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Is Gambling a Sin? is Christianity a Gamble?

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Is gambling a sin for Christians? There's a lot of debate about this question in Christian circles, and not all Christians agree on whether there is something wrong with gambling in itself or if it is only a problem when done to excess. Why should atheists care? Because the answers to this question carry interesting implications for Christianity as a whole.

First we need to ask, just what is gambling anyway? Gambling involves betting, whether individually or in pools, in games of chance where the odds of winning or losing are artificially created so that those who win do so (at least in part) at the expense of those who lose. The winnings are not earned; rather, they are the product of luck and maybe a little skill in working the odds.

Next we need to look at the particulars of the debate itself. Most Christian theologians and philosophers have argued that there is nothing inherently wrong with gambling. Instead, the dangers lie in an excess of gambling: when a person is unable to control the urge to gamble and/or gambles to the point that other basic needs go unmet, then the gambling is wrong.

This is basically a sociological rather than a theological position because it criticizes gambling, not based upon scripture, revelation, or religious tradition, but rather because of the sociological effects it produces when pursued farther than it really should be. Thus, these arguments against gambling could be made by anyone - there is nothing especially "Christian" about them.

There is another, much stricter Christian position which is theological in that it is based upon scripture, revelation, and tradition. Specifically, it argues that gambling is always wrong, no matter what the ultimate effects, because it is an attempt to get something for nothing and at the expense of those who must ultimately lose.

This is considered wrong because it contravenes Jesus' command that we should love our neighbors as we love God. Since we would never try to gain at God's expense, then we certainly should not try to gain at our neighbor's expense. It doesn't matter how much control a gambler has or how much the gambler is able to lose - what matters is the gambler's interest in receiving an undeserved gain while others at the same time lose. Gambling is, then, a violation of Jesus' most basic commandment for humanity.

These two conflicting positions lead to a further conflict in how a Christian should react to gambling, whether on a personal or political level. Should gambling be outlawed or at least strongly discouraged because it undermines basic Christian values? Or should gambling be permitted but not encouraged, much less publicly financed and supported, lest it get out of control and cause social harm?

Conflicts and Scandals over Gambling

The stricter position that gambling is always wrong is not openly espoused as often as the milder position that gambling is only wrong when done to excess, but strains of the former can often be found in the Christian community's response to gambling. Indeed, many Christian reactions to gambling simply can't be understood if we assumed that only the milder position mattered; yet when we take the stricter position into account, it becomes much clearer.

For example, Christians often vigorously oppose greater government involvement in gambling, especially when it comes to legalizing gambling and casinos. This doesn't make quite as much sense if gambling is only a problem when done to excess, but if gambling is inherently bad because it causes us to exploit rather than love our neighbors, then it is reasonable.

More interesting in this context are some of the scandals over famous people who have been found with ties to gambling. Pat Robertson was revealed to have owned racing horses - even though he has publicly opposed gambling. William Bennett, American moralist par excellance, was revealed to have been heavily involved in gambling - sometimes losing big money. People were shocked, but why if he can afford to lose big?

The furor over both Bennett and Robertson makes sense when we consider the idea that both were attempting to gain something for nothing at their neighbors' expense. One makes a living from speaking about moral values, the from preaching the Christian message. Neither of those vocations would appear to be compatible with violating Jesus' central message over money.

Sometimes, the idea that our neighbors lose out when we win at gambling can take a back seat to the principle that we shouldn't try to gain something for nothing. Consider, for example, the response offered by "the God Squad" to a question about whether it is wrong to pray to God for help at gambling:

The idea that God, that most exalted and sublime mystery, is a cosmic ATM that you use to get paid off is insulting to faith and spiritually debilitating. ...Our faith must be in a God who is with us and loves us always and everywhere - but not in a God who is constantly negotiating favors or offering us bribes for our faith. We do think God spends a lot of time in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, not as a divine croupier but rather as that still, small voice telling you, "You can't win at gambling, and you can't get something for nothing." "

Presumably the same doesn't hold true, however, when it comes to lotteries and bingo at local churches, both of which are popular fund raisers. Perhaps such gambling is for a good cause, but if the desire to win something for nothing were really unimportant, then church officials would simply ask people to donate funds in lieu of buying tickets or bingo cards. The mere fact of holding gambling events means that they are appealing to people's desire to get something for nothing in the expectation of being able to gain themselves in the process.

Christianity as Gambling

This is where it gets interesting. It seems from the above that praying for gain is just wrong - God doesn't work like that, especially when it comes to trying to get something for nothing as in gambling. At the same time, this is the same God Squad who recommended that if we want peace in the Middle East, we should pray for it.

Granted, peace in the Middle East is a much bigger issue than winning a hand of cards in Las Vegas, but there remains a common principle: asking God to help us get something for nothing. Why is it wrong to think of God as paying us off with money so that we can afford a college tuition or clothing, but OK to think of God as paying us off by making our really difficult interfaith conflicts disappear through bringing peace to a land that hasn't known much peace for millennia? Why should we be expected to work for the former but not the latter?

In fact, Christianity is often based upon the idea that people should be gambling when it comes to cosmic issues. Christianity is predicated upon faith, not proof, that the Christian message is true. Traditional Christianity teaches that if you have this faith (that is, if you bet correctly), then you will be saved and spend eternity in heaven with God, while those who don't have this faith (bet incorrectly) will spend eternity suffering in hell. Achieving this salvation is, moreover, unearned - there is nothing a person can do to "earn" or "deserve" a place in heaven. Instead, salvation is achieved one way or another through God's grace as a free, unearned gift.

The entire context is an artificial system set up by God so that there must necessarily be winners and losers, such that the existence of losers going to hell becomes a necessary precondition for winners going to heaven. After all, if no one lost then there would be no value in faith in the Christian message. Thomas Aquinas took this even a step further when he wrote in Summa Theologica:

That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell."

Gambling is such a fundamental aspect of Christianity that one philosopher, Blaise Pascal, even concocted an argument in defense of theism based explicitly on that - today it is known as Pascal's Wager. Simply stated, it is safer to bet on God and Christianity and be wrong than to bet on anything else and be right, so why not become a Christian "just in case" - that way, even if you are wrong, you won't come out a big loser.

People are expected to pray to God for the gift of faith that will allow them to become Christians, even if there is no good evidence or arguments in defense of Christianity. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Christians would also pray for many other things - peace in the Middle East, the election of a Christian president... or even a winning roll of the dice at the craps table. One quickly leads to another without there being any clear and unambiguous means to hold the line and prevent people from going further.

For some, like the God Squad, praying to God for success at gambling cheapens religion and God - but they already did that by telling people to pray to God for other things instead of putting in the effort to gain them by the sweat of their brow. Praying for more mundane issues that people face on a daily basis is nothing more than the logical and expected conclusion of a process that started when people were asked to have faith in God rather than in themselves and their own hard work.

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