A Christian Evaluation of Lotteries - W.L. Bredenhof

Last Updated February 2, 2013


At some time or other, the Roman orator Cicero stated, presumably with respect to his compatriots: Rotam fortunae non timent [They do not fear the wheel of fortune]. Of course, the classical authors had their own ideas about the "wheel of fortune," but nevertheless this positive view of fortuna is noteworthy. Still today luck and fortune are seen as benevolent deities who only need to be aroused through persistent prayer. "Lady luck" only needs to be given the opportunity, and then who knows? Your turn could be next. As you hear and read so often in the news media, "You can't win if you don't play."

There is no question that we today live in a society which is saturated with gambling and lotteries of various sorts. It permeates the world in which we live, but it also infects the church. I witnessed this as a youngster in the Canadian Reformed churches. On more than one occasion I encountered elders (not just ordinary members) purchasing lottery tickets and hoping to win the millions offered by Lotto 6/49. Following the example set by these men and others (and of course the greed of my own heart), I also offered up my gifts to Ms. Fortuna. Of course, this was not what was taught and preached from the pulpit, but it was an ongoing practice in the lives of church members.

It may therefore be rightfully concluded that the topic before us is extremely relevant. There does not seem to be good reason to believe that things have improved since the 1980s (when the above-mentioned events took place). Rather one hears more and more, not only about lotteries, but also about casinos, sports lotteries and office-pools, roll-up-the-rim-to-win and other chance-oriented pursuits. However, the discussion in this paper will not attempt to cover all of these other things -- we will focus on the state-sponsored and state-run lottery.

According to Webster's College Dictionary, our term "lottery" originates from the Dutch term lotterij which apparently first appears sometime between 1560 and 1570. This in turn is derived from the term lot which we find in both English and Dutch and which is also found in the Scriptures. As to definitions, a lottery is defined as "A gambling game or method of raising money in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes." Lottery is the broader term used to describe what we see today in corner stores, gas stations and mall outlets. A more specific term is "lotto": "A lottery, especially one operated by a state government, in which players choose numbers that are matched against those of the official drawing." It is this modern phenomenon of the state-run "lotto" which will receive the most attention in this paper. We will analyze the history of this phenomenon, its modern forms (and justification), and several different methods of evaluation.

Brief History of Lotteries

The concept of fortuna is very old, but likewise as ancient is the notion of a lottery. Apart from the casting of lots (which has a religious significance and has nothing to do with economics or entertainment), we do not read any references to lotteries in Scripture. However, it does appear that lotteries were in existence during the time of the Roman Emperors.(1) Gambling itself is much older, going back to at least the sixteenth century B.C.(2) However, lotteries operated by governments as a source of revenue are relatively recent.

It appears that the first state lottery was held in France in 1520 -- this and subsequent lotteries became an important source of royal revenue in France. Beside the lotteries operated by the state, there were also private lotteries held. These private lotteries disappeared in 1776 when they were merged with the Loterie Royale. We find a similar development in Italy where lotteries first became popular in 1530 in the city of Florence and in England in 1569 under the patronage of Elizabeth I.(3)

Considering that the time of the development of the modern state lottery coincides with the time of the Reformation, it is rather surprising that we do not see any reactions from the Reformers on this point.(4) Most likely other more pressing issues prevented thought and interaction on this matter. However, could it be that there was no negative reaction, that lotteries were accepted? Surprisingly, the first recorded reactions of Reformed churches to state-run lotteries seem to be positive. These first reactions seem to be found in the Netherlands, where according to Simon Schama, the first public lotteries were held in the 16th century. He states that the grandest lottery of the era was held in Antwerp in the 1500s and there was also an extravagant lottery in Middelburg in 1553 in which hundreds of thousands of tickets were sold.(5) These lotteries seem to have mostly laid out goods as prizes, but there were also cash prizes included. Furthermore, these lotteries differed from modern lottos in that they were strictly draws and do not seem to have involved any selection of numbers.

These lotteries were public affairs and were usually meant to raise funds for some charitable cause. It was for this reason that the civil governments sanctioned these affairs. Schama elaborates:

The lottery itself offered a rare opportunity to acquire those treasures, without incurring any of the odium that normally went with hankering after gold and silverplate. They were civic occasions, usually organized by the local magistracy to raise funds for some charitable or public municipal purpose. In Amsterdam, for example, in 1601, a lottery was held to build a new madhouse; in 1606, the Pellikanisten (Pelicans) Chamber of Rhetoric at Haarlem organized a lottery with the help of brother rhetoricians to build a new old-age home for men. The entire business was officially sanctioned by a license granted by the States of Holland or Zeeland and blessed by the church as a form of charitable donation.(6)

It is this last statement which is unexpected. Or is it? The so-called Golden Age in Dutch history is also the Golden period of the Nadere Reformatie. There was a recognition by some that there were large scale problems in the Reformed church, it appears that this also applied to the proliferation of lotteries.(7) It does not seem to be a stretch to say that the blessing of the church over this activity was not a sign of the healthiness of the Reformed faith at that time. Considering that the church was in a sad state in so many ways, one must be careful in drawing any significant ethical conclusions about lotteries from the Dutch church in the "Golden Age."

