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No. 6: Arts & Play, Part 2

Open Book: Views & Reviews, No. 6
November, 1991
Copyright (c) 1991 Biblical Horizons


The Bible nowhere condemns gambling, and so we need to be careful in our assessment of it. Let me begin by making a strong case against gambling. Then I will surprise most readers by pointing out that gambling may not always be sinful. The reader should bear in mind that in this section we are not discussing the wisdom of state-run lotteries and we are not discussing the sin-filled environment of casinos. We are only taking up the subject of betting and gambling in ordinary life.

After the lust for glory and the lust for blood, the third things that wrecks the fun for non-Christians is gambling. Christian pastors and theologians have often (but not always) condemned it throughout all ages. The reason is simple: If a man really believes that God will judge all things, he will lose interest in gambling. Money is one of the most important things in life, because it is the means God has appointed for providing the necessities of life. Moreover, man is called to exercise responsible dominion over all the world, and so God will call each man to account for what he has done with his money and goods. God condemns the man who buries his money, and blesses the man who uses his money properly (Matthew 25:14-30).

The Christian is careful with the money entrusted to his stewardship. Spending some money on fun and recreation is a good and necessary thing, as we have seen. Gambling, however, takes what is a serious thing and attempts to treat it as if it were nothing. Gambling is profligate waste. The man who gambles is affirming that he is not a steward, and that he will have to give no accounting for what he has done with his money. The fun of gambling is located precisely at the point where there is pleasure in wasting things. Buying an ice cream sundae may be a relative waste of money, but ice cream is enjoyable in itself. Gambling, however, is an absolute waste of money; the pleasure lies in the waste itself.

Gambling with cards or with gambling machines is addictive because men love death. Almost universally, men play to lose; as long as they are making money, they keep playing. Few people take their money and leave. This is why casinos become so wealthy.

Here we are talking more about the informal betting that goes on in everyday life. People bet on games. When they do this, they show that the games are a serious matter to them, for they are willing to stake money on the outcome. They cannot simply relax and enjoy the game for fun. They have to make it serious, to put themselves at risk in the outcome.

The unconverted man reverses the right order of things. He takes games, which should be for fun, and treats them with utmost seriousness. He takes the possessions entrusted to his stewardship, which should be a serious matter, and gambles with them. The gambler wants to believe that there is no God, or if there is a God, He is not a judge. The unconverted man wants to suppress his inner awareness of coming judgment, and gambling helps him to do this. When he gambles, he says, "I am not going to have to give an account for what I do with this money."

In other words, lying behind the gambler’s profligate waste of money is a serious religious motive. Deliberate wasting of his possessions is a religious act for him. It is his way of affirming to himself that there is no judgment, that he is god, and that he can do as he pleases with his own property. If a man trades money for something else, he is expressing his need for that thing. But when a man wastes money for the sheer pleasure of wasting it, he is affirming that he needs nothing.

The more the Christian takes to heart the reality that God will call every matter into judgment, the less he will be motivated to treat the serious things of life lightly, and the less he will be motivated to gamble with his money, his possessions, or his life.

Now, having made a strong case against gambling, let me point out that some of the most profound and sober Christian theologians and ethicists, who affirm the inerrancy and absolute authority of the Bible, have held that gambling may not always be wrong. Let me critique what I have written above.

First, is it really true that the sole pleasure in gambling is in waste? Gambling games, like slot machines and bingo, are sometimes fascinating and fun in themselves, and part of the fun is in seeing whether or not you might get some money.

Second, the arguments I gave above almost seem idolatrous when it comes to money. If we can play games with other things in life, why can’t we play games with money? Money, after all, is simply an economic good like any other economic good. If we can have a playful attitude toward other economic goods, and occasionally be frivolous with them, why not with money itself?

Third, if it is all right to take a few of dollars and "waste" it on a candy bar, a soft drink, and a novel, is it necessarily wrong to take that same money and "waste" it on a slot machine, a lottery ticket, or a bingo game?

Fourth and finally, since the Bible does not forbid gambling, are we on safe grounds to take an absolute posture against it? Do we dare "add to the Word of God?"

