Gambling seems obviously wrong to many Christians, and yet one searches in vain for a direct forbidding of it in the Bible. Are we justified in opposing the practice? Michael Hill takes up the issue.
The word ‘gambling’ can be used in many ways. It is not uncommon, for example, to use the word for any activity that incorporates some element of risk. We talk about crossing the road or investing in shares as being a gamble. While these uses of the word may be legitimate, they do introduce a level of ambiguity. More precisely, gambling is the determination of ownership of property, goods and services by appeal to chance. Consequently, gambling is a way of redistributing wealth. This definition includes such things as poker machines, various games played in casinos, betting on horse racing, soccer pools, lotteries, lotto, scratch tickets, Keno, bingo, and raffles. In this literal sense gambling embraces various systems or methods of redistributing wealth—redistribution entails winners and losers.
It is the determination of ownership of property or wealth by pure chance that distinguishes gambling proper from every other activity that has an element of risk. As a method of redistribution, gambling is indiscriminate. No system of gambling directs the wealth or redistributes it to the needy or the deserving. Indeed, because it is based on chance, it cannot direct the redistribution. In this sense gambling is different to insurance. While insurance involves an element of risk, the process directs funds to those who have suffered some loss and are in need. Similarly there is some risk involved in playing the stock market, but the outcome and redistribution is not determined predominantly by chance. Knowledge plays a significant role in the outcome. Of course, when the ignorant play the stock market, it does become a gamble, but the system was not set up as a system of chance.
In Australia last year, the gambling industry had a turnover of more than $100 billion, with losses to gamblers of more than $14 billion. Countless books rehearse the social disruption and harm caused by this practice. There is no doubt that Australians, as a whole, pay a high price for the habit, but this is not the point of interest for this article. Rather the purpose of this article is to examine the ethics of gambling from a biblical perspective.
The Bible has no direct word on gambling.There is no commandment forbidding it in the Scriptures. Moreoverthere are passages that on the surface appear to give some supportfor the practice of gambling. These passages refer to the castingof lots and the use of Urim and Thummim. Among other things, thecasting of lots was used to choose the goat to be sacrificed onthe Day of Atonement and the allocation of temple duties for thepriests. A set of objects was thrown and the outcome determinedthe decision made—something like casting dice. The principlebehind the practice is revealed in Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord”. The purpose of the practice was to discern the will of God on an issue. There was no redistribution of wealth and there were no winners and losers. Similarly, the use of Urim and Thummim, two flat coin-like discs with markings on each side, were used to discern the will of God in accordance with the principle enunciated in Proverbs 16. They were not used in relation to the redistributionof wealth according to chance, and therefore essential featuresof gambling are missing.
Despite the lack of a direct word on the matter, I want to argue that gambling just does not fit into the picture of acceptable behaviour presented in the Bible. Let me illustrate the nature of my argument. Imagine someone painting a picture of a test match being played at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The cricket pitch occupies the centre of the painting and the people in the stands furnish the background. The fielding team is in place and the opening batsman is about to face the first ball. Having painted all this, the artist then decides that he is going to put a picture of a whale lying across the pitch. This is how gambling fits into the Bible’s picture of reality. It does not fit into the class of acceptable behaviour as presented in the Scriptures, either in its motivations, or as the act itself is considered.
Two basic principles
My fundamental argument is that gambling is excluded from being morally acceptable by the two principles of love and stewardship.
No one doubts that Jesus commanded us to love our neighbours. It was one of the great commandments (Matt 22:39, Mk 12:31). Love in the Bible is plainly a commitment to do good to others. For example, the Apostle Paul makes the logic of love clear in the letter to the Galatians. The fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:22). Love should bear the burdens of others (6:2). Evidently this is the same as doing good to all people (6:10). Now the good of people is secured when their needs and interests are met. Everyone longs for his or her needs and interests to be fulfilled. This is the reason why Jesus can exhort his disciples to “… whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them …” (Matt 7:12). In doing so, Jesus tells them, they would fulfil the Law and the Prophets. We must remind ourselves that in the face of scarcity, love is sacrificial (John 15:13). It counts the other greater than oneself.