If we now move over to North America, we find that lotteries were introduced to this continent at a very early stage already. Yale and Harvard both held lotteries to finance buildings on their campuses in the 18th century.(8) In the 19th century, in the US and elsewhere, lotteries began to decline because of fraud and consequent prohibitions. Great Britain stopped having public lotteries in 1826 and between 1833 and 1853 the United States did the same. The one exception was the State of Louisiana which continued to run its public lottery from 1868 to 1893. The state-run lottery entered the modern era with New Hampshire's lottery in 1963, but this was preceded by the Irish Hospital's Sweepstakes beginning in the 1930s. Although it was illegal to purchase imported lottery tickets, Americans by far purchased the majority of these tickets. The Irish Sweepstakes "are held annually, each based on the outcome of a separate horse race...The names of the horses running in the race are matched with names of sweepstakes' ticket holders which are drawn by lot."(9) The important thing to note is that here, as before with the early Dutch lotteries, the purpose was to provide money for charity, in this case for Irish hospitals.

When we move over the border to Canada, we find that gambling and lotteries seem to have been prohibited from the start. Of the major lottery corporations in Canada, only the British Columbia Lottery Corporation seems to provide a brief history of lotteries in Canada on their website. Here we find the Irish Sweepstakes again:

Many British Columbians were first introduced to lotteries in 1930, when the producers of the Irish Sweepstakes launched a worldwide ticket distribution scheme. Although illegal in Canada, these tickets proved to be popular "black market" items.(10)

Right from the start the realization is made that lotteries have not always been legal in Canada. This changed in 1969, "when the Criminal Code of Canada was amended to authorize the Federal Government and the Provinces to operate lotteries."(11) We ought to note well that it was only the Federal and Provincial governments that were authorized to do this. At some point in time this was expanded to included charities of various sorts, but lotteries as a business venture (unlike betting on horse racing) have not (yet?) been permitted in Canada. The government maintains its hold on this area.

After the amendment to the Criminal Code in 1969, it took several years for lotteries to take hold across Canada. For instance, the BCLC website informs us that was not until 1974 that lottery sales began in British Columbia, at that time under the auspices of the Western Canada Lottery Foundation. BCLC was formed in 1985, only reaping a "modest $330 million" in its first year. By 1996, sales had improved to $797 million dollars (for one province!). Of that amount, $244 million was "returned" (that is the word used!) to the BC government and we are reassured that 50 percent of that went to healthcare spending. The BCLC website is interesting in that it provides not only a history, but also an attempted justification of the existence of BCLC!

At any rate, it should be clear that lotteries, although they are firmly embedded in the fabric of Canadian society today, do not have a long history among us -- only 30 years since they have been legalized and governmentalized. Of further note, we do see a pattern among lotteries throughout history in that they tend to be government-operated and usually directed towards some charitable cause. As we proceed to look in more detail at the modern state lottery, more patterns will emerge which will assist us in our final evaluation.

The Modern State Lottery

At the present moment Canadians have literally dozens of ways that they can partake in gambling. The provincial lottery corporations also have many different "products and services" to offer, from Sport-Select and Video Lottery Terminals to pull-back-the-tab cards. However, the most popular games continue to be the lotteries.

Residents of Ontario have many choices when it comes to lotteries. The most popular and well-known continues to the Lotto 6/49.(12) Lotto 6/49 is a nationwide lottery with extremely high prizes ranging up to and above $10 million. This lottery is also the most advertised, especially with its "Just imagine" TV and radio commercials. Participants pay $1.00 for each game card. Each card has 49 numbers out of which the player picks 6 and sometimes a bonus number. The odds of winning the jackpot are high: one in 14 million.

Ontario 49 works with the same concept, but is limited to Ontario. The jackpots are smaller, but the odds are the same. Lottario has the player picking 6 numbers out of 45 and with the game card ($1.00), the player also gets a set of computer generated numbers. The stakes are again smaller, but the odds are relatively better: one in 4 million (close to the likelihood of being struck by lightning). Super 7 involves picking 7 numbers out of 47 plus two sets of computer generated numbers for $2.00. The stakes for this lottery are higher again, but so are the odds: one in 21 million. For some variety, the Ontario Lottery Corporation also offers a game called Daily Keno. Here the odds depend on how many numbers are played, from a minimum of two to a maximum of ten. Numbers from 1 to 70 are chosen and the amount to be wagered is also selected: 1, 2, 5, or 10 dollars. Finally, there is Pick 3, a relatively small stakes game. Three numbers are selected from 1 to 9, the number of days that are to be played are selected, and then also the dollars per day that are to be wagered. For getting the numbers in the same order, the odds are "only" one in 1000, but for any order they improve to one in 167.

From this, one can see that there is great variety in the lottery games offered by the provincial government. Interest levels must be maintained and so new games are being developed on a regular basis. We should also note from this analysis the incredibly high odds that come with the games, especially the big ones such as Lotto 6/49 and Super 7. Finally, the tickets are kept at such a price that they do not seem to be such a large expense. From the 1980s until today, the price of a Lotto 6/49 ticket has remained the same, while the revenue received from these games has increased exponentially.

Provincial governments are addicted to lottery income. They apparently cannot survive without it. It is for this reason that one occasionally finds instances where the lottery corporations attempt to justify their existence. For example, one reads concerning the "mission" (again, that's the word used!) of the British Columbia Lottery Corporation:

As the major advocate of gaming policies and the principal operational agency of commercial gaming within the jurisdiction of British Columbia, British Columbia Lottery Corporation's (BCLC) mandate is to contribute significantly to government revenues and economic growth by providing top-quality entertainment to the public in a socially responsible manner.(13)

This is quite bald and forthright. One searches in vain for similar statements on other lottery corporation websites in Canada. The BCLC feels it is capable of providing "top-quality entertainment." The quality of the entertainment being offered is certainly questionable. However, one thing that is clear from this is that BCLC exists for making significant contributions to government revenue. In other words, BCLC is a taxation agency, although the taxes in this case are quite willingly given. We are also told here that BCLC's mandate is to contribute to economic growth. However, in no place do we read on this website (or anywhere else for that matter) how lotteries contribute to economic growth. Where are the studies and the data to prove this? Shall we take BCLC at their word, or do they have a vested interest?

