Sweepstakes, lotteries, gambling; - what is the difference? - Rev. W. Pouwelse

Last Updated: February 10, 2013
Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 34, No, 21, 22 (1985)


1. It is Everywhere

Today everywhere we are confronted with lotteries in one way or another. In the grocery store as well as at the gas station they offer you tickets which can make you an instant cash winner. In almost every store or shopping mall you can buy lottery tickets or you can get them for free. When you subscribe to a magazine or when you order a book, you receive a ticket which can make you an instant winner. Lotteries and sweepstakes are used for sales promotion as well as to encourage people to make a donation to a charitable organization. Even the government uses lotteries to collect funds to subsidize sports events and other manifestations. Lotteries are used to attract people to, and amuse them, during a fair. Lottery tickets are also sold, simply to satisfy people who crave for gambling. Lots of money which should have been used in the household for the most elementary necessities is spent in buying lottery tickets, because people are captivated by the idea that once they will win the big "jackpot." It has caused an addiction in many cases.

Recently we received a request to write about these matters. Not everyone thinks and acts the same way in this respect. We are so bombarded by lotteries that it has become very difficult to steer clear of it. Most of us agree that gambling is wrong. The old translation of the Form for the Lord's Supper says that gamblers should stay away from the table of the Lord. However, what is gambling? Some reason that taking part in a lottery is not wrong, as long as you get the tickets for free. Others see nothing wrong in having a sort of a lottery or sweepstake during a fund raising fair for our schools. And when do we call it a real lottery? Only when you buy a ticket with a number on it, or also when you, during a fair, "guess" the number of peas in a pot or the weight of a cake? In most of these cases you do not get your ticket for free but you have to pay for it!

In this article we will try to deal with this matter in an orderly and principled way. We will investigate what the Bible says about it, what the attitude has been among Reformed people in the past and what our approach should be in the present situation.

We will not restrict ourselves to the most common form of sweepstake, lottery and gamble, but we will also pay attention to other forms of "gambling" such as excessive participation in the stock exchange and dealing with "futures" and other "high risk" investments. Isn't speculation via the stock exchange a more sophisticated way of gambling?


2. What is "the lot"?

In the Bible we read very often that the lot was cast. The key text in this respect is Proverbs 16:33 where it says: "The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the LORD." In the New Testament we read in Luke 1:9 that, according to the custom, it fell to Zechariah by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. In Acts 1:26 we read about the election of an apostle. They cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias. We do not know exactly which procedure they followed, but it is clear that the lot was used to decide in a certain matter and that the decision came from the Lord. That is what Proverbs 16:33 says. The well-known Reformed professor in the ethics, Dr. W. Geesink, in his book Gereformeerde Ethiek (Reformed ethics), makes a distinction between three different types of cases in which the lot was used. The first is the revelation. The Lord gave special revelation unto His people via the Urim and the Tummim (Exodus 28:30). Another use of the lot was consultation. In difficult matters the Lord was asked to decide. When the people of Israel were defeated in the battle against the people of Ai, Joshua had to bring the whole congregation before the Lord and the Lord Himself pointed out who the transgressor was, who had caused the wrath of the Lord over the whole congregation. A third type of situation ìn which the lot was used is, according to Prof. Geesink, a case of partition or division. Here he refers to situations in which something had to be divided between persons, allotted, allocated or apportioned. That was the case when the people had to divide the promised land or when the services of the priests in the temple had to be allotted, as we can learn from Luke 1:9 concerning Zechariah.

In the Bible we also read about unbelievers who used the lot to come to a decision. A well-known example is Haman who cast the lot to find out what would be the best time to destroy the Jewish people (Esther 3:7). In Jonah 1:7 we read that the people who were with Jonah cast the lot, to know on whose account the evil had come upon them. And, to mention one more, in John 19:24 we read about the soldiers, who cast the lot over Jesus' tunic, to see whose it would be. With their evil deeds they fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 22:18, "They divided my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast the lot." From all these examples it is clear that the lot has been used throughout the ages by believers as well as unbelievers. However, the question has to be answered whether we as Christians are allowed to use the lot and under which circumstances it is proper to do so.


