheist. But Buber’s question has haunted me every day of my life.’ The Wager has just that haunting power.” This is the point as my goal is to get the Mormon to think on his own and to eliminate the idea that he should blindly follow what his parents/leaders/friends tell him to believe.

Graham uses the second half of the rebuttal to assert that I am “guilty of misusing the Book of Mormon to further [my] argument.” This is a fascinating claim since I only use one verse (2 Nephi 25:23) to support my argumentation of Pascal’s Wager. Yet this verse is not even a crucial element in my line of argumentation. And, no, it was not misused, which will be shown in future writing. Yet Graham spends several paragraphs going on a huge tangent in an attempt to show how I misread LDS scripture despite the fact that my argument was not built on the Book of Mormon but rather the Bible, which I quoted almost a dozen times in the article. It appears their disagreement at this point is moot.

So where do I get the idea that good, moral people get to go to some level of heaven? Actually, from several very credible LDS sources. One was a Mormon who witnessed to me in 1987 along with numerous others since this time. As I quoted in Mormonism 101, LDS Apostle Bruce McConkie once wrote, “Honorable men of the earth who are blinded by the craftiness of men and who therefore do not accept and live the gospel law” will achieve this level.” Acknowledging McConkie’s words, Graham proceeded to judge me by questioning my “honorableness.” Perhaps I am the one who is blinding innocent people, he infers. He adds, “While he [referring to me] may have been assured by others that he is certainly destined for the terrestrial kingdom, I know of no LDS who would make a ridiculous judgment.”

I believe that I understand enough about Mormonism to say that this religion teaches how we as people were worthy to be born on earth because of our valiance in the preexistence. Thanks to the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the grace that is provided to all mankind, every person therefore has a right to a general salvation, including Adolph Hitler. (Is Graham inferring that I am less worthy than Hitler who was baptized in proxy in 1993? See http://www.mrm.org/multimedia/images/hitler-baptism.html for documentation on Hitler’s baptism. I should also point out that one of my LDS relatives assures me that he will personally see to it that someone is baptized on my behalf the day after I die.) Am I wrong in my understanding of general salvation and my gift of receiving a resurrection in the future? (For further information, see http://www.mrm.org/multimedia/text/grace-unto-damnation.html )

I agree that several Mormon leaders have been quoted as saying that anything short of the top level of the celestial kingdom—which is the bottom two levels of the celestial as well as the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms—should be equated with “damnation.” However, if this is the case, it would appear that a great many Mormons are headed for damnation. Wrote Joseph Fielding Smith, “NOT HALF THE LATTER-DAY SAINTS TO BE SAVED. Those who receive the fulness will be privileged to view the face of our Father. There will not be such an overwhelming number of the Latter-day Saints who will get there. President Francis M. Lyman many times has declared, and he had reason to declare, I believe, that if we save one-half of the Latter-day Saints, that is, with an exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God, we will be doing well. Not that the Lord is partial, not that he will draw the line as some will say, to keep people out. He would have every one of us go in if we would; but there are laws and ordinances that we must keep; if we do not observe the law we cannot enter” (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:15)

Graham then writes the following: “Hell in LDS thought is to be separated from God. It is nothing to cheer about. While he may have been assured by others that he is certainly destined for the terrestrial kingdom, I know of no LDS who would make a ridiculous judgment. His assumption that he will be ok, according to LDS soteriology, only reflects his own ignorance of LDS soteriology.”

I beg to differ. One recent example took place in June 2002 in Nauvoo, Illinois when I had a polite conversation with Doug Yancey, an apologist with an LDS organization called SHIELDS (Scholarly & Historical Information Exchange for Latter-day Saints). I first met Doug in the late 1990s when Bill and I helped hand out tracts at the City of Joseph (Nauvoo) annual pageant. One afternoon during our June 2002 trip, Doug saw Bill and me at the Nauvoo Christian Center while we were preparing to head out to the streets of Nauvoo. He asked if we were planning to rebut Graham’s Mormonism 201 site. Somehow we got onto the topic of life after death. To make a long story short, Doug assured me that I, an LDS critic, not only had a chance for the terrestrial but might even progress all the way to the celestial kingdom.

When I heard this, I chuckled and asked Doug if he really believed that someone like me who is opposed to Mormonism and hands out tracts at their events could really be destined for the celestial kingdom. Doug looked at me in a sincere way and nodded yes. Bill McKeever then asked, “But Doug, can you show where in the Book of Mormon that the Nephites believed this way?” At the time he wasn’t able to give us an answer, so I took out my copy of the Book of Mormon and turned to Alma 34:32ff, which agrees with Hebrews 9:27 and 2 Corinthians 6:2 regarding the impossibility of winning salvation after death. Doug was unable to provide an answer due to time constraints, but he promised to write me when we returned to San Diego.

