Is gambling sin? What are the odds of finding a verse that states, “You shall not buy Lotto tickets or visit Carnival City”? Perhaps there is a chance, the way translations go nowadays, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.
If we want to know whether gambling is a sin, we have to look at the bigger picture. When Paul had carnivorous cravings, he did not merely approach the local butchery with a kill-and-eat approach, as Peter was instructed by God in Acts 10. There were a few more factors to figure in before digging into the fillet. Likewise, when we consider the question, to Lotto or not to Lotto? there is a lot more to be said than the mere absence of a particular verse that forbids gambling.
Before we jump into the topic, let’s have a quick reality-check.
Since its legalisation in 1996, the gambling industry in South Africa has grown significantly, and currently gross gaming revenues stand at R15.921 billion (R18.129 billion, if the National Lottery is included). Gauteng shares 43.7% of the gambling pie.
One of the South African professors of finance tells his students: “You will never, never, never, never win the lottery . . . but you might.” That is a helpful description. Your chance of winning is literally one in millions, but that one chance gets hearts beating excitedly week after week. A representative of the gambling industry tried to portray this as a noble cause: for less than the price of a loaf of bread, the poor are given a chance to hope. He got at least one thing right: His customers are the poor—and by gambling they get poorer!
By taxing gambling, the government shares in this wicked exploitation of the poor instead of contributing to their safety. Government cannot curb the evil desires in the hearts of its citizens, but it should protect them by restricting the opportunities to express those evil desires.
Now, the question is, what are these evil desires?
Gambling is an attempt to get rich and to do so quickly. In traditional business there is a trading, an exchange of value: I give something to get something in return. Both parties benefit. In gambling, for one to win, another needs to lose. The motive is simply selfish—an attempt to benefit at the expense of others. This is the very opposite of love. Would God ignore such an attitude? Gambling is an attempt to benefit from others without effort. God’s design for us is to work to gain an income. Those who try and benefit from the efforts of others are severely reprimanded.
Gambling is idolatry. Instead of trusting God for provision, gambling is an attempt to take a shortcut. It puts the trust in another god, called “good luck.” In this serious matter of idolatry, Isaiah 65:11f is a helpful reminder. A curse is pronounced on those who ignore God and worship the idols Gad and Meni, “Fortune” and “Destiny.” The question here is simply, who are you going to trust: God or Gad? God does not leave that open as an option.
The stage shows, conference venues, and entertainment activities related to casinos are well-known for their excellence and popularity. But these other forms of income do not hold a candle to astronomical profit margins available to casino owners via gambling. It would therefore be fair to assume that their primary business is gambling rather than entertainment. As such, these places could be described as places of idolatry. Some may argue that idolatry is also practised by some individuals at shopping centres. That’s potentially true, but all the same, idolatry is not their primary business. Good luck (or call him what you want) is, without doubt, the god worshipped at casinos.
A believer therefore needs to think a bit like Paul when he considered the options for a butchery to get his meat from—or rather, for the sake of weaker brothers, where he will not go to satisfy his cravings for the good things he may legitimately enjoy. This deserves some careful thought since gambling and sleaze have been married for a long time—all behind a veneer of glitz, glamour and bling. After hearing recently of a personal acquaintance gambling his family business into the ground, I’m more convinced that casinos are places of wickedness.
Regarding the word “Lotto,” it is interesting to get back to the root of the word. The word is derived from the noun “lot,” meaning “fate” or “destiny.” And although Bible certainly contains the word, the application was very specific. The high priest used the Urim and the Thummim to cast lots. The purpose for casting lots was to come to a conclusion when there were no clear principles to guide a particular decision or choice. For example, the choice of a single replacement for Judas when there were two equally suitable candidates was made by means of the lot. The outcome was regarded as God’s choice in the situation.
Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Our concern should be to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of the lot. If God has revealed His will, the only option is obedience, and so there is no need to toss a coin to determine whether it is God’s will for you to watch Grand Prix or come to church on Sunday.
Praying that God would bless the outcome as you cast your lot by betting the money you got from pawning your TV on your favourite horse will not really work either. “Oh, but it wasn’t that bad,” you say, “it was only the toaster.” Or even better, it was only a Lotto ticket, at less than the price of a loaf of bread. Big sin? Small sin?
What is the principle? Your boss wouldn’t smile upon you playing Bingo with “just something small” from his till. I trust you don’t assume God supplied the contents of your purse with no strings attached. You have no right to squander anything that you have been appointed over. You can’t gamble with your Master’s money—any of it!
The principle does open a host of other questions. What about competitions? If I did not pay for participation would it be okay if I sent in the Sudoku to try and get that coffee machine, Weber braai or flat screen TV? What about sport? Is it permissible to play squash or chess and secretly hope to win? How about raffles? Can I buy a ticket and guess how many jelly beans Aunt Sally put in the cake that is up for grabs so that little Harry’s choir can go and sing in Timbuktu? What should you do if you won something unintentionally? Should Christians participate on game shows on TV?
Those, no doubt are questions for another day.