3. A classic opinion

In the previous section we have made reference to what Prof. Geesink wrote about the lot. He makes a distinction between three different categories, which he calls revelation, consultation, and partition or division. He considers the first and the second to belong to the old dispensation, and therefore not to be used by Christians. The only way we are allowed to use the lot is to make a choice in cases of "division," for instance with a heritage, or when a choice has to be made between persons, as in an election. Another case of making a choice is mentioned in Proverbs 18:18. When there is a dispute, in which it is very difficult to decide, the lot can be used. "The lot puts an end to disputes and decides between powerful contenders." In our churches the lot is used by the election of officebearers. In some congregations they have the rule that with a tie vote the oldest ìs considered to be chosen, in other places they use the lot to break a tie.

Prof. Geesink is of the opinion that the lot can rightly be used in such situations. However, the use of the lot should always be a well considered asking from the Lord to decide in a matter which seems too difficult for us to decide on. That is why he considers it a lack of respect for such a decision of the Lord, when we use the lot during a game to decide whose turn it is to play, and even more so when we ask the Lord to decide who will win the jackpot. He is very consistent in his application of this rule. He strongly opposes every form of lottery and playing of cards. He also condemns the use of dice in whatever game it might be. His reasoning is, that in such cases we are asking the Lord to decide on something we are doing just for fun. That is, according to him, a lack of respect for the decisions of the Lord and a profaning of His Name. The use of the lot is permitted, but it should always be done in the awareness that we call upon the Name of the Lord, and preferably it should be done with prayer, as is the case when we use the lot during an election of officebearers to break a tie. Prof. Geesink goes even so far that he condemns every game in which an element of "luck" is involved or something happens "by accident." He writes (vol. 1, page 342) "On the same grounds as card and dice games, also domino and lotto games have to be condemned." It means that in our present situation almost all board games would be unacceptable. Not only the games in which dice are used, but also a game like scrabble, because in the same way as with the old "domino game," it is a matter of "luck" which letters you will get to play the game with. According to Prof. Geesink it is a lack of respect for the Lord to let Him decide how "lucky" you will be in the game. He even states that during such a game the one "hopes" or "prays" that the Lord may give him a chance to win the game. He considers it ethically unacceptable that we ask the Lord to decide on so-called "contingent" matters in such a way that we gain something at the cost of the friend, with whom we are playing a game.

So far the opinion of a very prominent professor in the ethics at the beginning of this century. His opinion was certainly no exception but rather a representation of the classic approach of the problem among Reformed people. Before we come to an evaluation of this point of view and a formulation of our own opinion, we will first have a closer look at some other aspects of this matter.


4. Different types of lotteries

All kinds of names are used, like sweepstake, lotto etc. and these terms are often used at random, in a confusing way, as ìf they were synonymous. What is the difference? We will try to list the most common words and define the meaning.

A sweepstake is a gaming transaction in which a number of people contribute a certain amount of money, their "stake," with the understanding that the total amount becomes the property of one or some of them under certain, previously accepted, conditions. It was originally used during horse races, where people could set an amount of money on a horse, hoping that this horse would win, in which case they could collect the total amount or "sweep the stakes." The most typical element is that the outcome is determined by an uncertain event in the future. It is a form of "betting." Nowadays the name sweepstake is used for all kinds of lotteries, also when they are not determined by an event in the future and when no "stakes" are set.

A lottery is a game or method of fund raising in which tickets are sold and in which certain holders of a ticket are entitled to a prize. In a draw by chance the winners are determined. Here the main point is that tickets are sold and that the outcome does not depend on a more or less predictable fact but on a draw by chance or casting of the lot.

A lotto or bingo is a game in which certain numbers in a row or circle have to be covered or chosen. Here the outcome depends on the way the player himself fills in his card or ticket.

A bet is a pledge made on the result of some uncertain questions or events. The bettor hopes to receive a reward if his prediction comes true. Here the question who gets the money depends on the correctness of the "prediction" or expectation of the bettor.

A roulette is a game of chance in which the winner is determined by a moving ball, dropped in a numbered compartment of a spinning disk. Each player places his bet on one of the compartments.

