Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Sin of Gambling: Part 4 - The Case Against the Permissibility of Gambling

The Case Against the Permissibility of Gambling

A thorough case that supports gambling both in the context of larger society and even for the Christian essentially states that society accepts as normal participation in gambling in some form or fashion. Many in Christendom have adopted the previous arguments and freely participate in various forms of gambling seeing no contradiction with social mores or the biblical worldview they claim to hold dear. However, not all segments of society believe gambling is beneficial for government to permit or people to engage in. This is especially so within much of Christendom. As with the view for permitting gambling, four reasons opposing gambling are offered and explained in detail.

The Human Cost of Gambling

The commercial gaming industry has done an amazing job reinventing itself and convincing the public and government that it is merely a form of entertainment.[1] Only four decades ago the media referred to the rise of gambling in the United States as an “epidemic”.[2] Times have clearly changed! Promises of harmless fun for the gambling public and increased tax revenues for the state have lured many states into approving legalized gambling of one form or another. This is likely to continue. However, the human cost of gambling is rarely spoken of when the entertainment value and potential revenues are being discussed. The industry’s trade association does mention the resources they dedicate to such problems but this is after the fact.[3]

For many people, gambling becomes a serious problem threatening nearly aspect of daily life. Unlike in years gone by where the existence of problem gambling was disputed, today there is little disagreement. There is a wealth of evidence of the destruction caused by out-of-control gambling. There have been numerous case studies, members of Gamblers Anonymous participating in sociological surveys, and interviews with other individuals that chronicle the debts, outright theft, deceit, violence, failed relationships, depression, and even suicidal thoughts of those trapped in their gambling addiction.[4]

As with other addictions, the impact of gambling addiction does not end with the gambler. Scant attention is paid to the families of the gambler who suffer the effects of the problem. Research varies concerning how many people someone with a gambling problem negatively impacts but conclusions range from seven in one study to between ten and seventeen in another.[5] The impact of addiction certainly outweighs any benefits such as the enjoyment of some, the jobs created, any revenues raised for governments, etc.[6]

The point here is that gambling is not harmless fun for all to enjoy as espoused by the commercial gaming industry. As gambling spreads throughout the United States, the negative issues such as increased crime, increased gambling addiction, etc. associated with it will become more common. It is interesting to note that MacKenzie predicted the very outcome we are now witnessing nearly 120 years ago.[7]

The Paternalist Argument Against Gambling

Government, when viewed as an ambivalent parent, has certain obligations. Since gambling is bad for people and government is in the business of preventing people from doing things that are bad for them, it follows quite simply that government should stop people from gambling.[8] This argument avoids the issue of enforcing some sort of moral code that the entire population does not subscribe to. The government is not claiming to have a superior knowledge of right and wrong though it does claim to know what is good for people versus what is bad for them. Basically, this view seeks to protect people from themselves.

When considering the poor, this argument is especially powerful. The deontological ethic is on display here by government when considering the impact policy has on the poor. Being duty bound to protect the poor, even when they must be protected them from themselves, requires government to take action. The issue to be determined is whether or not gambling is, in fact, bad for people. It should also be noted that the paternalist argument is dependent on widespread agreement about what is bad for people.[9] Clearly there is disagreement when the topic of gambling arises.

Gambling Oppresses the Poor

Gambling is an exploitive business. There is a very good reason behind the commercial gaming industry’s desire to have their businesses referred to as “gaming” industry rather than gambling industry. The casinos charge what they consider a reasonable fee for the services they provide. This fee can be as simple as the fee to play a table game such as poker or blackjack or the house advantage for slot machines or video poker. What some wealthier people consider a reasonable fee for services impact the poor in a disproportionate manner.

