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Because of the accepted teachings of evolution, many Christians have tried to place a gap of indeterminate time between the first two verses of Genesis 1. Genesis 1:1–2 states: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
There are many different versions as to what supposedly happened during this gap of time, but most versions of the gap theory place millions of years of geologic time (including billions of animal fossils) between the Bible’s first two verses. This version of the gap theory is sometimes called the ruin-reconstruction theory.
Most ruin-reconstruction theorists have allowed the fallible theories of secular scientists to determine the meaning of Scripture and have, therefore, accepted the millions-of-years dates for the fossil record.
Some theorists also put the fall of Satan in this supposed period. But any rebellion of Satan during this gap of time contradicts God’s description of His completed creation on Day 6 as all being “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
All versions of the gap theory impose outside ideas on Scripture and thus open the door for further compromise.
Christians have made many attempts over the years to harmonize the Genesis account of creation with accepted geology and its teaching of billions of years for the age of the earth. Examples of such attempts include the views of theistic evolution, progressive creation, and the gap theory.
This idea of the gap theory can be traced back to the rather obscure writings of the Dutchman Episcopius (1583–1643), but it was first recorded from one of the lectures of Thomas Chalmers.1 Chalmers (1780–1847) was a notable Scottish theologian and the first moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, and he was perhaps the man most responsible for the gap theory.2 Rev. William Buckland, a geologist, also did much to popularize the idea.
Although Chalmers’ writings give very little information about the gap theory,3 many of the details are obtained from other writers, such as the nineteenth century geologist Hugh Miller, who quoted from Chalmers’ lectures on the subject.4
The most notably influential nineteenth century writer to popularize this view was G. H. Pember, in his book Earth’s Earliest Ages,5 first published in 1884. Numerous editions of this work were published, the 15th edition appearing in 1942.6
The 20th-century writer who published the most academic defense of the gap theory was Arthur C. Custance in his work Without Form and Void.7
Bible study aids such as the Scofield Reference Bible, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, and The Newberry Reference Bible also include the gap theory and have influenced many to accept this teaching. The basic reason for developing and promoting this view can be seen from the following very telling quotes:
Scofield Study Bible: “Relegate fossils to the primitive creation, and no conflict of science with the Genesis cosmogony remains.”8
Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible: “When men finally agree on the age of the earth, then place the many years (over the historical 6,000) between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, there will be no conflict between the Book of Genesis and science.”9
G. H. Pember’s struggle with long geologic ages, recounted in Earth’s Earliest Ages, has been the struggle of many Christians ever since the idea of millions of years for the fossil record became popular in the early nineteenth century. Many respected Christian leaders of today wrestle with this same issue.
Reading Pember’s struggle helps us understand the implications of the gap theory. Pember, like today’s conservative Christians, defended the authority of Scripture. He was adamant that one had to start from Scripture alone and not bring preconceived ideas to Scripture. He boldly chastened people who came to the Bible “filled with myths, philosophies, and prejudices, which they could not altogether throw off, but retained, in part at least, and mingled—quite unwillingly, perhaps—with the truth of God” (p. 5). He describes how the church is weakened when man’s philosophies are used to interpret God’s Word: “For, by skillfully blending their own systems with the truths of Scripture, they so bewildered the minds of the multitude that but few retained the power of distinguishing the revelation of God from the craftily interwoven teachings of men” (p. 7). He also said, “And the result is that inconsistent and unsound interpretations have been handed down from generation to generation, and received as if they were integral parts of the Scriptures themselves; while any texts which seemed violently opposed were allegorized, spiritualized, or explained away, till they ceased to be troublesome, or perchance, were even made subservient” (p. 8).
He then warns Christians, “For, if we be observant and honest, we must often ourselves feel the difficulty of approaching the sacred writings without bias, seeing that we bring with us a number of stereotyped ideas, which we have received as absolutely certain, and never think of testing, but only seek to confirm” (p. 8).
He did not want to question Scripture...but he did not question the long ages, either.What happened to Pember should warn us that no matter how great a theologian we may be or how respected and knowledgeable a Christian leader, we, as finite, sinful human beings, cannot easily empty ourselves of preconceived ideas. Pember did exactly what he preached against, without realizing it. Such is the ingrained nature of the long-ages issue. He did not want to question Scripture (he accepted the six literal days of creation), but he did not question the long ages, either. So Pember struggled with what to do. Many of today’s respected Christian leaders show the same struggle in their commentaries as they then capitulate to progressive creation or even theistic evolution.11
Pember said, “For, as the fossil remains clearly show not only were disease and death—inseparable companions of sin—then prevalent among the living creatures of the earth, but even ferocity and slaughter.” He, therefore, recognized that a fossil record of death, decay, and disease before sin was totally inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching. And he understood that there could be no carnivores before sin: “On the Sixth Day God pronounced every thing which He had made to be very good, a declaration which would seem altogether inconsistent with the present condition of the animal as well as the vegetable kingdom. Again: He gave the green herb alone for food ‘to every beast of the field, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ There were, therefore, no carnivora in the sinless world” (p. 35).
