Pascal’s Wager and the Red Pill: Belief in the Historical Jesus as Self-Constituting Subjective Reality

“If the Jesus of faith is not also the Jesus of history, he’s powerless and he’s meaningless. Unless he’s rooted in reality, unless he established his divinity by rising from the dead, he’s just a feel-good symbol who’s as irrelevant as Santa Claus” (Strobel, 127).

Strobel’s reaction to the claim that Jesus wasn’t historical is the same (failed) attempt of the early church to justify the historical Jesus: if he wasn’t historical, he would have been no different from other myths and fables. Ergo, he was a historical. Rather than evidence, it is based on the passionate belief and the experiential consequences of that belief. The true heart of the argument for Christians is this: If Jesus doesn’t exist, he would be meaningless, and it is impossible for him to be meaningless, because he is meaningful to me. Therefore he is historical.

However, the argument centers on the opinion that without a historical body Jesus would be meaningless. Why does this have to be the case? Gnostics and many heretics refused his physical body but still found him profoundly meaningful. Truthfully, in accepting and appreciating Jesus Christ’s literary legacy, very little about Christianity has to change. Christ’s spiritual significance, importance, and active role as an ever-present moral guide could be maintained with much less conflict to reason or science. One could still believe in a divine being that at the beginning of time emptied himself in his creation, and that we are somehow mystically tied to him. All of the rituals could remain the same.

Jesus Christ could still save as our higher selves, our voice of reason and guidance, our intuition and goodness. Moreover, this conception of Jesus would truly be eternal and universal: it has many names, and the expressions of its faith are as diverse as the world’s many distinct cultures.

Moreover, just because something is a myth does not make it meaningless – in fact myths can be much more powerful than historical reality, as Joseph Campbell pointed out:

Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant  time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to interpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved. Such a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult. (249 Campbell)

In fact it precisely the idea of the historical Jesus that has always caused Christianity’s clash with reason and science, as well as its dominance and abuse of outside religions and cultures. Rather than belief in goodness or faith in God, the Christian preoccupation with the flesh-and-bones Jesus compels faith in a reality that can’t possibly be true; a position that cannot help but clash violently with all progressive and free-thinking societies. Further, the idea of a historical founder can all-too-often make Christians abruptly defensive, blindly irrational, stubbornly closed-minded, and imperialistically righteous – with a burning confidence in the superiority of their faith that allows the nonchalant damnation of all non-believers. Likewise, Armstrong argues that the literalist reading of the Bible is a danger to both Christianity and world peace.

The Bible is in danger of becoming a dead or an irrelevant letter; it is being distorted by claims for its literal infallibility; it is derided – often unfairly – by secular fundamentalists; it is also becoming a toxic arsenal that fuels hatred and sterile polemic. The development of a more compassionate hermeneutics could provide an important counter-narrative in our discordant world (Armstrong, 229).

Of course it is worth pointing out that the impossibility of Christ’s Resurrection and the stipulation to believe and proclaim it anyway, without proof or reason, is itself a fundamental piece of Christian belief. Although the virtue of “blind faith” has biblical roots, it was explored more fully by French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal. The concept of Pascal’s Wager or Gambit, used often by evangelists, is that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because he has everything to gain if Christianity is true, and nothing to lose if it isn’t. But an important part of this argument, often missed, is that it is based on the fact that there is no evidence for God, and that God planned it this way. As Pascal reasons, “God, wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and hidden to those who flee from him with all their heart… tempers the knowledge of himself” (qtd Badiou Being and Event 218).

Pascal’s argument likewise applies to the Resurrection of Christ – but only if we agree that there is truly no evidence for it. It is the very act of making the choice to believe, without corroborative evidence, which produces and justifies spiritual meaning. As French philosopher and mathematician Alan Badiou points out more recently,

Belief does not relate centrally to the being-one of God, to his infinite power; its interventional kernel is rather the constitution of meaning of that death, and that death (of the son of God on the cross), and the organization of a fidelity to that meaning. As Pascal says: “Except in Jesus Christ, we do not know the meaning of our life, or death, or God, or ourselves” (Being and Event 212)

If there were real evidence for Jesus Christ, non-believers would have grounds for disbelieving it on rational grounds. It is only the non-evidential nature of the Christ-Event that makes the wager necessary and worth taking:

