SERIES: GENESIS – PART 7
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. – Genesis 1:1-2
In The Invisible War Donald Grey Barnhouse gives an illustration of what has come to be know widely as the gap theory of evolution. A motorist was driving through America’s great southwest and had planned to arrive at the Grand Canyon of Colorado from the South and then proceed on across it northward into Utah.
He shared his plans with a friend who knew the area, but his friend immediately pointed out that what he wanted to do was impossible. On the map it looked as if he could drive north across the canyon, but that tiny fifteen-mile gap, which barely shows on the map, is actually a gigantic and impassable chasm. One can get north only by taking a detour over hundreds of miles of hot desert roads.
According to the gap theory, the first two verses of Genesis are like that. They appear to be continuous, but in between there is actually a long but indeterminate period in which the destruction of an original world and the unfolding of the geological ages can be located.
A Popular Viewpoint
This theory is also called the restitution or recreation theory. Arthur C. Custance, who has written an excellent book in the theory’s defense, traces it to certain early Jewish writers, some of the church fathers, and even to some ancient Sumerian and Babylonian documents. It crops up in the Middle Ages as well. It was in Scotland at the beginning of the last century, through the work of the capable pastor and writer Thomas Chalmers, that the idea gained real coherence and visibility.
Chalmers was anxious to show that the emerging data concerning the geological ages was not incompatible with sound biblical exposition. So according to him, Genesis 1:1 tells of God’s creation of an original world in which all things were good, for God cannot create that which is bad. Lucifer ruled this world for God. Lucifer sinned. God judged the world along with Lucifer, as a result of which the earth became the formless, desolate mass we discover it to be in Genesis 1:2 (“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep”). The earth continued like this for indeterminate ages in which the various rock strata developed. It was only at the end of this period that God intervened to bring new order out of the prevailing chaos, which is what Genesis 1:3–31 describes. These verses actually describe a recreation.
Chalmers wrote in the early 1800s, but his views thrived around the turn of the century as they were picked up by the various writers of early fundamentalism. The best known was G. H. Pember, whose book on the theory, Earth’s Earliest Ages (1876), went through many editions. My own copy is the fourteenth.
Pember wrote, “It is thus clear that the second verse of Genesis describes the earth as a ruin; but there is no hint of the time which elapsed between creation and this ruin. Age after age may have rolled away, and it was probably during their course that the strata of the earth’s crust were gradually developed. Hence we see that geological attacks upon the Scriptures are altogether wide of the mark, are a mere beating of the air. 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 the geological formations, we are at liberty to believe that they were developed just in the order in which we find them. The whole process took place in preadamite times, in connection, perhaps, with another race of beings, and, consequently, does not at present concern us” (G. H. Pember, Earth’s Earliest Ages and Their Connection with Modern Spiritualism and Theosophy. London and Glasgow: Pickering & Inglis, n.d., 28).
In subsequent pages Pember developed his theory of the fall of Satan, the influence of demons in the world prior to Noah, and the relevance of this for the resurgence of spiritism that he observed in his day.
Arthur W. Pink held Chalmers’s view and doubtless also learned from Pember. He wrote, “The unknown interval between the first two verses of Genesis 1, is wide enough to embrace all the prehistoric ages which may have elapsed; but all that took place from Genesis 1:3 onwards transpired less than six thousand years ago” (Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Genesis. Chicago: Moody Press, 1950, 11. Original edition 1922).
Harry Rimmer was another influential writer. In 1941 he authored a book entitled Modern Science and the Genesis Record. In it he said, “The original creation of the heaven and the earth, then, is covered in the first verse of Genesis. Only God knows how many ages rolled by before the ruin wrought by Lucifer fell upon the earth, but it may have been an incalculable span of time. Nor can any students say how long the period of chaos lasted; there is not even a hint given. But let us clearly recognize in these studies that Moses, in the record of the first week of creation, is telling the story of God’s reconstruction; rather than the story of an original creation” (Harry Rimmer, Modern Science and the Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941, 28).
The single most effective teacher of this view was C. I. Scofield, who included it in his notes on Genesis in the astonishingly popular Scofield Reference Bible. From there it became the almost unquestioned view of fundamentalism, though, as I have already pointed out, The Fundamentals themselves contain an article by James Orr that almost embraces evolution. In more recent times various forms of this theory have been held by C. S. Lewis, M. R. DeHaan, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and others. Francis Schaeffer acknowledged parts of it as a possibility (Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time, 62).
