The Only Reason Not to Play the Lottery: A Rejoinder to John Piper and Brandon Takacs

Recently on the Two Thieves Podcast, cohost Brandon Takacs (flying solo… not easy to do. Well done Brandon) approached a 2016 article by John Piper. The article is self-explanatorily titled Seven Reasons Not to Play the Lottery.

I think that Takacs did a great job questioning some of the assumptions of the article, but missed a significant argument. He missed this argument because Piper missed this argument. While I agree with many of Takacs’s questions about some of the strong and unsupported assertions Piper made, I think that there is a straightforward argument to be made against participating in state-sponsored lotteries.

Now, I want to make a brief disclaimer. I think that there are cogent and biblical arguments to be made against all forms of gambling. Some of the argument I am about to advance applies to other forms of gambling, but not to all. I am really only responding to state-sponsored lotteries (Powerball, Scratch Off Tickets, Etc).

The Lottery is a Tax on People Who Don’t Understand Math… and Taxation is Theft

We need to talk a little bit about how these kinds of state-sponsored lotteries work. It isn’t magic, and the money has to come from somewhere. Furthermore, the State would not be doing this if it was not in some sense generating revenue for them.

When you purchase your lottery ticket, your money goes into a bank account. This bank account gathers interest, which the State keeps. This is how they generate revenue. When someone (or multiple persons) wins, the State pays out the funds (some or all) that were originally deposited by the purchase of lottery tickets. So, the money you win is the money that someone else paid. 1

This is important. You are not playing against the State, you are playing against other lottery players. When you win, you do not take money from the State, you take it from other lottery players.

In other words, when you purchase a lottery ticket, you are purchasing a chance to take the wealth of another person, without giving them anything in return. I’m not sure what else to call that but theft.

Lotteries only Work if People Don’t Really Understand the Odds

Now, I’ll acknowledge there is something exciting about a chance to win something. And usually, the bigger the prize, or the higher the stakes, the greater the thrill. While Piper seems to think that this is inherently sinful, I agree with Takacs that, at the very least, this is an unproven assertion. When I play a video game that has no save feature, so if I lose I have to start over (instead of at some later save point), the stakes are higher, and so every battle or puzzle has a greater thrill. The stakes are higher, but it is not sinful to enjoy these higher stakes. In the case of the lottery, many people will only play when the jackpot becomes a certain level because that is when it becomes thrilling.

However, if people really understood what kind of chance they were purchasing, I’m not sure they would play. Yes, it is true that once in a while someone beats the odds, and wins… that does not mean that any one person actually has a chance of winning. This is a common misunderstanding of statistics and one we intuitively understand in other areas. Allow me to demonstrate.

When I leave my house, there is a statistical chance that I will be struck by lightning and die. However, I recognize that the statistical chance is so low, that it does not warrant staying in my home at all times. Yes, it is true that once in a while someone beats the odds —so to speak— it does not follow that I should behave as though this is going to (or that it was even a realistic possibility) happen to me. We recognize that these chance occurrences happen at random 2 and that the presence of a minuscule possibility of them happening to us in any meaningful sense does not change that.

When we buy a lottery ticket because “it could happen to me” or “someone has to win,” (which, incidentally isn’t true… there is no statistical guarantee that anyone will ever win, but there is a statistical guarantee that many people will lose) it is like refusing to leave your house because “I could get struck by lightning” or “someone is going to get struck by lightning today.”

According to the official website of Powerball, the odds of matching every number and winning the total Jackpot is 1 in 292,201,338. That is less likely than being attacked by a shark (1 in 8,000,000), being struck by lightning (1 in 700,000), or even being killed by a meteorite (1 in 1,600,000).

If you don’t understand this, you are being deceived. Either by the State (which is common, the State often presents the lottery as a way to fulfill your dreams. Even by secular thinkers, this is often criticized) or by yourself. Yes, it is true that someone wins sometimes… but someone also gets struck by lightning sometimes, or attacked by a shark, or struck by a meteorite.

If we applied the same logic to playing the lottery that we do to going out of the house or swimming in the ocean, no one would play.

When You Win the Lottery, You are Stealing from the Uninformed, and usually the Poor

Now, if it were the case that every single person who was playing the lottery understood the nearly unfathomable odds, agreed to the risk, and still consented to play… you might be able to argue that this was not theft. It is probably still coveting since your fundamental goal in playing the lottery is to take the wealth of another person… but it probably wouldn’t be theft.

However, only a fool or a liar would claim that everyone actually understands the odds. As I demonstrated above, in ordinary circumstances when we are talking about statistically insurmountable odds like the chances of winning the state lottery… people live their lives as though it is not possible for it to happen to them. People play the lottery because they think they might win… and that is because they are deceived into thinking that they might.

What’s worse than that, it is usually the poor and uneducated who most frequently participate in the lottery. According to an opinion piece published in the International Business Times, “Playing the lottery is practically a religion among poor people in the United States. It is yet another corrosive addiction that preys upon the greed and hopeless dreams of those trapped in poverty.” The author quotes a study done by Wired Magazine which indicates that in households making less than $12,400 annually, on average spend 5% of their income on the lottery (that is 2.5 weeks of pay if they are full-time employees). What that means, is that you are not only stealing from deceived people, but you are stealing from poverty-stricken people who are being deceived by the State. You are purchasing a chance to take someone else’s money because they have been deceived into thinking that they might have a chance of taking yours. In point of fact, no one person actually has a chance of taking anything. The only entity involved who is guaranteed to profit is the State.

What Does Scripture Say? 3

I don’t have to go into an in-depth scriptural argument to justify why it is wrong to steal from poor people. So I’ll just quote a few key passages.

  • You shall not steal. 4
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. 5
  • If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold. 6
  • If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother 7
  • Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him. 8
  • Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool. Desire without knowledge is not goodand whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way. 9
  • The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” 10
  • The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 11
  • Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. 12

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has published a helpful article on this subject as well. The Westminster Larger Catechism also speaks to this issue in question 142.

Notes:

  1. This is a general description of the process, there are obviously variations.
  2. Humanly speaking. All things happen according to the decrees of God, which is his eternal purpose whereby he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
  3. All citations are from the ESV
  4. Exodus 20:5
  5. Exodus 20:17
  6. Leviticus 25:25
  7. Deuteronomy 15:7
  8. Proverbs 14:31
  9. Proverbs 19:1-2
  10. Isaiah 3:14
  11. Ezekiel 22:29
  12. Luke 20:46-47