A gamble is in general a venture in which a great risk is taken solely for the purpose of gaining money. The most characteristic element is that not only the risk of losing money is accepted, but that taking the risk is a aim in itself.

Speculation is a special type of gambling. It is a financial investment which is hazardous but offers the possibility of large profits. It can be done by buying and selling risky shares at the stock exchange. It can also be done by dealing in so-called "futures." This is the technical term for buying or selling commodities or stocks on the basis of delivery in the future. A businessman can, for instance, sell a product on the basis of delivery after half a year. If he is convinced that the price of this product will decrease dramatically, he can sell the product for a fixed price, even if he does not have it available as yet, because he hopes to be able to buy or grow it for a reasonable price before the delivery date is due. However, if in the meantime the prices go up, he can lose a lot of money because, ìn order to stick to his contract, he has to buy for a higher price than he has sold already. This is a very common form of "gambling" and some people who know the market can make a lot of money in this way, while others have lost everything by this form of speculation. In our evaluation we will also consider this form of gambling.

5. Taking risks

To take risks is part of business life. A farmer has to decide on the best time for sowing or planting. If he starts early he takes the risk that frost destroys his crop. Being late he takes the risk that his product comes on the market at a time that the prices are very low. The more risk he takes the more he can gain or lose. However, if he does not take any risk he will never make it in business life. In Ecclesiastes 11:4 we read: "He who observes the wind will never sow; and he who regards the clouds will never reap." A sales manager has to decide when and how much he has to order. Buying too little can cause him running out of stock and losing the opportunity to sell. Ordering too much leaves him with an unsold stock. Taking risks is part of business life. It can be attractive for a farmer to sell his whole crop under contract in the beginning of the season. It gives him a certain guarantee that he can sell his products for a reasonable price. If he waits, the prices may go up, and he can make more money, but if the prices are going down he can gain by selling in advance. These kinds of risks have to be considered by every businessman. This has led to the so-called "futures-market." Some producers like to sell their products in advance, in order to make their planning and to be sure that they can sell for a reasonable price. Others are willing to buy in advance, accepting the risk that the price may go up or down in the meantime. Such a business deal is not necessarily wrong.

The same counts for investments. Someone who has to invest a large amount of money, either for himself or for a company or an organization, has to consider the profits or the returns on his investment. The safest way to invest is not always the most profitable. The shares of companies who make a large profit in one year are often more prone to lose out in another year, than the more conservative investments. The greater the profit or return of an investment, the greater oftentimes the risk that money will be lost. Professional investers such as trust companies have a certain formula to spread the risk over different types of investment. That is what business life is all about. And again we have to say that there is nothing wrong in taking a certain well considered risk, in order to get a reasonable return.

Still we have to reject speculation as a matter of gambling. What is the difference? We like to put it this way: the risk to be taken should be in reasonable proportion to the type of business, and part of it. It is no gambling if a farmer sells his crop in advance or if a factory buys the products they need on the "futuresmarket." Neither is it gambling when a trust company or a pension-fund invests a certain portion of its money in medium or high-risk shares at the stock exchange. That is part of a proper financial management. However, it becomes a matter of gambling if someone who is not involved in a certain line of trade or business buys or sells "futures" for the simple reason that he hopes to gain a lot of money if the prices go up or down. Too many have lost a fortune in this type of gambling. It is the same with buying and selling at the stock exchange. If someone puts all his money in a certain very risky fund, hoping that he will get a large profit, it is gambling.

There is a general rule among investors, saying that one never should be involved in a high-risk enterprise with money that one cannot afford to lose. It means that the savings of an average family should not be used to invest in high-risk stocks or bonds. That would be gambling. However, a large company can invest a certain amount of money in an undertaking which is not guaranteed to be successful. That is what we mean by saying that the risk has to be in proportion with the type of business and part of the business. Speculation is taking risks which are out of proportion or which have nothing to do with someone's trade or line of business. It is taking risks for the sole purpose of taking risks.


6. Games

After we have mentioned the different types of gambling and lottery and after we have seen that even taking a risk in a business deal can become a matter of "gambling," we will have a closer look at the different types of games.