The concept of stewardship is threaded throughout the text of Scripture.The Bible does not have a strong concept of ownership. Accordingto the Scriptures people really do not own anything: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1). Everything comes from God as a gift and is to be administered faithfully on his behalf. Fidelity in this case means using God’s gifts to fulfil his purposes. As we have seen above, his will is that we love one another. And love does what is good for others even if it necessitates some sacrifice.
Analysing the morality of gambling
Let us now analyse the act of gambling in terms of these two principles. As we have observed above, gambling is the determination of ownership of property, goods and services by appeal to chance. All forms of gambling incorporate a system of redistributing wealth that embodies winners and losers. Money or wealth is willingly taken from one or many and given to another or to a few. There is always at least one loser, and in the case of lotteries or lotto there are many losers. Several questions come to mind at this point. Why would a person want to participate in a system that indiscriminately takes from some and gives to others? Does such a system do good to all those who participate in it? Is it a system that is morally acceptable from a biblical perspective?
The system of indiscriminate redistribution of wealth seems to be at odds with both biblical principles outlined above. The principle of love seems to be at odds with the idea of taking from some, the losers, be they few or many, wealth for which they worked, without any substantial return. The loss appears to devalue the work of the loser. One might argue that the money paid out by the loser bought him or her an opportunity for greater wealth. But this opportunity for greater wealth only comes at a cost to others and with no substantial return for them. Many others give their money and have no return in order for me to win. Love, being the commitment to the good of others, casts doubt on the legitimacy of the enterprise.
It might be argued that losers are paying for a moment of excitement and entertainment, and that excitement and entertainment are legitimate needs in life. But what are the participants excited about and where is the entertainment found? Is it not in the possibility of gaining wealth at a cost to others? And is this possibility of gain not dependent upon a loss for others with no real return? The other-person-centredness of love would seem to baulk at this practice. The impetus of this argument is greatly increased by studies that show a large percentage of gamblers are poor—the winners are taking money that many of the losers cannot afford.
What would or could motivate a person to participate in a system that indiscriminately redistributes wealth? What would or could motivate a person to participate in a system of redistributing wealth that always has winners and losers? With the exception of charitable raffles, which we will discuss later, the only real motive could be the desire to be a winner—to gain wealth for self at the expense of others. It cannot be argued that gambling is an effective form of distribution to the poor. The motive could not really be the good of those in need. Mostly, gambling seems to be motivated by covetousness, and covetousness is condemned by the Bible as a vice.
From a stewardship perspective, gambling as a method of redistributing wealth has a number of problems. Buying an opportunity for greater wealth through gambling does not seem to be good stewardship. The chance of winning varies across the different forms, but it is always low. The best one can hope for is a 50% chance in a game of cards with only two players. In most popular forms of gambling, such as lotteries and lotto, the chances of winning are extremely small. If it is thought that gambling may be a way of giving to others in need, then it is not effective, since gambling distributes the wealth indiscriminately. It is far from certain that the poor and needy will receive the contributions of others and it would be poor stewardship to give to those who already have much. Good stewardship requires that we use our wealth in accordance with God’s will and purposes. Because of its very indiscriminate nature, it does not seem that good stewardship will provide a motive for gambling.
The argument based on the notion of work
Many Christian books on gambling include an argument against gambling based on the biblical notion of work. It is argued that work is a moral duty for those who are able to perform it, and it is maintained that wealth and prosperity are fundamentally created by work, hence the commandment “six days you shall labour” (Ex 20:9; 34:21). Slothfulness or laziness is condemned (Prov 19:15; Eccl 10:18). This Old Testament perspective on work is continued in the New. Paul, for example, gave the Thessalonians this rule: if a man will not work he shall not eat (2 Thess 3:10). The idle are to be warned to settle down and earn the bread they eat (1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:11-12; cf Eph 4:28). Since work sustains the capacity to help those in need, it becomes a duty for those who love their neighbour. Love is sacrificial and is willing to bear the cost of helping others. The cost will be paid in terms of wealth that is usually secured by work.
