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Doubling Down on Pascal’s Wager

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The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) held its annual synod this week, and among the items it dealt with were overtures and recommendations related to the issues of climate change and creation care. The synod adopted statements along the following lines:

  • There is a near-consensus in the scientific community that climate change is occurring and very likely is caused by human activity.
  • Human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue.
  • The CRC is compelled to take private and public action to address climate change, especially since those who are already most impacted by it live in poor countries.

A broader report on creation care was also passed by the synod. I should echo this broadest sentiment of the synod, and note that there is no debate about whether or not the Scriptures mandate Christians to be good stewards of all of God’s gifts, including those of the natural order, environment, and resources. The first specific instance of the cultural mandate from Gen. 1:28, “to fill the earth and subdue it” and to exercise dominion, is given to Adam, when God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

But my concern here has to do more with the prudential wisdom of synod adopting specific statements like this as official policy of the denomination regarding climate change. In my lecture this week at Acton University, I dealt with outlining the role of the church as both institution and organism in God’s economy, his management of the entire world and all that is in it. I focused on the defining characteristic of the institutional church’s responsibility to be that of “proclamation” of the gospel, consisting of the closely interrelated activities of preaching, administration of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline. This distinction is also present in my critique of the ecumenical movement’s particularly economic (rather than environmental) activism in Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

So I was disappointed to read yesterday that my denomination had decided to speak so specifically to a social issue like climate change that really is so contentious and divisive. It seems to me that the discussion has not really advanced all that much in the last 5 years or more, and that the true situation is perhaps even less clear now than it was even a decade ago.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
What really stuck out to me in reading some of the reports about the decision was the sentiment expressed by Rev. Steven Zwart, a delegate from Classis Lake Superior. Here’s what he said:

“I’m a skeptic on much of this. But how will doing this hurt? What if we find out in 30 years that numbers (on climate change) don’t pan out? We will have lost nothing, and we’ll have a cleaner place to live. But if they are right, we could lose everything.”

I think among those at synod who were (or are) inclined toward skepticism “on much of this,” Zwart’s sentiment was likely broadly shared. What, indeed, do we have to lose?

This sentiment is, in fact, almost precisely the argument in favor of action on global climate change made by Andy Crouch in a 2005 commentary for Christianity Today, “Environmental Wager: Why Evangelicals Shouldn’t be Cool Towards Global Warming.” Andy concluded:

Believe in God though he does not exist, Pascal argued, and you lose nothing in the end. Fail to believe when he does in fact exist, and you lose everything. Likewise, we have little to lose, and much technological progress, energy security, and economic efficiency to gain, if we act on climate change now—even if the worst predictions fail to come to pass. But if we choose inaction and are mistaken, we will leave our descendants a blighted world.

At the time I responded in a piece, “Pascal’s Blunder,” as I would now to the question, “How will doing this hurt?” One critical component of the answer has to do with the basic economic concept of opportunity cost…what other good might we do with the resources directed towards advocacy on climate change? That’s your answer. That’s what we have to lose: all the other good that we might or ought to be doing.

At the time Andy was generous enough to engage in a more extended conversation on these issues, and I’ll pass along the links for those who want to do more reading about the question, “But how will doing this hurt?” As I’ve said, I don’t think the analysis or discussion has advanced much in the last seven years, at least not in the CRC.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    Crouch: “All science is ultimately a matter of trust.”


    Then it’s not science. When putting one’s trust in scientists, keep in mind the debacle of eugenics. It was the darling of all scientists before WWII and gave us Hitler.

    Crouch can’t understand that reducing CO2 will cost us something because he doesn’t understand opportunity cost and scarcity. Like Jim Wallis, he probably doesn’t believe in the “gospel of scarcity”.  Scarcity forces us to make trade-offs. It doesn’t matter that economic illiterates write papers claiming CO2 reduction won’t cost us anything. No respectable economist would say that.

    Crouch and others want us to bow down and submit without question to “scientific” consensus. But is he willing to submit further to a group of economists who tell us the best way to respond to climate change? Bjorn Lomborg did just that about a decade ago in the Copenhagen Consensus and the economists suggested doing nothing. The cost/benefit analysis is all cost and little benefit. Instead, they suggested concentrating our limited resources on curing certain diseases. So let’s see Crouch genuflect before those scientists.

    If nothing else, reducing CO2 emissions will make all energy vastly more expensive. People will have to cut back on purchases of everything in order to pay for the more expensive fuel. Poverty will increase dramatically, and as a result many people will die.

  • Roger McKinney

    I can understand the Christian Reformed Church accepting the consensus among scientists on climate change since they don’t hold expertise in that area. But they then jumped to an economic decision about how to respond to climate change with even less economic expertise. If they’re going to submit to one group of scientists they should be humble enough to submit to the next. 

    • Perhaps, Roger, but if the diversity among economists is anything like it is among environmental scientists, then there’s not much consensus to be had (or were you just thinking of the “better” economists?). 

      I was thinking of this the other day and how relevant Robert Nelson’s outline of “environmental” and “economic” religion is. In this case, we have the CRC avoiding the “Calvinistic” (on Nelson’s terms) economistic line of thinking!

      • Roger McKinney

         Actually, I think that if the economists were randomly selected from the AEA you would find a consensus similar to that of Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus. AEA economists are mostly neo-classical and can do a fair job of analyzing cost/benefits.

        You would get something different if you used Keynesians like Krugman, but such biases economists are pretty rare.

        Environmental econ falls mainly in the area of micro econ and simple cost/benefit analysis. There aren’t many schools of thought in micro. The divergence happens mainly in macro.

      • Roger McKinney

         PS, do you have a link to Nelson’s outline of “environmental” and “economic” religion? I’d like to read it.

  • Joel Bethyada

    You are right that scientific consensus can be wrong. But those of us
    who are not experts in a particular field ultimately have to rely on
    _something_ to guide our advocacy and policy-making.

    How about not advocating when you don’t understand something adequately.

  • Kevin

    The apostle Paul would not have agreed with Pascal.  He said in I Cor. 15:19 that if Christ was not raised from the dead then we are to be most pitied of all people since we would be believing and living a lie.  I think this applies to the global warming ideology as well.  If we accept and believe something that is not true then we become fools.

    • Kevin, particularly in this case, it seems that Pascal’s calculus only works if the wager is over something of ultimate value. As important this world is, I don’t think it reaches that level of importance in the Scripture (but maybe that’s just an ugly dualistic holdover from Greek philosophy). What is of ultimate value in Scripture, it seems to me, is not this world but the world to come.

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  • I suspect that a “near-consensus” of scientists (and Sadducees) also would say that resurrection is impossible.

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