It seems that the latter must be answered in the affirmative. The BCLC has a section of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on their website. One of the questions and answers runs as follows:

Q.Is it true that only the poor buy lottery tickets?

A.Research shows that the poor do not spend a disproportionate amount on lotteries. They understand their spending priorities, of which lotteries is not one. The majority of lottery players are middle income earners.

In the first place, we may note how the question is phrased. Imagine the answer: "Yes, only poor people buy lottery tickets." The question is set up with a particular answer in mind (fallacy of the straw man). The answer appeals to some research (which is not referenced) which shows "that the poor do not spend a disproportionate amount on lotteries." What does that mean? Does it mean that the poor spend a proportionate or appropriate amount on lotteries? Who has determined what is appropriate? Then we are told that poor people all understand their spending priorities and lotteries is not one of those priorities. Is it not amazing that the BCLC has been able to determine this as an indisputable fact? Then finally we are told that the majority of lottery players are middle income earners. Again one may ask for the research to back this up. The point here is not so much to argue that lotteries are evil for their exploitation of the poor, but simply to show that the lottery corporations employ crooked reasoning in trying to justify their existence. If they have to resort to such crookedness, can we believe that they are carrying out their mandate in a "socially responsible manner"?

Different Approaches in Evaluation

Some points that will be useful in a concluding evaluation have to this point already been raised, but now we should take a look at some of the different approaches in evaluating lotteries that have been used by people calling themselves Christians. Most of these evaluations (with the exception of one) are negative. It seems that few people are willing to defend the lottery outright from a Christian perspective. Nevertheless, it can be a useful exercise to see how others evaluate this issue. Three broad groups have been selected: Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Reformed. Each approach has two or more representatives discussed to determine if there is a pattern.

We thus begin with a Roman Catholic approach to this issue. The most reasonable place to begin is with official Roman Catholic teaching as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Although the Catechism deals with many other contemporary issues, there are no references in the index to lotteries or gambling per se. However, one does find a reference to "games of chance." This is dealt with under the Roman Catholic seventh commandment: "You shall not steal." There in paragraph 213 we read the following:

Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.(14)

Thus the Roman Catholic Church is not opposed as such to lotteries or gambling. They can only be considered ethically unacceptable when they result in some form of deprivation. There is a further allusion to enslavement. It is noteworthy that there is no outright condemnation of these things such as we find in other areas of Christendom (as we shall see). One would not expect such a condemnation either since a substantial portion of the income of the Roman Catholic Church (especially in Western Canada) comes from the game of Bingo. Furthermore, this issue is treated under what we would call the eighth commandment against stealing, particularly under the sub-heading of "Respect for Persons and their Goods." However, this is the extent of the Scriptural consideration of the issue. There are no Scripture references under this paragraph and also no references to tradition. This would seem to indicate that this is a relatively recent issue which has received the attention of Rome.

When one turns to the Catholic Encyclopedia (which has the imprimatur and nihil obstat affixed), things are not much different. Under the entry "Lotteries" one reads among other things:

Morally it is objectionable if carried to excess as it tends to develop the gambling spirit and distract people from earning a livelihood by honest work. However, if there is no fraud of any sort in the transaction, and if there is some sort of proportion between the price of a ticket and the value of a chance of gaining a prize, a lottery cannot be condemned as in itself immoral.(15)

According to this statement, the Roman Catholic Church would likely have no difficulty with the state-run lotteries as we find in Canada. There does not seem to be any fraud involved and there is some "sort" of proportion between the ticket and the "chance." One wonders how to place a value on a chance at winning a prize...perhaps if the fraction of the odds is close to the value of the ticket? At any rate, we see here in this article absolutely no references to the Ten Commandments and certainly no reference at all to Scripture. What then is the Roman Catholic approach to this issue based upon?

Perhaps we can be assisted here by a Jesuit priest and law professor, Robert F. Drinan. In an August 13, 1999 article in the National Catholic Reporter, Drinan comes down hard on the state promotion of gambling in the United States. He is reacting in particular to a report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. He writes:

The recommendations are mixed. They do not really urge any major curtailment of gambling. In addition, restrictions on gambling will have to be imposed by state legislatures -- an unlikely result since the legislators who authorize gambling like it because for them it's a "free lunch." The report does not stress or even mention the fact that from 1850 to 1950 the nation's religions and the federal and state legislatures virtually banned gambling. It was contrary to the basic moral truth that virtuous citizens should not look for something for nothing.(16)

Two things are noteworthy in this statement. First of all, Drinan states that the nation's religions were responsible for the century-long ban on gambling, and no doubt when he says this he includes the Roman Catholic Church. How can this be reconciled with what we found earlier from the Catholic Catechism and Encyclopedia? Does there not seem to be a contradiction? Second, Drinan states a basic moral truth: "virtuous citizens should not look for something for nothing." What is that basic moral truth based upon? Drinan nowhere indicates this. We are left in the same position as before.

