The Gap Theory

“How Old Is the Earth?” series (post #5)

Genesis 1:1 tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But right on the heels of that we get Genesis 1:2, which tells us that the earth was without form (formless), void (empty), covered in water (the deep), and engulfed in complete darkness (hence the need for, “Let there be light”). The apparent conflict between verses 1 and 2 leaves us with two possible interpretations. Interpretation #1: God deliberately created the earth as initially incomplete, in need of more detail work, because this was going to be the unique planet upon which He would create human beings. Or interpretation #2: Sometime after the earth’s creation, a catastrophe struck it that left it in a ruined condition.

As for me, I hold to interpretation #1. There are, however, some sincere students of the Bible who hold to interpretation #2. And how do these folks explain the great catastrophe that left the earth in such a decimated state? Their explanation is commonly known as “The Gap Theory,” with the idea being that there is a great gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2.

The basics of the gap theory go as follows:

  • Stage 1: God creates the earth of Genesis 1:1 as perfect, complete, fully detailed, and teeming with life. The earth has vegetation, insects, sea creatures, and land creatures. The dinosaurs live during this time, and perhaps there is even some type of race of pre-Adamic humans (Neanderthals, Homo Sapians, etc.). All is well upon the earth for an indeterminable amount of eons of time.
  • Stage 2: Satan and his fellow rebellious angels rebel against God, are banished from heaven, are cast down to the earthly realm, and somehow this event causes the earth (and perhaps even all of creation) to be laid to waste. All life on earth is killed off and the planet is left in the condition described in Genesis 1:2. (A more detailed explanation of this stage has God placing the still unfallen angel Lucifer in charge of the earth, and Lucifer ruling over the planet from Eden (Ezekiel 28:13) until he becomes so prideful within himself that he decides to lead a rebellion against God (Isaiah 14:13-14) and is punished for it.
  • Stage 3: The earth remains in its ruined state for an indeterminable amount of time, with the time span lasting for millions or billions of years.
  • Stage 4: God finally sets Himself to the task of restoring the earth. He accomplishes this restoration by way of the six days that are recorded from Genesis 1:3 to Genesis 1:31. This restoration gives us the earth we have now.

You see, the Gap Theory proposes that Genesis chapter 1’s six days of creation are actually six days of recreation (restoration, reconstruction, renewal, revitalization). But now that we understand the basics of the theory, we must attempt to figure out its validity or lack thereof. To help us do this, I’m going to list the strengths and weaknesses of the theory. To be fair, I’ll list seven from each category, beginning with the strengths.

  1. Strength #1: While Genesis 1:2 says the earth was “without form” (K.J.V., N.K.J.V.), Isaiah 45:18 says that God didn’t create it “in vain” (K.J.V., N.K.J.V.). What’s significant about that is the fact that both phrases translate the same Hebrew word, tohu. Putting it simply, Genesis 1:2 says the earth was tohu, but Isaiah 45:18 says that God didn’t create it tohu.
  2.  Strength #2: The Hebrew conjunctive expression tohu wa bohu — which gets translated as “without form, and void” — is used in only two other instances in the Old Testament. Those are Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23, and in both instances the condition is produced by some type of divine judgment.
  3. Strength #3: The Hebrew word translated as “was” in Genesis 1:2 is hayah, and it is possible to translate it as “became.” Of course, the vast majority of Hebrew translators do not think the word should be translated this way in the context of Genesis 1:2, and that’s why our English translations read “was” instead of “became.” Still, though, the fact remains that in certain instances hayah can mean “became.
  4. Strength #4:  In the original Hebrew of Genesis 1:1-2, there is no break or pause at the end of Genesis 1:1. However, the Masorets, who were an ancient group of Jewish scholars, added a small mark called a rebia following Genesis 1:1. Such a mark plays the role of informing the reader that there is a break in the narrative and that he should pause before going on to the next verse. The Masorets added this mark because, in their considered opinion, there was a break between the two verses. Obviously, the Masorets could have been mistaken in their opinion, but they were a highly respected group of scholars.  
  5. Strength #5: The Gap Theory leaves plenty of room for all the scientific and geological data that supposedly shows that the earth is billions of years old. For example, how should we fit the dinosaurs into Genesis chapter 1? They become part of the Genesis 1:1 world that got laid to waste by Satan’s fall. How do we categorize the various “subhuman” skeletons that have been dug up around the world? Those supposedly pre-Adamic beings become part of that Genesis 1:1 world, too. How do we explain the multiple layers of strata found in the earth’s geologic column? According to the theory, all those layers got laid down either during the unspecified amount of time of Genesis 1:1 or during the unspecified “gap” of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2.
  6. Strength #6: The old King James translation (the K.J.V.) quotes God in Genesis 1:28 as saying to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…” That word “replenish” seems to indicate that the earth was once home to some type of pre-Adamic race that got wiped out. The Hebrew word translated there as “replenish” is male, and it’s a common word that is used many times in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. Interestingly, the K.J.V. translators translated it more than fifty different ways, going with “replenish” or “replenished” in only seven of the instances. In the context of Genesis 1:28, only the K.J.V. translates male as “replenish.” Other translations translate it as “fill.”
  7. Strength #7: In 2 Corinthians 4:6, the apostle Paul uses the idea of God commanding the light to shine out of the darkness as a way of illustrating that God has similarly given Christians the light of the knowledge of His glory. And since Christians are part of Adam’s race, a race that was originally created perfect but became ruined by God’s judgment upon sin, such an illustration aligns nicely with the idea of God creating the earth in perfection only to have it ruined by His judgment upon the sin of Satan and his fellow rebellious angels.

Well, as you can see, the strengths of The Gap Theory do make for a compelling case to support it. This explains why legendary Bible teachers such as R.A. Torrey, Arthur Pink, Harry Rimmer, M.R. Dehaan, Donald Grey Barnhouse, Merrill Unger, A.C. Gaebelein, Arthur C. Custance, and J. Vernon McGee preached it. Even though Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers is generally credited with first making the theory popular, it was C.I. Scofield who took it to new heights of popularity. By advocating the theory in the 1909 edition of his Scofield Reference Bible, Scofield made the theory quite prominent among the conservative preachers of the early 20th century. Still, though, before we fully embrace the theory, we must examine its weaknesses. As we will see, there are several of them and they are, to say the least, highly problematic.

