Spencer D. Gear
We live in an age in which Australian State governments promote poker machines, the TAB, Lotto & Scratchies as a means of “entertainment”. Thoughtful Christians may ask: “Does God support gambling? Is it OK to gamble and believe in the authority of Scripture?”
The pastor of a church I once attended said to two of his parishioners who spent quite a bit of time and money on the pokies, “That’s fine as long as you don’t let the poker machines control you.”
I was doing some blogging when a sceptical person asked, “What does the Bible say about gambling, if anything?” Others have left the gambling issue open for Christians because of the “casting of lots” examples in the Bible.
Australia’s love affair with gambling
Australia has a love affair with gambling. Almost 21% percent of the world’s pokies are in Australia. For most people, gambling is a pleasurable activity. Sadly for some, it has become an addiction that they cannot tame.
Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has stated, “I hate poker machines and I know something of their impact on families.” Former premier of Queensland, Wayne Goss, whose party introduced poker machines to that state, has been doing some rethinking. He told the Brisbane Courier-Mail, “I wish I’d never brought in poker machines, I think they’re a scourge. . . The problem with poker machines in my view is that the people who mainly play them are the people who can least afford to do so. I wish I hadn’t done it.”
Gambling devours people’s savings and hopes at an astonishing rate. The BBC reported that “more than 80% of its [Australia’s] adult population gambles, the highest rate on the planet” and 40% of these play at least once a week. The majority of them seem to gamble with self control.
However it is estimated that about 2% of the population, about 330,000 Australians, have a severe or moderate problem gambling habit. Of that number, for “about 70 per cent, their major activity is poker machines.”
Associated with gambling addiction is an increased level of suicidal thoughts and actions. The Wesley Mission reported that
up to 60% of problem gamblers will experience some level of suicidal thought. This may be vague (often after major losses), or serious intent with a clear plan. It is also common for clients to have had one or more failed suicide attempts.
A survey in the USA in 1995 found that 20% of compulsive gamblers had attempted suicide and 63% had seriously considered suicide. These figures are 50 times higher than “within lifetime” estimates for the general population.
Australians spend more on gambling than they do on food. In the financial year 2006-2007, Australians spent almost $91.5 million on food. That’s about $4,350 each for the year according to Bureau of Statistics figures.
However, in the previous year, 2005-06, gaming industry figures showed that adults spent $148 million on gambling. That’s an average of $9,491 each spent on gambling, which includes figures from tourists. Of total expenditure, we spent 61% more on gambling than we did on food.
How does this Australian love affair with gambling fit in with a Christian view of gambling? Since 80% of adults gamble and 40% do it weekly, do you think that Christians will be exempt from considering gambling as a viable option for extra cash and for entertainment? This could be a special attraction in these tough economic times.
Casting lots and gambling
Does the Bible’s use of the “casting of lots” provide a precedent for Christians to practise responsible gambling?
What was involved in the practice of casting lots? We know that it was a way of determining the will of God in the Old Testament primarily. The exact method that was used is not clearly defined in the Old Testament.
Some scholars believe that the Urim and Thummim (Ex. 28:30; Deut. 33:8; Ezra 2:63) were the objects involved using
small round pebbles, which were placed in the ephod of the high priest. One signified “Yes,” and the other, “No.” When the priest reached blindly into the ephod and took out one stone, the question was answered either affirmatively or negatively by the stone which he found in his hand.
The problem with this explanation is that there are OT passages that indicate the casting of lots was used for other important decisions. These included
- for Aaron’s choosing the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:7-10, 21-22);
- division of the land of Pal after the conquest (Josh. 14:2; 18:6; 1 Chron. 6:5ff);
- service of the Temple including the music and doorkeepers (I Chron. 25:7-8; 26:13ff);
- supply of wood for the altar (Neh. 10:34ff);
- the guilt of suspected criminals (Josh. 7:14; 1 Sam. 14:42).
The principle underlying these actions is stated in Prob. 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”
Let’s briefly look at a sample of the use of lots in Scripture.
In Numbers 26:52-56, the Lord told Moses to divide the land for an inheritance, using the casting of lots. This was also the case with Eleazer and Joshua and the land on the west side of the Jordan River where the inheritance was distributed by lots (Joshua 14:2; 18:6; 19:51). The cities and pastures were given to the Levites by the casting of lots (Josh. 21:8).
In Psalm 22:18, the Messianic prediction was, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (ESV). This was fulfilled at the death of Christ and recorded in Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34 and John 19:24. Was this a chance happening and an example of gambling that could justify our use of poker machines and other sorts of gambling today?
To decide on a replacement apostle for Judas Iscariot, Acts 1:26 states, “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” Was this a biblical example that could be used to support gambling in the 21st century at the race track, in casinos, at poker machine venues, on Scratchies and the Lotto?