However, Drinan goes on. He says that this moral truth was given up without any protest from "organized religion." Today in the United States, only three states forbid gambling: Utah, Tennessee and Hawaii. He brings forward the dire social consequences, including bankruptcies and family breakdown. He expresses surprise that even conservative James Dobson (Focus on the Family) was led to conclude with his fellow commission members that it would be foolish for them to tell Americans that they cannot have their gambling. He goes on to state that the government has a moral duty to promote virtue among its citizenry. "Now," he says, "governments exhort their citizens to gamble without mentioning that the government has a confict of interest since no small amount of the money spent on gambling comes back to the government as a substitute for taxes."(17) He then brings in the effects of gambling on American youth: 1.1 million between 12 and 18 are pathological gamblers. Then finally he mourns the fact that American religious organizations have been silent on the issue. The only exception he mentions is the Catholic Conference of Kentucky who along with other "church groups" in June 1999 sought to oppose expansion of gambling in that state. He concludes his article thus:

The Christian Science Monitor said it well in a recent editorial: "A nation that fosters a reliance on chance and officially endorses a culture of irresponsibility all in the name of increased state revenues and free enterprise is certainly playing games with its moral foundations."(18)

Drinan is careful here and he is not explicitly critical of the stand of the Roman Catholic Church on the issue. What we ought to note for our purposes is that, just as with the official position, Drinan does not rely on Scripture for his arguments. He states some simple basic moral truths which he assumes that his readers will agree with. While there is no question that some of his points are valid (it does seem quite obvious that gambling does not have a positive effect on society), his arguments need more weight if they are to be taken seriously by one trying to decide the issue from a Christian point of view.

However, the problem is deeper than this, for it reflects the very heart of the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic ethics. At the heart of Roman Catholic ethics stands, not Scripture, but "natural law." As P.J. Kreeft puts it, "Natural in natural law...means that this law is known naturally, innately or instinctively."(19) This concept of natural law appears to be the most likely reason why the Roman Catholic representatives on this issue do not work with the Scriptures.(20) We naturally reject this approach since it ascribes far too much to man and what he can know after the fall into sin. We need an approach to ethical issues which fully takes into account Scripture and we may justly say that the Roman Catholic approach does not fit the bill.

When we turn to look at two Evangelical approaches to the issue of lotteries, we seem to have come further. Here we find a relatively careful consideration of the Scriptures. The first author to be considered is Dr. Anthony T. Evans, senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Evans received his Th.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary and thus carries serious academic credentials. His book, Tony Evans Speaks Out on Gambling and the Lottery is a popularly written booklet intended to answer the question of whether or not it is acceptable for Christians to gamble or play the lottery. A related question he often hears is "Will the church accept an offering from the lottery money if I win?"(21)

Evans himself asks ten questions to help readers make their decision. We will go through each of these ten questions. But before he goes through each of these questions, he gives two opening observations: 1) God is not against wealth in itself, and 2) God encourages risk-taking or investing. The first observation is a conclusion drawn from passages such as Deut. 18:18, 1 Chronicles 29:12-14 and 1 Timothy 6:17. The second is concluded from Matthew 25:14-30. Already one can see that we are in more familiar terrain with the use of Scripture. This continues through the ten questions.

Evans first question concerns greed: "Is your risk-taking motivated by greed?"(22) Evans provides numerous Scripture texts to show that greed is condemned by God. Each of these texts appears to be legitimately employed, for instance, 1 Timothy 6:5b-10. He encourages readers to examine themselves and their motivations for wanting to partake of the lottery. Evans writes,

Let's say you win twenty million dollars in the lottery. Do you think that winning represents God's plan for your life? Can you honestly say you took that step in obedience to God's leading? Well, I suppose it is possible. But if you'll pardon the pun, I'll have to say the odds are against it. What I mean is that most people who play the lottery simply grab for the pot of gold because it's there. God's leading or His plan doesn't enter the picture at that particular moment.(23)

One could take issue with some of the language used here. We would rather speak of God's preceptive will rather than God's leading or His plan. But yet the point concerning motivation seems to be valid.

The second question is about trust: "Is your risk-taking designed to displace God as the supplier of your needs?"(24) Here too there are Scripture references to prove that we are to trust in God fully for all of our needs. These references again seem appropriate (Isaiah 65:10-11 for instance) and there is little that one can say against what is written here. However, in this context one would have expected also a reference to the opening commandments of the law, for do we not also read there about the very same thing?

Third, Evans asks whether the reader's gambling has displaced productivity. Instead of working for things, do you prefer to gamble for them? Here Evans appeals to creation, that Adam was created to work upon the earth. He also appeals to Paul in Eph. 4:8 and also the well-known passage of 2 Thess. 3:10. In this context Evans also discusses investments and notes that investments are different because they are "part of the mechanism of productivity."(25) Investment always produces something, gambling rarely does. It is for this same reason that Evans rejects the possibility of a lottery winner making a church contribution out of his winnings:

But what if someone in my church came to me and said, "Pastor, I'm going to play the lottery so I can give a lot of money to the church"? Sorry, that would still be an illegitimate approach, an attempt to help God's work through a non-productive mechanism.(26)

It is interesting that Evans places the answer to this question here. One wonders if this is only a major reason for rejecting such a lottery gift to the church or if Evans would use other reasons as well. At any rate, it is not stated here. However, on the whole, this too is a point well taken.

