Winning!(?): Christians and the Lottery

An old proverb states that in every bet there is a fool and a thief.  With the backdrop of the Mega Millions lottery jackpot rising towards a record setting...
Lottery-Mega-Millions

An old proverb states that in every bet there is a fool and a thief.  With the backdrop of the Mega Millions lottery jackpot rising towards a record setting $640 million last week, the subject of gambling became a popular topic among many Christians.  John Piper wrote a blog post about why you shouldn’t gamble, Albert Mohler posted an article on his website regarding a Christian understanding of gambling, and numerous other Christians grappled with these issues themselves.

There are a number of issues at play when people are making their case against gambling.  At the heart of the issue is greed, they say.  Gambling shows a lack of trust in God.  But as with a great number of ethical questions, the issue is not always black and white.  If I throw a couple dollars into an office pool that’s going towards purchasing a handful of lottery tickets am I being greedy?  There are no dreams of Ferraris and early retirement dancing in my head as I make my contribution.  I might not even give it a second thought.

We might be willing to accept the premise that gambling represents greed and a lack of trust in our Lord, but how do we define gambling?  If I play a game of poker with some friends with a $10 buy-in am I sinning?  I could counter that my motivation for playing poker isn’t to make a few quick bucks off of my friends, but to simply have some fun and enjoy their company.  I’m prepared to lose my $10; the money is being spent on entertainment, just as if I’d chosen to go to the movies instead.

But I believe the issue becomes much more clear when we look beyond our personal motives and look at the bigger picture.  The lottery provides an excellent opportunity for such an extrospection.  In my opinion, the trump card when it comes to the lottery is its treatment of the poor.  It’s a point that both Piper and Mohler brought up in their articles cited above.  To the lower classes, the lottery teases with the opportunity to escape poverty.  Piper includes a quote from the International Business Times that states that those in the U.S. earning $13,000 or less spend 9% of their income on lottery tickets!  The Chicago Reporter, an investigative news organization with a distinctive focus on social, economic, and political issues related to race and poverty, presented some similar statistics in a 2007 article on the Illinois lottery.  Of the ten zip codes in the Chicago metropolitan area with the highest lottery ticket sales over a six-year period, eight of those zip codes had an unemployment rate higher than the citywide average.  All ten had average incomes of less than $20,000 a year (compared to a citywide average of $24,000).

A myriad of other statistics point to the same conclusion: the lottery system is supported by the poorest among us.  The meager funds that the poor do possess are wasted on a false hope.  For this reason, more than any other, I’m opposed to playing the lottery.  To buy a lottery ticket is to support a system that hurts the neediest in society.  That’s something I’m not comfortable doing.

There is a whole host of other questions of morality surrounding gambling and its different contexts that I haven’t touched on.  But I’m curious to hear what you think about gambling.  Is gambling biblically prohibited?  If so, what constitutes gambling?  Is buying a lottery ticket morally problematic?  With the gambling issue quickly fading to the back of our consciousness in the wake of the Mega Millions jackpot winning, now is a good time for such a discussion.

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Economics
Caleb Johnson

Caleb is a graduate of Biola University with a BS in Business and a minor in Biblical Studies. He currently works as an accountant for a real estate investment company in Orange County, California.
11 Comments on this post.

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  • Brandon
    4 April 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Well said, and I think you hit on the heart of the matter. The lottery is no mere $10 pot that you and your friends buy into for a night of poker, it is a tool to extract funds from a people who are most susceptible get rich quick schemes- and the worst part, its not a tool used by a sleazy con artist as one might expect, its used by their own government, those who are supposed to be protecting them!
    I would add though, that the lottery is different from a night of poker in that it isn’t based in any part on skill or even the reasonable possibility of winning. The reason so many play the lottery is in large part due to the fact that we aren’t able to translate such small statistics into an understandable probability. Someone might understand a 50% chance, or a 1 in 10 chance, but a 1 in 200,000,000? It is so infinitesimally small that winning isn’t even worth considering, yet to your average person, 1 in 200,000,000 doesn’t actually “feel” that much worse than 1 in 50.
    Some people I know have argued that they play it purely for fun, and that as long as they aren’t doing it to get rich, then its ok, but I have to say, I have my doubts about that. Playing cards with friends is fun, but scratching out some boxes on a card with a coin? I think that even those who casually defend their occasional playing of the lottery (interestingly, they only play when the pot gets high) wouldn’t be playing without the excitement they feel from the possibility of winning big money.
    For these reasons and others I agree with your conclusion, and I hope many Christians will spend their lottery budget on other forms of entertainment, like poker or fantasy football! :)

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    • Caleb Johnson
      Caleb Johnson
      10 April 2012 at 1:21 am

      Brandon, thanks for commenting! It’s disgusting that these governments no only sanction, but host these lotteries that prey on some of their most vulnerable citizens. And you’re probably right–many of the people playing can’t fully grasp the enormity of the odds against them winning.

