The Problem with the ‘God-Shaped Hole’
We have a habit of telling people about Christ by first telling them about the hole within themselves. But is this really the best way to share the gospel?
In the seventeenth century classic Pensées, Blaise Pascal wrote of an ‘infinite abyss’ in each person that can only be filled by ‘an infinite, immutable object, that is to say, God himself.’ Whatever the reasoning that led Pascal to say this, it’s a powerful image—and one that’s found its way into how many Christians conceive of evangelism. Indeed, we think, if we could just get people to look inside themselves honestly, they might just realise that all their frustrations in life stem from the fact that they’ve been trying to fill their own ‘God-shaped hole’ with the wrong objects—perhaps with money, sex, or power. Sharing the gospel therefore becomes a two-step process. Step one: explain people’s dissatisfaction in theistic terms. Step two: offer Jesus as the only thing that can satisfy their perceived deficit. In more popular terms, we might put it like this: You are unhappy and unfulfilled—and without God, you always will be. Allow me to introduce you to the God who alone can make you happy and whole.
I‘ve certainly shared the gospel like this, and I suspect there’s a good chance you have, too.
Nevertheless, there are some theological missteps embedded in this approach. First, it assumes people’s capacity to know the state of their own hearts. And second, it presents God as the solution to a pre-determined problem.
Allow me to explain.
Problem #1: Looking first to our own hearts
Regarding the first point, whether or not we have a ‘God-shaped hole in our hearts’ (and, in some sense, I think we do), it seems unlikely that we’d be able to realise it. When the Bible talks about created things’ ability to point us to God, it usually does so to shame us. For instance, Romans 1, which speaks of creation displaying God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ (v.20), aims ultimately to chastise human beings for rejecting this testimony and turning to idolatry. The idea is that while all creation obediently fulfils its Creator’s intent—to ‘tell the glory of God’ (Ps 19:1)—humanity stubbornly refuses. In other words, we are the lone rebels in all of God’s creation. Consequently, Paul says, God ‘gave [us] up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done’ (Rom 1:28). Creation goes on voicelessly praising God (Ps 19:3-4), but we do not. We have been ‘handed over’ to our self-chosen blindness.
John Calvin famously explored this in the opening pages of his Institutes. He writes: ‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess…consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves’ (I.i.1). The more we truly know ourselves, Calvin argues, the more we will be drawn to God, because it is in God that we ‘live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). The problem, however, is that we have a skewed understanding of ourselves—after the Fall, we see ourselves not as creatures owing their existence to the Creator, but as self-justifying ends in ourselves: ‘As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves to be all but demigods’ (I.i.2). So, being sinful means very specifically not seeing a ‘God-shaped hole’ in our existence, but just the opposite; it means assuming that we are already whole in ourselves.
To heal our sinful disposition, therefore, we ought especially not to look to ourselves, but first to God. Only in knowing God as our Father and Christ as our Saviour can we begin to see who we truly are. As Calvin puts it:
For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him. (I.ii.1)
If Calvin is right—and I think he is—it means that ‘step one’ of evangelism should not be to invite people to look into their own hearts in search of some kind of pointer to God; our first order of business should always be to encourage people to look to God, that is, to believe the gospel. Indeed, the gateway to salvation is not a truer understanding of ourselves, but a turning to God in Christ (John 10:9).
Problem #2: Making Christ our problem-solver rather than our centre
But there is another problem with presenting the gospel as an ‘existential cure’—as the solution to a perceived ‘hole’ in one’s heart—and that is: it presumes to understand the problem that the gospel addresses outside of a consideration of the gospel itself.
In his well-known Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer identifies the problem well. For centuries, he says, God functioned as the answer to all sorts of human questions about the world—God, so to speak, filled in the ‘gaps’ in our understanding. As natural science progressed, however, we discovered that God was actually not necessary to explain many aspects of the world. So how did Christianity respond? According to Bonhoeffer, we actually continued to think of God as a ‘God of the gaps,’ only with a slight alteration. Instead of calling on God to fill in the gaps in our understanding of nature, we began to use God to explain ourselves. But this is a dangerous game, he suggests, because not only does it potentially set up Christianity to be once again crowded out by scientific progress (e.g., by advances in clinical psychology), but it also ends up misconstruing the relation of God to the world altogether. As Bonhoeffer puts it: ‘God is the center of life and doesn’t just “turn up” when we have unsolved problems to be solved’ (DBW 8, p.406). In other words, Christ should not be positioned on the edges of our understanding, but should take his proper place as the organising principle for the whole of life.
Here we see another consequence for evangelism. The ‘God-shaped hole’ approach relies on our ability first to convince people that they have a problem that they themselves may not yet have noticed. So, like a travelling hoover salesman, we have to convince people that there is a problem with their current machine before we can sell them our allegedly superior product. But what if people are happy with their current hoover? What if they cannot perceive the problem that our product purports to solve? In this case, we’ll have no choice but to continue trying to convince them that, despite their own assessment, their current machine is subpar.
But there is a better way.
In truth, I do think that we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and so we will never be satisfied until we find our rest in God (Augustine). But we learn this only after we place our trust in God and come to see the whole world as God’s reconciled creation. In evangelism, therefore, we ought not to goad people to admit their dissatisfaction with life. Indeed, even if they are dissatisfied, this shouldn’t be viewed as a chance for us to swoop in with the gospel as a kind of solution to a pre-determined problem. Our charge is to give people the good news, full stop.
Sharing the gospel, then, is not a two-step process; it is a one-step process. Put simply, evangelism is about pointing people to Jesus. Sharing the gospel begins with him because Jesus is the gospel—the good news not just about salvation, but about everything, including our very selves.
So let’s ditch the salesman approach. Let’s introduce people to Christ first—for in meeting Christ, they’ll discover not only the answers, but the questions they should have been asking all along.