27 November 2009

Gambling: The Moral Antithesis of Charity

by Phil Johnson

Here is a list of all the posts in the series:

1. Is Gambling OK? Don't Bet on It
2. Gambling: Some Definitions and Distinctions
3. Answering a couple of objections
4. Oh, and one more thing . . .
5. Gambling vs. Faithful Stewardship
6. Does 'Mutual Consent' Eliminate the Evil in Gambling?
7. A good question
8. The Sin of Putting God to the Test
9. Gambling: The Moral Antithesis of Charity

o review one more time, these are the characteristics that define "gambling":

1. Something valuable is placed at risk
2. Something belonging to someone else is staked as a prize
3. An element of chance supposedly determines the outcome

And finally—

4. In all gambling, wealth is either lost or changes hands; no new wealth or other benefit is created. Gambling violates every biblical principle of economics.

In an earlier post I cited Ephesians 4:28: "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth."

There's far more in that commandment than merely a prohibition against stealing. It also suggests that the proper way to earn wealth is by some form of work. It furthermore reminds us that a wonderful use of surplus wealth is charity towards the poor. Gambling subverts all those principles.

Gambling is economic fraud. It produces nothing. It adds nothing to the larger economy. When you invest money in the stock market, that money goes to work in the economy. It is not like a gambling stake, which just sits there in the jackpot, waiting to be won by one of the players.

Whatever taxes and commissions are skimmed from government-regulated lotteries and actually put back into the economy are more than offset by the losses of people who purchase tickets and do not win. Statistics show clearly that the most profoundly negative economic effects of gambling are felt in the sectors of society where the poverty level is already high. So gambling's worst impact hurts the very same segments of society where charity would have done the most good.

The corollary of this is that the apparent prosperity of casinos in places like Las Vegas is gained at the direct expense of other communities, industries, and individuals. Gambling is always a zero-sum game.

Gambling simply transfers money from the hands of many to the hands of the few through frivolous means fraught with questionable motives—just the opposite of all sound economic principles.

The Bible does spell out some clear principles regarding economics and the exchange of money, goods, and services.

Of course, property and possessions were normally passed on within one's own family (or to one's legal heirs) by inheritance.

Beyond that, however, there are three legitimate means of exchanging wealth and transferring property to others. One is through labor, where money is earned by effort expended (Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12; Luke 10:7). Another is through commerce (including buying, selling, and otherwise investing—Matthew 25:14-29). The third is through giving—including gifts of charity (Luke 19:8; Ephesians 4:28).

Gambling has none of the elements that make those enterprises good. It involves no work. It contributes nothing of value to the economy. And it is the moral antithesis of charity.

Speaking of gambling's macro effects on the economy, much more could be said about the evil that surrounds the gambling industry. It breeds crime and corruption; it undermines character; it does not promote godliness; it violates private industry; it undermines the good of society; it exploits the poor; and it promotes false values.

Furthermore, when government sanctions and even participates in sponsoring gambling, it departs from (and even works against) the God-ordained role of government, which is to seek the public welfare by punishing crime, keeping order, and defending against foreign attacks. State-sanctioned gambling makes the government the oppressor of the poor and the promoter of activities that spawn all kinds of corruption and evil.

Again, every argument I have made suggests that gambling is wrong in principle.

As Christians, we are commanded to be content with what we have, and to trust God as our Provider. We are forbidden to covet what belongs to our neighbor, and we are commanded to love that neighbor as ourselves. We are commanded to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We are commanded to shun that which is evil—abstaining from every form of evil.

That's why, although I have acknowledged that penny-ante games are often trivial (and by no means any major concern of mine), my counsel to believers who ask about the issue would be this: it's naive and potentially dangerous to toy with any kind of gambling as a form of "recreation." If gambling is indeed wrong in principle (as I believe the weight of all the biblical arguments demonstrates) then it is surely wise to avoid the practice no matter the amount or the frequency.

In closing, let me say . . .