In a previous section we mentioned already that in the past some were of the opinion that every use of "chance" in a game was wrong. Not only a game in which dice are used, but even a game like scrabble was not allowed. The reasoning was that the outcome depends on how "lucky" you are in getting your cards, dominoes or letters. We consider this going a little too far. It is certainly true that in a game like scrabble the outcome to a certain extent depends on which letters you get by "chance." We know that the hand of the Lord is in everything in our life and that nothing happens without His will. However, we do not think that anyone will "pray" that the Lord grants him a favourable set of letters in the game. That would be an idle use of the Name of the Lord. We see as the criterion in this whole matter the question what the motives are. As long as it is only a pastime, we do not see the element of "chance" in a scrabble-game as "gambling." The same counts for other board games.

However, as soon as we are using the lot or dice to decide in a matter which we consider to be important, it is not a simple "game" or pastime anymore. As soon as the outcome becomes important and more than just a matter of amusement, we are passing a borderline. Some say that there is nothing wrong in accepting a lot, as long as you do not have to pay for it. We consider this a wrong criterion. The question is not whether you have to pay for your "ticket," for your "chance" or for your "card" but the criterion should be whether we are playing only for the joy of playing or for the prize. As soon as the "prize" becomes an issue, we are on the wrong track. Then we are bringing ourselves into the temptation to greed for gain. It is basically the same as with taking risks in business and gambling at the stock exchange. As soon as gaining money or winning something by chance becomes the purpose, we are on a way which contradicts the tenth commandment.

Nowadays we can receive lottery tickets everywhere for free. People are often very surprised if you say that you do not want any lottery tickets. "Do you not want to win a prize?," they say. However, we have to be consistent and aware of the danger. If we participate in this modern rage of lottery, we do not only expose ourselves to the temptation of "coveting," against the tenth commandment, but we have already become involved in this activity. The apostle Paul says in I Timothy 6:9,10: "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs."

Let us as Christians also in this respect show self-control. We can easily be led astray by the fact that everyone does it. However, the Lord teaches us that the love of money is the root of all evils. And the apostle Paul adds to his warning in I Tim. 6:11: "But as for you, man of God, shun all this."

7. Conclusions

We have seen that in all kinds of games "chance" plays a role. Not only in board games in which dice are used, but also in domino and scrabble. In the past the Reformed point of view was, at least according to Professor Geesink's Reformed Ethics, that every game in which "chance" is involved, had to be condemned. We do not believe that in a game like scrabble and domino we are profaning the Name of the Lord and are asking Him every time to decide how "lucky" we will be. At the same time we see a great danger in the present rage of lotteries, sweepstakes and lottos, which are coming over us. Too many are participating in such lotteries without realizing where the borderline lies between playing a game as pastime on the one hand and gambling on the other. The criterion should not be whether we have to pay for our ticket. In too many cases the price of the ticket is included in the product you buy and so you are paying for it anyway.

Neither should the criterion be whether it is for a good purpose. Even the big provincial or national lotteries are often played to support a good purpose. The only correct criterion is, as far as we can see, the question whether winning a prize becomes the purpose of the game, or that it is a matter of amusement, entertainment or pastime. As soon as the result gives us any "profit," it becomes a matter of "greed for goods." In such cases we should not use the lot to decide who will get the prize. We agree with Professor Geesink that the lot as a means to decide in matters of division can be used, but only in the proper way, that is with calling upon the Name of the Lord as is the case during some elections of office-bearers. With respect to taking risks in business life, as is the case at the stock exchange in buying and selling shares and bonds or with the so-called "futures-market," it is not necessarily wrong as long as it is part of someone's business and as long as the risks are in proportion with the line of trade or business. It is a matter of gambling as soon as the taking of risks becomes an aim in itself.

It is very important to consider these things and to set a clear criterion. Otherwise we will end up with a floating borderline which drives away very easily and will be adjusted by everyone according to his or her personal circumstances. Let us not forget the warning in Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" It might be worthwhile to discuss these matters in the societies, to help each other in developing a Scriptural point of view in this respect. We hope that these articles may contribute to a fruitful discussion.


W. POUWELSE