Pember taught from Isaiah that the earth will be restored to what it was like at first—no more death, disease, or carnivorous activity. However, because he had accepted the long ages for the fossil record, what was he to do with all this death, disease, and destruction in the record? He responded, “Since, then, the fossil remains are those of creatures anterior to Adam, and yet show evident tokens of disease, death, and mutual destruction, they must have belonged to another world, and have a sin-stained history of their own” (p. 35).
Thus, in trying to reconcile the long ages with Scripture, Pember justified the gap theory by saying, “There is room for any length of time between the first and second verses of the Bible. And again; since we have no inspired account of geological formations, we are at liberty to believe that they were developed just in the order which we find them. The whole process took place in pre-Adamite times, in connection, perhaps, with another race of beings, and, consequently, does not at present concern us” (p. 28).
With this background, let us consider this gap theory in detail. Basically, this theory incorporates three strands of thought:
There are many variations of the gap theory. According to the author Weston Fields, the theory can be summarized as follows, “In the far distant dateless past, God created a perfect heaven and perfect earth. Satan was ruler of the earth which was peopled by a race of ‘men’ without any souls. Eventually, Satan, who dwelled in a garden of Eden composed of minerals (Ezekiel 28), rebelled by desiring to become like God (Isaiah 14). Because of Satan’s fall, sin entered the universe and brought on the earth God’s judgment in the form of a flood (indicated by the water of 1:2), and then a global ice age when the light and heat from the sun were somehow removed. All the plant, animal, and human fossils upon the earth today date from this ‘Lucifer’s flood’ and do not bear any genetic relationship with the plants, animals, and fossils living upon the earth today.”12
Some versions of the gap theory state that the fossil record (geologic column) formed over millions of years, and then God destroyed the earth with a catastrophe (i.e., Lucifer’s flood) that left it “without form and void.”
Western Bible commentaries written before the eithteenth century (before the belief in a long age for the earth became popular) knew nothing of any gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Certainly some commentaries proposed intervals of various lengths of time for reasons relating to Satan’s fall,13 but none proposed a ruin-reconstruction situation or a pre-Adamite world. In the nineteenth century, it became popular to believe that the geological changes occurred slowly and roughly at the present rate (uniformitarianism14). With increased acceptance of uniformitarianism, many theologians urged reinterpretation of Genesis (with ideas such as day-age, progressive creation, theistic evolution, and days-of-revelation).
Believing in the gap theory presents a number of problems and inconsistencies, especially for a Christian.
Exodus 20:11 (says), “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.” Thus the creation of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) and the sea and all that is in them (the rest of the creation) was completed in six days.15 Is there any time for a gap?
Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” From this we understand that there could not have been human sin or death before Adam. The Bible teaches in 1 Corinthians (15) that Adam was the first man, and as a result of his rebellion (sin), death and corruption (disease, bloodshed, and suffering) entered the universe. Before Adam sinned, there could not have been any animal (nephesh16) or human death. Note also that there could not have been a race of men before Adam that died in Lucifer’s flood because 1 Corinthians 15:45 tells us that Adam was the first man.
Genesis 1:29–30 teaches us that animals and man were originally created to eat plants, which is consistent with God’s description of His creation as “very good.” But how could a fossil record, which gives evidence of disease, violence, death, and decay (fossils have been found of animals apparently fighting and certainly eating each other), be described as “very good”? For this to be true, the death of billions of animals (and many humans) as seen in the fossil record must have occurred after Adam’s sin. The historical event of the global Flood, recorded in Genesis, explains the presence of huge numbers of dead animals buried in rock layers, laid down by water all over the earth.
