Pascal's PENSÉES

Blaise Pascal, along with Galeleo, Kepler, and Newton, was one of the founders of modern physics. He is best known for his laws of hydraulic pressure, but he accomplished much more in physics and mathematics. The metric unit of pressure, the Pascal, is named after him and is equal to one Newton of force per square meter. All four of these men were devout Christians. Pascal lived in France from1623 to 1662.

PENSÉES, which means "thoughts", is a series of logical arguments for Christianity. Pascal knew very well that people do not change their religious convictions as a result of logical debates. Thus, the purpose of the book is not to convert anyone to Christianity, but rather to remove any misunderstanding about Christianity that non-Christians may have. He was attempting to remove barriers to open-minded consideration of Christianity.

I have been assisted in my study of PENSÉES by reading Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft, a professor at Boston College. The latter book is the result of a philosophy class that he has taught for a number of years on Pascal. This essay of mine is a short summary of some of Pascal's key points. I am not Pascal, and this report is not a book. So I do not presume to convey the power of Pascal's reasoning in these few pages. The purpose of this essay is to list the conclusions that Pascal reached. I recommend reading either of the above two books to see how he reached those conclusions.

Pascal makes the following points in PENSÉES:

Everyone is devoted to a belief system, although not everyone would use this terminology.

People will not even consider a belief system other than their own unless they are motivated by some personal desire. Some people may be driven by personal desire for truth, but most people are motivated by other personal needs.

Pascal begins by exploring the self-contradictory nature of people. On the one hand, everyone is inclined to be self-centered, selfish, and devoted to physical self-gratification. For example, people eat to excess while they know that others are starving. Some may give inconsequential contributions to the poor, but rarely do people give up their own gluttony for the benefit of those who have nothing. People often make personal choices that thoughtlessly endanger the lives of others. People are inclined to dishonesty when being honest becomes painful or expensive. People tend to be unjust in dealing with other people, especially when they obtain positions of power. On the other hand, most people consider these ways to be wrong. They understand that there is a better way that people could be and should be. This is not a clash between the needs of society and the needs of individuals; it is a contraction between two opposite characteristics of individuals.

One way that people avoid confronting this human contradiction is diversion. People fill up their time with activities, some with the apparent purpose of accomplishing work, some for pleasure, in order to prevent themselves from having the time to contemplate the problems of the human condition, to which everyone is a contributor in some degree or other.

Another way is indifference. Indifference is the live-and-let-live attitude that allows people to ignore their own selfishness as well as the selfishness of others. Through indifference we keep out of our minds the subhuman conditions in which more than a billion people live today rather than being concerned about them and doing something about them. Through indifference we tolerate all belief systems as equal regardless of their impact on mankind. Indifference can be even worse than hatred because "You can love and hate the same person at the same time, but is not possible to love and be indifferent to that same person at the same time." (Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, 1993, page 188) "Hell is not populated mainly by passionate rebels but by nice, bland, indifferent, respectable people who simply never gave a damn." (ibid, page 196)

The alternative to diversion and indifference is passionate truth-seeking. "If we do not love the truth, we will not seek it. If we do not seek it, we will not find it. If we do not find it, we will not know it. If we do not know it, we have failed our fundamental task in time, and quite likely also in eternity." (ibid, page 217)

There are three levels of consciousness, each successively higher than the preceding one: physical, mental, and spiritual. Animals who operate almost entirely at the physical level cannot fully comprehend the mental level, which includes for example philosophy, science, and mathematics. Pascal, who was one of the greatest leaders of all time at the mental level, explained that people who work only at the mental level cannot fully comprehend the spiritual level.

People who do not believe in God claim that there is no reason to believe in God because there is no clear evidence for His existence. The Bible explains that this is because God intentionally made Himself invisible to people who do not consciously seek Him. If the evidence for God were obvious to those who don't care to seek Him, then there would be no opportunity to develop faith. Faith in the Biblical sense is a level of trust in God that allows people to accept transformation through His grace. If people could accept the gift of the atonement of Christ without faith, they would be forgiven of their sins and allowed into eternal existence with God without transformation. God's desire is to transform people, and people can only be transformed if they desire to be transformed, which is the essence of faith in God. So, contrary to what non-seekers believe, clear evidence for God is available to everyone, but it cannot be found without passionately seeking it. Furthermore, for each person that information is unique according to the unique needs of that individual. So, the earnest seeking of one person does not make the evidence clear to a non-seeker.