  1. Weakness #1: Exodus 20:11 says: “For is six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” The Hebrew word translated there as “made” is asah, and it’s the same word that is consistently translated as “made” in the creation story. And it’s not a word that usually means “recreated,” “restored,” “reconstructed,” or “fixed.”
  2. Weakness #2: Genesis 1:31 says: “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.” First, how could God classify all of His creation (including all His angels) as “very good” if Satan and his fellow rebellious angels were already in a state of rebellion and had been so for some time? Second, how could He classify everything as “very good” if His original earth from Genesis 1:1 had been decimated to the point where He had to step in and redo it? Third, how could He classify everything as “very good” if the remains of all the plant life and animal life — not to mention the possibility of a pre-Adamic race of beings — from that Genesis 1:1 world were now being walked upon by Adam, Eve, and the new creatures?
  3. Weakness #3: In Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, the apostle Paul explains that it was Adam, with his sin in Eden, that brought death into the world. This teaching stands in direct contradiction to The Gap Theory, which contends that it was Satan, with his fall, that brought death into the world. How could Adam have been walking atop what would have amounted to a worldwide fossilized graveyard (complete with dinosaur skeletons) if death didn’t come into the world until he sinned?
  4. Weakness #4: To believe The Gap Theory is to believe, for all intents and purposes, that Genesis 1:1 is its own separate Bible, a Bible that doesn’t give us enough details about itself to amount to anything. Was the Genesis 1:1 earth round? Did it have seasons? Was there a race of pre-Adamic beings that called it home? If there was such a race, did they have souls? Were the creatures of that earth similar to the creatures of our modern earth? You see, if we believe The Gap Theory’s version of events, we can’t know the answers to any of these questions because the Bible never addresses them.
  5. Weakness #5: A major strength of The Gap Theory interpretation is the supposed contradiction between Genesis 1:2 and Isaiah 45:18. But are we really to believe that God expects us to get just two verses into reading the Bible and then race over to some obscure passage from Isaiah so that we can correctly interpret what we just read? Pity the poor reader who would have tried to make sense of Genesis 1:1-2 before Isaiah lived and wrote! Doesn’t it make much more sense to conclude that Isaiah 45:18 simply means that God did not create the earth to be uninhabited, but from the get-go in Genesis 1:1-2 intended to shortly place Adam, Eve, and their descendants upon it?
  6. Weakness #6: The Gap Theory gives Satan and his fall an incredible amount of influence over God’s creation. Think about it, if God is all knowing, and if He knew going in that Him judging Satan and the other rebellious angels would completely wipe out all life on earth and decimate the planet to the point of inhabitability, why would He choose that course of punishment? Why punish life on earth because of the sin of a group of angels?
  7. Weakness #7: Since Genesis 1:3 has God creating light to illuminate the darkness of the earth of Genesis 1:2, are we to believe that Satan’s fall was so catastrophic that it literally destroyed or extinguished all the light from the completed earth of Genesis 1:1? Such a thought simply defies belief.

And so, in conclusion, I just can’t take all the evidence into account and throw my support behind The Gap Theory. While I understand the theory’s appeal — it certainly makes the job of reconciling the Bible to modern science easier — there are just too many problems with it for me to buy it. I find it so much more believable that God created all of creation, including a crude version of the earth, in Genesis 1:1, and then He singled out the earth from all the other planets for extra detail work because He had to get it ready to sustain the human race. This, to me, is the way a loving God who wants His people to understand how He gave us creation would explain His process, and it’s so much better than believing that He would play homiletical games with us right out of the opening gate of scripture. As for how we should explain the dinosaurs, the Neanderthals, the earth’s geologic column, and other such conundrums, stay tuned. I promise to address those issues in future posts before we are finished with this series.

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2 Responses to The Gap Theory

  1. keith slough says:

    I appreciate your offering strengths and weaknesses — but Lucifer had to have had TIME to rule this earth before Adam as he had to have time to live as a holy angel and then BECOME a “satan” (adversary) to God. Lucifer was not in Heaven but on the Earth as he said “I will ascend into Heaven and be like the Most High.” So he was here — he rebelled — and the rebellion created a the tohu and bohu of verse 2. I am a student of physics and cosmology. The universe is so large that it takes billions of years for light to reach us — thus the universe is OLDER than 6,000 years though the 7 days were literal 24-hour periods — yes. But Scofield presents an explanation of a recreation to set things right on planet Earth. I appreciate your article. Keith Slough, Th.D., minister

    • russellmckinney says:

      Thanks for your comment, Keith. I’m sure that you and I could debate this topic all day, but I don’t think either one of us really wants to get into that. We both seem pretty entrenched in our takes on the matter. I respect your interpretation, and I trust that you respect mine. Yes, I’ve heard the argument about the amount of time it takes light to reach the earth. “Young earth” creationists have offered various potential explanations for it and continue to do so. I myself favor the idea that God created the light in transit as part of a fully functioning universe, just as He created Adam and Eve as fully functioning adults when they were only a few seconds old. After all, what would have been the point of Him creating stars, the light from which humans would never be able to see until the human race had been around for millions or billions of years? As for the gap theory, I just can’t get past the fact that the Bible expressly teaches that it was Adam who brought sin and death into the world. To me, that is the fatal kryptonite of the theory.

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