Romans 8:22 teaches that “the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now.” Clearly the whole of creation was, and is, subject to decay and corruption because of sin. When gap theorists believe that disease, decay, and death existed before Adam sinned, they ignore that this contradicts the teaching of Scripture.17
The version of the gap theory that puts Satan’s fall at the end of the geological ages, just before the supposed Lucifer’s flood that destroyed all pre-Adamic life, has a further problem—the death and suffering recorded in the fossils must have been God’s fault. Since it happened before Satan’s fall, Satan and sin cannot be blamed for it.18
Gap theorists accept that the earth is very old—a belief based on geologic evidence interpreted with the assumption that the present is the key to the past. This assumption implies that in the past sediments containing fossils formed at basically the same rate as they do today. This process is also used by most geologists and biologists to justify belief that the geologic column represents billions of years of earth history. This geologic column has become the showcase of evolution because the fossils are claimed to show ascent from simple to complex life-forms.
This places gap theorists in a dilemma. Committed to literal creation because of their acceptance of a literal view of Genesis, they cannot accept the conclusions of evolution based on the geologic column. Nor can they accept that the days in the Genesis record correspond to geologic periods. So they propose that God reshaped the earth and re-created all life in six literal days after Lucifer’s flood (which produced the fossils); hence the name “ruin-reconstruction.” Satan’s sin supposedly caused this flood, and the resulting judgment upon that sin reduced the previous world to a state of being “without form and void.”
While the gap theorist may think Lucifer’s flood solves the problem of life before God’s creation recorded in Genesis 1:2 and following, this actually removes the reason for the theory in the first place. If all, or most, of the sediments and fossils were produced quickly in one massive worldwide Lucifer’s flood, then the main evidence that the earth is extremely old no longer exists, because the age of the earth is based on the assumed slow formation of earth’s sediments.
Also, if the world was reduced to a shapeless, chaotic mess, as gap theorists propose, how could a reasonably ordered assemblage of fossils and sediments remain as evidence? Surely with such chaos the fossil record would have been severely disrupted, if not entirely destroyed. This argument also applies to those who say the fossil record formed over hundreds of millions of years before this so-called Lucifer’s flood, which would have severely rearranged things.
If the fossil record was formed by Lucifer’s flood, then what did the global Flood of Noah’s day do? On this point the gap theorist is forced to conclude that the global Flood must have left virtually no trace. To be consistent, the gap theorist would also have to defend that the global Flood was a local event. Custance, one of the major proponents of the gap theory, did just that, and he even published a paper defending a local flood.19
Genesis, however, depicts the global Flood as a judgment for man’s sin (Genesis 6). Water flooded the earth for over a year (Genesis 6:17, 7:19–24) and only eight people, along with two of every kind (and seven of some) of air-breathing, land-dwelling animal survived (Genesis 7:23). It is more consistent with the whole framework of Scripture to attribute most fossils to the global Flood of Noah’s day rather than to resort to a strained interpretation of the fall of Satan20 and a totally speculative catastrophe that contributes nothing to biblical understanding or to science.
Sadly, in relegating the fossil record to the supposed gap, gappists have removed the evidence of God’s judgment in the Flood, which is the basis for God’s warning of judgment to come (2 Peter 3:2–14).
The true gap theorist also ignores evidence consistent with an earth fewer than 10,000 years of age. There is much evidence for this—the decay and rapid reversals of the earth’s magnetic field, the amount of salt in the oceans, the wind-up of spiral galaxies, and much more.21
Today’s uniformitarian geologists allow for no worldwide flood of any kind—the imaginary Lucifer’s flood or the historical Flood of Noah’s day. They also recognize no break between the supposed former created world and the current recreated world.
By accepting an ancient age for the earth (based on the standard uniformitarian interpretation of the geologic column), gap theorists leave the evolutionary system intact (which by their own assumptions they oppose).
Even worse, they must also theorize that Romans 5:12 and Genesis 3:3 refer only to spiritual death. But this contradicts other scriptures, such as 1 Corinthians (15) and Genesis 3:22–23. These passages tell us that Adam’s sin led to physical death, as well as spiritual death. In 1 Corinthians 15 the death of the Last Adam (the Lord Jesus Christ) is compared with the death of the first Adam. Jesus suffered physical death for man’s sin, because Adam, the first man, died physically because of sin.
In cursing man with physical death, God also provided a way to redeem man through the person of His Son Jesus Christ, who suffered the curse of death on the Cross for us. He tasted “death for everyone” according to Hebrews 2:9. He took the penalty that should rightly have been ours at the hands of the Righteous Judge, and bore it in His own body on the Cross. Jesus Christ tasted death for all mankind, and He defeated death when He rose from the grave three days later. Men can be free from eternal death in hell if they believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They then are received back to God to spend eternity with Him. That is the message of Christianity.
To believe there was death before Adam’s sin destroys the basis of the Christian message. The Bible states that man’s rebellious actions led to death and the corruption of the universe, but the gap theory undermines the reason that man needs a Savior.
