Casinos, lotteries, sports betting, and fantasy sports betting are ubiquitous in today’s America. Gambling is no longer the domain of Las Vegas or the local bar. There was a time, not too long ago, when gambling was taboo in evangelicalism; pastors would preach against it, and Christian schools would expel people who were caught doing it. Now it seems that gambling is increasingly seen as acceptable in evangelical Christian circles. Is this because the reasons for historic Christian opposition to gambling are no longer relevant in today’s culture, or is it because the church has wrongly acceded to the values of the culture?
Lotteries and casinos make money by relying on mathematical axioms (probability theory) which allow them to calculate revenue very precisely and reliably. Consider, for example, a lottery game in which a player has a 1 in 100 chance of winning $80, and game pieces are $1 each. If the game is played enough times—say 10,000—the laws of mathematics guarantee that the lottery will operate at about a 20 percent profit. Of course, it is possible that a player who only plays the game one time will come out $79 ahead. However, most people who buy lottery tickets buy them on a regular basis—especially if they win—and this means that they are mathematically guaranteed to lose money over time, just as the lottery operator is guaranteed to make money. The one exception is the few winners of large lottery jackpots; however, the odds of winning these jackpots are so small that someone who spends $10 on tickets every day for 40 years will very likely have just wasted $146,100. Actually, if that $10/day (= $304.38/mo.) was invested in the market at a 7% rate of interest (the average rate of return from the market over time), it would be worth $730,000 after 40 years, according to the government’s compound interest calculator. Smart people will do the math and go with the sure bet. Even if you only spend $10 a year on tickets when the jackpots are huge, that is still $10 a year you have wasted, not to mention the time you spent standing in line, ordering your tickets, and checking the numbers.
Some people might not understand why they are less likely to make money on gambling by playing frequently than by playing one time. The reason for this is that you can’t keep beating the odds. Let’s say you have a one in three chance of winning a particular game. If you play the game twice, you still have a one in three chance of winning on the second play, but your odds of winning both times are one in nine. You don’t have to win every time to come out ahead, but you do have to keep winning against the odds in order to make money over the long term. While the odds of making money on a particular game play may be one in three (still not a good bet), the odds of making money by playing that game thousands of times are astronomically high and mathematically impossible. In other words, since the games follow established mathematical principles, if you play enough times, your results will align with the odds. This is why the house always comes out ahead—with enough plays, they are mathematically guaranteed to do so. Using horoscopes, charms, and “lucky” numbers won’t change the mathematics and improve your odds.
One can also question whether it would actually be beneficial to win the lottery. Many virtues are produced through hard work, a disciplined life, and a sense of reliance on God to meet one’s daily needs. For most people who win big lottery jackpots, it does not turn out to be the fantastic dream they had imagined it would be. Instead, it ruins them—they waste their time and money leading a dissolute life, and sometimes they end up being just as broke as they were before. So the lottery is a lose-lose gamble—if you never hit the jackpot, you are out all your ticket money; if you do hit it, it wrecks your life. The few lottery winners who have not been ruined by their winnings are the ones who have continued to work hard as if they had not won and who have followed the guidance of financial advisors.
Betting is a little bit different than buying lottery tickets. Sometimes people can find ways to place bets in which the odds favor them and they can actually make money, such as people who find clever ways to bet on a game of golf. But swindling your playing partners out of money is certainly not a moral or ethical thing to do, and it is legally and physically dangerous. Since the only way you can make money on betting is if someone else loses, the whole practice of betting is unethical. In addition, betting usually leads to other unethical practices, such as rigged sports matches. Even if the odds of making money on sports betting were 50-50, the house always takes a cut, with the result that you will lose money over time. Surely it is a better use of one’s money and a more honorable occupation to work a job and earn a regular paycheck. And the best way never to lose a bet is never to place one.
Since the main problem with gambling is that it is a waste of money, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with accepting free lottery tickets (e.g., 10 free plays online for registering with a promo code) or free tokens to play in a casino. However, other considerations ought to give us pause about this. First, the reason why casinos offer free play is to get people hooked, and this is a serious danger (especially if you win). Second, if someone sees you playing games in the casino or walking into the lottery claims center, it will be a detriment to your Christian testimony (people will assume you are gambling). Third, you are unlikely to make enough money for the free play to be worth your time, effort, and gas money. The odds are against you winning anything big, and if you play games with smaller prizes and better odds you will only come away with a percentage of the small amount of free play they gave you. Fourth, casinos are extremely carnal places, full of booze, immorality, bad music, and plenty of pressure to gamble. There are many, many examples of compulsive gamblers in today’s world, stories of people who have gambled away everything they own. If that happens to you, you will not receive any sympathy from the casino or the state lottery—under no circumstances will they return your money, even if they know full well that they have ruined your life. So if you don’t want to start a gambling habit, you really are best off avoiding casinos altogether.
I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with entering free sweepstakes, although entering sweepstakes may not be a good idea for everyone or in every circumstance. By law in the United States, all sweepstakes must be truly free, with no purchase necessary to enter and with a purchase not improving one’s odds of winning. (Sweepstakes that appear to require a purchase always have an alternate means of entry described in the official rules in order to comply with the law. If a purchase was necessary, then it would be a pay-to-play scheme, i.e., gambling, and all the laws which regulate gambling would come into effect.) There are actually many free sweepstakes opportunities available online for United States residents. For many, entering these contests would be a waste of time. Some might fear that entering would start a bad habit. For others, entering sweepstakes might be a fun diversion and an opportunity to win some extra cash or goodies. The bottom line is, you should never pay to play—that way you can’t lose money. And never make a purchase out of guilt or sympathy for the company offering the promotion. I personally don’t like the idea of participating in contests such as the Monopoly games at McDonald’s or Albertsons, as it is essentially gambling when one is enticed to make purchases in order to get game pieces. (The alternate means of entry for these games is usually a mailed letter, which requires the purchase of a stamp and envelope.) I also won’t buy tickets at a benefit raffle—if I really want to give money to a good cause, I should decide to do so on the merits of the cause and my financial situation, not because I am hoping against long odds to come out ahead.
Most people understand that the odds at the casino and in the lottery are against them, even if they don’t fully grasp the mathematics. Gambling’s attraction therefore does not come from its wisdom as an investment choice. The attraction of gambling is the lie that there is an easier, faster way to make money than by having to work for it. People naturally want to have easy money instead of earning money through hard work. They also want to have their wealth now, instead of gradually saving up money over their working career and waiting for the interest to compound. So they believe the lie that they will get rich by buying lottery tickets or by gambling at the casino. In fact, the lottery and casino gambling are schemes to swindle people out of their hard-earned money by telling them they can win money when they mathematically can’t.
The lottery is a lie, and casino gambling is a lie. They tell that you could make money—big money—by playing, when in fact people who understand the math can see that they will lose money according to the odds of each game. If the casino sets up a game so it will make a 10 percent profit, that means you will (on average) only get $90 back for every $100 you gamble, and if you play enough times you will run out of money. It is actually the house that is guaranteed to make big money, and the players are guaranteed to lose. I personally don’t know anyone who makes a living by gambling in casinos or by playing the Daily 3. I only know hard-working people who go to casinos for vacations and lose their hard-earned money. As Christians, we need to be good stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, and that means not wasting our money on lottery tickets and casino games.