As the Powerball jackpot reaches new highs, so does discussion in Christian circles about whether it’s something believers can / should participate in. I’ve seen a few posts similar to Seven Reasons Not to Play the Lottery by John Piper. Here Piper all but says “no Christian should buy a lottery ticket” and is adamant that he wants no contributions to his church from lottery winnings. But the underlying question is not “should Christians play the lottery?” but “Is gambling a sin?” If it is a sin then the lottery issue is settled. If it’s not, then rather than call it “spiritual suicide” a more nuanced approach is called for.
If something is sinful in and of itself then it is forbidden to all Christians, at all times in all circumstances. To think this through, let’s use something no one would disagree is sinful: use of pornography.
This is not a “wisdom issue.” There is no circumstance under which pornography can be used legitimately by Christians. It is wrong for all people, at all times, in all circumstances. So far so good. But, there’s more to it than that. If pornography use is a sin, then not only can Christians not use it, neither can they facilitate it. So, for example, a Christian accountant cannot keep the books for a studio that produces pornographic movies. Nor can a Christian makeup artist work on the set preparing the actors for the camera – even if he or she never watches what the company produces. The same can be said for abortion. While working for a company that provides abortion as part of its health care plan is an issue of individual conscience, working for Planned Parenthood in any capacity is a sin and should not be done by anyone who claims the name of Christ.
Now let’s apply this to gambling. If gambling is sinful for all people, at all times, in all circumstances then a Christian in Las Vegas cannot work as an accountant at Caesar’s Palace or as a maid or waiter at a casino – even if they never gamble themselves. If a Christian has such a job, they should quit and find something else, just like the accountant at the porn studio should. If someone is willing to apply the same standards to gambling that they would to something like pornography then I’m willing to entertain their argument that it is sinful in and of itself. If not, we must say, while it may not be wise in many circumstances, it is not an area where we can bind the consciences of all Christians. Can gambling be sinful? Sure. Is it always so? I don’t believe so.
On another note, the government sponsored lottery is certainly no less evil than the government sponsored social programs which, unlike the lottery, forcefully separate people from their money to give it to those who did not earn it – also undermining the virtues of work and personal responsibility democratic societies require. More people would be helped financially by being allowed to keep a higher percentage of their paycheck than by stopping them from spending a few dollars a week on lottery tickets.