The Bible is obscure to non-seekers for the same reason that God is invisible to non-seekers. Through the centuries people have managed to interpret the Bible into a wide diversity of doctrines. This is not because the Bible is indefinite regarding doctrine. It is not because of any deficiency of the Bible. It is because the Bible was written with parables and symbolism in a way that only honest truth-seekers would understand. The vast array of contradictory doctrines "derived" from the Bible are generated by people who take verses out of context and who ignore precise meanings of words in order to justify what they wanted to believe before they opened the Bible. Anyone who searches the Bible with unbiased intent, adhering to precise rules of interpretation, will receive unambiguously all of the doctrine necessary to respond to God's offer of salvation and eternal life.

Non-believers are offered a "wager". There are two choices: believe in God, and don't believe in God. There are two possible outcomes: there is a God, and there is no God. Most believers claim that they have more joy because of their belief, and there is no evidence to the contrary. Christianity teaches that true believers give of themselves and of their possessions, but if the net result is increased joy, or at least no decrease in joy, then there is no net cost. Thus, there is no evidence of any "cost" for choosing to believe in God. Furthermore, if the outcome is that there is no God, then neither choice makes any difference whatsoever. (No one has lost anything with either choice in that event.) However, if the outcome is that there is a God, then the person who chose to believe in God receives eternal joy, or in other words infinite joy. On the other hand the person who chose to reject belief receives eternal hell.

No rational billionaire would reject an offer to receive with certainty eternal joy over eternal hell even if he had to pay everything that he owned to purchase it. This "wager" is like being offered a lottery ticket in which the winner of the lottery receives eternal joy. The probability of winning is impossible to determine for someone who is currently a non-believer, but it appears to be higher than a typical lottery judging from the fact that a third of the world's population are Christians, and more than half of the people on the earth believe in a creator God. So there we have it: a lottery ticket with potential winnings worth more than a billion dollars, a probability of winning apparently higher than a typical lottery, and the ticket is being offered for free. Pascal states that no rational person would refuse it.

Pascal makes it clear that the "wager" is not a valid basis of belief. Faith in God comes exclusively from God, not from calculating schemers. As previously stated, faith comes from evidence that God makes available to seekers. However, Pascal uses the "wager" as an illustration of why it makes sense to seriously consider being a seeker.

The existence of so many mutually contradictory religions is evidence for the existence of a true religion. Most non-believers think that the opposite of this statement is true. However, if throughout history there has never been a successful drug (herbal or otherwise) for curing anything, that is there has never been any substantial evidence that the usage of any drug is effective, then no one would trust any drugs. Through the thousands of years of human experience it would have become common knowledge, perhaps intuitive, that drugs simply don't work. Thus, there would never have been any elixirs or snake oils. But bogus drugs exist because real drugs exist. Thus, false gods exist because the true God exists.

Christianity is unique among the major religions because it uniquely provides the reason for the self-contradictory nature of people. It is that people were created in the image of God and fell from grace, but are created with an inherent desire to get back to their original state.

Thus, Christianity also explains why an all-good omnipotent creator God would have created a world so full of evil. It is because people were created with the ability to love as God loves. Since love in this sense means freely giving of oneself to others without expectation of compensation, people cannot love without complete freewill. However, with freewill people also have the choice of choosing sin, the alternative of exercising love. God would not have created people who are programmed to choose only good. Such people would only be computer-controlled robots, and Pascal, who developed one of the first mechanical computers, and after whom the Pascal programming language is named, knew that computers would never be able to truly think. (This issue is covered in more detail in the chapter, The Origin of Evil.)

The purpose of the church is to do God's work on earth through the teamwork of his believers. The purpose of each member of the church is to serve a unique role according to the unique gifts that have been given to that member. The various members with different gifts complement each other through teamwork. Pascal, as a member of the Jansenist movement, would have believed that the authority to oversee the entire church is exclusively in heaven. Thus, any corruption at the top levels of earthly leadership (which is unavoidable without perfect people on the earth) does not weaken the purpose of the church under Christ.

The mission of Christ, a member of the Godhead, on the earth is to bridge the gap in the self-contradictory nature of people. By overcoming sin while fulfilling justice, the atonement of Christ provides the grace through which people may be justified to return to their Creator.

2004 William C. Hamer