slot machines gambling

Are State Lotteries Immoral?

This entry is part 41 of 44 in the series Christian Theology of Public Policy Course

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.


“Don’t smoke, chew, or run with girls that do” is a popular adage in some Christian circles today. Christians are concerned about what God thinks about their behavior. They are also concerned about what men think. Of course, any true Christian who struggles with pornography will not herald his addiction, but in many places Christians will seek to cover up arguably less egregious activities like drinking alcohol, smoking cigars, or even gambling now and then. These practices are often viewed as taboo— even when used in moderation. Paradoxically, Christians are able to openly indulge in overeating or overspending on cars, clothing, and entertainment devices without chagrin. Gluttony and profligate spending seem to be more acceptable sins among believers than other excesses, creating a (widespread) inconsistency of thought about what is appropriate Christian behavior.

In my last column, I argued that the state lottery is the best tax because it is a voluntary, even if it is a “stupid tax” paid by the fatuous and the ignorant. That is the public policy side of the issue. But the “moral side” deserves to be developed as well. In doing so, we might consider a classification of Christian practice highlighting four items: pornography, wine, Milky Way candy bars, and prayer.

The broad headings of this arrangement (noting an assignment of each of the four items) would be: [A] “never permissible” (e.g., pornography) and [B] “permissible”. Category B could be further divided into three sub-classifications: [1] “permissible in moderation” (e.g., wine), [2] “always permissible unless there are extenuating circumstances” (e.g., Milky Way candy bars), [3] “always permissible without qualification” (e.g., praying or preaching the gospel). These categories are especially apropos in terms of our entertainment choices, and in terms of the public policies we would support or criticize.

Category A practices, such as viewing pornography, are relatively easy for Christians to identify and eschew. They are, obviously, always sinful. At least I cannot think of any general, legitimate use for something like pornography (although I would be willing to entertain an argument to the contrary if someone wanted to make one). In a word, Category A items are intrinsically evil themselves or are part and parcel of an institution that is intrinsically evil. The scriptural rule regarding such practices would seem to be summed up in I Thessalonians 5:22, I Peter 2:11 and Romans 12:21: “Abstain from every form of evil”, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (NKJV). In his January 11, 2003 article in World , “Wages from Sin”, Pastor John Piper seems to place playing the lottery in this category. I think he is mistaken. There is nothing intrinsically evil about either the purchase or the entertainment provided by the lottery ticket. Whether or not the lottery as an institution is evil is more intriguing, but to condemn any voluntary action that is not specifically condemned by the Scriptures (such as gambling or lotteries) is probably imprudent and may well be an encroachment upon Christian liberty. Indeed, the institution of the lottery, at least insofar as it is by nature a game based on probability like the casting of lots, is mentioned in the Bible without condemnation (e.g., Leviticus 16:8; Joshua 18:6-10; I Samuel 14:42; I Chronicles 24:31, 25:8, 26:13-14; Nehemiah 10:34, 11:1; Jonah 1:7; Proverbs 16:33; Acts 1:26). It was even used (apparently) to determine the will of God.

The Scriptures seem to indicate that Christians may use alcoholic beverages like wine and beer in moderation (e.g., John 2:1-11, 4:46; I Timothy 5:23, etc.). Thus, Category B1 practices would be permitted up to a point, beyond which (e.g., inebriation) the practice becomes sinful. Although there might be some people who abstain from Category B1 practices because of past excesses or because it would cause another to stumble (cf. Rom 14:13-21), they would not be considered evil in general but are essential amoral . I would include buying lottery tickets among the many Category B1 practices, which may provide genuine enjoyment or entertainment value when used in moderation. Certainly, a family that spends $5 per month on lottery tickets is not going to harm itself financially any more than a family that spends $5 per month at Blockbuster video. Like any form of entertainment, the value of which is always determined by subjective individual preferences, Category B1 practices provide some value to the participants. Just because I am not very entertained by renting and viewing Mary Poppins or by playing skee-ball in an arcade does not mean that they do not entertain others. Is there a point at which expenditures for entertainment for a Christian turn into excess? Of course there is, but that point is not usually a bright line that can be objectively determined by onlookers. The scriptural rule regarding such practices (or Christian liberties) would seem to be summed up in I Corinthians 6:12 and Romans 14:4: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” and “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.”

Category B2 practices are never sinful in and of themselves. It is not wrong to buy candy bars— Baby Ruth, Milky Way or otherwise—in general. However, if a person is overweight, buying candy might be sinful because it compounds his gluttony and lack of self-control. It might also be sinful for cavity-prone people to buy candy. In either of these cases, issues arise involving caring for our bodies (cf. I Corinthians 6:19-20). Moreover, in large enough quantities, partaking of Category B2 practices could entail poor stewardship, lack of wisdom, or defective priorities. How much of God’s money should we waste? The scriptural rule regarding such practices would seem to be summed up in (among other places) I Corinthians 4:2, 9:27 and 10:23: “Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful”, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” and “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify”.

