Our subject: Gambling. Our question: Is it, as many claim, “Just a game”? Or is it truly a sin? As always, our source for answers: The Bible.
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also His coat: Now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture [Psalm 22:18] might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted My raiment among them, and for My vesture they did cast lots (John 19:23-24, Emph, RS).
This opening passage was chosen because I believe it is one of the most misused passages in the Bible concerning gambling—for it isn’t! The reasoning for this conclusion follows:
The Bible is a book of principles, universally applicable to all cultures/ages/backgrounds. God expects its readers to exercise common sense and sound logic to recognize and apply those principles to their particular condition (Isa. 1:18). If we want to find a specific subject, we must search for the description, not necessarily the word. So we need a good definition of what we mean by gambling as a sin. It’s more than just taking a chance! My English dictionary says for its first definition of gamble: “To play games of chance for money or some other stake.” But its second definition is simply “to take a risk”, which is the common usage today. Farmers take chances on the weather; investing in the stock market can be a risky endeavor; speculating on an oil well may well end with a dry hole! But none of these would fit a proper definition of gambling as a sin, for “chance” is just one element. The more important element: To take a risk “for money or some other stake.” The key question: If you win, do others lose? Consider all the above examples: A successful farmer benefits everyone involved; if the stock market rises, everyone profits; if the well comes in, it’s good for everyone with an interest in it. This is not the kind of gambling we’re concerned with. In a true gambling endeavor, the winner takes his winnings from others’ losses. That, then, is our working narrow definition of gambling, and that with which every faithful Christian should be familiar.
Now: Let’s look again at our opening passage: “Casting lots” is not the sin of gambling in this narrow sense, but falls into the category of drawing straws, or flipping a coin, or playing the child’s game of “eenie, meenie, miney moe” to make a decision. Those claiming such don’t look very far ahead, for “casting lots” is used some 12 times in the Bible, most often commanded by God. Aaron was to “cast lots” to choose the scape goat from the sacrificial one, Leviticus 16:8; Joshua “cast lots” to determine the dividing of territory among the tribes (Josh. 18:10). The apostles “gave forth their lots” to choose Judas’ replacement (Acts 1:26). If “casting lots” were sin, those passages would be impossible to explain away. That which proves too much, proves nothing. Don’t mistake the trappings of gambling—lots, cards, dice, etc.—for the sin itself. My ultra-conservative grandparents wouldn’t allow us kids to bring into their house our Monopoly game (using dice), nor any card game, because of the association with gambling. We respected that, for it was their house; but we recognized, even as kids, the error involved: There was nothing of ours placed at risk for the winner to take.
So the soldiers at the foot of the cross weren’t guilty of “gambling” for Jesus’ coat; it doesn’t fit our definition. None of the soldiers had a “stake” in the matter, for it wasn’t their coat in the first place! None stood to lose anything they already had. They may have been guilty of stealing from Christ’s heirs—perhaps by Roman law that coat now belonged to Mary—but all the elements of “gambling” weren’t there. “Chance” is one element, but simple speculation does not constitute sin. With the added element of a possession of yours being placed at risk against the possession of others, we have our working definition of gambling.
Here is our primary concern: What does the Bible say about gambling? You may well hear the objection, “The Bible doesn’t condemn it—the word gambling isn’t even in the Bible!” Considering the plethora of Bible versions available, I’m not sure that statement is true; somewhere, some version surely uses the word! But it doesn’t matter; the words gay and lesbian aren’t in there either; nor manslaughter or patricide; bigamy, embezzlement, con game nor scam, etc. You see the point: Modern words, many coined since 1611, will not be found in a 400-year-old manuscript. Using that argument, car-jacking would be an acceptable occupation, for it’s not condemned nor even mentioned in the Bible! The objection is meaningless.