In order to prepare the ground Pascal refers directly to the absence of proof, and transforms it, by stroke of pure genius, into a strength concerning the crucial point: one must choose; ‘it is through their lack of faith in proofs that they [the Christians] show that they are not lacking in sense’. For sense, attributed to the intervention, is actually subtracted from the law of ‘natural lights’.  Between God and us ‘there is an infinite chaos which divides us’. And because sense is solely legible in the absence of the rule, choosing, according to him, ‘is not voluntary’: the wager has always taken place, as true Christians attest… The libertine thus has no grounds, according to his own principles, for saying ‘I do not blame them for their choice, but for making a choice at all… the right thing to do is not to wager.’ He would have grounds for saying such if there were examinable proofs – always suspect – and if one had to wager on their pertinence. But there are no proofs as long as the decision on the Christ-event has not been taken. The libertine is at least constrained to recognize that he is required to decide on this point (Being and Event 221).

Badiou claims that this is the core of Pauline theology; that the choice to believe in the Christ-Event furnishes its own proof after the fact; that making this choice, despite evidence, generates subjectivity-defining meaning. He expands this concept in his treatise on St. Paul: “Let us say that for Paul, it is a matter of investigating which law is capable of structuring a subject devoid of all identity and suspended to an event whose only “proof” lies precisely in its having been declared by a subject.” (Badiou, St. Paul, 5)

As we’ve seen, there are no proofs in themselves that support the Christ event. However, this should not be threatening for Christianity given the understanding that knowledge of truth requires that an unqualified, free decision first be taken. A recent example of the importance of the decision can be seen in The Matrix (1999). Before Neo begins his adventure and is initiated into the reality of his existence, he must make the conscious choice to do so. Only his own, free choice, based on nothing – no evidence or guarantee – will allow him to move forward and see things more clearly. This choice is demonstrated in the red pill. The pill itself is nothing, it is the deliberate and conscious choice that sets him free.

In other words, perhaps the “Christ-event” is not a historical certainty that evidence can support, but an internal understanding of Jesus’ spiritual role and our relationship to God, which, for those who have made the wager to accept it, is fully satisfying.

As we’ve seen through the history of the debate, the evidence is not enough. The historical evidence cannot and does not lead to the historical Jesus Christ – nor should it! According to Christian dogma, God must be experienced only after the choice to believe is made. But can the very lack of evidence really prove that Christianity is true? Is faith in Jesus’ Resurrection rational because it seems impossible and utterly unevidenced, as we should expect Truth to be?

At the very least Pascal’s argument is a well informed and philosophically provocative defense of Christianity. We can only agree with him that, in the absence of choice, before “swallowing the pill,” the evidence itself is both irrelevant and insufficient: Jesus Christ is rendered real and meaningful not because of the evidence, but because of the choice to believe. Having made the choice, Jesus’ life, miracles and ministry appear true for Christians; but this does not make it universally true – nor can it strengthen or stabilize the historical evidence through self-generating and reflexive arguments like “it is true that my beliefs are meaningful to me, hence the history must also be true or they would not be meaningful to me.” It is meaningless to argue that there is evidence for Jesus Christ; instead it can only be claimed that the historical Jesus is a meaningful belief, which the text hastens to establish, but which is ultimately dependent on the creative constructive power of human faith. The belief in the historical Jesus constitutes a subjective truth which is self-supporting and completely irrespective of historical evidence.

As St. Paul wrote, “It is the word of faith that we preach. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved (Rom.10.9-10.” Why should this be true? Because the decision is necessary to make the choice; and a real choice is based on nothing. This is necessary, in the language of modern theory (which is itself nearly identical to Orphean or Buddhist mysticism) to break out of the pattern of symbolic order or stop the cycle of desire. According to French psychoanalysist Jacques Lacan, for example, when we are born we are automatically castrated upon entering into language or the symbolic order. There is no way to get outside of this while relying on language, reason or proof; instead freedom stems from a complete, non-linear, non rational, unsupported terroristic act.

The “Christ-event” (which is inherently impossible) is one such non-sensical affirmation; even though, as Badiou makes clear, it never really happened: “Let us be perfectly clear, what we are dealing with here is precisely a fable” (Badiou 4); “It is rigorously impossible to believe in the resurrection of the crucified” (Badiou 5).

The very affirmation in the historical Resurrection is a step outside of the possible and towards the infinite; as such it gives subjectivity-defining meaning – but only for those who have made the non-supported choice to believe.