A similarly strong section concerns his fourth question. Is the gamble a wise or an unwise risk? In other words, what are the odds of coming out on top? He notes that in Texas, the odds of winning the state lottery are one in 16 million (comparable to the Lotto 6/49 as we noted earlier). Evans says that he knows people who spend $50 a month on the lottery. Over a period of 20 years, that would amount to $12,000. If that amount had been invested at 10% interest, it would have produced $34,365 in those 20 years. This example is rather weak in that one would first of all be hard pressed to find someone willing to give 10% interest and second, that $50 per month would not likely be available in one lump sum for investment at the beginning of the 20 years. Nevertheless, the point is valid: investment will almost inevitably bring you further than gambling. Investment in that sense is far wiser than gambling and wisdom is required of us in such Scripture passages as Proverbs 24:3. He makes the point with an example:

Suppose you deposited $5,000 in your local bank and the bank agreed to give you 8 percent interest (I said this was make-believe!). But then suppose the bank's vice president calls you and says, "I've made a decision. In order for the bank to have enough money to pay you 8 percent interest on your $5,000 deposit, we are going to play the lottery today with your money. I believe this is a wise investment move for you, and besides, I just feel like the bank's number is coming up today!...I suspect you would consider that an unwise risk with your money...Yet when we gamble, we are doing with our money what we would not allow somebody else to do with it, even though our decision is equally unwise.(27)

Again the analogy is not completely convincing since Evans is speaking here about $5,000 rather than a $1.00 ticket, but yet the foolishness in the big picture is easy enough to see. One must think in terms of accumulative effect for the analogy to be valid.

The fifth question asks whether there is an addiction to gambling. "Anything that becomes an addiction is illegitimate for a Christian to continue doing. We are not to be addicted or mastered by anything..."(28) Here Evans rightly appeals to the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12. However, he could also have brought in here the Old Testament background in the Ten Words, especially the first commandment.

Sixth, Evans asks if the risk-taking is exploitative in nature. He asks whether or not is requires you or someone else to manipulate or use people. In the nature of lotteries, says Evans, this is definitely the case. In order for one person to win, everybody else has to lose. This, says Evans, goes against the teaching of Scripture. Here he appeals to the eighth and tenth commandments which he says "are also repeated in the New Testament, because they reflect God's unchanging standard."(29) Stealing, says Evans, was more people-focussed, whereas coveting was more property related.(30) But the train stops at this station and does not go any further. Evans does not show how exploitation is a transgression of the eighth and tenth commandments. At this point he simply goes on to show that lotteries and gambling are exploitative: they prey on the poor. The lottery "appeals to the weaknesses of people and not to their strengths."(31) Perhaps by bringing in the eighth and tenth commandments, Evans meant to show that it is our natural weakness to desire and steal what is not ours, but he never comes right out and says it. He just says that we ought not to exploit others because of the moral law of God. We need to build on people's strengths. Exploitation is certainly forbidden in Scripture and this condemnation is certainly connected to the Ten Words, but then it should be worked out how and in what ways. One could, for instance, appeal here also to the sixth commandment and its positive requirement that we watch out for our neighbour and help him and protect him from harm as much as we can (HC QA 107).

In connection with this sixth question, Evans also mentions the role of the government. The government is exploiting its citizens through the lotteries. Evans calls the lotteries "voluntary regressive taxes." He goes on to say,

Now, the government doesn't call it a tax. It calls it a game. But the government is telling us, "We are afraid to tax you because you are going to rebel against that. So we have come up with a way to tax you that you won't fuss about. We are going to make you pay up and think you are having fun doing it. We have created a game in which we will offer you a big payday and make you feel good while we are actually taxing you.(32)

With this point, Evans does not seem to be so much working with the Scriptures as with the predominant American (and Canadian to a certain extent) tendency to disdain the government and taxes. Why let the government take any more from you than they already do? There seems to be somewhat of a disdainful attitude towards government and taxes which may be lingering in the background. Nevertheless, insofar as this government involvement includes exploitative elements, we should recognize the guilt of the state in promoting and running lotteries and other gambling enterprises.

The seventh question is quite closely related to the sixth: "Does your risk-taking help or hurt society?"(33) Evans again brings many Scripture texts to bear on this question, although he again overlooks the Ten Words. In this section he also discusses the way in which some churches use bingo to raise revenue because they cannot otherwise get their members to give. He is somewhat inconsistent here in this section when he says that "There is nothing wrong with the game of bingo in itself, or even with providing prizes for winners."(34) Bingo is not a game of skill, it is a game of chance and is really no different than a lottery. But putting that point aside, Evans argues that gambling and lotteries do have ill effects on society: tax evasion, bribery, swindling and suicide. However, it is noteworthy that he seems to be working here with anecdotal rather than empirical evidence. The conclusion is that "The more gambling proliferates, the more we devolve as people."(35) Evans is clearly saying that gambling and lotteries are not going to improve American society.

The eighth question is again along the same lines: are you harming people spiritually with gambling? This line of argumentation is based on the scandalum infirmorum [the offense of the weak]. Even if gambling and lotteries are not a sin, are you leading other ("weaker") people to sin through your participation in them? This is based on passages such as 1 Corinthians 9:19-22. This argument appears to be considerably weaker than the others since Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 is not first of all dealing with activities that can be proven from Scripture to be sinful. If Evans is convinced of his other arguments (and convinced that they should convince others), then this argument should really have no place here (although perhaps it could be included in some concluding remarks). The inclusion of this point tends to weaken the force of the other arguments.