Some readers asked me to address the question of whether raffles, door prizes, and carnival-style contests as fund-raising devices are morally equivalent to gambling. My short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. The definition of gambling I gave at the outset is my best answer to that. If the raffle prize is a donated item given to charity and not a "stake" paid for by entry fees, it wouldn't be gambling by most legal definitions.

I'm not fond of such gimmicks for fund-raising anyway—especially for churches and Christian organizations. But I would not suggest that it's always a "sin" to participate in them, especially if the bulk of the funds collected really do go to some legitimate charity. Such cases, however, wouldn't fit likely my definition of gambling, so the point is really moot, I think.

I'll leave the intricate dissection of countless hypothetical cases and counter-examples to people who love that sort of casuistry.

Speaking of which, I've gotten some messages from a few people who have claimed my biblical arguments prove nothing about whether gambling per se is wrong, because (in the words of one correspondent): "You don't know people's hearts, so you can't prove that everyone who gambles is really coveting his neighbor's possessions."

Well, it certainly seems obvious that the gambler is trying to win his neighbor's possessions, and I honestly can't think of many righteous motives for doing that. But the argument about reading another person's heart is true in exactly the same sense that I can't prove every man who fills his spare time looking at pornography on the internet is sinfully lusting. I still tell men they should not do that under any circumstances. In any case, the guy who gets caught doing it is probably going to have a hard sell convincing his own wife it was all so innocent. In a case like that, I'm happy to let the man answer to God and his own wife.

Similarly, to those who are so keen to justify penny-ante and "recreational" gambling, I'm quite happy to leave the issue between you, your conscience, and the Lord, who judges righteously. Don't feel obliged to try to convince me that what you're doing isn't tainted with covetousness or presumption or any of the other bad motives I have associated with the act of gambling.

To be perfectly clear: the evil motives are what I say is sin, not the gaming aspects of gambling. I'm not trying to establish a legalistic rule on issues where the Bible doesn't spell out a rule. I'm trying to give a little pastoral counsel and shed some biblical light on the complex of evils that surround gambling, so that you can give a fuller answer to the question of whether gambling is OK than the bare (and foolish) assertion that since there's no proof text that says gambling's "sin," Christians shouldn't say anything against it.

On the contrary, it is a plague on our culture (and every culture where it has been legalized) and Christians should not be silent or neutral about it.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Phil's signature


Mrs. Long said...
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greglong said...

Thanks again for this series of articles, Phil. The biblical principles you expounded make it clear that the vast majority of gambling is clearly sinful and a stain on society. May God be merciful to our nation for its shameful greed and may we each examine our own hearts for evidences of the same.

donsands said...

"So gambling's worst impact hurts the very same segments of society where charity would have done the most good."

Yes, that's true. The Maryland State Lottery, which began back in the 70's I think, has taken in billions of dollars, so that they could use the money for education, and so forth. And yet everything here in Maryland, especially baltimore has become even worse.

I remember cashing a women's Welfare check at the liquor store I used to work in years ago, 1979 I think, and we chraged her 4% to cash it, then she went right to the lottery machine and spent $20.

Society is corrupt for sure, and yet the human heart is as well.

"Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see."

Have a blessed weekend and Lord's day. And thanks for this excellent post.

greglong said...

On a slightly related note...

As you've clearly pointed out from Scripture, gambling is just one manifestation of the sin of greed. And as you stated in this article, "Gambling is economic fraud."

One other evidence of greed is the propensity for Americans to buy things on credit that they can't afford. Sooner or later, as with gambling, the piper must be paid.

Just today news comes out that Dubai is "In Deep Water As Ripples from Debt Crisis Spreads". Some are asking if "Dubai Is Just a Harbinger of Things to Come for Sovereign Debt". When will it will be America's turn?

Truth Unites... and Divides said...
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James Scott Bell said...

Similarly, to those who are so keen to justify penny-ante and "recreational" gambling, I'm quite happy to leave the issue between you, your conscience, and the Lord, who judges righteously.

Amen. That is a Romans 14 answer and the proper one for this context.

Tom Chantry said...

Spectacular series; horrific meta.

