Many Western thinkers have been awfully hard on Blaise Pascal’s wager, which makes a modest claim that it pays to bet on the accuracy and legitimacy of biblical faith. Let us put ourselves in Blaise Pascal’s position, though. He was a witness to the reality and the legacy of deadly religious wars where people fought over faith, and it was easy for people to despair in such an environment that belief systems were only things that tore people apart and were not lights in a dark world that pointed the way that people should actually behave. It is easy in our own times to think the same things about many of the ideologies that motivate people to fight others but not to live better lives and set better examples.
When Blaise Pascal made his wager in the 17th century, it is difficult for us to think of how little was known about the history and context of the Bible. Hebrew was itself a dead language, and none of the other languages of the Bible were well-known or even deciphered. It would be more than a century before the Rosetta stone would be deciphered, and none of the major sites of biblical history nor any of the non-biblical languages of the region were deciphered or understood. It was impossible to know how accurately the Bible captured the historical reality of the ancient world or the religious practices of neighboring heathen peoples, or even the chaos of Second Temple Judaism. If one put a wager betting on the Bible to have been accurate in its description of the reality of its place and time or betting that the empires and practices and behaviors talked about in its were not in fact real, which would have seemed more likely at the time?
In stark contrast to the way that it has often been thought, the Bible itself has been vindicated by discoveries in archaeology and textual criticism far more than has met the eye. The Dead Sea Scrolls, once deciphered, demonstrated that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament that we had was itself very solid, though being 1000 years or so older than the previous oldest Hebrew manuscripts that we had access to. Over and over again ancient civilizations discussed in the Bible were found and found to be as the Bible had described them. Those who thought that the rulers of the Bible were largely fictional in nature were shocked to find so many of them listed in Assyrian manuscripts, even to the point where we found a Moabite version of one of the most striking tales of the Bible, the attempt under Ahab’s son to restore Israelite rule over Moab, ruled by their shepherd king Mesha. Biblical historiography has fared better than the biased standard of the Middle East of its own time, to say nothing of our own biased historiography in our time.
What is perhaps most puzzling is that as the Bible has been proven more and more factually sound in its actual contents, it has proven to be less and less often respected in its moral prescriptions. This is an ominous trend. In 17th century Europe, Western intellectuals were still willing to believe in the Bible and to practice, however imperfectly, its commandments, statutes, laws, and judgments. As more and more evidence has been found that has pointed to the veracity of the Bible and to its accuracy in describing how God worked with ancient Israel and how the ways of the Bible can be seen in the context of the wicked ways of the pagan peoples all around them, contemporary society has more and more sought to emulate those heathen peoples and their ways than the Bible whose truth has been demonstrated by those finds. This is an ominous sign, in that as we have less and less reason to discard the Bible, its ways become less and less popular within society, viewed ever more negatively as they become ever more indisputable, leaving us more and more without excuse. It would be easy to be charitable to a Blaise Pascal making a modest bet, one that paid of handsomely, in the face of massive ignorance about the past. We laugh and scoff at his bet when it is more certain now than when he made it, just less fashionable to make the same wager ourselves.