The ninth question is whether or not what you are doing can be considered legitimate fun. Some people argue that they gamble simply because it is fun. God wants us to have fun, says Evans, and that is why He gave such provisions as the Sabbath. But just the same, there is a moral standard for fun that we must follow. This moral standard is that "God is against any form of fun that elevates the love of pleasure over love for Him."(36) This is implied, says Evans, by 2 Timothy 3:4 where Paul speaks of people who are lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. So the end of the matter is the question: "Are you deriving more pleasure from this activity than you are from your relationship to God?"(37) This question is of a more subjective quality than previous questions and so seems to be less valuable.

The tenth and final question is what Evans says may be the most important. In many ways it relates back to the fourth question: is gambling good stewardship? Here Evans stresses that all of our possessions belong to God and have only been entrusted to us. The only Scriptural reference in this section is to Malachi 3 and here the text does not even seem to fit the situation of stewardship which Evans is discussing. In this section an appeal to the eighth commandment would have been far stronger.

That brings us to the question of why we see so little of the Ten Commandments in Evans' discussion. To be sure, there is much helpful material here and we get a lot further with the Scriptural side of things than with the Roman Catholics, but why are the Ten Words so neglected? There are possibly two reasons for this. The first is the audience for whom Evans is writing. He is an American Evangelical writing in a context where dispensationalism has the upper hand and the Ten Commandments are often seen as somewhat irrelevant -- that is, unless they are repeated in the New Testament. So perhaps Evans does not wish to come across legalistically, perhaps he is even afraid of being labelled as a theonomist. The second possible reason is that Evans himself holds to that opinion -- which would not be surprising for a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. However, we already noted that Evans appears to believe that the Ten Words (or at least the eighth and the tenth) "reflect God's unchanging standard."(38) Since we do not know more about Dr. Evans, it would be best to suspend judgment on this point, although it seems like the first possibility is more likely. Nevertheless, the point still remains that Evans could have created an even more convincing case (at least for Reformed Christians) had he appealed to the Ten Commandments more extensively.

We find a similar situation when we look at our second Evangelical representative. Mike Scott is the pastor of Mt. Vernon Church of Christ in the United States and he writes for the Scriptures Say website.(39) On this website there is an article in which he answers this question: "If you could would you share some thoughts about the Biblical view about whether or not a Christian should gamble or play the lotteries?" Scott notes first of all that the Bible does not give an explicit prohibition against gambling, but neither does it prohibit rape (?) or snorting cocaine. We should not expect this either since the Bible is a book of principles. What makes gambling sinful is that "it violates a number of New Testament principles." What was only in the background with Tony Evans is here put right up front with Mike Scott. We only need to work with New Testament principles and the Old Testament has little, if anything, to say. What are the New Testament principles which show the sinfulness of gambling?

The first is that gambling violates the NT principle of stewardship. Here Scott brings in Scripture evidence in much the same way as Evans, although he does mention several OT passages (Psalm 24:1, Exodus 18:4, Psalm 50:10-12) to show that God is the owner of the world and all things. The second NT principle is that of law. Gambling violates the law of love which was given by Christ in Matt. 22 and by implication also elsewhere in the NT. "In Christian business transactions, all parties gain something of value," whereas in gambling, the gambler seeks to gain at the expense of one or many others.

The third reason given by Scott is that "gambling is sinful because the fruit of gambling is evil." Gambling, says Scott, comes with greed, crime and corruption. He further states that "When New Jersey legalized gambling in 1978, according to F.B.I. crime statistics, the crime rate jumped 92%!" This is known as a genetic fallacy. It is like saying: "There were only 3 murders per year in Hamilton in 1949. However, by 1952 this had gone up to 10. What happened in the intervening years was the establishment of the Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, therefore those Dutch immigrants are responsible for the increase in murders." With respect to Scott's example, there may have been various other factors which caused the crime rate to jump so dramatically. Furthermore, we are not told what types of crime are being referred to and whether they have any relation to gambling. One must prove that there is such a connection between gambling and the crime rate before making such a statement. Perhaps Scott has this information before him as he writes this, but the way it is cited in this article is not convincing.

The last and final reason that Scott gives is that gambling is a form of materialism. He does not elaborate on this point but simply appeals here to Matt. 6:19-24 and Col. 3:1-2. One may question whether gambling is a form or whether it leads to or originates from materialism, but the point seems valid and Evans raised it as well.

As already noted, Scott explicitly does not use the Ten Commandments in his evaluation of lotteries. The reason for this is clear when we consider that the Churches of Christ of which he is a member believe in "the authority of the Messiah and the apostles as opposed to the Old Testament."(40) Taking a radical dispensationalist position such as this leaves little room for interaction on this point. Suffice it to say that taking the Ten Words into account one can make a stronger case against Christian involvement in lotteries than has already been seen.

Reformed ethicists do exactly that. We will briefly look at three representatives to see how they work with the Scriptures in their evaluation of lotteries. Our first example is Rev. W. Pouwelse. He considers this question in the context of games, but for our purposes only his conclusions are relevant. According to Rev. Pouwelse, the sole determining factor is our motivation. He writes:

The question is not whether you have to pay for your "ticket," your "chance" or your "card"; the criterion should be whether we are playing only for the joy of playing or for the prize. As soon as the "prize" becomes important, we are on the wrong track. Then we bring ourselves into the temptation of greed for gain.(41)

Pouwelse gives more nuance to his view in what follows. He says that when we participate in lotteries, we not only expose ourselves to the temptation of breaking the tenth commandment, but we have already done so -- for the purpose is very clearly to win. The only correct way to decide whether or not a lottery should be played is to answer the question of whether winning a prize is the purpose of the game or whether it is played as an amusement or a pastime. "As soon as the result gives us "profit," it becomes a matter of "greed for goods.""(42) Besides the reference to the tenth commandment, Pouwelse only mentions 1 Timothy 6:9-11 in this section, arguing that Christians are to shun greed and the love of money.

