Does the Bible Condemn Gambling?

POPULAR films and television shows have often portrayed gambling—especially at casinos—as the pastime of the beautiful, wealthy, and sophisticated. Of course, viewers generally realize that these portrayals are mere fiction or fantasy.

In the real world, though, lottery tickets, sports betting, and online gambling compete with casinos for the gambler’s attention. Gambling is “almost a universal vice whose appeal has spread like a brushfire,” says the book Internet Gambling. Poker, for example, is now featured as a mainstream sport on television and the Internet. According to one newspaper, experts estimate that in the United States, the number of poker players doubled during a recent 18-month period.

Gambling has been described as wagering money on an uncertain outcome. Many people reason that as long as the money belongs to the gambler and he does not become addicted, there is nothing wrong with gambling. In fact, the New Catholic Encyclopedia says that gambling “is not considered sinful except when the indulgence in it is inconsistent with duty.” However, no Scriptural passages are cited to support that conclusion. How, then, should a Christian view this matter? Does the Bible condone or condemn gambling?

It must be noted that the Holy Scriptures do not directly mention gambling. This does not mean, however, that we are left with no direction on the matter. Instead of issuing rules governing every activity or situation, the Bible urges us to “go on perceiving what the will of Jehovah is.” (Ephesians 5:17) The Greek word translated “perceiving,” according to Bible scholar E. W. Bullinger, denotes bringing together the features of a subject by means of “mental activity, knowledge acquired by reflection and consideration.” A Christian can thus perceive God’s will in this matter by bringing together and reflecting on Bible principles that relate to gambling. As you read the scriptures cited in the following discussion, you might ask yourself: ‘Does gambling harmonize with this scripture? What does God’s Word indicate as to his will in this matter?’

The Lure of Luck

Since gambling involves betting on uncertainties, belief in luck—a mysterious force that supposedly controls random events—plays a large role, especially when money is wagered. For example, auspicious numbers are chosen for lottery tickets; the uttering of certain words is forbidden among superstitious mah-jongg players; and a puff of air is blown over dice before they are thrown. Why? Gamblers often believe that luck will, or at least might, influence the outcome.

Is it merely a harmless game to put one’s trust in luck? Some people in ancient Israel felt that way. They believed that luck could bring them prosperity. How did Jehovah God feel about the matter? Through his prophet Isaiah, God told them: “You men are those leaving Jehovah, those forgetting my holy mountain, those setting in order a table for the god of Good Luck and those filling up mixed wine for the god of Destiny.” (Isaiah 65:11) In God’s eyes, belief in luck is a form of idolatry and is not compatible with true worship. It reflects trust in an imaginary force rather than in the true God. There is no reason to believe that God has changed his view.

How the Prizes Are Won

Whether wagering online, purchasing a lottery ticket, placing a sports bet, or gaming in a casino, gamblers often overlook the source of the prize they are vying to win. Gambling differs from a legitimate transaction or purchase in that the player wants to win money that other players lose.* “For every millionaire that is created from lottery winnings,” states Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “there are millions of others who have lost their money!” What Bible principles can help a Christian to understand God’s feelings about this?

The last of the Ten Commandments given to Israel stated: “You must not desire your fellowman’s wife, nor his slave man nor his slave girl nor his bull nor his ass nor anything that belongs to your fellowman.” (Exodus 20:17) Desiring a fellow man’s things—his material possessions, wealth, and money—was a serious sin, listed along with desiring his wife. Centuries later, the apostle Paul repeated this command for Christians: “You must not covet.” (Romans 7:7) Might a Christian who seeks to win what another person loses be guilty of covetousness?

“Whether they [most gamblers] admit it or not,” writes columnist J. Phillip Vogel, “before the action gets going they secretly dream of turning whatever stake they have—even if it’s only a few dollars—into a windfall.” Such gamblers dream of making it big or striking it rich in one easy stroke. This obviously is contrary to the Bible’s counsel that a Christian should “do hard work, doing with his hands what is good work, that he may have something to distribute to someone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28) And the apostle Paul specifically stated: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.” He added: “They should eat food they themselves earn.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, 12) But might gambling be considered legitimate work?

Although gambling can be an intense game, any money awarded has been won, not earned or obtained as a return for work done or services rendered. In gambling, money is wagered against the odds, with the outcome highly dependent on chance, and it is based on the hope that sooner or later things will turn out well. In short, a gambler seeks to get something for nothing. True Christians, on the other hand, are admonished to earn money by honest work. “With a man there is nothing better than that he should eat and indeed drink and cause his soul to see good because of his hard work,” wrote wise King Solomon. Then he added: “This is from the hand of the true God.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24) Yes, servants of God do not build their hope on fantasy or search for shortcuts but look to God for happiness and blessings.

“A Snare” to Be Avoided

Even if a player should beat the odds and win, he would do well to consider not just the momentary excitement of winning but the long-term effects of gambling. “An inheritance is being got by greed at first,” says Proverbs 20:21, “but its own future will not be blessed.” Many lottery winners and other gamblers have learned, to their regret or sorrow, that the riches they won did not bring them happiness. How much better it is to heed the Bible’s counsel not to rest our hope on “uncertain riches, but on God, who furnishes us all things richly for our enjoyment.”—1 Timothy 6:17.

There is a much more sinister side to gambling besides winning and losing. “Those who are determined to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many senseless and hurtful desires, which plunge men into destruction and ruin,” says God’s Word. (1 Timothy 6:9) A snare is designed to entangle a victim. Countless numbers of people, determined to wager only a small amount of money or to try their hand at gambling just a few times, have become entangled and unable to escape gambling addiction. It has destroyed careers, hurt loved ones, and ruined families.

Having considered the many scriptures related to the subject of gambling, do you perceive what God’s will is in the matter? The apostle Paul urged his fellow Christians: “Quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed by making your mind over, that you may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2) God’s will, not popular sentiment, should guide a Christian’s life. As “the happy God,” Jehovah wants us to enjoy life, free of the bitter fruitage that results from the snare that gambling is.—1 Timothy 1:11.

[Footnote]

The October 8, 2000, issue of Awake!, pages 25 to 27, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, explained how investment in the stock market differs from gambling.

[Blurb on page 14]

Servants of God earn money by honest work

[Box on page 13]

The Excitement of Winning

  Is gambling habit-forming, easily leading to addiction? Following a study of gamblers’ responses to winning and losing, Dr. Hans Breiter noted that “a monetary reward in a gambling-like experiment produces brain activation very similar to that observed in a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of cocaine.”

[Picture on page 13]

Whose money are gamblers hoping to win?