The Problem(s) of Gambling
Even though there has been a steady rise of in-person and online gambling over the last several years, few voices seem to be speaking out against this societal ill, a true threat to human flourishing. While some of the focus inevitably needs to deal with the role of government in either banning or promoting gambling, Christians should at least be offering a biblical perspective on whether or not gambling is sinful.
A few years back, John Aloisi offered three reasons on this blog as to why the lottery is a bad bet:
1. The lottery promotes greed while simultaneously discouraging a good work ethic.
2. The lottery promotes poor stewardship of personal finances.
3. The lottery promotes a predatory relationship between the state and its citizens.
Lotteries are a means for state governments to trick citizens into giving them money in exchange for nothing by preying on human greed. It is a way for states to raise revenues without the unpopular process of raising tax rates. But if playing the lottery is poor stewardship of one’s resources, then government promotion of the lottery is de facto promotion of poor financial stewardship among its citizens. It is bad enough that governments typically provide large-scale examples of poor stewardship, but encouraging individual citizens to squander their resources seems to put government in the position of seeking the ill-being of those whom it should serve and protect. Christians should have no part in encouraging the government in such an endeavor.
Recently, DBTS alum Michael Riley offered an additional concern with gambling that distinguishes it from things like investments in the stock market: in gambling, the gains of one person only come from the loss of another rather than through expanding the pool of money for everyone.
“And this is the key: I want to win the bet. I want to take money out of your pocket without any justification. And this, it seems to me, is difficult to square with the Second Greatest Commandment, to love my neighbor as myself.
It seems to me that it is this that separates gambling from legitimate economic activity. It isn’t merely the motivation to make a profit, which is not intrinsically immoral. Nor is it the amount of risk. Indeed, if I could eliminate all risk (say, with a rigged deck of cards), the offense of gambling becomes worse rather than greater, because I have guaranteed that I will take money from anyone I play. Risk cannot be the issue.
Rather, the problem with gambling from the perspective of Christian ethics is that the entire mechanic is built on my hope of my gaining at the expense of my neighbor while offering him nothing. I cannot hope to win without hoping that he will lose—and that his money will become mine. And that, I contend, suggests and gambling and loving my neighbor are mutually exclusive activities.”
That point, that the wins of gambling come at the expense of others, was central to Phil Johnson’s extended discussion of the sin of gambling several years ago:
“To gamble is to play a game of chance for stakes. And a stake is a prize that is obtained at another gambler’s expense. Remember: in gambling, whatever one person wins is lost by another.
Furthermore, in gambling, the risk is artificial. It is risk that is created by a game of chance. And the sole purpose for assuming this risk is to try to gain something at someone else’s expense.
Now, notice this: all gambling involves four elements: One, something valuable is put at risk. Two, something belonging to someone else is at stake as a prize. Three, an element of chance is involved in determining the outcome. And four, no new wealth is created in the process.
And those four characteristics of gambling are the very reasons gambling is wrong. Each of the essential characteristics of gambling, when combined with the other three, violates one or more biblical principles.”
Johnson also offers a helpful rebuttal to the idea that gambling could be merely a form of entertainment:
“I know people—and in all likelihood you do, too—who claim that they gamble only for entertainment or recreation; not out of greed or covetousness.
But if it’s mere entertainment they seek, why not play a game without staking any money on the outcome? Every gambler to whom I have ever posed that question has given me the same answer: “To play a game with nothing at stake is not as much fun.” The stake makes the game more “fun” or more “interesting.”
As a matter of fact, one commenter made that very point: “Poker simply doesn’t work without some money at stake . . . the money at stake adds to the enjoyment of the game.” He said he plays for small amounts—so that “the financial losses are not enough to be any more than entertainment money, and the prize not enough to create greed.”
Analyze that for a moment. Why would the element of gambling make a game more “fun?” There is only one reason: because the “fun” is derived not from the game itself but from the possibility of winning something that belongs to your neighbor. In other words, what makes gambling “fun” is pure covetousness.”
Thanks for the collation, Ben. Helpful summaries and very plain.