Accomplished gamblers themselves pray on those with lesser skills in the games that require skill versus the games of chance. Sicart points out that when it comes to computer games, the design of the games plays a large role in the player’s behavior.[10] Though focused on computer games other than those used in commercial gambling, the point is still very valid. The designers of various video games understand how design impacts behavior. Those disproportionately impacted by gambling are the poor. As a percentage of their income, a small loss on any gambling is very significant. This is especially true of state-run lotteries where many poor people see the weekly winners and dream of hitting a large jackpot and thus changing their lot in life. Of course, this rarely happens. Further, God takes a dim view of oppressing and/or taking advantage of the poor (Amos 3:13-14; 4:1-3).

Gambling Undermines Biblical Principles

To assert that gambling undermines biblical principles first requires that we concede that gambling is present in the Bible. It is a fact that Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus’ garments while He still hung on the cross even though it is not referred to as gambling (Matt. 27:35). The fact that this is recorded in Scripture is by no means approval of the activity any more than the recording of the first murder or of sexual immorality is found to be approved. Quite the contrary, the recording of such acts is necessary to make the underlying point in each instance. Only poor hermeneutics would find otherwise.

As for the many instances where the casting of lots is used to determine the will of God, in none of these instances was gambling involved. Keeping in mind the definition of gambling previously discussed, two or more parties were not placing something of value at risk. The division of land or determining who God has chosen for service is a one-sided decision. It is a mistake for the secular world in general and the Christian specifically to use these instances as justification to participate in gambling.

Having demonstrated the error some make in believing that Scripture supports gambling, attention is now turned to the ways gambling violates biblical principles. The dream of obtaining wealth, often viewed as a brief escape for those who choose to gamble, is contrary to the way in which God has appointed man to earn a living. In Genesis 2:15, the Hebrew word עָבַד means to do work or to labor.[11] Man was created to occupy his time with work. Then, after the fall, God tells Adam that he shall live a life of labor simply to survive until he returns to the dust of the earth from which he came (Gen. 3:19). The point is simple: if a man is to eat, he shall have to work for it. In fact, man should take great joy in labor as this is a gift from God (Ecc. 3:9-13). Gambling, by contrast, robs man of the joy of God-given labor. Gambling undermines the importance of work with the lure of the possibility of avoiding work by winning a large amount of money and living a life of leisure. Such a life is contrary to the plan set forth by God from the beginning in Genesis.

Self-control is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:23). There is no greater test of self-control that personal discipline in the entertainment choices Christians make.[12] While it is true that Christians have liberty, not all forms of entertainment build up the believer (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23). In fact, gambling tears down the faith of the believer. Gambling addiction and the pain is causes for the gambler and those around him, is a clear loss of self-control for believers and non-believers alike.

Gambling is poor stewardship of the resources entrusted to believers by God. For the Christian, there should be a clear understanding that all we have and are is owned by God.[13] From a financial point of view, we are to give generously when we become aware of a need out of love. Further, our time is a commodity that must be carefully guarded as well. We must be accountable to God for the ways in which we use our time (Eph. 5:15-16). Spending hours and dollars playing casino games or simply playing the lottery is poor stewardship of both our time and finances.



[1] Collins, Peter. Gambling and the Public Interest. (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003), 20-21.

[2] Petersen, William J. What You Should Know About Gambling. (New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, Inc., 1974), 1-2.

[3] American Gaming Association. 2011 Annual Report. 2012. http://www.americangaming.org/about-aga/annual-report (accessed April 28, 2012).

[4] Oxford, Jim. An Unsafe Bet? : The Dangerous Rise of Gambling and the Debate We Should be Having. Birmingham, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 48-49.

[5] Ibid, 53-54.

[6] Collins, 34.

[7] MacKenzie, William Douglas. The Ethics of Gambling. (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1896), 49-50.

[8] Collins, 31.

[9] Ibid, 31-32.

[10] Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2009), 199.

[11] Gesenius, Wilhelm, and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. Gesenius' Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2003), 598.

[12] Eckman, James P. Biblical Ethics: Choosing Right in a World Gone Wrong. (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 2004), 86.

[13] Richards, Lawrence O. The Bible Readers Companion. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991) 781.

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