Is It Rational to Believe in God? 5 Objections to Pascal’s Wager

Blaise Pascal argued that the mere possibility of God’s existence compels individuals to believe in Him. Was he right?

Apr 17, 2024By Miljan Vasic, MA Philosophy, BA Philosphy

pascal wager objections rational believe god


Pascal’s wager is a famous argument that seeks to provide a rational justification for believing in God, even in the absence of any empirical evidence. According to Pascal, we face two possibilities: either God exists, or God does not exist. Individuals have the freedom to choose whether to believe or not. This gives rise to a decision matrix with four potential outcomes. One of these outcomes, where a person believes in God, and God indeed exists, leads to a reward of eternal life. Thus, Pascal argues, it is rational to choose to believe in God since it is the only way to achieve the best possible outcome.


There are several common objections to Pascal’s wager. One objection is that Pascal assumes a specific theology and conception of God while neglecting the possibility of other gods or belief systems. Other objections focus on Pascal’s assumption that mere belief or non-belief determines eternal punishment or reward. There have also been those who criticize his narrow view of rationality. This article aims to explore these objections in detail.


What is Pascal’s Wager?

blaise pascal portrait
Blaise Pascal. François II Quesnel, c. 17th century CE. Source: Louvre Museum


Pascal’s wager is a traditional argument that offers reasons for believing in the existence of God. Unlike other well-known arguments for God’s existence, such as ontological or cosmological, Pascal’s wager does not aim to prove that God exists, but only that it is rational to bet on that possibility. In the philosophical literature, assessing this argument in the decision theory framework is common. The traditional interpretation distinguishes between three premises of Pascal’s argument.


The first premise is that rationality requires the subject to attribute some positive value to the possibility of God’s existence. According to Pascal, the knowledge that God either exists or does not exist and the lack of empirical evidence regarding those possibilities compels us to assign them equal probabilities.

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The second premise is formally expressed through the following decision matrix, where the first outcome has an infinite positive value, while the remaining three have unspecified finite values:


Wager for God:


1) I believe that God exists, and God does exist.

2) I believe that God exists, and God does not exist.


Wager against God:


3) I do not believe that God exists, and God does exist.

4) I do not believe that God exists, and God does not exist.


The second and third outcomes are typically interpreted to have negative values since they imply that the subject was wrong about God’s existence. In contrast, the value of the fourth outcome is a subject of debate.


The third premise is that a rational subject will decide to maximize his expected utility. These premises lead to the conclusion that for any individual, it is rational to wager for God’s existence since the prospect of gaining something of infinite value overrides any other outcome. Thus, Pascal claims it is rational to believe in God. Is this sound reasoning? Here are five common objections to Pascal’s wager.


Indeterminate Probability for God’s Existence

conegliano god the father
God The Father. Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, 1510-1517 CE. Source: Art UK


Let us begin with the first premise. Pascal presupposes that we should assign a positive probability to God’s existence. This is not a trivial presupposition. Decision theory makes a distinction between decisions under uncertainty and decisions under risk. It is only in the latter that the decision-maker assigns subjective probabilities to the possible states of the world. By claiming that we should assign some specific probability to God’s existence, Pascal treats the wager as a decision under risk. However, Pascal claims that the probability of God’s (in)existence is exactly 0.5, based on the fact that there are only two possibilities: that God either exists or does not.


Is Pascal right to claim so? You either win the lottery or you don’t; does this mean each outcome has a probability of 0.5? Of course not. However, in the lottery case, we have an objective means to calculate our chances to win. Regarding God’s existence, the probabilities we assign are purely subjective. But this does not mean that those probabilities have to be 0.5 for each and every individual. Thus, Pascal is wrong to make such a claim.


Yet, Pascal’s wager does not even require such a high probability for God’s existence. Remember, one of the outcomes contains an infinite positive value for the believer. According to standard decision theory, as long as there is at least some probability that God exists, it is rational to wager for God since the possibility of winning the infinite reward overrides any other finite rewards, however likely they are.


bosch garden earthtly delights painting
The Garden of Earthly Delights. Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons


But here lies the problem for Pascal’s wager. An atheist can always assign a probability of zero to God’s existence and thus deny the first premise. Moreover, by doing so, they do not violate any norm of rationality. If the probability that God exists is 0, then it may well be rational to wager against God since such a wager carries some positive value for the atheist. As such, Pascal’s wager poses no problem for strict atheists (Hájek, 2000).


At best, it is an argument against agnosticism since it concludes that assigning some probability to God’s existence is irrational without fully committing to believing in Him. Therefore, Pascal’s wager presupposes that one accepts God’s existence as a possibility before drawing a conclusion–this can hardly be a convincing argument for a non-believer!


The Many Gods Objection

pascal pensées second edition
The second edition of Pascal’s Pensées. 1670 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The many gods objection is one of the oldest challenges to Pascal’s wager, aimed against its second premise. Its earliest form can be attributed to Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot. According to this objection, Pascal’s wager implies that belief in a multitude, possibly even an infinite number, of different gods is a rational choice. Consequently, it suggests that simultaneously believing in and not believing in any single god can also be rational. In essence, we can create as many decision matrices as there are possibly existing gods. Each of these matrices would compel a rational individual to accept the existence of its respective god. Even if Pascal had only the Christian God in mind, nothing in his reasoning reflects such exclusivity.


In addition to the traditional gods who have had or currently have worshippers, one can imagine an array of diverse gods with radically different criteria for rewarding and punishing. For instance, one could imagine a “Sidewalk god” who rewards individuals for stepping on every third crack in the pavement or a “Cockroach god” who demands people to worship insects (Saka, 2001).