Despite all this, as a reason to condemn gambling, the argument is too strong for its own good. It would prevent the giving of gifts and the receiving of inheritances—both of these practices are given legitimacy by the Scriptures and endorsed by common sense. The nature of the wealth distribution achieved by gambling certainly could encourage an attitude of laziness and an unwillingness to work. However, it is more likely to appeal to those who are already lazy, rather than make them lazy, and the fact that gambling appeals to the lazy is not enough to declare it immoral. Many good things might appeal to those who wish to avoid work, like the disability pension. The most that I think we can say is that those who are lazy may use gambling to avoid work; work, however, cannot be the place at which an argument against gambling is secured.
We ought to note at this point that, as a system of redistribution of wealth, gambling is parasitical. It cannot exist by itself. It feeds off and grows on an economic system based on work. The Bible is right to encourage people to be engaged in productive effort. Gambling has the capacity to rob this work of value for many of those who participate in the practice.
Taking a consequentialist approach, certain people would want to argue that some forms of gambling are not harmful and are therefore not morally wrong, such as local school or church raffles. The tickets are cheap and people buy them in order to help a section of the community do good works. People’s motivation is other-person-centred and therefore honourable. The economic consequences for the individual are minimal and there is a good outcome for the church or school.
Despite the fact that this argument is widely accepted, I do not think it is valid. This is because the argument takes the form of ‘the end justifying the means’. That is, it argues that a good outcome makes an action or practice morally acceptable. But this principle is clearly not convincing. We can see that the principle is false if we take an extreme case rather than look at a trivial case like local raffles. If the government of Australia murdered Australia’s richest citizen and distributed his billions to the poor or to any other good cause, this would not make his murder morally acceptable.
The outcome does not justify this particular murder or the practice of murder in general. Murder is intrinsically wrong. Even a very good outcome does not justify the act of murder. The principle that the end justifies the means is false. If this is so, and gambling is morally wrong for the reasons outlined above, then the outcome of local raffles, even though it is good, does not justify the practice. We ought to avoid practices that are intrinsically wrong even if they have a good outcome (see Rom 6:1). This is especially so in cases where the practice leaves the motivation of the participants unclear. It will not be clear to others whether we are buying raffle tickets to help a good cause or because we might win something.
If non-Christians see Christians gambling, even in small ways, they may think the practice is condoned in general. Some years ago this point was rammed home to a delegation from the Christian church in Victoria who approached the then Premier and objected to the building of a new casino. It is reported that the Premier pointed out that the churches were full of raffles and bingo.
He accused them of hypocrisy. Other ways to raise money for good causes ought to be found—ways such as auctions or donations.
The very nature of gambling—the practice of determining the ownership of property, goods and services by appeal to chance—violates the principles of love and stewardship. As these two principles are central to the Christian way of life, gambling cannot be judged to be morally acceptable. The motivation for gambling cannot be to help others, as it harms the interests of the majority of people involved. Since the redistribution of wealth is indiscriminate, and it cannot guarantee a return, it cannot be considered an act of good stewardship. The fact that the practice also facilitates the lazy to avoid making a positive contribution to society through work also counts against its acceptance. While some acts of gambling may be motivated by concern for others, the system of gambling itself is spawned by covetousness. Since this is so, it is good not to be associated with it.
(Tracy Gordon and Andrew Cameron of the Social Issues Executive, Anglican Diocese of Sydney, have written another good article on gambling. It includes suggestions for further reading on the subject of gambling.)