Monday, April 18, 2005

The Christian, Casinos and Gambling

Some months ago, we were having a casual chat with the CFO of a listed conglomerate on the Singapore government's proposal to build casinos (oops, "integrated resorts") in Singapore. He thought it made good economic sense "but of course we've got to deal with those Christians".

Did God really say…?
Most Christians have long taken the stand that gambling is a detestable evil, a hideous sin. But none can locate any bit of Scripture that expresses this view. Indeed, the Bible gives no direct prohibition on gambling. Nowhere does it say,"And the LORD sayeth unto them,"Thou shalt not gamble or leprosy shall come upon thy fingers; yea, even upon thy pinkies".

In fact, there are passages that, superficially, appear to give some support for gambling, for example, the casting of lots – the main activity of chance in the Bible:
  • the casting of lots and the use of Urim and Thummim;
  • the casting of lots to choose the goat to be sacrificed on the Day of Atonement;and
  • the casting of lots to determine the allocation of temple duties for the priests.
We hear of a God who knows how lots fall, and Proverbs 16:33 explains:"The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord". Therefore the purpose of the casting of lots (for example, in Lev. 16:8; 1 Chron. 24:5, 31, 25:8, 26:13, Proverbs 18:18, Luke 1:9, Acts 1:26) was to discern the will of God on an issue (hot potato! A discussion for another day I suspect!). No money was involved in these. Elsewhere, the enemies of God's people also cast lots.

So arguments about "lots" (or apparent activities of chance) can go either way: on the one hand, the Bible seems to leave room for doing it (for example, to discern God's will); but on the other hand it is almost always the enemies of God who use it for material gain.

What is gambling?
Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon suggest that all forms of gambling incorporate a system of redistributing wealth that embodies winners and losers. In the practice of casting lots, unlike gambling, there was no redistribution of wealth according to chance and there were no winners and losers. In gambling, 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.

Is it just a game?
When does a game become gambling? Game theorist Roger Caillois says that games are corrupted when the very real boundary of imagination that defines their terrain and structure is violated. Gambling, he says, is always the murder of a game, because gambling violates the God-created playfulness of the game world, and enslaves fun in the straitjacket of money.

We can watch the way reality changes before our eyes when we stop betting for monopoly money (where the game is constrained) and start to bet with real money (because money acts as a conduit between the game world and the real world).

So is the problem with gambling the money involved?
Phillip Jensen writes:"Money. We're to enjoy it, but not to love it. There is nothing wrong with being rich, but wealth is a great snare. We are to receive all good things with thanksgiving, but at the same time build up our riches in heaven. It seems that a right attitude towards wealth is a constant balancing act between extremes, and there is no one level of wealth which is ideal; being rich may lead to self-satisfaction, being poor might make you resentful. How on earth are we to know whether we have the right, Christian attitude towards money?

"As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life" (1 Tim 6:17-19).

The passage above from 1 Timothy 6 is a good place to start talking about riches, for here we have encapsulated the great blessings and the great dangers of wealth. Wealth does tempt us to be haughty. Wealth means other people will serve us; and it is very natural to become arrogant towards others when you know they'll do whatever you want. Wealth generates confidence, for it seems as if you will always be safe. Banks, insurance agencies and financial management companies all tell us the same thing: wealth is the way to make the future secure, so you can have peace of mind as well as comfort now.

In fact wealth does not give security, for it can disappear overnight, as survivors of stock market crashes can testify. All wealth, whether inherited or earned, is a gift. The family into which you were born, the economy, the time in history—all these are a gift from God. At this time in history, to be born into an Australian family means the possibility of a wealth not even dreamed of by most Afghan families.

But wealth is not wrong; God provides it to be enjoyed. This is part of using wealth well—as is being generous and using wealth to store up treasures in heaven. The last point is crucial: whether we are rich or poor materially, our real wealth is spiritual. That is the wealth we should value; that is the wealth on which we should judge ourselves. That is the wealth that matters. And in having this attitude towards money, Christians are at odds with the atheistic world, and also with other religions.

Material realism but not materialism
The secular world is materialistic. It believes philosophically that this life and this physical universe is all there is; and so it is not surprising that it preaches a doctrine of amassing material wealth. What else is there? There is no other ultimate justification, no other reward, nothing else worth having. The best we can have is material comfort, so we might as well devote everything towards that end.

It is an entirely self-centred view, and for that reason it is terribly anti-social. Westerners care about the country's economy only because it affects their own wealth. Other people's interests might be addressed to the extent that together we can all create more wealth for ourselves; but other people do not really matter. There is a story circulating that some American business people, on seeing the planes crash into the World Trade Centre, reached for their telephones to sell shares. Whether or not this is true, the sad thing is we can well believe it could be true. We can easily imagine people whose immediate attitude to disaster is to think of how it affects their money. We can easily imagine it, because we could do it, too.

