At the front of the line was a man in a sharp suit. When he got to the gate, the guard, an angel, agreed that he had lived a good life, but asked him why he had not followed some of God’s laws. The man shuffled, embarrassed, before finally admitting that he’d been an atheist. He felt a bit stupid.
“Oh,” said the angel, “fair enough, then,” and opened the great gate before him. The atheist was surprised to be entering Heaven. The line advanced by one, and another man reached the front.
All in all, he was beginning to feel pretty confident. He’d lived a good life, and believed, and he’d followed all of God’s rules. He was a shoe-in.
“Ah,” the guard said, reading his name from the list and recognising it immediately, “Blaise Pascal. Yes, we’ve been looking forward to this.”
“As have I,” Pascal said, proudly.
The angel’s face twisted into the expression a mother might use to quiz a boy who thought she’d be pleased that he’d painted the sofa. “Really?” Pascal paused, confused, and the guard continued, “Only it says here that God thinks you’re trying to pull a fast one on him.”
“This ‘wager’ of yours. God isn’t a mind-reader, you know. Free will and all that. He doesn’t know if you believe or not, not really, and your little numbers game is really just an argument to say you believe. You’re trying to con God into letting you in.”
“I’m not! I really, truly believe!”
“How do I know you’re not just saying that to get in, that you haven’t been saying that all along. That’s what you’re little wager would advise, isn’t it, if you didn’t really believe?”
“I never said anything about pretending to believe. I said you should believe!”
“To believe as a choice, disregarding evidence?”
“Yes!” Pascal said, relieved that the angel understood.
“Yes,” said the guard, “we thought you might say something like that. So we’ve prepared a little test…”
“Atheists?” said the demon, “there certainly aren’t any atheists in Hell.”
“But,” he started, starting to question his beliefs now, on his first day in Hell, when one might reasonably argue it was a tad on the late side, “all they had to do was believe! How hard is that?”
The demon made a noise somewhere between “oh?” and “hmm,” in the patient manner of one who’d been going over this for centuries and didn’t imagine having to stop soon. “But they didn’t believe in Hell either. It would seem a bit harsh to expect them to follow rules set out by someone they thought was fiction, with a punishment they thought didn’t exist.”
“So what you’re saying is,” he said, watching with trepidation as the demon selected a pointy looking object from a leather roll-up pack and held it over the flames, “that all we had to do to get carte blanche to sin as much as we pleased was to stop believing?”
“That’s right,” the demon said, as it walked behind the lost soul and plunged the instrument into his back (not that he really had such a bodypart any more, of course). “But you’re in luck. God’s laid down a special rule, just for you. To test your little wager. You can go to heaven, if you want to.”
“How?” Pascal shouted, above the pain. Right then and there there was nothing he wouldn’t do to escape the pain.
“Simple,” the demon replied, moving the instrument savagely, “just believe I don’t exist.”
And for a thousand years he tried.
After that he rather gave up. By that stage his tortured soul didn’t seem worth saving anyway.