      I’m with you–I fail to see what’s fun about scratching some boxes on a lottery ticket. Even a slot machine (another game which requires no skill or strategy) allows you to pull a lever or push a button and watch some numbers and symbols flash in front of you. Of course, maybe they enjoy that too.

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  • Tanner Gish
    Tanner Gish
    5 April 2012 at 3:46 am

    Caleb,

    Great thinking, on a topic that always agitates my heart when the jackpot gets big, and I see my co-workers tossing away their money to the monolithic beast that is our government. How ironic is it, that States can prohibit gambling as a business enterprise, yet support their own gambling machine that most takes advantage of it’s poorest citizens? Well, I guess California (and the US) has proven that it doesn’t know a thing about financial responsibility: I guess it’s the ‘blind leading the blind’ on this money matter.

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    • Caleb Johnson
      Caleb Johnson
      10 April 2012 at 1:07 am

      Tanner, great point! It’s incredibly hypocritical of the government to forbid private businesses from doing something they do themselves. The government’s idea of what’s dangerous or detrimental to society seems to change when tax dollars are at stake (legalizing marijuana is another issue that comes to mind).

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  • anthony
    5 April 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Personally I agree with both of these guys. I don’t feel like anything that is such a leap of faith odds wise and with rewards so vast as a lotto can really be played “for fun”. I guess to me as a math loving person I can’t fathom the possibility that I could either A: lose my whole investment or B: gain 2,000,000,000% on it. That kind of math makes the worst Ponzi scheme (Bernie Madoff style) look like a deal. At least if the money was lost I could get in a lawsuit or something. That is how my intellectual side grabs me away from a lotto.
    On the false hope side, I also agree with Tanner that the lottery preys on people’s hopes and dreams that with only a few dollars they could never want for money again. I personally know a few people who EARN good money and are still not satisfied with the things that life has to offer. Not to say that with wealth many good things can be done, and that the luxuries in life can be enjoyed, but giving someone $100,000,000 after taxes is like giving most people a loaded gun. God, I don’t believe is into get rich quick. Proverbs is full of wisdom regarding money and it revolves around the logic of slow and consistent growth and a tempering of material desires. While many people in the Bible were rich, God gave them their wealth over long periods of time and we never read that they went out and got the most flashy camel (the two hump coupe with air conditioning) or blinged out jewels to cruise around with. The giving of vast sums via lottery, inheritence, or other windfall of cash is a great blessing but without the wisdom of how to handle the power that in bestows it can ruin a person as quickly as any other unchecked sin. Therefore, earn your money the right way, by doing your work and doing it to the extent of your ability. God and employers will look after you. If you glorify the Lord by devoting your effort to your work when you are at work with the Lord’s blessing you can prosper.

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    • Caleb Johnson
      Caleb Johnson
      10 April 2012 at 1:34 am

      Anthony, well said. The Bible definitely has a different paradigm for acquiring and investing money than that which is offered by the lottery. I’ve heard stories and seen statistics (though I don’t have any to reference here) that suggest many lottery winners end up going broke within a few years. In some sense it is like giving someone a loaded gun. I think it speaks to the foolishness of the individual who buys the ticket. The same person who throws money away on a game in which the odds are stacked astronomically against them is the type of person who would blow that money should they actually win. As you mentioned, Proverbs paints a much different picture of how we are to think about and handle material blessings. Thanks for commenting!

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  • Leandra Johnson
    5 April 2012 at 11:26 pm

    I agree with all of you. You make good sound points. And I had heard the same qoute from The International Business Times regarding the lottery and those earning $13,000 or less. But as a christian, I question whether purchasing a lottery ticket is something God would honor by having me win. I don’t think so, for all the above mentioned reasons.

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    • Caleb Johnson
      Caleb Johnson
      10 April 2012 at 1:41 am

      Thanks for commenting! I’ve actually heard of churches that have turned away donations from people who won the money gambling (via the lottery or otherwise). Their reasoning is that if these are ill-gotten gains–as they believe they are–to accept the money would be wrong. I’d have to agree.

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  • Jacob Niemi
    2 January 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Excellent article! I’m glad John reposted this. There’s a casino near where I live, and, since it’s a rural area, many people are low-income anyway and do that. It is sad and people have suggested I find work there, but I am ethically opposed to oppressing the poor.

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  • Jacob Niemi
    2 January 2013 at 7:57 pm

    *Although I know that you can be a witness for Christ and be a responsible gambler.

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  • Lenora Lee
    28 January 2014 at 7:41 am

    My name is Lenora Lee and i recently won the lottery the 7th of this month January. I contact a voodoo doctor called LORD DIVA from Africa who use his voodoo to help me win the lottery and he gave me the winning numbers i am so grateful because i never believe that it will work, I have heard so much about African voodoo and how it work now i believe that voodoo is real. lorddivalottovoodoo1@gmail.com is the answer you seek to win the lottery and nothing more, Do not be deceived by online tips they can not help voodoo is the answer

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