What About Playing the Lottery?

What is the Scriptural basis for some Christians believing that the lottery is sinful? And, is it in fact a sin to play the lottery and gamble?

The subject of gambling is not specifically addressed in Scripture, so we can’t turn to a verse in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not gamble,” or “Blessed are those who bet”! But there are many passages in the Bible that give us general principles of righteous behavior that shed light on the subject.

For instance, there are quite a number of passages that speak of our duty to be responsible stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us. The parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind here (Luke 15:11-32). The prodigal son is condemned precisely because of his prodigality (i.e., reckless wastefulness). The Bible says he “squandered his estate with loose living.” When he “came to his senses,” he confessed to his father, “I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight.” His wastefulness was a sin.

This certainly discourages gambling, for there is always a high risk of losing money when you gamble. Any money used to gamble, therefore, must be money that can afford to be lost (because it probably will be), and it ought to be money that could not be put to a better use (and it’s not hard to find a better use!)

Remember that with many forms of gambling, especially casino gambling, the odds are purposely stacked against you. Casinos make money when you lose money. They are hoping you lose. They are planning for you to lose. Their whole set-up is designed for most people to lose most of the time. Otherwise they would go out of business. It’s true, there are occasional winners, but only enough to entice people to continue to throw away their money. The vast majority of people who visit a casino lose money (many lose lots of it!). A few break even. It is a rare person that ever makes money.

Under most circumstances, it’s difficult to reconcile gambling with responsible Christian stewardship.

But is gambling sinful per se? There are some forms that are clearly sinful, others that are clearly not, and still others in which it is somewhat difficult to tell.

Under the heading of those forms that are clearly sinful we would have to place compulsive gambling, gambling with borrowed money, or money needed to pay for the basic needs of one’s family (rent, groceries, utilities, etc.), or money owed to God in the tithe.

Under the heading of those forms of gambling that are clearly not sinful per se we’d have to include such things as raffles, low ante bingo games, or a friendly wager on a golf game: “If I win you buy me a soda; if you win I’ll buy you one.”

Recreation is a lawful human activity, provided it is done in moderation. Gambling may be a legitimate form of recreation. What’s the difference, really, if one person spends ten dollars on a slot machine, and another spends ten dollars in a video arcade? Each is plugging quarters into a machine for recreation. The problem comes when the time and money spent, is time and money that cannot afford to be spent. This is true whatever our recreations might be.

Recreation is a gift of God; but like all His gifts it can be corrupted by our sinful hearts. There are temptations to sin with all forms of recreation, but the gambler is susceptible to a particularly ensnaring sin—the love of money. A lawful and innocent hope of gain can easily be transformed into a monstrous obsession. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:10). We must not think too much of our strength to resist this temptation. The love of money is an insidious evil. It makes us do all kinds of very foolish things—like being overly optimistic that we can beat the odds that are stacked against us.

It would be a very difficult thing to try to justify the operation of a casino as an honorable profession, because in promoting themselves, casinos fill would-be customers with unrealistic hopes of winning. Their promotional advertisements are built on lies. When Kansas first came out with a state-run lottery, the slogan was, “Someone’s always winning!” But truth in advertising would require them to say, “Thousands are always losing!” The fact that so many people play the lottery and really hope to win big, gives credence to the old adage that a fool and his money are soon parted.

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