How Christians can think about the epidemic of online gambling and sports betting

March 21, 2022

I am an avid college basketball fan. During my college years at the University of Tennessee, our basketball program took major steps forward in being competitive each year, routinely making the NCAA tournament. I follow my team and interact with various sports accounts on social media, which has put me in the target audience for many marketers including most sports betting apps and other forms of online gambling. These companies routinely target younger to middle-aged men, especially those who show interest in sports. I can’t go an hour or two online without seeing multiple ads for sports gambling, and even more so during March Madness. And due to the power of algorithms and digital marketing, the more I research this subject (and even you simply reading this type of article) will increase the likelihood of seeing gambling ads across the internet and social media platforms.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of online gambling especially related to sports. Whether professional sports like football, soccer, and basketball or collegiate sports including the current NCAA basketball tournaments, many of us are inundated with countless advertisements about making a quick buck or even betting on our team to win it all. Most of these ads are tailored to our favorite teams, often using images from high-profile games with the allure of “instant bonuses,” free credits, or an easy win. This time of year, online gambling surges leave many in their wake. 

According to The New York Times, about 30 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico currently allow sports gambling either online or in person, which means that over 30% of the population is able to legally bet on March Madness or other sporting events, across sports. These deceptive schemes or forms of “entertainment” can ruin someone’s life quickly, particularly those who may be prone to addictions or destructive behavior. They can be devastating and predatory. But how did this explosion in online sports betting become so widespread, and what is the human toll? And how does the Church begin to navigate these complex ethical issues that are plaguing our communities?

The human toll of gambling

Gambling has become an epidemic around the world in recent decades. It is important to note that gambling is not a new phenomenon or simply related to sports, as this form of entertainment (and addiction) has long been a part of our culture in the U.S., ranging from the allure of Sin City to the lottery in many states across the nation. Due to the digital age, the means have become easier in recent years, and gambling addictions can be assumed as predominant throughout our communities. This is true for about 1-3% of our country’s population, which brings the total of those dealing with serious gambling addictions to over 10 million people. Gambling accounts for about $53 billion of revenue in the U.S. alone, with $900 million in sports-related gambling in 2019.

And it isn’t hard to see the devastating effects of gambling in our communities. Whether it’s a neighbor getting $5 on pump 2 and $10 worth of scratch-offs or intoxicated casino-goers racking up major tabs with the hopes of striking it big, the house always wins by design. It’s clear that gambling is an extremely attractive venture for many as it can bring in desired tax revenue for local governments and be a lucrative business venture. Though if the chances of winning were actually high enough for most to win, then gambling wouldn’t be such a profitable business model. Online gambling companies, especially those connected to sports, know they will draw a major profit as most business leaders will never willingly put themselves at great risk of massive financial loss even if the public suffers as a result of their business.

Sports gambling exploded after the 2018 Supreme Court decision to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which opened the door to online sports betting across 21 states. PASPA was a 1992 federal law signed by then President George H.W. Bush, which prohibited states from offering sports gambling, with very few exceptions. The act did not make sports gambling itself a federal crime, but instead allowed the “Attorney General, as well as professional and amateur sports organizations, to bring civil actions to enjoin violations.” While many states allowed casinos, racetracks, and other forms of gambling prior to this decision, this case brought by the State of New Jersey allowed for sports gambling to be a major fixture in these institutions including online or app-based sports gambling which have become especially prominent during playoffs, tournaments, and large sporting events.

Given the ubiquity of sports betting in our digital society, it is likely that you or someone you know well is gambling or is struggling with addictive behavior. In light of the addictive and predatory nature of gambling, how should the Church respond to this growing epidemic in light of the biblical ethic?

The Church and the common good

The Christian ethic reminds us of some core truths that apply in conversations about gambling and addiction. First and foremost, we are each called to live righteous and God-honoring lives, knowing that everything we have is from God himself (1 Cor 4:7). Among Christians, it can be tempting to simply give God “his portion” of our income and fail to see that all the rest is a gift from God, too. We are called to wisely steward these gifts as we seek to love God and love our neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). This all comes down to the perennial question of ethics: Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

It is important to note here that God is the creator of the entire universe, and he also created each of us in his image whether or not we choose to fulfill our purpose as his image-bearers. It may be one thing to participate in a company tournament raffle or to have a friendly wager between friends, but online gambling and app-based sports betting is a completely different situation especially if one is flippant about their stewardship of God’s provisions. Often gambling is done where one sacrifices their necessities or provision with the hopes of winning big.

Another angle that is not often discussed in light of gambling are the social effects of our sin, greed, and pride. Like the man who gets $5 of gas and $10 of scratch-offs, the allure of gambling can be used to take advantage of certain segments of our neighbors and communities. As I mentioned above, gambling is a predatory practice — exploiting some for the benefit of others. An important question for all of us to ask is how does one’s participation in this type of industry, even if it is done without malicious motives, encourage or sustain these predatory practices throughout our society? Does your involvement prop up this business model that is known to exploit the weaknesses of others and dehumanize them in the process?

Similar to how payday lending is predatory with astronomically high interest rates and short loan periods, online gambling is designed to line the pockets of the company rather than to promote the common good rooted in the dignity of all people. Taking advantage of our fellow image-bearers, especially in terms of financial provisions and their economic future through highly addictive means like contemporary sports gambling apps, is morally incongruent with the biblical ethic as it is a form of stealing and being deluded by the love of money (Ex. 20:17; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 6:10). It does not live up to the standard which Christ gave us to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Mark 12:31). Gambling also leads to countless other social ills, including the breakdown of families, other highly addictive behaviors, loss of homes and jobs, and extreme financial peril.

Gambling, including the meteoric rise of sports betting, often leads to encouraging vice in our society rather than virtuous and wise behaviors. It is important for the Church to remember that all policies, laws, and practices are inherently moral by nature as they encourage or discourage certain behaviors. As many in our communities are lured in by the delusions of quick cash, massive payouts, and a long list of ‘what-ifs’, the Church must be ready to care for and love those who are seeking to break these addictions. Far from being an isolated and simple issue, gambling has unfortunately become a mainstay in our society, especially in this digital age.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24