There is widespread opposition to the gap theory today, even on the part of very conservative writers. But these often dismiss it too easily, without adequate attention to the biblical data on which the gap theorists built. This theory may be wrong, but it is not possible to dismiss it cavalierly.
What are the lines of evidence for this theory? The first and by far the most important is its exegetical or biblical base. Indeed, without this, Chalmers, Pember, and the others would have had no case at all. The exegetical argument has a number of parts.
First, in the Masoretic text of Genesis, in which ancient Jewish scholars attempted to incorporate a sufficient number of “indicators” to guide the reader in proper pronunciation and interpretation of the text, there is a small mark known as a rebia following verse 1. The rebia is a disjunctive accent. That is, it serves to inform the reader that there is a break in the narrative at this point and that he should pause before going on to the next verse. The rebia might also indicate that the conjunction that begins verse 2, a waw, should be translated “but” rather than the more common “and.” (This has bearing on how the second verse should be translated because, as we will see, it could be rendered “But the earth became a ruin.”) To be sure, the rebia was not in the original text of Genesis and therefore represents only the considered judgment of the Masoretes, but their opinion may guide us to a correct interpretation.
Second, there is the structure of the creation account itself. Each of the accounts of the activity of God on one of the creative days ends with the words, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first [second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth] day.” In other words, there is a very marked parallelism. Moreover, on the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth days, those same sections begin, “And God said. …” It is only natural, therefore, to assume that the account of the first day of creation begins, not with verse 1 but with verse 3 where the parallel phrase occurs (“And God said, ‘Let there be light’ ”). If this is so, then the first two verses stand apart from the rest of the account and describe a creation prior to the work of God on the first day.
Third, there is the possibility (some would say necessity) of translating the Hebrew verb “to be” (hayah), which occurs in verse 2, not “was” but “became.” So the verse would read, “But the earth became formless [that is, a ruinous mass] and empty [that is, devoid of life].” It is also possible that the verb is to be taken as pluperfect with the meaning, “But the earth had become… .”
The arguments concerning the meaning of this basic Hebrew verb are long and tortuous, not ones that most people would readily or cheerfully follow. But they boil down to the point that this is at least a possibility and perhaps even a strong possibility. Those who oppose this view—Bernard Ramm, in The Christian View of Science and Scripture, is one—argue that those adopting it make a novel and very questionable interpretation that rests on an infrequent and secondary meaning of the verb. But it is not at all evident that it is that infrequent or secondary. Let us take the matter of whether “became” is a secondary meaning first. In Arthur Custance’s defense of the gap theory’s exegetical base, the point is made that the Hebrew verb hayah, while frequently translated “was” rather than “became,” nevertheless primarily means “became” for the simple reason that the Hebrew language does not really need a verb for “be.” That is, if a Hebrew-speaking person wanted to say “The man is good,” he would not use a verb at all but would simply say, “The man good.” The verb would be implied. This sentence differs from the descriptive phrase “The good man,” because the Hebrew way of saying that is “The man the good.”
In his critique Ramm declares that “the Hebrews did not have a word for became, but the verb to be did service for to be and become” (Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954, 202).
But as Custance points out, the reverse would be more nearly correct, namely, that “they did not need a word for ‘to be’ in the simple sense, so made their word for become serve for to be and become” (Arthur C. Custance, Without Form and Void: A Study of the Meaning of Genesis 1:2. Brockville, Ont.: Doorway Papers, 1970, 104). In Custance’s judgment the word should be translated “became” unless there are reasons to the contrary.
The other matter is frequency. John Whitcomb has written that there are only six examples in the entire Pentateuch of the verb hayah being rendered “became.” This seems to be an error. Custance claims that there are at least seventeen cases in Genesis alone, but that is in the King James Version. Other versions give the translation in other instances. The Latin Vulgate has the equivalent thirteen times in just the first chapter. Some sample verses:
Genesis 3:1—“Now the serpent had become more subtle than any beast of the field.” Most versions say “was,” but this verse probably indicates that the serpent became subtle or crafty as the result of Satan’s use of him for the purpose of tempting Eve.
Genesis 3:20—“Eve became the mother of all living.” The King James Version says “was,” but this is strange since no children had been born to her at this time. The New International Version recognizes the problem and translates the verse accordingly: “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.”
Genesis 21:20—“And God was with the lad [Ishmael]; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.”
Genesis 37:20—“We shall see what will become of his [Joseph’s] dream.”