The earliest available manuscript of Genesis 1:1–2 is found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint (LXX), which was prepared about 250–200 B.C. The LXX does not permit the reading of any ruin-reconstruction scenario into these verses, as even Custance admitted. A closer look at these verses reveals that the gap theory imposes an interpretation upon Genesis 1:1–2 that is unnatural and grammatically unsound. Like many attempts to harmonize the Bible with uniformitarian geology, the gap theory involves a well-meant but misguided twisting of Scripture.
Below are the five major challenges to the gap theory in interpreting Scripture. For a much fuller analysis, we recommend the book Unformed and Unfilled by Weston Fields, published by Burgener Enterprises, 1997.
It is generally acknowledged that the Hebrew word bara, used with “God” as its subject, means “to create”—in the sense of the production of something which did not exist before.
However, according to Exodus 20:11, God “made” (asah) the heavens and the earth and everything in them in six days. If God made everything in six days, then there is clearly no room for a gap. To avoid this clear scriptural testimony against any gap, gap theorists have alleged that asah does not mean “to create,” but “to form” or even “re-form.” They claim that Exodus 20:11 refers not to six days of creation but to six days of re-forming a ruined world.
Is there such a difference between bara and asah in biblical usage? A number of verses show that, while asah may mean “to do” or “to make,” it can also mean “to create,” which is the same as bara. For example, Nehemiah 9:6 states that God made (asah) “heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and everything on it, the seas and all that is in them.” This reference is obviously to the original ex nihilo (out of nothing) creation, but the word asah is used. (We may safely assume that no gappist will want to say that Nehemiah 9:6 refers to the supposed reconstruction, because if the passage did, the gappist would have to include the geological strata in the reconstruction, thereby depriving the whole theory of any power to explain away the fossil record.)
The fact is that the words bara and asah are often used interchangeably in the Old Testament; indeed, in some places they are used in synonymous parallelism (e.g., Genesis 1:26–27, 2:4; Exodus 34:10; Isaiah 41:20, 43:7).
Applying this conclusion to Exodus 20:11, 31:17, and Nehemiah 9:6, we see that Scripture teaches that God created the universe (everything) in six days, as outlined in Genesis 1.
Many adherents of the gap theory claim that the grammar of Genesis 1:1–2 allows, and even requires, a time-gap between the events in verse 1 and the events in verse 2. Into this gap—believed by many to be billions of years—they want to place all the major geological phenomena that have shaped the world.
This is an unnatural interpretation, not suggested by the plain meaning of the text. The most straightforward reading of the verses sees verse 1 as a subject-and-verb clause, with verse 2 containing three circumstantial clauses (i.e., three statements that further describe the circumstances introduced by the principal clause in verse 1).
This conclusion is reinforced by the grammarian Gesenius. He says that the Hebrew conjunction waw, meaning “and” at the beginning of verse 2, is a “waw copulative,” which compares with the old English expression “to wit.” This grammatical connection between verses 1 and 2 thus rules out the gap theory. Verse 2 is in fact a description of the state of the originally created earth: “And the earth was without form and void” (Genesis 1:2a).22
Gappists translate “the earth was without form and void” to be “the earth became (or, had become) without form and void.” At stake is the translation of the Hebrew word hayetah (a form of the Hebrew verb, hayah, meaning “to be”).
Custance, a supporter of the gap theory, claims that out of 1,320 occurrences of the verb hayah in the Old Testament, only 24 can certainly be said to bear the meaning “to be.” He concludes that in Genesis 1:2 hayetah must mean “became” and not simply “was.”
However, we must note that the meaning of a word is controlled by its context, and that verse 2 is circumstantial to verse 1. Thus “was” is the most natural and appropriate translation for hayetah. It is rendered this way in most English versions (as well as in the LXX). Furthermore, in Genesis 1:2 hayetah is not followed by the preposition le, which would have removed any ambiguity in the Hebrew and required the translation “became.”
The words tohu and bohu, usually translated “formless and void,” are used in Genesis 1:2. They imply that the original universe was created unformed and unfilled and was, during six days, formed and filled by God’s creative actions.
Gappists claim that these words imply a process of judgmental destruction and that they indicate a sinful, and therefore not an original, state of the earth. However, this brings interpretations from other parts of the Old Testament with very different contexts (namely, Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23) and imports them into Genesis 1.