Honestly, I found myself so irritated with this series because the meta was so cluttered with meaningless drivel. On looking back, though, I find that the posts themselves have been tremendously well-put.

I kept quiet in this discussion (except to point out how many were answering a case without first hearing it - to their shame). The reason is that I have had a tendency to look down on gambling and think it a moral wrong, but my arguments against it have had many ragged edges. In other words, I agree with Phil entirely, but had I written the series it would have been poor. I looked forward to reading what were obviously carefully thought out arguments from a brother in Christ, and once I started ignoring the inevitable fire-storm it proved very worthy.

I plan to save the posts in a file without the comments. I pray it will be useful in future pastoral work.

Unknown said...

Thank you Phil for a well thought out series of articles on gambling. I must admit I have not done a serious amount of thinking on this matter. Probably since I have not been interested in gambling myself. You have given me something to think about and share with others and I agree with your thoughts. Thanks

Phil Johnson said...


For your refusal (at least three times) to respect a temporary ban, your ban is being extended through the end of the calendar year. One more comment between now and January 1 and you will be permanently banned from posting any comments on the blog.

If that's what you choose, you'll be part of an elite fraternity. I think you'll be only the sixth or seventh person in the history of our blog who has earned a permanent ban.

wtanksley said...

Okay, I've been very critical of all the other arguments in this series, so it's only fair for me to say "Bravo" for this one. I have to say that this post is well argued and biblically based.

It would be nice if you'd also cover the injustice gambling perpetrates on the losers, an injustice which becomes stronger as the amount at stake goes up and the benefit given to the losers goes down. This makes the institutionalized gambling houses more obviously systematic places of injustice.

Brad Leber said...

"casuistry" ;)

wordsmith said...

The Maryland State Lottery, which began back in the 70's I think, has taken in billions of dollars, so that they could use the money for education, and so forth.

Ha! Proponents used that exact same justification when they pushed to get the lottery in our state (also in the '70s).

Funny how 30+ years later, the schools are still begging for money every time you turn around. The lottery is going great guns, though.

John said...

Gambling is always a zero-sum game.
Bingo. It is wealth transferral. And, surprise, surprise, the wealth is transferred from the less to the more fortunate. The (very, very small) possibility of winning great wealth is what motivates the poor to gamble. In fact, this is why gambling was illegal for so long. It takes advantage of the players. This is one reason why I am surprised that gambing often receives such support from Christians. Its very nature encourages and promotes ideals that clash with Christianity. (Insert counterarguments involving penny-ante Texas Hold 'Em here)

Brad Leber said...

Seems to me that Poker kinda creeped into Christian circles about the same time it was being offered up in the form of televised tournaments with accompanying "entertaining" camera angles and such... surely that made the games easy to learn and more palatable to the "Christian freedom" touters than if they had had to go to gambling establishments (Vegas et al) with all the vice surrounding them to learn how to play - and accrue the inevitable losses along the way as they acquired the skills necessary to win...

Stefan Ewing said...

I second others' comments here.

Culturally speaking, there has to be a reason why "If I were a betting man" exists as an expression.

Brad Leber:

Indeed, tournament poker has become so pervasive and glamourized, that James Bond played it in the recent Casino Royale remake, rather than chemin de fer or other exotic card games, as he had played in the original novel and previous movies.

(Thinking back to a time in my life when it didn't bug me that the 007 movies seem to be a textbook lesson in how to vicariously violate all 10 commandments simultaneously.)

Anonymous said...


I have enjoyed this series very much. Unlike some, I actually enjoyed the meta as well...though I didn't participate.

I very much appreciate the fact that you are not afraid to take an issue like this on, knowing you will receive the cry of "Legalist!" from some. It was very helpful to see an example of someone applying biblical principles to an a specific issue that the bible doesn't say too much about, directly.

Thanks for the example and for the hard work.


jason pettus said...

Amen! Thank you.

Mark B. Hanson said...

