By Douglas Groothuis
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So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter (Isaiah 59:14).

Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth, we shall never recognize it—Blaise Pascal.[1]

The great scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), understood humans as deposed royalty—royal by virtue of creation in God’s image, but ruined through the fall. However, there is hope in the ruins because of the achievements of Jesus Christ on our behalf. I have written extensively of Pascal’s apologetic elsewhere, but we focus on his critique of society, which is as profound and pertinent as any aspect of his wide-ranging and brilliant work.[2]

Living as deposed royalty in a fallen world means observing the corruption of culture and politics by vanity and concupiscence, to use two of Pascal’s categories. Ever the astute student of human nature, Pascal trained his gimlet eye on the pretenses, postures, dissimulations, and hidden absurdities of everyday life. His concern and critique were both universal and particular to his day. Humans east of Eden are, when studied soberly and carefully, ineluctably odd and inexplicable creatures—that is, until they are deciphered by the divinely revealed categories of creation and the fall. Human culture, which proceeds from the greatness and wretchedness of humanity, likewise generates odd patterns of custom, habit, fashion, and more; it, too, needs to be deciphered according to a higher wisdom. Can the madness of the world be brought to heel through criticism? “Men are so inevitably mad that not to be mad would be to give a mad twist to madness.”[3]


Pascal takes finding and securing sanity in an insane world to be paramount. We need a sufficient reference point. “When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on-board ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops, he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point.”[4] Depravity necessarily presupposes a previous integrity or wholeness that has been corrupted or compromised. Just as a ripe fruit may rotten and become depraved, so, too, a culture may rotten and become depraved by vanity and concupiscence, which obscures truth.

While anyone with working taste buds can tell when a piece of fruit is rotten and uneatable, entire cultures become rotten with few seeing it as rotten and depraved. For example, reference is now made to “ethical pornography.” This means pornography that is not sourced through human trafficking and that does not supposedly exploit anyone. Concupiscence thus dons the mask of decency, since pornography intrinsically exploits even the most willing producers and consumers of it. In fact, the word porn can now mean something that gives enjoyment, as in “travel porn”—books about travel that people enjoy, as in a guilty pleasure. But, for Pascal, we must not seek peace when truth is in retreat (as it is today).

In the Church, when truth is injured by enemies of the faith, when attempts are made to uproot it from the hearts of the faithful, and make error reign in its stead, would it be serving or betraying the Church to remain at peace? And is it not obvious that, just as it is a crime to disturb the peace when truth reigns, it is also a crime to remain at peace when the truth is being destroyed? There is therefore a time when peace is just and a time when it is unjust. It is written: “There is a time for war and a time for peace,” [Eccles 3:8] and it is the interests of the truth which distinguish between them. But there is not a time for truth and a time for error, and it is written, on the contrary: “The truth of the Lord endureth forever” [Ps 117:2], and that is why Jesus Christ, who said that he had come to bring peace [Lk 2:14], said also that he had come to bring war [Mt 10:34-39]; but he did not say that he had come to bring both truth and falsehood. Truth is therefore the first rule and ultimate purpose of things.[5]

Pascal was a truth man. He did not seek peace at the expense of truth (see Jer 6:14). If he wanted peace, he would not have opposed all the wisdom of the day by denying that “nature abhors a vacuum,” nor would he have taken on the powerful Jesuits and their fallacious moral and theological reasoning.[6] Pascal sharpens the point even finer:

Those who lead disorderly lives tell those who are normal that it is they who deviate from nature, and think they are following nature themselves; just as those who are on board ship think that the people on shore are moving away. Language is the same everywhere: we need a fixed point to judge it. The harbour is the judge of those aboard ship, but where are we going to find a harbour in morals?[7]

We should remember that this is a fragment from an uncompleted work. Pascal raises a question that he answers elsewhere in the Pensées. We must listen to God to understand ourselves and our place in the world in that light. The triune God is the harbor in morals, the fixed point, who never changes (Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17). Nevertheless, since human beings have been corrupted and are depraved by the fall, they have lost their true good and thus cast futilely about for some ultimate point of reference, some safe harbor. “Since [man’s] true nature has been lost, anything can become his nature: similarly, true good being lost, anything can become his true good.”[8]

In a programmatic note, Pascal speaks of a “letter on the folly of human knowledge and philosophy” and notes “280 kinds of sovereign good in Montaigne.” The reference is to an essay by Michel Montaigne, the influential French skeptic, who notes the great disagreement among philosophers as to the highest good, which he takes to be unknowable or nonexistent. Not so for Pascal. He uses skepticism to drive people to biblical revelation as a sure source of knowledge and he takes our epistemic impairment to be a result and confirmation of the fall.[9] Nevertheless, the fall has caused an estrangement from God, ourselves, and others wherein we have lost our way. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Is 53:6). As Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10). And some are so lost that they do not even fathom that they are lost. They have tried to make themselves at home in a homeless world and have been stupefied in turn. “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”[10] And: “Man does not know the place he should occupy. He has obviously gone astray; he has fallen from his true place and cannot find it again. He searches everywhere, anxiously but in vain, in the midst of impenetrable darkness.”[11]

From this darkness much of culture and politics spring. Francis Schaeffer makes the same point by identifying the human need for a sufficient “integration point,” given his finitude, his fallenness and cruelty, and his strange nobility amid it all. “There is the wonder of man—but contrasted with this there is his cruelty. So man stands with all his wonder and nobility, and yet also with his horrible cruelty that runs throughout the warp and woof of man’s history.”[12]

He goes on to write, “Man is personal and yet he is finite, and so he is not a sufficient integration point for himself.”[13] That integration point must come from a reliable source beyond ourselves to compensate for our ignorance, our cruelty, and our inability to explain ourselves to ourselves. Schaeffer and Pascal agreed that source is only found in Scripture and known (cognitively and experientially) through Jesus Christ. Humans are finite and fallen. God is infinite and perfect. Thus, we desperately need God’s perspective on ourselves, and we need God’s Spirit in our lives in order to be people who integrate the parts of themselves (reason, feeling, will, and imagination) wisely before God and people (Prov 3:5-6; Rom 12:1-2).


Because of this congenital and perennial confusion on the nature of the good, the true, and the beautiful, societies have differing concepts of justice, which can appear (and often are) arbitrary and ludicrous. “‘Why are you killing me for your own benefit? I am unarmed.’ ‘Why, do you not live on the other side of the water? My friend, if you lived on this side, I should be a murderer, but since you live on the other side, I am a brave man and it is right.’” The customs and norms within societies are often glued together with the thinnest of adhesives. In some cases, the emperor has no clothes at all, but receives profuse encomia and obsequious praise, nonetheless.

Injustice and forms of social authority (such as law, education, politics, advertising, and medicine) are often propped up by what Pascal calls “the imagination.” By this, he does not mean fictional stories or flights of fantasy as in a daydream or a night dream but rather our associations of the contingent elements of culture—pertaining mostly to appearances—with false meanings. As William Wood puts it, “For Pascal, the imagination is the faculty that controls the salience of our sense perceptions.”[14] We assign value to certain objects or events, which become signs (or semiotic indicators), which communicate differently from the purely propositional forms such as writing or speech. The imagination can be deceptive because it “leads us to focus on the superfluous as the expense of the pertinent.”[15]

Our magistrates have shown themselves well aware of this mystery. Their red robes, the ermine in which they swaddle themselves like furry cats, the law-courts where they sit in judgement, the fleurs de lys [a stylized lily used as a symbol], all this august panoply was very necessary. If physicians did not have long gowns and mules, if learned doctors did not wear square caps and robes four times too large, they would never have deceived the world, which finds such an authentic display irresistible.[16]

These sartorial accruements convey an aura of authority, irrespective of each person’s character, abilities, or achievements. Or think of politicians posing in front of bright American flags and wearing flag pins. Pascal sounds jaded in the following.

If they possessed true justice, and if physicians possessed the true art of healing, they would not need square caps; the majesty of such sciences would command respect in itself. But, as they only possess imaginary science, they have to resort to these vain devices in order to strike the imagination, which is their real concern, and this, in fact, is how they win respect.[17]

Of course, not all are empty suits; some who possess true justice and medical prowess wear the uniforms of imagination just as the frauds and posers. But Pascal’s point stands. Donning a robe does not change one’s fundamental character or add to one’s knowledge, but it may impress people, nevertheless, through the imagination. Those teaching false religion may wear the robes of the holy. Or, as Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, it is important for the prince to appear virtuous and pious, but the demands of politics must trump appearance.