Christianity is not the only religion to oppose this self-centred materialism, but it does it in an unusual way. Buddhism and the philosophies of Hinduism, for instance, are anti-materialist both philosophically as well as practically. Their doctrines teach that this physical world is not just passing, it is essentially an illusion—an evil illusion. Reality is found when the illusion of material existence can be overcome. This is done through denial, through asceticism and meditation. The physical world must be rejected entirely.

Christians, however, believe in creation. The material world is good, because God created it to be good. It is the doctrine of demons to reject the material world, to live in asceticism and denial of the generous gifts God gives us. Material things are good. Stereos and big houses and harbour views are good. Large salaries are good. It is better to be rich than poor, it is better to have food and clothes and beautiful things than to be without them. Poverty is not a godly state and money is not the root of all evil—although the non-Christian world generally thinks that we preach that.

No, the love of money is the root of all evil. You cannot serve both money and God. In serving God, however, money is a great thing to have. It is useful to consider the advice given to the exiles in Babylon, in Jeremiah 29:1-9. Build houses and live in them, God told them. Plant gardens and eat their produce, marry and have families. Even more, seek the welfare of the city and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

We are in exile, in the spiritual Babylon while we wait to get into the Promised Land, our spiritual Jerusalem. We should never forget Jerusalem; but while we are here, we should go about the business of living. The exiles in Babylon were tempted in two directions: to undermine Babylon as the enemy, or to enjoy living there so much they forgot Jerusalem. God told them to do neither. We have exactly the same two temptations: denial of this world or denial of the next. Well, in theory we do. Most middle-class Western Christians are in no danger of asceticism. Our danger is all the other way.

Paul tells us, in Philippians 4:11-13, that he has learned the secret of facing both plenty and hunger. With the power of God, he has learned to overcome the temptations of both. He has learned not to covet, which is the real evil at the heart of both riches and poverty. He has learned not to envy his neighbour, not to live in enmity with others who might have more. He has learned by the power of God to be content. How might we learn the same thing? How can we beware of the greed in our hearts?

The rule is simple: don't covet—but the material circumstances that go with coveting can be anything from billionaire-hood to utter poverty. Just about any action, from buying a lolly to selling a mansion can be done in a greedy manner—or a godly one. It is up to us to examine our own hearts."

What's the deal with gambling then?
Phillip continues,"The basic rule for Christians is, no gambling. This is not because there is anything inherently bad about games of chance—but then, the essence of gambling is not chance, but covetousness. Gambling is wanting something for nothing. It's wanting something that you don't have, that you want to take from someone else without paying for it. It almost inevitably involves taking somebody else's money. It doesn't feel like it, when the organising body orchestrates the money exchange; but the money you win from a lottery, or a bet, or a marketing competition effectively comes from the other people who also want the prize. If none of you were so covetous, there would be no prize.

But what about sport? What about winning a trophy? What about investing on the stock market? There are a thousand different applications of gambling, some of which seem quite innocent. What about when a company offers you a free food processor if you ring up and leave your address? They're going to give it away anyway! In all these things, the evil is covetousness. If you need a food processor, go and buy one. God is quite capable of providing you with a food processor. He can give you the money, or provide a Christian friend who will give you one. By participating in the "competition", you are encouraging the system whereby people are motivated by their greed to read a company's advertising. Greed is the evil.

Of course, some activities can be practised without gambling. You can invest in the stock market in order to support a certain company that produces goods that help society. Or you can gamble on the stock market, investing without caring what the business is as long as it will increase your money. You can go and watch horseracing if you happen to like watching horses run. You can even play a game with yourself or a friend to see who can guess which horse will win. That is still different to betting on a horse. No doubt every reader can think now of an exception to these claims. It is the attitude of the heart that creates a gamble; the odds are irrelevant."

Covetousness is at odds with God's command to love our neighbours (Matt 22:39, Mk 12:31). Love in the Bible is a commitment to do good to others. For example: the fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:22). Love should bear the burdens of others (Gal 6:2). Love is to good to all people (Gal 6:10). Love is sacrificial (John 15:13). It counts the other greater than oneself.

As observed above, 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.

Love, being the commitment to the good of others is completely opposed to the idea of taking from some, the losers, be they few or many, wealth for which they worked, without any substantial return. The loss devalues the work of the loser.

Some may argue that the money paid out by the loser bought him/her an opportunity for greater wealth. But this opportunity for greater wealth only comes at a cost to others.

Again, others may argue 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? The other-person-centredness of love baulks at this selfish 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? With the exception of charitable raffles or lucky draws (discussed later), the only real motive would be the desire to be a winner — to gain wealth for self at the expense of others. The motive for gambling can never be the good of those in need. Gambling is motivated by covetousness, and covetousness is a condemning display of selfishness.

The concept of stewardship is threaded throughout the text of Scripture. The Bible does not have a strong concept of ownership. According to 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.