Other examples of the casting of lots are in passages such as I Sam. 10:20-21 and I Chron. 24:5; 26:13-14. Henlee Barnette noted,
The casting of lots was a means of ascertaining the will of God. It should be noted that after Judas’ successor was chosen by lot, this method was not employed again by the church. Decisions thereafter were made in relation to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
However, the modern concept of gambling by transferring something of worth (generally money) from one person to another based on chance is not supported by the Scriptures (see below). The 21st century concept of gambling at the TAB, casino, pokies or on Powerball is foreign to biblical thinking.
The Bible does not support games of chance
I cannot locate a Scripture which states, “Thou shalt not gamble,” but the concepts of chance, luck and fortune should not be in a biblical world and life view. Support for gambling as we understand it today is foreign to the Scriptures for these reasons:
1. The Christian view of godliness
According to Matthew 6:33, believers are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things [material things] will be added to you.” We are exhorted to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). How is it possible to use gambling for help with daily necessities and still rely on God to supply our needs?
2. The Christian view of work
Ephesians 4:28 says: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Could it be said that the modern concept of gambling, reaping many dollars for a small investment, is akin to stealing from others – legally? The Christian work ethic is one of labouring with one’s own hands or abilities to raise money or goods to maintain one’s individual life and family, and to share with those in need. Receiving $40 million as a gambling jackpot for spending only a few dollars sounds more like a “rip-off” of other people than an honest day’s work. But, of course, it is all done legally and governments receive their share of the “rip-off.”
3. The Christian view of stewardship
Hebrews 13:5 states that believers are to “keep your life free from love of money and be content with what you have, for he said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.'” This is in contrast to the ones seeking big bucks from all sorts of gambling, with the investment of an infinitesimal amount.
The gambler seems to be like the greedy person. What is the biblical view of greed? The greedy are “the unrighteous who will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). But there is good news for the greedy. They can be redeemed by being washed by the blood of Jesus, justified and sanctified. “Such were some of you,” said Paul of the greedy (I Cor. 6:11).
The common jargon these days is that gambling is supposed to be for fun – entertainment. Second Timothy 3:4-5 warns us that Christians are not to be “lovers of pleasure.” Instead they are to be “lovers of God.” Those who love pleasure are to be avoided (v. 5).
4. The Christian view of love for your neighbours and enemies
Jesus told us, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). How can we as Christians truly love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) while we contribute to taking money away from them? Approximately half of the revenue at poker machine venues in Australia comes from problem gamblers according to the Productivity Commission Report in 1999. How can we justify gambling when it is causing devastation to the individual and 5-10 other people associated with the problem gambler?
5. How the Christian views his/her influence on others
How can Christians be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14) while greedily wanting big bucks and ripping others off – legally, of course – through 21st century-style gambling? How can you “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) while at the same time taking money from him/her through gambling?
Biblical Christianity promotes the view of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), which is a life-style that, it seems to me, is impossible to reconcile with a 21st century approach to gambling that is promoted by governments.
6. Luck and fortune are not part of God’s kingdom
Isaiah 65:11-12 warns:
But you who forsake the Lord, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you to the sword . . . You did what was evil in my eyes and chose what I did not delight in.
Luck, chance and fortune are not in God’s worldview. Neither should they be in ours. These are essential to the gambling kingdom! Christians should set a godly example and not participate in any games of chance.
Pastors and churches that approve of gambling should be called back to biblical Christianity.
What about the “good” that gambling does?
Cricket: Bowler to batsman (courtesy Wikipedia)
- Cheaper meals at the clubs and pubs (subsidised by the massive income from pokies);
- The Community Benefit Fund, Queensland, which in my view is conscience money offering up to $30,000 one-off grants to not-for-profit organisations;
- Sports’ clubs & sporting fields linked to some clubs.
Perhaps some would say that the revenue gained by governments from gambling provides a “good” result in general revenue that provides for the government services.
But the harm far outweighs the benefits. I have counselled problem gamblers as a professional counsellor and not one of them has gambled with money that was responsible use of his/her resources. They have drained bank accounts, maxed out credit card limits, hocked household goods, stolen from anybody including employers, and helped to destroy families.
A response could be: “That’s only for a very small number of the Australian population, 2% of the adult population – 330,000 people. For most people, gambling is fun and entertainment and they do not abuse themselves or their families.”
Why should this “good” ethic of gambling be rejected? I do not support this utilitarian approach to ethics, the end justifies the means, for these reasons:
The Christian deontological ethic means:
- The rule determines the result;
- The rule is the basis of every ethical act;
- The rule is always good, no matter what the result;
- The result is always calculated within the boundaries of the rules.
