Michael Rota is associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and obviously a brilliant philosopher and apologist.  He has determined in this book to modernize and defend the so-called Pascal’s wager, developed by the 19th century French mathematician and theological Blaise Pascal.  In essence the wager is this: “It is rational to seek a relationship with God and live a deeply Christian life, because there is very much to gain and relatively little to lose” (pp. 12, 23).  The main argument of the book can be summarized as follows:

If Christianity has at least a 50 percent chance of being true, then it is rational to commit to living a Christian life.

Christianity does have at least a 50 percent chance of being true.  Thus, it is rational to commit to living a Christian life (pp. 13, cf p. 63).

Part one of Taking Pascal’s Wager develops the first argument above, detailing the benefits of the Christian life (pp. 35-42), and dealing with costs (pp. 42-46) and objections to this assertion (pp. 55-79).  Part two defends the second argument by presenting evidences for the truth of Christianity which the author sees as cosmological (chapter 5), the cosmological constant (chapter 6), probability (chapter 7), observational (chapter 8), beauty and existential resonance (chapter 9), the presence of evil and suffering (chapter 10), and historical, especially the resurrection of Christ (chapter 11-12).  Rota concludes the book with chapter biographies of three who successfully took Pascal’s Wager, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Rota states that the purpose of his book is to show that “Christian commitment is rational, not just in the sense that it is possible to be a Christian without being irrational but in the stronger sense that natural human reasoning reveals that we should commit to living a Christian life” (p. 52).  I believe Rota clearly met his objective.  He has not proven that Christianity is true, indeed this was not his goal.  But he has provided powerful arguments for a 50 percent probability that it is true and defends adequately that Christianity is the superior way to live even if it is not true.  This is what he set out to do, and in this he was successful.

There are some significant negatives however:

  • The thesis behind Pascal’s wager remains questionable. Neither the gospel, nor Christianity, is offered in Scripture using this approach.  The gospel is proclaimed as true, and people either accept or reject it.
  • The Pascal’s wager is an evidential approach to apologetics, in which a rational argument is used to convince unbelievers of the truthfulness of Christianity which, once convinced, they will almost certainly embrace. But while there is limited value in evidential and philosophical arguments, the New Testament is clear that mankind rejects the faith because it is predisposed to do so due to its depravity (Rom 1:18-32).  Thus conversion is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit coupled with the proclamation of the gospel.
  • For those who enjoy philosophy Taking Pascal’s Wager will be enjoyable reading. However, in places it is extremely heavy wading and most will be underwater in a hurry.
  • Rota is apparently a Roman Catholic who clearly rejects solo fide. He believes man contributes to his own salvation and he is thus thoroughly synergistic.  Two of his three biographical examples, to which he devotes a chapter each, are Catholics.
  • The author strongly rejects Calvinism, election and predestination (pp. 71-76), and his Arminianism fuels his Pascalian approach. If God is not sovereignly choosing people and if salvation is totally left to man’s choice, then philosophical methodologies such as the Pascal wager become more essential.  People must be convinced by evidence and philosophy or they will not come to Christ.  If a Christian, on the other hand, embraces the sovereignty of God in conversion and believes no one will come to Christ if He does not draw them (John 6:44), then the clear proclamation of the gospel, rather than philosophical arguments, is where the evangelist’s focus should be.

Given the above strengths and concerns of Taking Pascal’s Wager, I found the book interesting but of limited value.

Taking Pascal’s Wager, Faith, Evidence and the Abundant Life by Michael Rota (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 249 pp., paper, $12.50

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel