The Lottery and Its Social and Ethical Implications


The lottery is the game of chance in which participants attempt to win a prize by predicting numbers on a series of numbered slips. Lottery is an ancient pastime; the casting of lots has a long record in human history, including many instances in the Bible. The modern-day lottery, however, is of relatively recent origin. It has been a major source of revenue for state governments, and it is often advertised as a way to help the poor.

Lottery has become a powerful force in American life, with a huge market that includes players who buy tickets on the Internet, at kiosks inside grocery stores, and at gas stations. It is one of the few forms of gambling that is legal in every state, and its growth has fueled public debate over its social and ethical implications.

There are some logical and empirical reasons to be skeptical of the lottery, as there are with other forms of gambling such as poker or horse racing. Unlike the casinos in Las Vegas, however, lotteries are marketed to and accepted by a broad section of the population. Lottery advertising is slick and appealing, and it promotes the idea that winning a prize is a realistic prospect. It is also a source of income for convenience store owners, lottery suppliers (who make large contributions to state political campaigns), and teachers in states where lotteries generate money earmarked for education.

A more serious concern is that lottery games appeal to an unhealthy desire for wealth. Playing for big prizes is a type of get-rich-quick scheme that has little chance of success, and it can focus a person’s attention on temporary riches rather than on the eternal treasures of God. It teaches people to pursue wealth recklessly, rather than diligently and responsibly, as God wants us to do.

While the Bible does speak of obtaining wealth by chance, it also tells us to work hard and be content with what we have, and to share our wealth with those who are in need. It is unfortunate, then, that some Christians have adopted a biblically inconsistent attitude toward the lottery. Nonetheless, it is important for us to recognize that the lottery is more than just another form of gambling, and we should take steps to limit its influence in our lives. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Sojourners. Reprinted with permission by the publisher. Click here to subscribe to Sojourners and receive our magazine in your mailbox or on your desktop!