By contrast, with the teleological ethic of utilitarianism:
- The result determines the rule;
- The result is the basis of every ethical act;
- The rule is always good because of the result;
- The result is sometimes used to break the rules.
Within genuinely Christian ethics, the results are all within the rules or norms (the absolutes of Scripture). Thus, no end result (the “good” that gambling does) can be used as a justification for breaking God’s law.
As I state in this article, God’s moral law contains rules of:
- God’s norm of godliness;
- God’s norm of work;
- God’s norm of stewardship;
- God’s norm of loving both your friends and enemies;
- God’s norm of Christians being the light of the world & the salt of the earth;
- God’s norm that luck and fortune are not part of kingdom values;
Australia has a love affair with gambling that is making millions of dollars for governments. The Queensland state government expected to earn about $578 million from gambling in the 2008-09 financial year.
Dr. Peel rightly states that
all forms of gambling involve gain to the few and loss to the many without the creation of any real product or benefit, save perhaps a questionable thrill. The promoters and managers have to appeal to the sinful motivation of covetousness in order to make it repay their own very often considerable investment. Gambling violates the principle of fair return for labor and investment, and the ethics of stewardship and work (Eph. 4:28; 2 Thess. 3:9-12). Gambling also can lead to neglect of family responsibilities, a grievous sin in the eyes of God (1 Tim. 5:8; 2 Cor. 12:14).
There are many good reasons for not gambling. These include the Christian views of godliness, work ethic, stewardship, loving our neighbours, the manner in which we should influence others, and the Bible’s condemnation of anything to do with chance.
I know that it is possible for a person to be generous, love his or her neighbour more than himself or herself and trust the sovereignty of God in “casting of lots”. However, human beings are too easily drawn to covetousness and dishonesty when gambling is involved.
Are you committed to ripping off people or building them up?
One of the fundamental principles of biblical Christianity that gives a knockout blow to gambling is, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
(advertisement courtesy Queensland Government)
 Don Tom, Christian Fellowship Forum, Contentious Brethren, “Don won’t pray – don’t ask him,” #111, available from: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=101&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=119539 [Accessed 23 August 2009].
 “Russell Crowe rallies against gambling,” China Daily, 2008-01-03, available from: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/showbiz/2008-01/03/content_6368802.htm [Accessed 15 November 2008].
 Melanie Christiansen & Steve Gray, “Wayne Goss regrets bringing poker machines to Queensland,” Courier-Mail, 20 September 2008, available from: http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,,24375592-23272,00.html [Accessed 23 August 2009].
 Nick Bryant, “Australia in thrall of gambling mania,” BBC News, Sydney, 30 January 2007, available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6313083.stm [Accessed 23 August 2009].
 Anna Gizowska in Sydney, The Telegraph [UK], “Beware! Australia’s addict gamblers warn Britain,” 17 October 2004, available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1474334/Beware-Australias-addict-gamblers-warn-Britain.html [Accessed 23 August 2009].
 Maxine McKew, 19 July 1999, 7.30 Report, ABC television Australia, “Productivity Commission exposes poker machine culture,” available from: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/stories/s37514.htm [Accessed 15 November 2008].
 Wesley Mission, “Suicide in Australia, a dying shame,” Suicide Prevention Week, 6-10 November 2000, available from: http://www.wesleymission.org.au/publications/r&d/suicide.htm#problem [Accessed 23 August 2009].
 The following details are based on Peter Jean , June 11, 2008, “Australians spend more on gambling than on food,” Herald Sun¸ available from: http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,23844130-662,00.html [Accessed 15 November 2008].
 Betty Conn Walker, 2003, “Vilified pokies not the root of all evil,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 20, available from: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/19/1069027188359.html?from=storyrhs [Accessed 15 November 2003].
 “Melbourne man wins a share of Powerball $80m jackpot,” Herald Sun, 31 July 2009, available from: http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,25859727-661,00.html [Accessed 23 August 2009].
 Senator Jeannie Ferris 2000, 3rd National Gambling Conference, Rex Hotel, Sydney, 12 May, available from: http://www.aic.gov.au/conferences/gambling00/ferris.pdf [Accessed 15 November 2008].
 Don Tom, 27 August 2009, Christian Fellowship Forum, Contentious Brethren, “God and gambling,” # 2, available from: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=1&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=119655 [Accessed 27 August 2009[.
 Gambling Community Benefit Fund, Queensland Government (Office of Liquor, Gaming & Racing), available from: http://www.olgr.qld.gov.au/grants/gcbf/index.shtml [Accessed 29 August 2009].
 The following contrast of the deontological and teleological ethics is based on Table 1.1: Two Views of Ethics, in Norman L. Geisler 1989, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, Apollos, Leicester, England, p. 24/