I lived in Boston in the mid-80's a couple of years after the Massachusetts state lottery started. I remember a line from a Boston Globe newspaper article, investigating the effects of the lottery at that time: "If President Reagan had proposed a program that took as much from the poor and gave as little back as the lottery, he would be impeached." (broad quote as I could not find the exact source).

Still true.

SandMan said...

Phil, I was one that assumed from the outset that this was a liberty issue. You have made a compelling case, and I want to submit to the Lord in all things so I am grateful for the series. I am not a Vegas guy, and I usually play for chips and bragging rights when the guys get together. I just had never thought all the way through to motives and underlying greed and covetousness, and stealing, etc. Again, thank you for an in-depth,comprehensive analysis of this issue. Beyond the issue itself, I think it is a good model for formulating a more Biblical world view.

Carlo Provencio said...

I really like this blog, but sometimes you guys spend way too much time on pointless arguments. Or maybe I'm wrong, maybe God is smiling from heaven glad that you used all this time to prove gambling is a sin. Or maybe you could have been more productive with God's time. Anyway.. Just some thoughts. Some times after a long drawn out argument or discussion with someone, I get on my knees at night and ask God if I used his time and my energy wisely. Do you ever feel the same way?

Phil Johnson said...


I guess "pointless" is in the eye of the beholder.

See Sandman's comment (just before yours) for my answer to your question.

DJP said...

Phil, you planned that those last two comments would appear in tandem. Come on, now, admit it.

Gilbert said...

Wow. Of all the threads/series that would come close to the intensity, and passion of the "Emergent church" series and the 1,000-post blowout, I never imagined it would be on gambling.

Phil, thank you so much for taking all of the time to research this important topic, and for being gracious in how you've handled the metas. How people are justifying gambling (by your true definition) by using money or assets blows me away. The massive (not exagerrating), widespread and devastating effects of gambling in this country and around the world should POINT you to the fact that gambling is SIN. Period. End of story. Things you do have that have consequences (no matter how small), to yourself and to others, that can only be explained as the fruit of sin, cannot be justified by a brother or sister in Christ. I've done it, and I've repented of it.

This series has just brought to me an astonishing clarity of this issue which has hurt, and in many cases, destroyed, so many lives...and continues to do so as I type this. May God grant each of us His wisdom on this, and also through Phil, who did a fine, researched and balanced exegesis on a very difficult subject.

BTW, speaking of money, count me in on a series on financial debt/greed. When is buying a house sinful? What is "providing" for your family? I know people who, if their families aren't in big houses, aren't meeting that definition. Just a thought for a future series.

Unknown said...
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Burrito34 said...

Phil, great series! I once thought gambling was one of those "gray areas" as long as it was it was not done to excess, but thanks to John MacArthur's series on the subject I am now fully awake to how the Bible deals with the subject. I hope you will make this series available somewhere it won't get lost in the blog archives so I and others can easily refer back to them.

donsands said...

"Funny how 30+ years later, the schools are still begging for money every time you turn around. The lottery is going great guns, though."-wordssmith

thanks for sharing that. Excellent way of putting it.

Unknown said...

I take it you all eschew Western banks which don't create money through labour, commerce or giving, but magic it out of the air, and have Sharia accounts?

rchealey said...

Excellent series of posts.

We have only had a national lottery in the UK for a relatively short period of time compared to some countries but already the damage can be seen.

The link between charitable giving and gambling has been around a lot longer with raffles etc but since the lottery started it seems that more often than not charities don't seem to be able to ask for people to give without offering them the opportunity to win something in return. I have never been able to see how giving to worthy causes can be equated with trying to win something for yourself. No doubt my feelings on this matter have been shaped by the teaching I received from my christian parents as a child that even raffles were a mild form of gambling and not to be participated in and they wisely guarded me as a child from getting a taste even for that.

My husband's experience as the child of unbelievers was the opposite but has led him to the same view. His father has an addiction when it comes to betting on horses and he attempts to justify it by arguing that he has been sensible and over the years has won more than he has lost. Though I imagine what he has lost are significant enough amounts to make most people wince.