In evaluation, we may say that Pouwelse presents a rather abbreviated argument against lotteries based solely on motivation. This means that one could still find a lottery in a perfect world. One could conceivably continue his lottery habit here in this world by reassuring himself that he is doing it out of love for his neighbour, so that more money can be injected into health care. Besides, with such high odds, the result is not likely to produce profit and so it is not really a matter of "greed for goods." Could not more be said, for instance, along the lines of some of the arguments given by Evans and also Scott? For instance, what about stewardship? What about the potential for gambling to become an idol (first commandment)? This approach has a strength in that it appeals to the tenth commandment, but what about the sixth or the eighth commandments? Do they not have something to say here as well? Pouwelse's approach has some strength, but overall we would have to say that in his brevity he is not as helpful or as detailed in his approach as Evans.

Regrettably, much the same must be said for Dr. J. Douma in his book on the Ten Commandments. He discusses lotteries and gambling in the context of the tenth commandment. He notes that state-sponsored lotteries (and related endeavours) "involve spending money in the hope of receiving a large return."(43) He also makes the observation that chance plays an important role in all of this. However, it is not so much that chance is involved as the appeal to human greed that is determinative in Douma's evaluation of lotteries. It is that appeal to human greed that "conflicts with what the tenth commandment demands of us."(44)

Douma also deals with the fact that lotteries and other forms of gambling are often ostensibly philanthropic. Here he makes a remark similar to that which we already heard from Evans: "We must guard against covetousness, and for that reason we should be willing to show charity without getting something in return."(45) Thus one may not appeal to charity to justify one's involvement with a lottery.

The points that Douma raises are good, but not really that much different from what we have heard previously from Pouwelse. His formulations are stronger and less susceptible to criticism, but he is still rather brief. However, in this case it is understandable since it is not so much Douma's intention to deal with lotteries as such but rather to deal with the Ten Commandments, in this case the tenth commandment and various applications thereof. He does show that the tenth commandment is relevant to this issue especially as it pertains to covetousness. There can be little question that lotteries appeal to the greed of sinful human nature and for that reason (and for others) should be anathema for Christians.

In a 1995 Clarion article, Rev. G. VanPopta takes a slightly different approach than either Douma or Pouwelse. He begins by noting that the Bible teaches that there are only two ways to acquire wealth legitimately, viz. labour and inheritance. The implication is then that Scripture "forbids gambling as a way to get wealth."(46) Having drawn this implication, Rev. VanPopta continues by noting how popular gambling is today (1995): 85% of Canadians have played the lottery at some time and about 50% "buy lottery tickets on a regular basis, spending an average of $8.50 per month." Then comes Rev. VanPopta's next argument: "Buying lottery tickets is pure stupidity. You are 3 1/2 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to win a state or provincial lottery."(47) Although it is put more roughly here, this is basically equivalent to the fourth question of Evans.

Rev. VanPopta next uses another argument, this time based on the first commandment: "The ungodly thing about gambling...is that you are no longer depending upon God...If you gamble in whatever form and place then you are bowing down before the goddess Lady Luck."(48) Rev. VanPopta then appeals to Ephesians 5:5, noting the connection between covetousness and idolatry (and that, he says, includes gamblers). This was why, says Rev. VanPopta, the old form for the Lord's Supper inveighed against the attendance of gamblers, "and rightfully so considering they are barred from the kingdom of Christ and of God."(49) This section ends with an appeal to Isaiah 65:11,12, noting that the gods of fortune and destiny are still around at casinos, ticket counters and VLTs. In the final paragraph of this article we find one more argument. This concluding argument is an explicit appeal to the eighth commandment: "The commandment "You shall not steal," forbids all greed and all abuse or squandering of God's gifts. That covers all gambling. Gambling, in whatever form, is not one of the ways God allows us to acquire wealth."(50)

Thus in total Rev. VanPopta brings four arguments against Christian involvement in the lottery. Two of these arguments are based on the Ten Commandments (the first and the eighth), one is based on a broader Scripture basis (legitimate means of acquiring wealth), and the other is based on the difference between what is wise and foolish -- which would have to be worked out, but one could still say it is very broadly based on Scripture. Of the Reformed writers we have considered, Rev. VanPopta presents by far the best supported argument, utilizing a broader variety of material. One could take issue on a minor point such as broadening the second way of legitimately acquiring wealth from inheritance to gifts(51) , but yet the point Rev. VanPopta is trying to make seems valid. For a short article written for an audience of young people, this piece is the best we have seen from the Reformed side of things. It is a short article and not a comprehensive treatment, so as with Douma, we can be somewhat more lenient in our expectations. Rev. VanPopta does deal with the first and eighth commandments, but in a lengthier treatment we should also expect mention of the sixth and the tenth commandments. Nevertheless, this article is an excellent short piece on the matter and placing the issue in the context of legitimate acquisition of wealth is a helpful contribution. Rev. VanPopta works out in better Scriptural detail what was only implied by Evans in his third question. Evans only speaks of hard work and productivity, but Rev. VanPopta rightly brings in the matter of inheritance (although he could have broadened this to include gifts).