These questions point up the fact that the issue in gambling is not God’s law but our motivation and situation. God’s law does not speak directly to the issue, and so we must go to motivation to address the issue. What is our motive in gambling? Are we, like unbelievers, motivated by a destructive desire? Or are we simply having a bit of fun? Is it wrong to destroy money by laminating a dollar bill or putting a coin on a railroad track?

Hardcore Bible-believing Calvinistic ethicists have suggested the following considerations: First, if a person has very little money, it is sinful for him to harm his family by wasting it on candy bars, wine, gambling, or even going to a play or concert. Second, if a person finds candy bars, wine, or gambling addictive, he should not spend money on them. But third, if a person is well off, and has some extra money to play with, it is not necessarily wrong for him to buy a lottery ticket or drop a few coins in a slot machine, any more than it is wrong for him to buy a candy bar or indulge in an occasional martini.

I’m sure the last word has not been written on this subject, but I have presented both sides so that the reader can advance in his or her thoughts about the issue. (For further reflection: Would it be wrong for a Christian organization to put up a slot machine or run bingo games to raise money? How would this differ from having a bazaar?)


The Christian takes God seriously, so he does not take himself as seriously. This is why Christians can laugh even at the hard things of life, while the non-Christian takes even his play seriously. I don’t mean that there is no place for weeping, for there clearly is. Nor do I mean that the Christian is never serious, for he clearly is. Just as the judgment of God forms a context for taking things seriously, however, the overall sovereignty of God forms a context for not taking things too seriously. God’s plan does not depend on us. We are privileged to have a part, but if our plans fail, we can laugh and pick up the pieces, and move on. We are secure in His plan, and it can never fail.

Thus, Christians historically have been a relaxed and humorous people. Among non-Christian cultures, humor almost invariably is of the scathing, sarcastic variety. Humor is a weapon for them. Here again, the fun of life is turned into a serious matter. In Christian societies, jokes and laughter develop, because men learn to relax in God’s world.

There are a lot of funny things in the world. Our forefathers had a very down-to-earth sense of humor, as anyone who has ever read Luther’s Table Talk or some of the lighter Puritan literature knows. During the nineteenth century, the Unitarian movement captured the culture and style of life in England and America. The Unitarians were the dour, humorless people who have often been confused with their fun-loving Puritan grandfathers. The Unitarians thought that the earthy humor of their ancestors was "improper." They did not think that life was full of fun and humor; everything had to be taken seriously. It is most unfortunate that this kind of thinking also influenced the Christian churches, so that today we sometimes find Christians who cannot laugh when something genuinely funny happens.

Good antidotes for Unitarian-Victorian prudery are the semi-autobiographical sketches composed by an English veterinarian who writes under the pseudonym James Herriot, the first of which is titled All Creatures Great and Small; available in any bookstore or library. Down-to-earth humor is also seen in the mythical film biography of Mozart, Amadeus. Back in the days when horses roamed the streets, before the days of flush toilets, when chamber pots were found in rooms, it was natural for people to laugh at some of the more earthy aspects of life. Our antiseptic society makes the occasions for such humor rarer, and thus shocking to some people. But observe God’s humor in Judges 4:22-25, an incident that surely caused the Israelites to laugh heartily.

The pagan wants to laugh, too. His problem is that he takes life too seriously. Laughter is not part of his life. Abraham’s son was named Isaac, which means "he laughs." All the true sons of Abraham are laughter-filled people. Those who are not of the faith, however, must go to extremes to find humor. Thus, the humor in a pagan society tends to become more and more extreme, either becoming cruel and sarcastic, or else becoming preoccupied with sexual or bathroom subjects for their own sakes. Stories are told with a leer rather than with a twinkle in the eye. Alcohol must be abused in order to lubricate the laugh. Eventually humor drops out of a pagan society altogether, and all that remains is sadism.

There is also another tremendous value to humor, which is that it tends to insulate us from sin. God laughs at the sinful rebellion of men (Psalm 2), and laughter is one of the great defenses against evil. (This point is illustrated by Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.) Let us say that a Christian youth is confronted with a sexually alluring photograph. Too often, Christians are taught that the pious response is to "fight the temptation." Fighting temptation, however, often involves concentrating on the temptation, and as a result we are not delivered from it. A better response is to learn to laugh at it. The fact is that the sexually alluring material spread about in our society is ridiculous, and if we learn to ridicule it, we are not likely to be seduced by it.

(to be continued)

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