Is gambling a sin?
Gambling is risking a wager on a game in order to win a prize. Although there are some who experience gambling as something rewarding and fun, it tends toward being highly addictive and potentially ruinous. The Bible doesn’t call gambling a sin as such, although the Bible warns against the love of money and get-rich-quick schemes.
Let’s explore what we can learn about the moral status of gambling from the Bible and from gambling’s effects.
What makes anything a sin?
In order to get at whether gambling is a sin, it’s helpful to ask what makes something a sin in the first place. There’s the obvious answer that sin is doing something God says is immoral to do. So, when the Bible says, “You shall not steal,” or, “You shall not commit adultery,” then to steal or commit adultery would be to sin.
Yet sin isn’t always just a matter of doing what you’re not supposed to do. The Bible also talks about sin being a matter of not doing what you know you’re supposed to do. James 4:17 says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
This “sin for them” principle is an important point to make as we explore if gambling is a sin, because it suggests that, in the absence of clear commands from God, something can still be a sin for a particular person. It makes sense that, if someone knows in their gut that they’re doing something wrong or not doing something right, “it is sin for them.” It’s interesting for this topic that James 4:17 was written in the context of people presumptuously chasing after money without even considering whether it was God’s will or not (James 4:13-16).
“In the absence of clear commands from God, something can still be a sin for a particular person.”
Are there matters that are as clear cut as an on-off light switch? Sure there are. Check the Ten Commandments, for starters. And whereas you might be reading this and hoping for a light-switch answer, we’ve got to acknowledge that there are sinful tendencies that look more like amplifier knobs than light switches, because they show you a trajectory that leads you farther from God’s good plan for your life.
Is gambling a sin? Here are 2 unhelpful answers.
I’m going to risk frustrating people by saying that two unhelpful answers to “Is gambling a sin?” are a simple “yes” or “no.” If I say, “Yes, gambling is a sin,” as some do, even a few hypothetical responses show that I wouldn’t have an airtight case at all: So, you’re saying it’s a sin to buy a raffle ticket to support a fundraiser for cancer cures? So, you’re saying there’s a verse in the Bible in which God says gambling is a sin? So, you’re saying it’s wrong to bet on Fantasy Football as a way of connecting with guys at work?
But when it comes to things God doesn’t give us black-and-white answers on, the light switch metaphor doesn’t work the other direction either. Just because we can’t unambiguously declare, “Gambling is a sin,” doesn’t mean that we can say, “Therefore, gambling isn’t a sin.”
“What’s the wise thing to do here?”
Areas of our lives for which we can’t find direct commands in the Bible aren’t green lights for following our impulses; rather, they’re actually yellow lights for pausing and asking, “What’s the wise thing to do here?”
What exactly is gambling?
Gambling has three basic components: First, there’s a game which involves chance. Second, there’s an amount you wager on the outcome of the game. Third, there’s a prize you’re hoping to win with your wager. Although “gaming” is a related and sometimes synonymous term, gaming tends to involve more skill than chance.
Gambling has taken many forms throughout history, from ancient games of dice and cards and animal-fight bets to contemporary Vegas blackjack tables, state lotteries, and sports betting apps.
One can engage gambling for enjoyment (recreational gambling) or as part of one’s career (professional gambling). Even gambling enthusiasts usually recognize that a dangerous couple of lines that can be crossed: problem gambling (which a person continues even with destructive consequences) and gambling addiction (recognized as an addiction in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Dr. Timothy Fong of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program writes of gambling addiction, “Without a doubt, we know it’s an actual brain disease….There are brain changes that explain why people can’t stop.”
Is gambling in the Bible?
It’s probably a stretch to say that gambling is referenced throughout the Bible. It is true that people “cast lots,” which was a chance-based way of making decisions, such as the flipping of a coin. Although we don’t know the exact methods involved, it involved leaving the outcome to chance, such as perhaps randomly selecting from sticks of various lengths or from stones of various colors.
But casting lots did figure prominently in parts of the biblical narrative. The Israelites cast lots in order to determine land apportionments (e.g., Num. 26:55) and temple officials (1 Chron. 24:5), and the early church cast lots to choose who would replace Judas Iscariot as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1:26).
Casting lots was practiced by non-Israelites too, for example, to figure out who was responsible for calamity (Jonah 1:7) and to see who won Jesus’ garments at his crucifixion (Matt. 27:35). Of these examples, casting lots for Jesus’ garments seems to be closest to our understanding of gambling because it involved a game, not just the need to make a decision.