Tohu and bohu appear together only in the three above-mentioned places in the Old Testament. However, tohu appears alone in a number of other places and in all cases simply means “formless.” The word itself does not tell us about the cause of formlessness; this has to be gleaned from the context. Isaiah 45:18 (often quoted by gappists) is rendered in the KJV “he created it not in vain [tohu], he formed it to be inhabited.” In the context, Isaiah is speaking about Israel, God’s people, and His grace in restoring them. He did not choose His people in order to destroy them, but to be their God and for them to be His people. Isaiah draws an analogy with God’s purpose in creation: He did not create the world for it to be empty. No, He created it to be formed and filled, a suitable abode for His creation. Gappists miss the point altogether when they argue that because Isaiah says God did not create the world tohu, it must have become tohu at some later time. Isaiah 45:18 is about God’s purpose in creating, not about the original state of the creation.
Though the expression “tohu and bohu” in Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23 speaks of a formlessness and emptiness resulting from divine judgment for sin, this meaning is not implicit in the expression itself but is gained from the particular contexts in which it occurs. It is not valid therefore to infer that same meaning from Genesis 1:2, where the context does not suggest any judgment. As an analogy, we might think of a word like “blank” in reference to a computer screen. It can be blank because nothing has been typed on the keyboard, or it can be blank because the screen has been erased. The word “blank” does not suggest, in itself, the reason why the screen is blank. Likewise with “formless and void”—the earth began that way simply because it was not yet formed and filled, or it was that way because of judgment.
Theologians call the form of use of tohu and/or bohu in Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23 a “verbal allusion.” These passages on judgment allude to the formless and empty earth at the beginning of creation to suggest the extent of God’s judgment to come. God’s judgment will be so complete that the result will be like the earth before it was formed and filled—formless and empty. This does not imply that the state of the creation in Genesis 1:2 was arrived at by some sort of judgment or destruction as imagined by gappists. As theologian Robert Chisholm, Jr. wrote, “By the way, allusion only works one way. It is unwarranted to assume that Jeremiah’s use of the phrase in a context of judgment implies some sort of judgment in the context of Genesis 1:2. Jeremiah is not interpreting the meaning of Genesis 1:2.”23
Many gappists have used the word “replenish” in the KJV translation of Genesis 1:28 to justify the gap theory on the basis that this word means “refill.” Thus, they claim that God told Adam and Eve to refill the earth, implying it was once before filled with people (the pre-Adamites). However, this is wrong. The Hebrew word translated “replenish,” male,24 simply means “fill” (or “fulfill” or “be filled”).
The English word “replenish” meant “fill” from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries; then it changed to mean “refill.” When the KJV was published in 1611, the translators used the English word “replenish,” which at that time meant only “fill,” not “refill.”25
The gap (or ruin-reconstruction) theory is based on a very tenuous interpretation of Scripture.
The simple, straightforward meaning of Genesis 1:1–2 is that, when God created the earth at the beginning, it was initially formless, empty, and dark, and God’s Spirit was there above the waters. It was through His creative energy that the world was then progressively formed and filled during the six days of creation.
Consider the analogy of a potter making a vase. The first thing he does is gather a ball of clay. What he has is good, but it is unformed. Next, he shapes it into a vase, using his potter’s wheel. Now the ball of clay is no longer formless. He then dries it, applies glaze, and fires it. Now it is ready to be filled—with flowers and water. At no time could one of the stages be considered evil or bad. It was just unfinished—unformed and unfilled. When the vase was finally formed and filled, it could be described as “very good.”
Many sincere Christians have invented reinterpretations of Scripture to avoid intellectual conflicts with popular scientific ideas. The gap theory was one such reinterpretation designed to fit in with scientific concepts that arose in the early 1800s and are still popular today.
In reality, though, the gap theory was an effective anesthetic that put the church to sleep for over 100 years. When the children who learned this compromise position went on to higher education, they were shocked to discover that this theory explained nothing. Many of them then accepted the only remaining “respectable” theory—evolution—which went hand-in-hand with millions of years. The results were usually disastrous for their faith.
Today, other compromise positions, such as progressive creation or theistic evolution, have mostly replaced the gap theory.26 The gappists, by attempting to maintain a literal Genesis but adhering to the long ages (millions of years), opened the door for greater compromise in the next generation—the reinterpretation of the days, God using evolution, etc.
But whether it is the gap theory, day-age/progressive creation, or theistic evolution, the results are the same. These positions may be acceptable in some churches, but the learned in the secular world will, with some justification, mock those who hold them because they see the inconsistencies.
In Martin Luther’s day the church compromised what the Bible clearly taught, and he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church to call them back to the authority of God’s Word. In the same way, the church today has, by and large, neglected what the Bible clearly says in Genesis 1–11. It’s time to call the church back to the authority of God’s Word beginning with Genesis.