I concur with Piper’s condemnation of greed and covetousness among lottery players. Paul said that, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition” (I Timothy 6:9). Jesus said, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). However, Piper’s notion that playing the lottery harms the poor is debatable. Even if poor people are worse off because state lotteries or other gambling exists, that fact does not mean that the participation by relatively wealthier individuals exacerbates poverty. Moreover, there is no good reason to assume that public policy outlawing lotteries would reduce poverty or gambling, any more than Prohibition in the 1920s reduced alcohol use. Indeed, Piper’s notion smacks of the sentiment that is commonly found in modern American liberals, who blame big business or big government for bad individual behavior and its outcome. But such sentiment is false.

Is it not said that lung cancer and smoking addiction are not the fault of the individuals who choose to smoke but rather the fault of greedy, manipulative firms like Phillip Morris and R. J. Reynolds, along with advertising firms and the media which make commercials that impel people to smoke? They are supposedly profiting at the expense of the weak and poor and the federal government compounds the problem by issuing subsidies to tobacco farmers.

This sort of drivel, although commonplace, is simply not true. People choose actions, and expend scarce resources for them, because they expect to benefit. Individual choice, when voluntary, is never someone else’s fault. Adam had no right to alleviate his guilt by blaming Eve, nor did Eve by blaming Satan. As the Scripture says in Galatians 6:5 and II Corinthians 5:20, “each one shall bear his own load” and “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad”. Individuals will be judged according to what they have done in the body without appealing to the sins of others for mitigation of the consequences. Lottery winnings are not “plunder” (as Piper said), and playing the lottery in moderation does not necessitate “spiritual suicide”. They are proceeds from an entertaining game (at least to some) with very poor odds, in which millions of individuals voluntarily choose to participate.

Piper does not want his ministry or church to receive any of the filthy lucre of lottery winnings. I could certainly understand Piper’s reasoning if his goal were to reduce the number of people in his church who are given to excess in the lottery. But Piper should be careful to not go beyond what the Bible says. After all, Jesus received a fragrant, expensive gift that was bought by a woman of ill repute (Luke 7:3639).

On a similar occasion, the Apostle John records that the disciples too—Judas Iscariot in particular—complained about Mary’s inefficient use of the valuable oil. “But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always’” (John 12:7-8). It was Judas Iscariot who raised concerns about the poor being harmed. If Jesus Christ was willing to receive benefits from apparently wasteful means, or even from ill-gotten gains, then why should the church reject them? Furthermore, one might argue that the doctrine of Proverbs 13:22b would reach the epitome of fulfillment in the giving of lottery winnings to the church. It says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous”. Why is it wrong for the saints to benefit by the undoing of the wicked? Accordingly, the Bible records many instances where the wealth of the unsaved is rightly received by God’s people and used for righteous purposes. The Queen of Sheba—not necessarily a believer—and Hiram’s ships brought exotic treasures to Solomon that augmented the glory of the Temple and wealth of God’s people (I Kings 10:1,10-12; II Chronicles 9:1,9-11). The unbelieving king Artaxerxes granted Nehemiah’s request for safe passage and timber to rebuild the Temple, Jerusalem’s wall, and houses in Judea (Nehemiah 2:4-8). The wise men from the East (or magi)—astrologers that interpreted dreams and performed magic—were probably not truly converted men and yet Christ received their gifts by Joseph and Mary (Matthew 2:1-2,9-12). Ananias and Sapphira were slain for lying to the Holy Spirit but there is no indication that their offering was refused by the church (Acts 5:1-11).

The Bible does not condemn gambling per se. It only condemns the excesses that might devolve from gambling. The lottery is permissible in moderation (a Category B1 activity in last week’s column), like using wine or beer, which the godly may use in moderation. In saying this, I am careful to concur with the Westminster Confession of Faith in its application of the eighth commandment against fraud and lying. Its Larger Catechism (question 142) condemns “wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.” Excessive gambling is sin, just as excessive use of alcohol (drunkenness) is sin. I also affirm my commitment to a providential understanding of life. There is nothing that is outside of the control of a sovereign God. Yet God has set forth certain random processes to serve His purposes in the world, as Ecclesiastes 9:11 affirms: “I returned and saw under the sun that—The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.” In this life, God permits the lottery to work just as He permits random number generators to work, but always under His permissive decree.

While I do not play the lottery, I will leave others to their liberty. And I see no reason for churches to abstain from receiving gifts derived from state lottery winnings that will help them further the Gospel, edify the church, and assist the poor, widows, and orphans.


Originally published in The Times Examiner on February 16 and 23, 2005.

Series NavigationPrevious Post: Previous Post:Next Post: Next Post: