(Investigator 138, 2011 May)


In 2008-2009 Australians lost $12 billion just on poker machines. The social costs of problem gambling include debt, financial hardship, mental health problems, social isolation, increased crime, marriage/family breakdown and unemployment. In Australia the dollar value of these social costs has been estimated near $5 billion per year.

Several Investigator writers have criticised gambling but failed to mention that gambling is contrary to Bible ethics.


In the 16th century lotteries were widespread in Europe. The Church apparently regarded them as sinful since the Pope granted remission for sins to the promoters of a lottery in Paris in 1572.

European governments realized that lotteries could raise revenue without unpopular taxation-increase. Queen Elizabeth did this in 1569. Lotteries in the 17th and 18th centuries helped to finance London’s water supply, the British Museum and the expansion of the British Empire.

In 1819 Britain's Parliament declared that lotteries encouraged, "A spirit of gambling injurious to the highest degree to the morals of the people…" Lotteries were seen as undermining the prosperity gained by hard work. In 1826 government-run lotteries in England ended (until the 1990s).


Colonial Australia adopted British betting and gaming practices. A superintendent of convicts described the situation around 1794:
The pernicious vice of gaming which had rapidly obtained in the settlement, and which was carried on to such excess among the convicts that many have been known, after losing their provisions, money, and spare clothing to bet, and lose the very clothes from their backs, exhibiting themselves naked… (O'Hara 1988, p. 10)
By 1850 gaming and betting were established features of Australian life. Christian opposition was limited because Protestants were distracted by sectarian infighting and Catholics by financial problems when the state withdrew assistance. Bishop Polding believed "vice and irreligion were to be conquered by vital example of virtue" rather than prohibited by law. In 1852 Richard Birnie (Anglican barrister & journalist) lectured in Melbourne and equated gambling with fraud because it gained money without earning it. He noted, "We are in danger of becoming a nation of gamblers." (O'Hara p. 81)

From 1876 to 1897 legislation was enacted to stop betting in streets, shops, betting houses and homes, but permitted horse racing and gentlemen's clubs.

In 1900 the Protestant and Catholic middle class still held economic and political power and supported the anti-gambling status-quo. Religious values declined with the upheavals of the Great War (1914-1918) and churches increasingly distanced themselves from politics. Politicians legalized ever more types of gambling, and state-run lotteries became revenue raisers that avoided the political downside of increased taxation.

The Churches, however, continued to oppose legislation that permitted gambling:
Gaming and betting were opposed in the 1920s on the standard Protestant middle-class grounds that they produced a habit of indulgence, thereby interfering with the economy. Such views were summarized in 1923 by Rev. E.N. Merrington: gambling was bad for business because it created a distraction from employment and led to thefts and embezzlement; it was the antithesis of industry because it created labourers who are content to await a lucky win; it unsettled the attention and the will by diverting the minds of the young from their studies to the lists of prizes and winners, and by acting as a deterrent 'from sustained and patent labour with brain or sinew'; and it led to crime and immorality through provoking 'wild and unprofitable speculations'.

These views, along with claims that gaming and betting were contrary to the teachings of Christ, were put consistently before the numerous governmental inquiries related to gambling throughout the twentieth century. (O'Hara, p. 217)
Methodist anti-gambling crusader Rev. Percy Chennel criticized gambling at government inquiries and in sermons and pamphlets during the 1930s:
Chennel attempted to support his case with detailed statistical analysis. In his evidence before the 1936 South Australian Royal Commission on Lotteries, Chennel examined the existing state-run lotteries and tried to demonstrate that hospital fund-raising through subscriptions and legacies, and funding by local authorities, decreased dramatically with the introduction of lotteries. (p. 218)
Church influence continued to decline as Australia became more secular, and government inquiries stopped heeding the churches in the 1960s. The churches, however, did much of the damage-control by counselling and helping gambling-effected families.  A current initiative is:
With Australia's 90,000 problem gamblers losing an average of $21,000 each year, Australia's major churches have banded together to launch the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, calling for consumer protection measures… (Eternity Number 13, April 2011, p. 2)


The Bible has no specific prohibition against gambling. But it does have principles which are flouted by gambling:


Government-sponsored gambling is inherently contradictory because taxable wealth originates with productive work whereas gambling is unproductive and merely redistributes — at great social costs — wealth already produced.

When Australia secularized, gambling increased. Many gamblers and their families got hurt (as happens with other biblical counsel when it's ignored) and this refuted their rejection of the Bible. Many churches, however, practice "love your neighbour" and strive to reduce the damage.


Harrison, R. K. 1987 Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics, p. 165.

O'Hara, J. 1988 A Mug's Game.