So, the properly-phrased question: What does the Bible say about putting up your stake—something of value—against that of others in a game of chance? Some very basic stuff comes to bear here. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 states an important principle: “Study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing” (Emph. RS). Paul follows that up with the more succinct command, 2 Thessalonians 3:12, that “with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.” Laid alongside v. 10, “If any will not work, neither let him eat,” we have the Biblical principle of earning your own way rather than living off the labors of others. The very element that makes the difference between just taking a chance, and gambling, is what makes it sin: The taking of something of value from other people for nothing in return. It amounts to legalized stealing! The modern trappings of gambling are designed to disguise that fact. State lotteries tout the added income for the state; casinos offer entertainment, buffets, etc.. But think about it: Where does the money won in a lottery come from? From the pockets of all the other people buying lottery tickets! If you hit the jackpot on a 25 cent slot machine, where do you suppose all those quarters came from? From all the other people who fed it before you, trying to take the money of all those who came before them. The winner in effect “steals” money from the losers. Nothing’s been earned; nothing’s been bought or sold; nothing of value is given in exchange; just money that is put at risk on the outcome of chance, “”winner take all”—and that terminology is accurate. The winner doesn’t earn the money, he just takes it from the others. Again, it is nothing short of legalized stealing.
Another Bible principle that should be brought to bear is found in Matthew 7:20, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” So what are the “fruits” of gambling? In Minnesota where I live, the Wilder Foundation reports some 5 percent of the population are at-risk or addicted to gambling. That is some 285,000 people in just one state. Research shows over $39,000 per month in Welfare payments are gambled away, by those who can least afford it. In 1988, before casinos or the state lottery existed here, the state had one “Gamblers Anonymous” group. Today there are over 60. 1 Corinthians 6:12 seems to fit here: “I will not be brought under the power of” anything. Anything addictive must be avoided.
A recent Reader’s Digest article claims gambling in Minnesota costs the state $200,000,000 annually in lost income, bad debts, treatment and crime. In counties hosting casinos, the crime rate has doubled. And not just in Minnesota, of course. The same pattern rules everywhere. Atlantic City legalized gambling in 1976. By 1979 it had jumped from 50th to first place in crime per capita among U.S. cities. In Ledyard, Connecticut, “Foxwood’s Casino” opened in 1986, perhaps the richest and most extravagant of them all, partnering now with MGM. Within three years, rape, robbery, car theft and larceny all increased by more than 400 percent.
Such statistics could be quoted for pages, but these samples make it clear. Anything that is accompanied by this much evil must be evil itself. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
But by far the worst characteristic (“fruit”) of gambling is that it encourages parasitic behavior, living off the labor of others rather than pulling one’s own weight, earning your own way by your own work. This violates a Bible principle stated from almost the beginning. Because of Adam’s sin, God said,
Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:17-19).
It’s mentioned again just before the Great Flood: Genesis 5:29 records the words of Noah’s father at the birth of his son: “(He) shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which cometh because of the ground which Jehovah hath cursed.” That curse continues with us to this day, and God expects us to accept that sentence–to support ourselves by hard work, not by living off others. That will not change until we arrive in Heaven, for Revelation 22:3 promises among other things that “There shall be no curse any more.” Until then, God expects us to work—hard, earning our own way. “Get-rich-quick” schemes, whether they be attempts to win the lottery or anything else, simply represent attempts to get out from under the responsibility God has given us. Christians have no business toying with that or even appearing to do so (2 Thess. 5:22).
So what do we learn about gambling?
Recreationally, it is legalized theft.
Professionally, it is slothfulness, parasitical and destructive.
To society, it is a blight that encourages addiction and crime, and discourages personal responsibility.
Spiritually, it is sin, violating a host of passages (see above).
Culturally, it reduces one’s fellow man to a “target” to be taken advantage of if possible.
Bottom line: Christians are to abhor the sin of gambling, no matter the form it takes—from church bingo to scratch-off tickets to professional casinos, and everything in between. If you lose, you prove yourself a poor steward of the material things God has provided—you’ve paid good money for nothing! While if you win, you’re taking money you haven’t earned from the pocket of others. Whether trivial or vital, if your possession is placed at risk against that of others, with the winner—determined by chance—taking all, that is gambling, and that is sin.