These translations are not beyond challenge, of course. But they do show the frequency of this possible translation of this verb. Custance’s own conclusion is, “By and large, therefore, I suggest that the rendering, ‘But the earth had become a ruin and a desolation,’ is a rendering which does more justice to the original and deserves more serious consideration as an alternative than it has been customary to afford it in recent years” (Ibid, 116).
Fourth, the words “formless and empty” (tohu wa bohu) may be verbal clues to a preadamic judgment of God on our planet. True, the words have various shades of meaning and do not necessarily indicate the destruction of something that had formerly been beautiful. But they sometimes do. Besides, there is the important text in Isaiah 45:18 that says, using the words of Genesis 1:2, that God did not create the world a ruin. If this is a direct reference to Genesis, as it may be, it says that God did not create the world in the state portrayed in Genesis 1:2. (On the other hand, it may simply mean that God did not create the world to be desolate but rather created it to be inhabited, as in the New International Version translation.)
When Did Satan Fall?
This message has dealt largely with the exegetical support for the gap theory, because it is the point from which its adherents argue. These arguments have not been taken seriously enough by those who oppose the theory. But this is not to suggest that there are no other lines of support for the reconstructionists’ view. A second line of support is theological.
This has to do with the fall of Satan. From Genesis 3 we learn that evil was already in existence at the time of Adam and Eve’s creation, for Satan was there to tempt Eve. Besides, there are texts that suggest, not always clearly, that there was an earlier fall of Satan, followed by a judgment on Satan and those angels (now demons) who sinned with him. Of course, the fall of Satan may have occurred without any relationship to earth. But he is called “the prince of this world” and seems to have a special relationship to it. Is it not possible, even reasonable, that he may have ruled the world for God in an earlier period of earth’s history—if there was such a period? And if this is so, couldn’t a fall and judgment fit between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2? If not there, where does the fall come in? The only other option would be before creation itself, which would put the creation of Satan before anything else we know.
There is also the problem of the first appearances of death. If the fossils indicate anything, they indicate a period of struggle, disease, and death prior to man’s appearance. But if death came through the sin of Adam, how can death be evidenced in the fossil record unless the death witnessed is the product of God’s judgment on the sin of an earlier world and race? There is another explanation of this that the creationist school supplies, namely, that the fossils were created by the flood and so came after Adam. But the argument at this point—while it will not speak to creationists—should speak to most other schools of thought.
Some Lingering Difficulties
What should we think of this theory? It has commended itself to many in recent generations. It is a serious attempt to be biblical. It seems to solve the problem of the long geological ages. Should we adopt it? We should consider it seriously for each of the reasons just given, but before we adopt it we should also consider the difficulties.
One serious criticism of the gap theory is that it gives one of the grandest and most important passages in the Bible an unnatural and perhaps even a peculiar interpretation. This is hardly a conclusive argument, but it is probably the point at which most other Bible students and scholars begin to hesitate. Ramm puts it like this: “From the earliest of Bible interpretation this passage has been interpreted by Jews, Catholics and Protestants as the original creation of the universe. In seven majestic days the universe and all of life is brought into being. But according to Rimmer’s view the great first chapter of Genesis, save for the first verse, is not about original creation at all, but about reconstruction. The primary origin of the universe is stated in but one verse. This is not the most telling blow against the theory, but it certainly indicates that something has been lost to make the six days of creation anticlimactic” (Ramm, Christian View, 201).
This same argument may also be stated biblically, which Ramm does not do but which would presumably have more weight with the gap theory advocates. To give just one example, we read in Exodus 20:11, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” A person might point out that the verb used here is “made,” not the powerful Hebrew verb “created” (baraʾ), and that this allows for a recreation or reforming. But that aside, the verse does sound like a description of an original creation. “It neither states nor implies recreation to most people” (L. Duane Thuman, How to Think about Evolution & Other Bible-Science Controversies . Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978, 121).
Second, the exegetical data, while impressive, is nevertheless far from certain. And it must be certain if we are to be expected to embrace such an unusual theory. I have argued above that critics of the gap theory have been far too cavalier in dismissing its supporters’ exegetical arguments, but those arguments are still not clearly right. The Hebrew verb hayah may mean “became,” but there is no doubt that it is also correctly translated “was” and that far more frequently. Again, waw may even mean “but,” although it more commonly means “and.” And as for tohu wa bohu, this may simply mean that the land in question was uninhabitable. Whether that condition was the result of God’s judgment on the earth or was due to some other factor is to be determined from the context and not from the words themselves (cf. Isa. 24:1 and 45:18; Jer. 4:23–26). It is significant in this regard that, although the New International Version supports the possibility of translating the Hebrew hayah as “become” in a footnote to Genesis 1:2, it does not render Isaiah 45:18 in a way that would support the gap theory.
