Dr. Justin Bass has an outstanding exposition on the Pascal's use of death in his approach to apologetics.
Hegesias of Cyrene was a Greek philosopher who lived in the third century B.C. He will forever be remembered as the “death-persuader” (peisithanatos). He received this nickname because he didn’t think happiness was achievable in this life. Instead, he argued, our primary goal as humans should be to avoid pain and suffering. He wrote a book (that has fortunately not survived) called A Man Who Starves Himself. It’s a story about a man, lying on the ground, starving himself to death. His friends try to encourage him to want to live. But the starving man turns the tables on his friends. He lays out all the miseries of life and convinces them to commit suicide too! Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher, tells us that Hegesias’ lectures were banned at Alexandria because of the many resulting suicides.
.... However, Blaise Pascal as well as other Christians and even atheists have argued similarly. After all, if there is no God; and everything ends in death, life is absurd. Ecclesiastes 1:2 says it well, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
This is why Pascal planned to begin his Apology for the Christian Religion with probably the greatest fear of all mankind: death.
Peter Kreeft summarizes his approach this way:
Pascal classified most of his Pensées about death under the heading ‘Beginning’. Death is an excellent beginning for his apologetic, for three reasons: it is a great attention-grabber; it is a solid, sound, secure and indisputable fact; and it slaps us in the face with our own wretchedness, our utter helplessness before the loss of everything. It is our obvious problem, and Christ claims to be the answer.
Pascal wanted to jolt his skeptical, French audience back to reality.
.... Russell and Dawkins are right. Without God there is no purpose to our lives, no meaning, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference built on the firm foundation of unyielding despair. We’re not free. We all dance to DNA’s music. Pascal would be simultaneously pleased and horrified to read such things—pleased because they understand well the point Pascal wants to make about the absurdity of life, but horrified that they choose to remain in such despair. GK Chesterton said in two sentences why the atheist worldview contradicts common sense, “Atheism is abnormality. It goes against what every normal person believes, namely, that there is a meaning and direction in the world.”
But Pascal was not dealing with unbelievers like Russell and Dawkins. Much like today, he was engaging skeptics who created an illusion of meaning for their lives. They avoided thinking about their imminent appointment with death and instead engaged in all kinds of pursuits in life to distract themselves from these realities.
Therefore, reminding the French skeptics of his day of their looming death was how Pascal would have begun his great apologetic work.
... “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.” (Pensées 199)
.... Many unbelievers create the illusion of purpose in their lives by saying something like, ‘This is the only life we have. That makes it even more special and meaningful than those who believe in an afterlife.’ That argument might be attractive to a middle or upper class educated atheist in the West. But what about those who suffer on a daily basis with some kind of disease, paralysis, poverty, or the thousands of other types of gross suffering in the world? Is this one life sweet and special for them? It is important to point out that the atheistic, humanist worldview is utterly bankrupt in what it has to offer those who experience horrific suffering in this life.
.... While Paul is in prison, Felix and Drusilla invite him to come and speak to them about faith in Christ Jesus:
But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, ‘Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.’ (Acts 24:24-25)
Paul seems to have had a three point sermon ready for Felix and Drusilla:
- The Judgment to Come
Full article is here.