At this point we may now draw some conclusions from our study into this matter. What now is a Christian approach to lotteries? First, from the point of view of method, a Christian approach applies Scripture (as the only standard for faith and life) in its evaluation. Furthermore, a Christian approach will work with the fullness of God's revelation and not restrict itself to either of the two testaments. The Evangelical approach was seen to be rather weak on this point, although quite strong in working with the New Testament evidence. Our Reformed authors worked more with the Ten Commandments, although they also could have done more, especially when compared with the approach of Evans.

A second conclusion we may draw: when all the evidence is taken together, the conclusion is inevitably that lotteries should be off-bounds for Christians. The history demonstrates that the Reformed church has faltered on this point because of an appeal to charity. However, it is evident from the Scriptures that charity should be performed from the heart without having to expect anything in return. The appeal to charity is one element that can be appealed to in a positive way, but it must be rejected. Another appeal would be to fun, playing the lottery simply for the fun of it. However, here too our fun must be tempered by God's revelation and the warnings found therein against covetousness.

Third, we may also conclude that the proliferation of lotteries over the last thirty years is evidence of increasing secularization in the Western world. Society at large is more and more putting into practice that which they have already believed in principle since the Enlightenment: no God and no master. In the process, people have ironically enslaved themselves to gambling in its various forms and this manifests itself in the increased attention to problem gambling and so-called gambling addictions.

Finally, we must say something about the role of government in the present-day situation with lotteries. Scripture teaches us in Romans 13 that the government is God's servant over us for our good. The government has also been appointed as a servant of God to execute wrath on wrongdoers. Three elements can be derived from this for our present discussion. First of all, as God's servant or minister, is not the government required to uphold God's law? Second, the government is over us "for our good." Governments that pursue destructive and illegitimate means of earning revenue are failing in this respect. Finally, the government is appointed to execute wrath on wrongdoers, but in this case they themselves are the ones doing wrong. What shall we conclude from this? Although we are perhaps not as vocal as we should be, many people in our churches do not hesitate to call and pray for the government's repentance when it comes to matters such as abortion and attitudes towards marriage and sexuality. However, have we as Christians given up on the point of lotteries? Also on this point in our Reformed involvement in politics (meagre as it is today), we should be vocal in our opposition.

The wheel of fortune has not stopped spinning since Cicero. We ought to fear it and keep our distance, for its way is not the way of fearing God. As Christians, we ought to be on guard against anything that could enslave us and draw us away from our only Lord and Master. Indeed, we ought to heed the words of Paul: "...Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." (Romans 13:14).


1. Cf. Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia (1972), sub "lotteries."

2. Gambling and Betting, R.H. Charles, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1924, pp.3-6.

3. Funk and Wagnalls, ibid.

4. At least not that I have been able to ascertain.

5. The Embarassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Simon Schama, London: Fontana Press, 1991, p.309.

6. Ibid., pp.306-307.

7. According to Dr. N.H. Gootjes for whom this paper was originally written.

8. Funk and Wagnalls, ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Cf. the BCLC website: www.bclc.com

11. Ibid.

12. All the information here is taken from the Ontario Lottery Corporation website: www.lotteries.ca .

13. BCLC website, "Mission of BCLC."

14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Liguouri: Liguori Publications, 1994, p.580.

15. Catholic Encyclopedia as found online at www.newadvent.org .

16. "Government's unseemly promotion of gambling," by Robert F. Drinan, in National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999. Found on the Internet: www.natcath.com .

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. "Ethics, Catholic Personal." P.J. Kreeft in Dictionary of Christianity in America, D.G. Reid (ed.), Downers Grove: IVP, 1990.

20. Cf. George Weigel in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus eds., Dallas: Word, 1995) who argues that Evangelicals and Catholics ought not to fight the culture war (against abortion etc.) on "sectarian religious grounds," but with "the common moral idiom of the American democratic experience." (p.69).

21. Tony Evans Speaks Out on Gambling and the Lottery, Anthony T. Evans, Chicago: Moody Press, 1995, p.7.

22. Ibid., p.11.

23. Ibid., p.14.

24. Ibid., p.17.

25. Ibid., p.23.

26. Ibid., p.25.

27. Ibid., p.29.

28. Ibid., p.31.

29. Ibid., p.33.

30. This point about stealing has been made by others and is also raised in the Ten Commandments, J. Douma, Phillipsburg: P & R, 1996, pp.285-289, however, in these cases the emphasis is on kidnapping, a point not mentioned by Evans.

31. Evans, p.37.

32. Ibid., p.38.

33. Ibid., p.39.

34. Ibid., p.41.

35. Ibid., p.42.

36. Ibid., p.53.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid., p.33.

39. The site address: www.scripturessay.com . All subsequent information and quotes from Mike Scott are taken from this site.

40. "Churches of Christ," T.H. Olbricht, in Dictionary of Christianity in America.

41. Spiritual House, Rev. W. Pouwelse, Winnipeg: Premier, 1986, p.97.

42. Ibid., p.98.

43. Douma, p.347.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. "Gambling: An ungodly attempt to acquire wealth," G.Ph. VanPopta in Clarion Vol. 44, No. 7 (April 7, 1995), p.159.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. Cf. Pouwelse, pp.64-65.