Third, the gap theory does not really settle the problem posed by geology. Geology shows us successive strata of the earth’s crust containing fossils of earlier life-forms. Advocates of the gap theory wish to account for these in the supposed break between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. But at which point in this break did the judgment of God enter in? If it came after the laying down of the fossil evidence, then death was in the world before judgment. If the judgment came first, then the conditions arising from that judgment could not be as the second verse of Genesis describes them (a chaotic world submerged in darkness), for in such a world no plant or animal life could survive. The only escape from this dilemma is to imagine a gradually descending or advancing judgment in which the various forms of life are progressively snuffed out, but this is the precise opposite of what the geological strata seem to indicate. They show a progressive development of life from simpler to more complex forms.
Some gap theorists have seen this problem and have appealed to the flood for producing the geological evidence. Rimmer appeals to both the earlier ages and the flood. But if this is the case, we do not need the gap. The impression left is that the theory has not been carried through sufficiently to provide us with a clearly workable model. It may be possible. But we will want to consider the other views of creation before we settle on this as the only true Christian possibility.
About the Preacher
James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 7 in Genesis 1-11: An Expositional Commentary. vol. 1: Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
Under Dr. Boice’s leadership, Tenth Presbyterian Church became a model for ministry in America’s northeastern inner cities. When he assumed the pastorate of Tenth Church there were 350 people in regular attendance. At his death the church had grown to a regular Sunday attendance in three services of more than 1,200 persons, a total membership of 1,150 persons. Under his leadership, the church established a pre-school for children ages 3-5 (now defunct), a high school known as City Center Academy, a full range of adult fellowship groups and classes, and specialized outreach ministries to international students, women with crisis pregnancies, homosexual and HIV-positive clients, and the homeless. Many of these ministries are now free-standing from the church.
Dr. Boice gave leadership to groups beyond his own organization. For ten years he served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, from its founding in 1977 until the completion of its work in 1988. ICBI produced three classic, creedal documents: “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics” and “The Chicago Statement on the Application of the Bible to Contemporary Issues.” The organization published many books, held regional “Authority of Scripture” seminars across the country, and sponsored the large lay “Congress on the Bible I,” which met in Washington, D.C., in September 1987. He also served on the Board of Bible Study Fellowship.
He founded the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (Alliance) in 1994, initially a group of pastors and theologians who were focused on bringing the 20th and now 21st century church to a new reformation. In 1996 this group met and wrote the Cambridge Declaration. Following the Cambridge meetings, the Alliance assumed leadership of the programs and publications formerly under Evangelical Ministries, Inc. (Dr. Boice) and Christians United for Reformation (Horton) in late 1996.
Dr. Boice was a prodigious world traveler. He journeyed to more than thirty countries in most of the world’s continents, and he taught the Bible in such countries as England, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Guatemala, Korea and Saudi Arabia. He lived in Switzerland for three years while pursuing his doctoral studies.
Dr. Boice held degrees from Harvard University (A.B.), Princeton Theological Seminary (B.D.), the University of Basel, Switzerland (D. Theol.) and the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church (D.D., honorary).
A prolific author, Dr. Boice had contributed nearly forty books on a wide variety of Bible related themes. Most are in the form of expositional commentaries, growing out of his preaching: Psalms (1 volume), Romans (4 volumes), Genesis (3 volumes), Daniel, The Minor Prophets (2 volumes), The Sermon on the Mount, John (5 volumes, reissued in one), Ephesians, Phillippians and The Epistles of John. Many more popular volumes: Hearing God When You Hurt, Mind Renewal in a Mindless Christian Life, Standing on the Rock, The Parables of Jesus, The Christ of Christmas, The Christ of the Open Tomb and Christ’s Call to Discipleship. He also authored Foundations of the Christian Faith a 740-page book of theology for laypersons. Many of these books have been translated into other languages, such as: French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
He was married to Linda Ann Boice (born McNamara), who continues to teach at the high school they co-founded.
Sources: Taken directly from the Aliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ Website
from the Tenth Presbyterian Church website
1985 “The Future of Reformed Theology” in David F. Wells, editor,