From a stewardship perspective, gambling as a method of redistributing wealth has a number of problems. Buying an opportunity for greater wealth through gambling is not 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.

Gambling also wastes money. Few gamblers ever make a profit. Most, over a lifetime and proportionate to their incomes, make enormous losses. Better to throw a dollar in the gutter than to place it on a bet. At least that way you will not be troubled and thrilled by the prospect of it turning into a million dollars and thereby be tempted to throw another dollar after it.

Gambling undermines self-control. It is addictive. Many are drawn to the concept of getting something for nothing, thinking that somehow they will be able to beat the odds and come out on top. For some, the lure of the promise (which generally goes unfulfilled) becomes all-consuming, so that gambling becomes an emotional problem with fatal consequences. It creates a craving for more gambling. Many lose their possessions, professions, families and freedom through compulsive gambling and the crimes they commit to feed their habits. Just ask Chia Teck Leng.

Work to eat
Many Christian books on gambling include an argument against gambling based on the biblical notion of work. There 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" (Exod 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.

Having said that, 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, for example, living on state welfare or the charity of others. Those who are lazy may use gambling to avoid work; work, however, cannot be the place at which an argument against gambling is secured.

As a system of redistribution of wealth, however, 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.

What about local raffles or lucky draws?
Many of us who condemn the appearance of casinos on Singapore soil happily participate in lucky draws in shopping malls or by deliberately purchasing products we don't need or buying raffle tickets for charity or donating to the National Kidney Foundation or some other charity for the chance of winning a car or a condominium or an iPod. Do we take a consequentialist approach and argue that some forms of gambling are not harmful and are therefore not wrong? Do we say that the charity tickets are cheap or that the products which we need to purchase in order to participate in the lucky draw are of minimal cost to us? Do we excuse ourselves saying we buy them in order to help a section of the community and do good works?

In the case of lucky draws for charity, our motivation may be other-person-centred and therefore honourable. The economic consequences for us as an individual may be minimal and there is a good outcome for the charity.

However, this argument could be one of "the end justifying the means". That is, it argues that a good outcome makes an action or practice acceptable. But this principle is not convincing.

Hill suggests that we can see that the principle is false if we take an extreme case rather than look at a trivial case like buying lucky draw tickets for charity. 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 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 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 us nor to others whether we are buying charity lucky draw tickets to help a good cause or because we might win something.

Hill also suggests that 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.

Ultimately, gambling violates the very purposes for which we were made to live. It encourages not just the lack of love for neighbour, but also the distrust of God. Pagans obsess about wealth because they don't know nor trust God (cf. Luke 16:13). The sad reality of their greed and covetousness is their desperate sense of despair about their own survival, in their world without a loving and trustworthy God. Yet the very definition of a Christian is his trust in a loving and good God who is able and is willing to provide and protect (Luke 12:13-34).

Gambling also encourages the wrong perspective on life: it strongly suggests and implies that satisfaction and happiness in life is to be found in the jackpot or the prize money, things that will pass away and not God, the Creator nor the eternal things.

Responding to gambling
A church should never raise money for its new building or for missionaries by even "light gambling" (eg. lucky draw tickets, bingo). In raising money for charity, a Christian should feel very free to say, with a gentle smile,"no thanks, I don't gamble — here's a donation". If the event is a small, fun office sweep, the Christian should be free to participate if it really is just a game. But if it starts to "overheat", with a bigger pool and with people obviously fretting about the stakes, the Christian might do well to say "no thanks—this doesn't feel like fun to me any more".

How do we respond to a government that advocates gambling? Rulers exist to do right and wrong for a people on behalf of God. Encouraging gambling is against their godly mandate. Yet we are commanded by God to give them the respect that is due to them because God has appointed them. But we can and should also make our views (and so God's views) known to them in a godly manner through the proper lawful channels.

In the Singapore context, whether gambling will be the sole focus of Intergrated Resorts is something that has to be seen. The plans so far suggest that casinos will form only a small part of the Intergrated Resorts.

In any case, in casting our votes in any upcoming elections however, we should not vote myopically and emotionally but consider wisely the ability of the competing parties to maintain the stability and peace we now enjoy in our country, so that we will be able to continue God's work of proclaiming and preaching the gospel without harrassment or fear of persecution.

Some bits rojak-ed from:
"Chasing Fantasies" by Andrew Lansdown
"This Present Age: Our Struggle Not to Covet" by Phillip Jensen
"Should the Stewards Object?" by Michael Hill
"Is Gambling All That Wrong?" by Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon. The following statement is included in this post in accordance with the terms of use of this paper: "A briefing paper by Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon of the Social Issues Executive, Anglican Diocese of Sydney. To access this free weekly briefing, send your email address to or visit"

"Taming the Casino Dragon" by Chia Teck Leng, once the second biggest casino gambler in the world, now serving 42 years' imprisonment for various crimes committed to feed his gambling addiction.

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