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Filling the Infinite Abyss

I was a lowly student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in 1981 when I first heard what seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal had to say about the search for happiness:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. . . . This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves (Pensées, # 425).

Even those who hang themselves? This is the motive of every action of every man? I will admit Pascal’s words struck me as some of strangest I’d ever read. At the same time, they struck as being self-evidently true.

In everything we do, we are seeking happiness.

Of course, most of us never find it and wind up complaining over and over again that what we imagined would bring us happiness didn’t. So what’s the problem? Where is happiness to be found?

Pascal goes on to talk about this in the same context.

All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all times, all ages, and all conditions. . . . What is it, then, that this desire [for happiness] and this inability [to find it] proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the comfort he does not receive from things present. . . . But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss [inside us] can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.

From the moment I read this passage, I’ve never again been quite able to fool myself into thinking I would be happy “if only”. . .  If only I had enough money, or celebrity, or adventure or power or pleasure. I recognized that Pascal was putting his finger on a desire deeper than could be satisfied in this world.

Of course, what Pascal says here about the “infinite abyss” within each of us that can only be filled by an “infinite and immutable object” explains why so many who seem to have everything they could want in this world remain desperately unhappy.

It also makes the claims and promises of Jesus come vividly alive. Where every other religious figure in history has pointed others toward an idea or a path to fill their hunger for happiness, Jesus said:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink (John 7:37).

I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35).

I became convinced that the key to my spiritual growth would be the recognition that (a) in everything I do, I am seeking happiness, and (b) only in God will I ever find it.

Having been mulling these truths over for some fifteen years, you can imagine my “happiness” in discovering that the Catechism of the Catholic Church actually begins with this same truth. Open the Catechism to part one, section one, chapter one and note the first heading, “The Desire for God”:

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for (27).

Evangelism and Apologetics as Reminding

Being the very image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26, 27) and living in a world that cries out God’s existence (Psalm 19:1-4), everyone knows at some deep level Who we’re talking about (Rom 1:18-23). So evangelism can be seen as the work of reminding people of things they have, but, for whatever combination of reasons and motives, have forgotten about. Surely the secret of the profound effect Jesus had on people. His very presence reminded them of the God whose image they bore and of the answer to their continual search for happiness.

It’s the same with all the great saints of history. By their example, they reminded everyone of what they were really looking for.

But reminding others of who they are and where happiness is to be found can also take the form of specific arguments. For example, when it comes to those who deny God’s existence, I like to think of apologetics as the art of putting my finger on the tension between who a person really is as the image and likeness of God and who he would be if God did not exist.

For instance, my atheist friend knows that moral absolutes exist. He certainly lives as though they did. And yet if atheism were true, there would be no moral absolutes. Thoughtful atheists admit this all the time. For example, atheist philosopher Michael Ruse writes:

Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. . . . Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction. . . . Morality is an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process. . . . It has no existence or being beyond this and any deeper meaning is illusory.[1]

Chances are my atheist friend believes that human beings possess the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and yet, if there is no Creator to endow such rights, these right do not exist.

In these examples and others, there is an inescapable tension—even contradiction—between what he professes to believe as an atheist and what he knows to be true as the image and likeness of God.

The Anvils of Our Better Natures

We speak of a child who stubbornly refuses to do what he is told as being a “recalcitrant child.” In his wonderful book The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, philosopher J.P. Moreland talks about what he refers to as “recalcitrant facts.” These are facts that stubbornly refuse to be assimilated within one’s worldview. They’re uncooperative; they don’t fit. In resisting explanation they serve as evidence that our worldview might not be wholly true. Like an anvil in the throat, they simply won’t go down.

Moreland then shows a number of ways how the human person is the recalcitrant fact that will not allow itself to be assimilated by the naturalist worldview held by most modern atheists.  He argues that the most basic, fundamental aspects of our being and experience as human persons—meaning, value, morality, personality, free will, consciousness, mind, rationality—utterly resist a naturalist explanation.

Thus the recalcitrant imago Dei. Because my atheist friend is the image and likeness of God, he is himself is the strongest evidence that his worldview isn’t true. He is the anvil in the throat of naturalism.

As atheist philosopher John Searle asks: 

There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy. . . . How do we fit in?. . . . How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles?[2]

My hope is that as my atheist friend wrestles with this question and attempts to answer it in his own terms, he will be reminded of truths he has forgotten.


[1] “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” The Darwinian Paradigm, 262-269, emphasis added.

[2] Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language and Political Power, 4,5


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