After a rule of authority has been established in a society, imagination is vital for its preservation.

And that is where imagination begins to play its part. Until then pure power did it, now it is power, maintained by imagination in a certain faction, in France the nobles, in Switzerland commoners, etc. So these bonds securing respect for a particular person are bonds of imagination.[18]

Power and prestige are often maintained by the “bonds of imagination.” As Wood summarizes this point, “society functions best when the socially subordinate construe the socially dominant as deserving their power.”[19] By best, we should mean most efficiently, not necessarily most justly. Unjust policies may appear “admirable,” but be based on concupiscence: “We have established and developed out of concupiscence admirable rules of polity, ethics and justice, but at root, the evil root of man, this evil stuff of which we are made is only concealed; it is not pulled up.”[20] Pascal agreed with the preacher of Ecclesiastes: “And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccles 4:4).

For example, in the Jim Crow South in the United States, whites created and upheld laws requiring the segregation of blacks on the ostensible basis that this was the best for both parties, when, in fact, whites were lusting for power, prestige, and honor relative to blacks, whom they wrongly deemed inferior. To move from policy to private action, sinful pride lurks behind the desire to be thought to be generous. Consider the buildings, rooms, schools, and endowments named after their benefactors. Jesus, on the contrary, said to give in secret to preserve humility (Mt 6:3-4). The audience of one is enough, or to use Kierkegaard’s phrase, “the audit of eternity” should ever be kept in mind.

“Weaklings are those who know the truth, but maintain it only as far as it is in their interest to do so, and apart from that forsake it.”[21] Many chose to depart from truth to maintain power or influence. It is said that in politics, “perception is reality,” which means that “impression management” (Irving Goffman) is more important than personal integrity in light of considering verity. “Perception is reality” harks back to Protagoras’s anthem of relativism, “Man is the measure of all things,” which, among other logical malignancies, is a self-contradiction, since it makes a universal claim. Another man, say myself, can deny it and that will become “the measure of all things.” Ironically, however much power or influence they exercise, they are, morally speaking, weaklings, since they do not align themselves courageously with truth, come what may. In biblical language, they do not “swear to their own hurt” (Ps 15:4)—that is, they do not put honesty above their reputation or wealth.


Beyond being a brilliant scientist, inventor, polemicist, apologist, and philosopher, Pascal had a gimlet eye for the pomposity, pretentiousness, and absurdity of much of culture and politics, and he exposed it. Concupiscence masquerades as charity. Pomp cloaks naked power. Imagination obscures reality and derails reason. The world has gone mad because the world went wrong a long time ago (Genesis 3). Nevertheless, from “the fixed point” of the Christian mindset, insanity may be exposed and sanity restored to erring mortals willing to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord.


[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1995), 223.

[2] See Douglas Groothuis, Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2024).

[3] Pascal, 120.

[4] Pascal, 220.

[5] Pascal, 322-323.

[6] Douglas Groothuis, “Theological Controversy,” Beyond the Wager.

[7] Pascal, 219.

[8] Pascal, 118.

[9] See Groothuis, “Skepticism and the Hidden God,” Beyond the Wager.

[10] Pascal, 53.

[11] Pascal, 118.

[12] Francis Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 19. In briefer compass, Schaeffer often speaks of what Pascal calls “the greatness and misery” of human beings. Schaeffer uses language such as “the wonder of man” and “man’s cruelty.”

[13] Schaeffer, 1.

[14] William Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall: The Secret Instinct (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 61.

[15] Wood, 62.

[16] Pascal, 10-11.

[17] Pascal, 11.

[18] Pascal, 252.

[19] Wood, Pascal, 56.

[20] Pascal, 69.

[21] Pascal, 229.

— Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and is the author of twenty books, including, most recently, Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal (InterVarsity-Academic, 2024) and Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (InterVarsity-Academic, 2022).