Reviewed by John Rea
The work of an apologist in some ways parallels the work of a scientist. Both seek to “prove” (as in “establish by testing”) the truth of their explanation for something and, thus, to defend their idea against challenges. Both look for solutions to problems, specifically inconsistencies and unanswered questions arising from their proposed explanations. A Christian apologist’s job is to prove and defend the veracity of the Gospel, chiefly by establishing the reliability of Scripture and by solving apparent problems in biblical interpretation or theology. This brief background sheds light on the rise—and the fall—of an apologetics hypothesis popularly known as “the gap theory.”
Historical Roots of the Gap Theory
Christian apologists of the nineteenth century faced many daunting challenges, especially from emerging sciences. Geology seemed particularly problematic as researchers found evidence of Earth’s ancient, tumultuous past—the gradual depositing of sedimentary layers interspersed by the violent bending, bulging, and breaking of Earth’s crust—and began to comprehend the forces behind the deposition and tumult. Geology unearthed two grave concerns, one about the timing of creation and the other about the character of God. Archbishop Ussher’s chronology, which dated Earth’s origin at 4004 b.c.,1 seemed an obvious mismatch with the findings of geology, and the “formless and void” (tohû wabohû, in Hebrew) condition of early Earth appeared too horrible and chaotic to align with the goodness of God.
Theologians saw a promising solution in the work of their predecessors and seized upon it. A few Bible scholars of the seventeenth century, wishing to establish the timing of Satan’s fall and the angels’ rebellion, had proposed a narrative gap (hence, a time gap of unspecified duration) between the creation of the universe (“the heavens and the earth” of Genesis 1:1) and the events of the creation week (Genesis 1:3-27).2 Eighteenth century advocates of this view placed the gap precisely between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2, suggesting that Earth began, perhaps eons ago, as the abode of angels who ravaged and ruined it when they fell. The creation week, according to this scenario, could be viewed as a period of “restitution,” the word originally attached to the gap hypothesis.3
This interpretation of the creation story seemed appealing as a simple, adequate answer to each of the problematic issues. No matter what scientists discovered about the age of the universe or Earth, the historical and scientific integrity of the Bible’s creation narrative could be defended. At the same time, whatever geologic (or other) catastrophes scientists might find could be comfortably blamed on the prince of darkness and his minions. Proponents of the gap theory maintained that scientists such as astronomers, geophysicists, paleontologists and anthropologists measure the ancient, ruined creation whereas the Bible addresses the recent, repaired creation.
Reformed theologians Chambers and Buckland advocated the gap interpretation, as did a few Catholic scholars during the nineteenth century, with limited acceptance.4 In the early part of the twentieth century, fundamentalists George Pember and Harry Rimmer popularized the view throughout the American church.5, 6 The largest contributor to its acceptance, however, was—and perhaps still is—C. I. Scofield, whose widely sold study Bible sanctioned the view.7 Evidence that Scofield still holds sway appears on the first page of the New International Version of the Holy Bible. Note A indicates that “was” (the Hebrew verb haya) in Genesis 1:2 may also mean “became.”8
The question must be asked, then: How solid is the case for the gap theory? The answer lies in testing the theory’s major premises, including these three:
- Upheavals in Earth’s geology and life’s history as evidenced in the fossil record, especially those of the distant past, reflect evil rather than the goodness of God.
- The literal accuracy of the creation week cannot (and need not) be attested via science.
- Biblical exegesis permits, in fact demands, the flexible translation of haya (“was”) as “became.”
The Question of Good vs. Evil
When geologists first studied Earth’s crustal layers, they were stunned to observe the twists and turns and breaks. Older rock layers sometimes rested on top of younger layers, and pieces of layers were found far from their original position. They were amazed to see the drastic impact of volcanic and tectonic activity in ages past. Likewise, they were surprised at the huge number of species extinctions evident in the fossil record. Both the geologists and the theologians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries struggled to discern any benevolent purpose for the extinction of so many creatures.
