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Richard Carrier Heaven

The End of Pascal’s Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven (2002)

Richard Carrier


The End of Pascal’s Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven

The following argument could be taken as tongue-in-cheek, if it didn’t seem so evidently true. At any rate, to escape the logic of it requires theists to commit to abandoning several of their cherished assumptions about God or Heaven. And no matter what, it presents a successful rebuttal to any form of Pascal’s Wager, by demonstrating that unbelief might still be the safest bet after all (since we do not know whose assumptions are correct, and we therefore cannot exclude the assumptions on which this argument is based).

Argument 1: Who Goes to Heaven?

It is a common belief that only the morally good should populate heaven, and this is a reasonable belief, widely defended by theists of many varieties. Suppose there is a god who is watching us and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to discover the truth. For all others are untrustworthy, being cognitively or morally inferior, or both. They will also be less likely ever to discover and commit to true beliefs about right and wrong. That is, if they have a significant and trustworthy concern for doing right and avoiding wrong, it follows necessarily that they must have a significant and trustworthy concern for knowing right and wrong. Since this knowledge requires knowledge about many fundamental facts of the universe (such as whether there is a god), it follows necessarily that such people must have a significant and trustworthy concern for always seeking out, testing, and confirming that their beliefs about such things are probably correct. Therefore, only such people can be sufficiently moral and trustworthy to deserve a place in heaven–unless god wishes to fill heaven with the morally lazy, irresponsible, or untrustworthy.

But only two groups fit this description: intellectually committed but critical theists, and intellectually committed but critical nontheists (which means both atheists and agnostics, though more specifically secular humanists, in the most basic sense). Both groups have a significant and trustworthy concern for always seeking out, testing, and confirming that their beliefs about god (for example) are probably correct, so that their beliefs about right and wrong will probably be correct. No other groups can claim this. If anyone is sincerely interested in doing right and avoiding wrong, they must be sincerely interested in whether certain claims are true, including “God exists,” and must treat this matter with as much responsibility and concern as any other moral question. And the only two kinds of people who do this are those theists and nontheists who devote their lives to examining the facts and determining whether they are right.

Argument 2: Why This World?

It is a common belief that certain mysteries, like unexplained evils in the world and god’s silence, are to be explained as a test, and this is a reasonable belief, widely defended by theists of many varieties. After all, if no test were needed, then God could and would, out of his compassion and perfect efficiency, simply select candidates at birth and dispense with any actual life in this world, since God would immediately know their merits.

Free will cannot negate this conclusion, since if God cannot know us because we might freely reverse ourselves, then God cannot fill heaven with trustworthy people: for anyone in heaven may through an unexpected act of free will become or do evil. And given an eternity, it is probable that most of the population of heaven will do something evil. After all, if free will prevents him, then God cannot predict who will or won’t do evil and thus he can never select those who will be forever good from those who will not, except by some inductive test.

Since those who will be forever good must naturally be rare in comparison to the set of all those people appearing to be good up to their deaths, it follows that, lacking a reliable inductive test, most of the population of heaven will not be genuinely good. It follows that a god who wanted better results would probably distinguish the genuinely good, and thus deserving, from the untrustworthy and undeserving, by subjecting all candidates to a reliable test, and it would be reasonable to conclude that this world only exists for such a purpose.

Argument 3: No God or Evil God

If presented with strong evidence that a god must either be evil or not exist, a genuinely good person will not believe in such a god, or if believing, will not give assent to such a god (as by worship or other assertions of approval, since the good do not approve of evil). Most theists do not deny this, but instead deny that the evidence is strong. But it seems irrefutable that there is strong evidence that a god must either be evil or not exist.

For example, in the bible Abraham discards humanity and morality upon God’s command to kill his son Isaac, and God rewards him for placing loyalty above morality. That is probably evil–a good god would expect Abraham to forego fear and loyalty and place compassion first and refuse to commit an evil act, and would reward him for that, not for compliance. Likewise, God deliberately inflicts unconscionable wrongs upon Job and his family merely to win a debate with Satan. That is probably evil–no good god would do such harm for so petty a reason, much less prefer human suffering to the cajoling of a mere angel. And then God justifies these wrongs to Job by claiming to be able to do whatever he wants, in effect saying that he is beyond morality. That is probably evil–a good god would never claim to be beyond good and evil. And so it goes for all the genocidal slaughter and barbaric laws commanded by God in the bible. Then there are all the natural evils in the world (like diseases and earthquakes) and all the unchecked human evils (i.e. god makes no attempt to catch criminals or stop heinous crimes, etc.). Only an evil god would probably allow such things.

Argument 4: The Test

Of the two groups comprising the only viable candidates for heaven, only nontheists recognize or admit that this evidence strongly implies that God must be evil or not exist. Therefore, only nontheists answer the test as predicted for morally good persons. That is, a morally good person will be intellectually and critically responsible about having true beliefs, and will place this commitment to moral good above all other concerns, especially those that can corrupt or compromise moral goodness, like faith or loyalty. So those who are genuinely worthy of heaven will very probably become nontheists, since their inquiry will be responsible and therefore complete, and will place moral concerns above all others. They will then encounter the undeniable facts of all these unexplained evils (in the bible and in the world) and conclude that God must probably be evil or nonexistent.

In other words, to accept such evils without being given a justification (as is entailed by god’s silence) indicates an insufficient concern for having true beliefs. But to have the courage to maintain unbelief in the face of threats of hell or destruction, as well as numerous forms of social pressure and other hostile factors, is exactly the behavior a god would expect from the genuinely good, rather than capitulation to the will of an evil being, or naive and unjustified trust that an apparently evil being is really good–those are not behaviors of the genuinely good.

Therefore only intellectually committed but critical nontheists are genuinely good and will go to heaven. Therefore, if a god exists, his silence and allowance of evil (in the world and the bible) are explained and justified by his plan to discover the only sorts of people who deserve to populate heaven: sincere nontheists. And this makes perfect sense of many mysteries, thus explaining what theists struggle to explain themselves.

  • God’s hiddenness is necessary on this account, since his presence would inspire people to behave as if good out of fear or selfish interests, not out of courage or compassion or a sense of personal integrity.
  • A false, evil image of God in the bible is necessary in order to test whether the reader will place morality or faith first, so this tests moral courage in the face of assertions, threats and promises of reward. It also tests cognitive trustworthiness, since it is wrong to trust what someone merely wrote, over scientifically established truths and the direct evidence of reason and the senses.
  • Natural evils and unchecked human evils are also necessary on this account, since only in such a way can a god “demonstrate” that no moral power is behind the universe, that there is no custodian, and by that means lead a rational, compassionate observer to conclude there is no god. If the universe were well-ordered, with inherent moral enforcement and the containment or restriction of evils, observers would conclude there is a god and thus, again, might act as if good out of fear or hope of reward.

The only way to truly test human beings is to see if we will become nontheists after serious and sincere inquiry into these matters: to see if we have the courage and fortitude to choose morality over faith or loyalty, and be good without fear or hope of divine reward. No other test will ensure a result of the genuinely good being self-selected into a predictable belief-state that can be observed in secret by god.


Since this easily and comprehensively explains all the unexplainable problems of god (like divine hiddenness and apparent evil), while other theologies do not (or at least nowhere so well), it follows that this analysis is probably a better explanation of all the available evidence than any contrary theology. Since this conclusion contradicts the conclusion of every form of Pascal’s Wager, it follows that Pascal’s Wager cannot assure anyone of God’s existence or that belief in God will be the best bet.

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