Our experiences have led us both to take the same stand at our workplaces when the issues of lottery syndicates and even raffles have come up. My husband is a teacher and on a number of occasions the boys he teaches have asked him to buy tickets to win prizes for various charitable causes that his school supports. He has always declined but explained kindly that if it is a worthy cause he is quite happy to donate but that he doesn't want to win anything in return as that doesn't fit with the concept of giving. The boys know he is a christian and sometimes the conversation has led to opportunities to speak about gospel matters but even if it hasn't gone that far, it has often resulted in the boys saying that they hadn't thought about it that way before and they could see his point.

Aaron said...

I love lotteries. Being in the upper tax brackets myself, it's the only way to get some people to pay taxes.

< / s >

On a serious note, that gambling uses one's greed against oneself. The person gambles to win a large fortune and instead loses money to the house.

Tobias said...

How does this all apply to raffles, bingo, and other such "church" fund raisers?

John T. Meche III said...

Phil, thanks for these posts. My wife and I had a very spirited discussion a few months ago about the whole concept of gambling and whether or not it was a sin. I'm glad to see someone come along and do a proper writeup on it that I can point people to. I think the plethora of comments has shown that this is a much bigger issue than most of us think. It's easy to look at the person dumping quarter after quarter into the slot machine hoping to strike it rich and say "That's clearly sin". The fine distinctions you have made with your definitions and exposition of biblical principles have helped to unmuddy the waters a bit on the things that "feel" like gambling but maybe aren't.

There are plenty of things that are still curious to me, like the guy who is trying to "get rich quick" on the stock market. Maybe he's just being foolish and greedy rather than gambling.

Thanks again, and God bless.

Halcyon said...


Read the post again. Phil already answered that question.

Jugulum said...

TUaD was asking me in email whether Phil's series convinced me away from the view I held when the series started--"that gambling in small amounts for entertainment doesn't violate any Biblical principles." I'm going to post my response here.

The answer is, "Partly, but not entirely." Phil makes some good points about coveting, though I see another factor in the motivation to play for stakes. And I'm not convinced by the stealing argument.

1.) Phil is obviously correct that coveting is always wrong. And everyone involved in any form of gambling needs to examine themselves carefully. The nature of gambling makes it at least prone to coveting.

2.) Phil made a good point: If you can't articulate why playing for stakes adds a thrill, why are you so confident it's not from illegitimate desire for others' wealth?

3.) Certainly, if you want to get a poker game together so you can get enough money to buy a new toy, then you're desiring your neighbor's money. (Though that's probably not "small stakes".)

4.) I think he's probably right that the added thrill does come from desire for wealth, even when it's penny-stakes. (Otherwise, you'd be perfectly happy to play for valueless chips.) And that wealth is being risked by your neighbor--it's not newly-created wealth from labor, or a gift. So that does look like coveting.

5.) However, the motivation to play for small stakes isn't always the desire to win pennies--it can also be the desire not to lose them. It's not the thrill of winning, it's the bite of losing. It gives you a motivation to take the game seriously--one that isn't based in your desire to get the winnings. In that case, if the amount of time & money involved is acceptable for entertainment, then I see no principles being violated.

6.) I was not persuaded by Phil's argument that it is stealing, as I said in the comments of the other post. I reject the idea that the winner steals from the loser.

He seems to depend on an invalid syllogism: "If gambling even small amounts for entertainment is is wrong (because it involves coveting), then the person who wins your money is stealing from you--that's 'wrongful gain'." I think that's an equivocation on "wrongful gain"; it depends on a peculiarly broad definition of stealing, as I said in the other thread. You have the power to enter into the agreement in a gamble, so it's not stealing if another player wins from you--it may have been a covetous, wrongful agreement, but it's not theft. You gave the other person the right to take your stakes when you placed the bet.

7.) However, it does make sense that if gambling is wrong, then both parties are conspiring to steal from God--in the sense of a steward who squanders what his master entrusted to him.

I very much appreciated the thoughtful series. My thinking was challenged, and it did change, though I still disagree in some spots.

Physmed42 said...