What biblical principles should guide our understanding of gambling?
Although the Bible never actually calls gambling a sin, it does give us principles that guide the humble into wisdom on this topic. For example, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Because gambling can put a person into a position of being mastered by addiction and debts, this principle needs to be front and center for any Christian considering gambling.
The Bible warns us against the compulsion to strike it rich. As 1 Timothy 6:9-10 says, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Note that, according to this passage, the compulsion to strike it rich often leads to both spiritual and physical destruction.
“Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
Throughout the Bible, get-rich-quick schemes and dishonest gain are warned against (Pr. 13:11), whereas hard work and contentment are seen as noble and rewarding (Eccl. 5:10; 2 Thess. 3:10). Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”
It’s worth noting that in many of these passages, the love of money is depicted as being in direct competition with God when it comes to our allegiance. Whatever decisions you make with money, you will want to make it very clear where your true allegiance lies. For Christians, money should always be seen as a means to a far more important end, such as honoring God (Pr. 3:9-10) and providing for our families (1 Tim. 5:8).
What life observations should guide our understanding of gambling?
It’s definitely worth underscoring what commercials for sports betting apps and casinos will never depict: It can be compulsively addictive and financially ruinous. Addiction Center estimates that, in the US, 2 million people are addicted to gambling and that “for as many as 20 million the habit seriously interferes with work and social life.” It continues, “Gambling addiction is the most common impulse control disorder worldwide.”
To get an idea of what gambling addiction leads to, Gamblers Anonymous asks the following types of questions on their website:
- Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
- Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?
- Have you ever committed, or considered committing an illegal act, to finance gambling?
- Have you ever gambled to escape worry, trouble, boredom, or loneliness?
- Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?
- Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?
- Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?
“Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?”
In an article on sports betting apps, Kim Henderson of World Magazine quotes pastor and marriage counselor Travis Turner as he voices his concern for the new generation of husbands and fathers: “With phones you have 10 million prostitutes in your pocket. Now you have 10,000 bookies too.” He continues, “Many are already addicted to video games, and adding a glitzy gambling aspects only makes for nitroglycerin.” Henderson goes on to describe the shame—the “slumped shoulders, averted eyes, and silence”—of young people coming to Celebrate Recovery sessions, having blown thousands that were meant for tuition or a house.
Proverbs 11:28 seems an appropriate reminder here: “Those who trust in their riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.”
“Those who trust in their riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.”
These ruinous repercussions are why many Christians, as well as Muslims, Jews, Baha’i, and other religious groups, have historically opposed gambling, and also why there has been a back-and-forth of legislation debating its legality, regulating it for fairness, and setting age limits.
Why is gambling categorized as a “sin stock”?
“Sin stocks” are stocks you can invest in which are associated with what some see as unethical behavior. Sin stock industries include tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, adult entertainment—and gambling. Why would gambling be considered a sin stock?
This isn’t meant to be a theological “gotcha” (as in, “It’s a sin stock, so it’s officially a sin!”). It is, however, an interesting observation about the company that gambling tends to keep. Think back to the Old West saloon, and what pictures come to mind? In addition to being a bar and brothel, the saloon was a place for gambling. In modern times, “Sin City” (Las Vegas) too is a place known for bars, prostitution, strip clubs, and, of course, gambling.
“Gambling does not represent humanity at our best.”
Whatever its moral status per se, gambling is associated with addictive vices, which leads us to this point: Whether it’s standing in line for a gas station lotto ticket or operating a slot machine, gambling does not represent humanity at our best. Some might respond that it can be harmless entertainment, but even there, there’s nothing inherently noble about it (although this is not the same thing as saying that it’s clearly a sin).
A profound question from a fairy tale
So, is gambling a sin? As you wrestle with what’s not clearly spelled out in Scripture, please be guided by what is taught in Scripture. Hebrews 13:5 is worth soaking in again: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” Let’s pursue contentment, work hard, and trust God. It’s when we are idly following our baser impulses that we wreck things.
In George MacDonald’s children’s book The Princess and Curdie, a young man named Curdie was out playing with a bow and arrow when he impulsively took aim at a bird. He dropped it and realized to his horror that it was the queen’s pet pigeon. Shoulders slumped, he went to the castle and brought her the bird. “I didn’t mean to do any harm, ma’am.”
She responded, “You say you didn’t mean any harm: did you mean any good, Curdie?”
“Did you mean any good?”
“No,” answered Curdie.
“Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm.”