The following week, Doug sent me this post. I quote it in its entirety:

“Eric, Your original question to me was whether you as an LDS critic could have a change of mind in the next life and become eligible for the Celestial Kingdom. If this is not what you recall, please let me know. This is a general question that has been discussed, debated and disagreed over by knowledgeable LDS for a long time. I tend to fall on the side of the possibility that people can change–although with much more difficulty–in the spirit world. I am aware of scripture and statements of LDS leaders that seem to say otherwise. But, I believe that a merciful God may forgive anyone who has a true change of heart. I do believe that this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God. I believe that those who have had a full opportunity along with a complete understanding of the gospel will be far less likely to have a change of heart and therefore it is safe to say that the ‘long night of darkness’ will be final for them. Even in such a case, however, I would be reluctant to close the door permanently to any possibility at all of any positive change in such a person. I have read some LDS leaders, scholars and apologists who have the same opinion. I think it is great that we can hold such opinions without fear of jeopardizing our membership–unless, of course, we try to preach such opinions as *official* doctrine. I have an open mind with this question and am willing to change it as I learn more. Doug Yancey”

My purpose here is not to embarrass Doug (and I sincerely hope I haven’t). It is to merely make a point that at least one Mormon believes there is hope for me that could be as high as the celestial kingdom. If Doug holds out hope for this, then how many other Mormons do as well? Doug admits that there has been much controversy over this issue.

But lest Graham think this is but an anomaly, consider our review of How Wide the Divide. In it we quote BYU professor Stephen Robinson who also believes there is hope for those who are critical of Mormonism. On page 73 Dr. Robinson says: “I personally have many, many non-LDS friends, some of whom dislike my faith very much, with whom I fully expect to sit down along with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven.” On page 153, Robinson states that he feels a “very large percentage” of those who will enter the celestial kingdom will be “Evangelicals.”

Graham is correct when he writes in a rejoinder that these are just men’s opinions. What counts is what God thinks. I absolutely agree. But the fact of the matter is, while the celestial kingdom is the greatest of the three kingdoms, the terrestrial kingdom will have the majority of Latter-day Saints since more than half of all Latter-day Saints don’t even have temple recommends to be able to do celestial work in the temple, which is the first step to becoming Celestial Kingdom material. And I have a pretty good chance to be there with them in a place that is said to be quite nice. Hence, if Mormonism is true, I still win (albeit I lose the celestial kingdom).

Graham concludes by using Dr. Daniel Peterson’s words about the implication of Pascal’s Wager: “By contrast, if evangelicals Protestantism (sic) is correct, much that is vitally important to Latter-day Saints is lost. Our deceased families and friends are being tortured in hell. Our leaders are, at best, self-deceived fools, and very possibly monstrous frauds. And, on the usual Protestant understanding, billions of our non-Christian brothers and sisters are consigned forever to the flames of the inferno. It is difficult to see how any normal person could find much in this unendurable scenario to feel cheerful about.”

I am not sure where Graham gets the understanding that Pascal’s Wager is meant to make a person feel cheerful about the implications of not believing in God. It is a very serious offense not to believe, which is the reason why Christians are told to share their faith. If the Bible advocated an esoteric faith, then we should all live lives of apathy and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, Jesus’ last words in Matthew were very action-oriented. He declared that we ought to evangelize the world and make disciples. The gospel message, he added in Acts 1:8, would begin in Jerusalem, continue into Samaria, and eventually reach out to the whole world. This is our desire. We preach with trepidation, thankful that our eyes have been opened to the story of God’s love, but concerned for the welfare of our fellow man, which includes those who belong to the Mormon religion.

Finally, speaking about his Mormon mission to Anaheim, CA, Graham writes this in a rejoinder: “I pointed out (to Evangelical Christians) that since both of us have faith, and both sides have confessed with our mouths, the Evangelical had everything to lose and the LDS everything to win. By embracing the workless and effortless concept of strict sola gracia, while the LDS had nothing to lose by simply trying to put effort in being better people, obeying the commandments etc. I pointed this out very clearly to the Evangelical: ‘according to you I am already saved, but according to me, you’re not.’ But we didn’t really like this approach because we realized that it became little more than a scare tactic, so we ceased to use it.”

Graham fails to understand that the wager does not work from his vantage point since his faith in the Mormon gospel is not considered to be TRUE faith according to evangelical Christianity. We consider Mormonism to be a faith in another Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4) and another gospel, which means that his faith is not efficacious for eternal life. So while he did stop using his tactic on the mission field, he stopped for the wrong reason.

Overall, “Eric’s Wager: Join Us or Burn in Hell!” is a poorly composed article with arguments that do not hold water. I have seen stronger points against Pascal’s Wager written by atheists on the Internet. So my question to the Mormon remains: “Which religion are you willing to bet your life on? What happens if you are correct? And what is your fate if you are wrong and Christianity is true?” Yes, Pascal’s Wager is not the strongest argument out there, but it certainly is one that gets a person to think through all of the possibilities.