By Brannon S. Howse
Although many forms of gambling remain illegal throughout the United States, where it is practiced—whether through legally-operated casinos or state-sponsored lotteries—the cultural fallout is immense. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because the Bible has much to say about the problems caused by this “sport.”
More than 1,700 verses in Scripture have to do with finances, and many American pastors have been vigilant in preaching about gambling—particularly state-based gambling when it is on their state ballot. While this is a good thing, the tide against which these faithful preachers are swimming is overwhelming in many ways. One of the most difficult aspects of addressing the gambling issue is that, of all the moral issues we might discuss, this one looks the most like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Outwardly, gambling appears to be harmless entertainment—possibly even a great way to come up with a little extra money. Underneath, though, the vicious reality is anything but benign. Let’s look first at some scriptural reasons why this is so.
Romans 13:1–4 tells us the purpose of civil government is to protect the righteous and punish the wicked:
Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do good and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant to you for good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.
This passage makes it clear that government officials are ministers of God. States that sponsor gambling are sponsoring a vice that God says to avoid. Why? Because gambling encourages laziness, greed, coveting, and it takes advantage of the poor—all of which God opposes. The civil government cannot follow its God-given purpose and protect the righteous when it is establishing habits that promote unrighteousness or wrong living.
While I am encouraged by pastors who do preach from the Bible why the church should oppose gambling, many pastors believe such matters should not be addressed by the church because they are “political issues.” Not only do I think they are wrong to think so, but I believe their attitude is largely responsible for America’s moral decline. Such pastors have betrayed their flocks as well as the teaching and proclamation of the whole counsel of God.
Hotel casinos, riverboat casinos, lottery tickets, pull-tabs at the local bar, online gambling, horse tracks, and neighborhood poker games have all become a great American pastime. But before we look at a Christian worldview response to gambling, let’s consider the following facts about gambling in America:
• Legalized gambling siphons off a great deal of money from the economy. More is wagered on gambling than is spent on elementary and secondary education ($286 billion versus $213 billion in 1990). Historian John Ezel concludes, in his book Fortune’s Merry Wheel, “If history teaches us anything, a study of over 1,300 legal lotteries held in the United States proves . . . they cost more than they brought in if their total impact on society is reckoned.”24
• In one year, more than $550 billion is spent in legalized gambling. Every day, $88 million are spent on lotteries alone—more money than is spent on food.
• Ten million Americans have a gambling addiction. Six percent of all adolescents are addicted to gambling. Three-fourths of high school students are involved in some form of gambling. When gamblers come to the point of seeking help, their debts usually range between $18,000 and $50,000.
• When legalized gambling enters a new area, there is a 100-500 percent increase in cases of compulsive gambling, and at least two-thirds of compulsive gamblers turn to crime to finance their addiction.
• A Colorado city realized a six-fold increase in child protection cases the year after a casino arrived.
• Domestic violence and child abuse dramatically increase, and 20 percent of compulsive gamblers attempt suicide.
• U.S. News & World Report confirmed: “Crime rates are higher in places with gambling, 1,092 incidents per 10,000 population in 1994, compared with 593 per 10,000 for the entire nation.”
• In a testimony before a U.S. Congressional committee on small businesses, the statement was made that for every one dollar a state receives from gambling revenue, it costs that state at least three dollars in increased services such as criminal justice and welfare.
• About half of the college students surveyed in the United States and Canada said they had gambled at a casino during the previous year.
• In New Jersey “gambling is festering in every high school and college,” said Edward Looney, director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling. “It’s absolutely epidemic. Just about any college in the country has students who gamble at racetracks and casinos.” (footnote #25)
• As a veteran judge for some twenty-five years in the municipal courts of Chicago and the circuit court of Cook County, Illinois, Jacob M. Brande lays his finger on fifteen specific causes of juvenile delinquency, one of which is gambling. (Footnote #26)
Despite the devastating impact of gambling on Americans, many lawmakers continue to support legislation that allows for the proliferation of gambling. Understanding the economic liability and seeing the issue through the lens of a Christian worldview, some conservative lawmakers, however, do oppose the expansion of gambling. Gambling is wrong from a Christian worldview for the reasons I outline below.