Their conclusion that such activity reflects evil, however, demonstrates the importance of being slow to draw conclusions, of waiting till more complete information becomes available. Scientists have since discovered—and continue to discover—that volcanism and tectonics play a vital role in preparing Earth to support life, including advanced life. Research shows that the rate at which volcanic and tectonic activity increase and decrease in Earth’s history perfectly coincides with the needs of living creatures.9 Even the species destruction (and replacement) that such activity entails serves a valuable purpose in preparing Earth for human habitation and civilization.10
Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth
To say that science deals with the first creation, one that Scripture never addresses, and that Scripture addresses the recent creation, apparently too recent to be detected by science, places an impenetrable wall between the two realms of truth. Such an arrangement calms fears on both sides of the wall. Any fact of nature that appears to contradict the Bible can be ignored, or the Bible can be ignored as nontestable work.
Such an impasse, while comforting to some, violates the foundational tenets of Christian orthodoxy. Scripture declares, implicitly and explicitly, that nature reveals truth about the Creator, enough truth to remove all excuses for denying His existence and denying Him the worship He is due.10 Historic Christian theology refers to nature as part of the general revelation and to Scripture as the special revelation. The two revelations of truth come from the same Source, the one who identifies Himself as Truth.
A Question of Exegesis
The argument that Genesis 1:2 can be translated “the earth became formless and void” overlooks a critical distinction in the use of the verb hayâ in the Hebrew text. In the beginning of verse 2, hayâ appears without the Hebrew preposition le.11 Only the combination of hayâ + le would be translated “became,” rather than “was.” An example of this combination is found in Genesis 2:7, appropriately translated, “man became a living being.”12
To claim that the Hebrew verb bara (“create”) used in Genesis 1:1 refers to a brand new creation whereas the verbs asah and hayâ used in Genesis 1:3-27 (the verses describing the six creation days) refer only to reconstruction, not creation, loses sight of the fact that bara appears in both Genesis 1:21 and 1:27. The claim also is inconsistent with the lexical definitions for asah and hayâ which in no way demand, or even imply, reconstruction.13
To defend their translation of Genesis 1:2 as “the earth became formless and void,” gap proponents claim that the phrase tohû wabohû carries a negative or pejorative connotation wherever it appears in the Bible. On this basis, they substitute “deformed” for “formless” and “uninhabitable” for “empty.” Justification for such substitutions is difficult to sustain.
In Hebrew tohû and bohû obviously are meant to be alliterative synonyms, each complementing the meaning of the other. Thus, both words convey the idea of formlessness and emptiness. The second term, bohû, occurs only three times in the Old Testament: Genesis 1:2, Isaiah 34:11, and Jeremiah 4:23. In each instance, it refers to something’s being empty, whether not yet filled or unfillable.14
The crux of gap theorists’ argument rests on the first term, tohû. They assert that Genesis 1:2 must be translated as “the earth became formless and empty” (sometime after its creation) because Isaiah 45:18 says, “[God] did not create the earth tohû.” Unless God built a new creation on the wreckage of the ruined one, these verses, they argue, represent a contradiction. However, the second part of Isaiah 45:18 gives clarification, removing the contradiction. It says that God “formed [the earth] to be inhabited,” implying that the tohû of the earth was merely a starting place, not God’s ultimate intent. He had a plan, worked out in advance (see Proverbs 8:22-31, Ephesians 2:10, 2 Timothy 1:9), to transform and prepare the earth for human habitation. As theologian Ronald Youngblood points out, “The word tohû in Genesis 1:2, likewise, refers not to the result of a supposed catastrophe (for which there is no clear biblical evidence) but to the formlessness of the earth before God’s creative hand began the majestic acts described in the following verses.”15
A hundred years previous to Youngblood’s analysis, the famed Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, “The trackless void by no means implies that the earth had been devastated, but only that though it was already earth, it was still unformed.” Bavinck went on to suggest that the failure to recognize the creation of the heavens and Earth as events preceding the first creation day helped keep the gap theory afloat. Appealing to Augustine, Lombard, Aquinas, and Petavius for support, Bavinck concluded that tohû wabohû described Earth’s condition prior to the miracles of the creation week (a long but finite period of God’s creative activity). Only in this way, he argues, can one explain why the author recounts the creation of the cosmos in a brief statement without description while describing in some length and detail the preparation of Earth for life.16
After his profound opening statement, the creation narrator sets the stage for all the miraculous events to follow. He narrows the story’s focus to one specific site, Earth, and more specifically yet, to the surface of Earth. He describes that surface as formless, empty, and dark. If one argues that “formless and empty” imply evil, darkness must also. While one can certainly find passages of Scripture in which darkness serves as a metaphor for evil, nothing in Genesis 1:2 argues for such a usage. In fact, when God brought about light on Earth, He retained darkness as part of the day-night cycle.