Hi Guys,

Thanks for the series. I come from a state in Australia where the ratio of poker machines to head of population is (or was) the highest in the world, so a very relevant post.

I've thought gambling was a sin, but just couldn't put it into words why. With regards the size of the sin type arguments we are meant to mortify sin because there is no such thing as "little" sin. I thought that was the point of the lust=adultery and hate=murder type teachings.

This made me see the line "Every gambler knows the secret to survivin' is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep" from "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers in a new light :)

Thanks again

Zac Dredge said...

I like the series over all.
The meta got crazy, for sure. I found it petty how people attacked Phil's definition's. Also the whole 'relative stakes' thing is highly disappointing; sin's not relative. It's not mere 'leisurely entertainment' because the enjoyment relates to the possibility of winning or losing wealth, which is definitionally unique to gambling.
If I go to the movies I pick a movie of a genre and style I'm likely to enjoy. I generally don't gamble on what movie, and the $10 is for the facility and access to the film, not to increase or affect the enjoyment. The amount of money I put on the game when I go play poker doesn't go to the person hosting per se; it goes to the winner.

My primary concern is that the 'bite' or 'fun' from having stakes isn't 'harmless' or 'justified'.The descriptions of which all seem to prove the points made in the articles.
To make an analogy of my own; stealing for the thrill of being able to break and enter is still sinful. Even if I put back what I stole, thus 'not hurting anyone' the theft is still sinful, because it's theft.
If I attach getting money that was(prior to the game) someone else's to winning said game I have now declared winning the game as winning the right to take money from someone. I don't win extra rights in the rest of my daily life, so why should I gamble? Just because 'the pot' is formed before the result doesn't remove this attachment between my desire to win and my desire to possess what is/was my neighbour's.
I don't think anyone who is claiming it's 'more fun that way' is really distinguishing between the two, but rather using the vague standard of 'fun' without an agreed upon or rational alternate source to reference. So asking if the association is there seems like a moot question. If it's not then why have stakes? Where does the thrill come from if not that? I suspect someone involved thought about getting someone elses money.

Zac Dredge said...

The only thing I think this is missing is an additional post regarding how gambling can easily lead a brother to stumble. Even if I were completely certain that my own gambling wasn't a problem I shouldn't assume the other's I'm gambling with don't have covetous feelings. Otherwise you'd have to make sure all participating members had a long and meaningful discussion about all of this before even considering gambling.

All of this also leads me to ask a few important things; why is having stakes so important? Are there not other forms of enjoyment, without stakes, that don't have the potential to be sin(the same way gambling at least has the potential)? I've been saddened by seeing people argue so vehemently for 'low stakes gambling'. Is it permissible? Maybe. Is it beneficial? No. So why insist gambling is okay(in the 'right' circumstances)?

So much of what we consider ourselves entitled to is actually petty. We don't have the right to any form of entertainment.
Therefore when we're getting entertained we should be learning from it and/or gaining a healthy sense of gratitude, fellowship and peace. If not, it's a waste of time, and I don't see gambling providing those things. Yes, you can spend time with people while gambling, but I don't think it lends to healthy fellowship. Not to argue that's impossible, but gambling with friends means gambling with friendships IMHO. Is your opinion of 'small stakes gambling' more important than the relationship you have with a brother in Christ, or even any unbeliever? Is it worth as much as much as complete and utter submission to the Lordship of Christ? Is it's value even close in comparison to either of these? If yes, your heart really does have some problems. Justifying gambling has no benefit, as healing on the Sabbath did, so don't compare Phil to the 'brood of vipers' who were part and parcel to their ancestors killing of the prophets.

PS; Someone mentioned TCG's(trading card games) somewhere. Just FYI, I've played these a lot and the trading component is not a form of gambling. You don't typically bet the cards when playing the game in question; you swap cards to form a collection, then you construct a deck to play with. Not to say you couldn't gamble, but the point is forming an effective deck, and trading for other's cards furthers this goal. It's much closer to business transactions than gambling. You could actually play without ever trading, but the nature of random booster packs makes this a less effective means to forming a cohesive collection.