State-sponsored and state-approved gambling is wrong because the marketing and advertising of gaming is inherently deceptive. The next time you see a TV commercial or hear a radio spot promoting a state lottery, note well the sales pitch. It won’t tell the truth. Do these commercials, for instance, tell you (or even imply!) that your chances of winning are so remote that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than winning or that a woman has a better chance of bearing triplets than of “hitting it big”? Do lottery commercials mention the devastating consequences gambling has proven to have on marriages and children? Not hardly. The commercials promise you a great time, lots of fun, happiness, and imply that you might even get rich. Bear in mind, too, this is the message coming from your own government, the institution legally and morally bound to look out for your best interests. The ads spout nothing but outright deception—which the Bible vehemently warns against. Here are a few examples of just how vehemently:
• Leviticus 6:2, 5—“When someone sins and offends the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in regard to a deposit, a security, or a robbery; or defrauds his neighbor, . . . [h]e must make full restitution.”
• Proverbs 6:19 lists, as two of six things the Lord hates: “a lying witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up trouble among brothers.”
• Proverbs 11:18—“The wicked man earns an empty wage.”
States, of course, are not the only guilty parties. I wonder if the Indian tribes and businessmen who make their living from gambling have ever read these verses. Indeed, state-sponsored or other legal gambling spreads strife among families, and gambling businesses always use deception to get people to buy that lottery ticket or go to the casino.
The Bible also is rife with warnings against taking advantage of the poor. Yet, numerous national studies show that the ones who pay the dearest price for the vice of gambling are low-income families:
Lotteries “are more aggressive than most other forms of gambling, since individuals in lower income brackets spend proportionally more money on them than do persons with higher income,” according to the National Policy on Gambling.
In Georgia, those who make less than $25,000 a year spend three times as much on lottery tickets than those who make $75,000 or more per year. On the national average, lottery gamblers with household incomes under $10,000 bet nearly three times as much on the lottery as those with incomes of more than $50,000. (Footnote #27)
Economics professor and lottery expert Robert Goodman says that after three to five years, many people stop playing the lottery because they can no longer afford it.28
For the poor, this imbalance of spending is not simply a matter of shifting priorities among a household’s discretionary income. Here, we are talking about households that have no discretionary income. What is lost through gambling is lost from providing the basic necessities, clearly an affront to 1 Timothy 5:8: “Now if anyone does not provide for his own relatives, and especially for his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Many low-income people take money that should be used for milk, food, housing, healthcare, and clothes and squander it on their state lottery.
Again, in 2 Corinthians 12:14, Paul points out that “children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.” Gambling, however, takes away from the resources parents should be using to care and provide for their children. And there’s more:
• Proverbs 14:21—”whoever shows kindness to the poor will be happy.”
• Proverbs 14:31—“The one who oppresses the poor insults their Maker, but one who is kind to the needy honors Him.”
• Proverbs 22:16—“Oppressing the poor to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich—both lead only to poverty.”
State-sponsored gambling clearly oppresses the poor. And that’s very bad economic news indeed. To make matters worse, gambling of all kinds also incites the worst of motives in people:
• Exodus 20:17 says we are not to covet that which belongs to others. But when people play the lottery or gamble, they are coveting or desiring that which is not rightfully theirs and that which they have not earned through legitimate work or investing. As Christians we are to “put our hand to the plow” and earn money through the sweat of our brow, not by being involved in get-rich schemes, ill-gotten gains, or greedy ambition.
• Proverbs 12:11 promises, “The one who works his land will have plenty of food, but whoever chases fantasies lacks sense.” While most people today are not farmers, the biblical principle is clear that we are to pursue an honest occupation to earn money to support our families.
• Proverbs 28:20 warns, “A faithful man will have many blessings, but one in a hurry to get rich will not go unpunished.”
• 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12 admonishes: “In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: ‘If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.’ For we hear that there are some among you who walk irresponsibly, not working at all, but interfering with the work [of others]. Now we command and exhort such people, by the Lord Jesus Christ, that quietly working, they may eat their own bread.”
• Ephesians 4:28 notes, “The thief must no longer steal. Instead, he must do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need.”
Gambling simply does not fit a biblical worldview. Whether it distorts the truth (and it does) or degrades life for the poor (and it does), gambling violates biblical principles. In particular, government support of gambling represents a clear abdication of the government’s responsibility to treat citizens justly. Unfortunately, there are other dire issues in which contemporary American government is also in danger of abdicating its duty.
25 Neil Chadwick, “A Christian Response to Gambling,” sermon.
26 P. L. Tan, c1979, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: [a treasury of illustrations, anecdotes, facts and quotations for pastors, teachers and Christian workers], (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, 1996).
27 Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Copyright 2006 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.