It’s worth noting that it was sufficient to assume that the probability of God’s existence is greater than zero in Pascal’s matrix. If the existence of the “Sidewalk god” is merely possible, the rational choice would be to place a wager on such a deity and subsequently abide by their reward criteria. If, on the other hand, one argues that the existence of all “bizarre” or ad hoc deities is impossible while maintaining that traditional god(s) could exist, they can be accused of unwarranted ethnocentrism.


Rewards and Punishments

blake god judging adam
God Judging Adam. William Blake, c. 1795 CE. Source: Met Museum.


Another objection to the second premise revolves around the criteria of God’s rewards and punishments. Critics argue that Pascal’s argument assumes a particular monotheistic theism that oversimplifies how God distributes these rewards and punishments. Essentially, they claim that Pascal’s wager relies on relatively shallow theology.


According to Pascal, it is rational to bet within the framework of this particular theology, which asserts that the only way to reach heaven is through belief in God, and the only way to end up in hell is through disbelief. However, these restrictions placed on God’s criteria for rewarding believers and punishing unbelievers are not easily mirrored in classical monotheistic religions.


Even if we set aside the possibility of multiple gods and consolidate them into a singular “universal” God, competing theologies are still conceivable. One such example is the notion of concurrent theology, which posits that believers are destined for hell while atheists are destined for heaven, regardless of the existence of God. In this scenario, even if the existence of God is highly probable, rationality would nevertheless dictate that one should opt for non-belief.


Thus, Pascal’s assumption that mere possibility is sufficient grounds for betting on God’s existence is flawed. This is because he implicitly presupposes the truth of a specific theology that aligns with the God he argues for. For Pascal’s wager to hold, it would require irrefutable evidence of God’s existence, rendering the wager itself irrelevant.


Pascal’s Notion of Rationality

bosch follower angel leading soul into hell painting
An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell. Anonymous follower of Hieronymus Bosch, 16th century CE. Source: Art UK


The problem with the third premise is that Pascal’s wager presupposes a certain rationality based on the utility of the outcome of the bet. Betting on God’s existence is considered rational because it offers an infinite gain while risking only an insignificant loss or the loss of temporary pleasures that Pascal calls “poisonous.” We would lose these pleasures if we choose to believe in God, and Pascal believes such a loss is actually a gain. However, the acceptability of his reasoning depends on an individual’s preferred values.


It is conceivable that there is someone who values momentary pleasure more than the potential eternal life that would come later. Consequently, they may not want to deny themselves the godless worldly life they would lose if they bet on the existence of God. Choosing to believe in God comes with the rigorous obligations of a religious life, which they may not be willing to undertake. This choice is not against rationality since it aligns with their preferred values.


Another consideration is the distinction between practical rationality and theoretical rationality. Practical rationality implies maximizing expected utility, which aligns with Pascal’s wager. However, theoretical rationality might require proportioning belief to the available evidence. This objection is particularly relevant since Pascal admits that following his advice may require one to “renounce reason.” In situations where practical and theoretical rationality conflict, it is not evident that practical rationality should always take precedence.


The Problem of Mixed Strategies

michelangelo creation of adam
The creation of Adam, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo, 1508–1512 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The last objection is not directed at any specific premise but challenges Pascal’s entire argument. It addresses the concept of an infinitely valuable reward proposed by Pascal. According to Pascal, wagering for God is the sole means to attain infinite utility. However, an alternative perspective can be considered: employing mixed strategies. For instance, if someone were to flip a coin and wager for God if it lands on heads and against God if it lands on tails, the expected utility of this strategy would be an average between infinity and a finite value, still resulting in an infinite value. Consequently, this strategy presents another pathway to achieve infinite expected utility.


Any action the individual chooses can be interpreted as a mixed strategy between betting for and against God (Hájek, 2003). Essentially, the rational subject’s entire life consists of a continuous sequence of such wagers, wherein betting on God represents one of the potential outcomes. This applies equally to those who try their best to bet against God. By introducing infinity into the equation, Pascal inadvertently allows all mixed strategies to be valid.


Consequences of Removing Infinity

blaise pascal engraving
Blaise Pascal. Engraving by Henry Hoppner Meyer, 1833 CE. Source: Britannica


Removing infinity from his argument poses two problems for Pascal’s Wager. Firstly, the subject appears capable of arbitrarily choosing to bet on God, which contradicts Pascal’s original motivation. Secondly, it implies that every action a rational subject takes carries the same expected utility—infinitely large. Consequently, every decision is deemed equally favorable, challenging the foundation of reasoned decision-making. The only way to resolve this predicament is to eliminate the possibility of infinite rewards.


However, removing infinity from Pascal’s argument entails assigning a finite utility to the reward for wagering for God. Regardless of the magnitude of this utility, Pascal’s argument loses its persuasive power, as the probability of God’s existence becomes a significant factor in such a scenario. The strength of Pascal’s argument relied on the fact that an infinitely large gain rendered the issue of probability irrelevant. However, if the payoff is finite, it is conceivable that the probability of God’s existence could be so minuscule that betting against God becomes a rational choice. As a result, Pascal’s argument ultimately fails.



Hájek, Alan (2000). Objecting Vaguely to Pascal’s Wager. Philosophical Studies 98. 1-16.

Hájek, Alan (2003). Waging War on Pascal’s Wager. The Philosophical Review 112(1). 27-56.

Saka, Paul (2001). Pascal’s Wager and the Many Gods Objection. Religious Studies 37(3). 321-341.

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By Miljan VasicMA Philosophy, BA PhilosphyMiljan is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy whose primary areas of research include political philosophy, social epistemology, and the history of social choice. He is especially interested in various quirks of democracy, both ancient and modern. He holds BA and MA degrees in Philosophy from the University of Belgrade.