The preface to each biblical discourse on creation includes mention of the point of view and the initial conditions.17 If the initial conditions resulted from evil activity, one would expect to find at least a hint of it in those parallel accounts. Genesis 2:5 offers, instead, this helpful clarification via parallelism: When God began to work on Earth, there was no rain (no water cycle), nor were there any plants, shrubs, or humans. Similarly, Job’s creation quiz and the psalmist’s creation songs speak of God building upon the foundations He had laid. 18
Another problem with the conclusion that the tohû wabohû implies chaotic, evil ruination arises from consideration of the spiritual and historical context of Genesis 1. Heathen myths of Moses’ time and Eastern culture depicted horrid monsters wreaking havoc on the early Earth.
A comparison of Genesis 1 with the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account, reveals deliberate contrast to chaos, ruination, and evil. For example, the great sea creatures in the Enuma Elish are evil monsters. In Genesis 1 they are declared part of God’s good creation. While the Enuma Elish is rife with evil creatures and acts of destruction, Moses repeats, again and again, that the creation is “good.” He summarizes by saying that it was all “very good.”
Many people struggle, of course, with the question of natural cataclysms as part of the “good” creation. Many attribute such phenomena as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and floods to the effects of humanity’s fall into sin. Science tells us that these phenomena actually benefit the planet as a site for advanced life. The Genesis text does not claim, however, that the good creation is “perfect” in a final and eternal sense. Rather, the whole of Scripture shows that this creation reveals God’s goodness in bringing about a relatively rapid conquest of evil. Revelation 20-22 indicates that the moment evil is finally and permanently removed, God will replace this present universe with a brand new creation, one with radically different laws of physics among other new characteristics.19
Gap theorists grant more credit to the demons than Scripture allows. The Bible teaches that neither Satan nor any other created being has the power to destroy apart from God’s sovereignty, nor the power to create as God does.20
Likewise, the gap theory concedes too much to nontheistic speculation. It communicates that no biblical constraints can limit or test anyone’s claims about life’s origin, including the claims of naturalistic evolutionism. According to the gap view, scientists are free to attribute virtually all natural history, except for the last several thousand years, to godless, undirected processes.
The weaknesses in the gap theory imply no evil intent on the part of gap theory proponents. They deserve praise for their efforts. Their goal of defending the literal and historical accuracy of the Bible must not be maligned. Their hypothesis exemplified an elegant simplicity that appeared to provide the best explanatory hypothesis of both science and theology as it stood at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
New discoveries about nature and new understandings from theological research will no doubt challenge us to adjust or fine-tune our present understandings of both science and Scripture. In every case, however, one can reasonably expect the trend to continue: greater knowledge of nature and greater understanding of Scripture will yield more and clearer evidences of the biblical Creator and will cultivate, for those who worship Him, a deeper appreciation for the marvelous world He has made, as well as the one that awaits.