What about the Gap Theory?


Author: Philip Robinson

The gap theory, or what is sometimes referred to as the ruin-reconstruction theory, finds its roots with Thomas Chalmers in the early part of the 19th century. Thomas Chalmers, founder of the Free Church of Scotland, first presented the gap theory to his congregation in 1804. However it wasn’t until 1814 when Chalmers wrote a review of Georges Cuvier’s book Theory of the Earth (1813) that the gap theory received wider recognition. After his review the gap theory is thought to have become the most popular old-earth view among Christians for the next half century. (1) Many of the details of Chalmers’ views are obtained from other writers such as the 19th century geologist Hugh Miller, who quoted from Chalmers’ lectures on this subject. (2) It wasn’t really until G. H. Pember wrote Earth’s Earliest Ages in 1876 that there was a full in-depth treatise on the gap theory. The gap theory was also included in the footnotes of the 1909 edition of the popular Scofield Reference Bible, which ironically also had James Ussher’s calculation that Genesis covered 2315 years of history. Whilst there were a few sporadic writers on the gap theory in the early in the early to mid 20th century it received little significant treatment in print until 1970 when Arthur C. Custance released Without Form and Void. Fields commenting on Custance’s work says it is the “Most scholarly, thorough, and lengthy defence of the Gap theory any man has attempted in print.” (3) Without Form and Void remains the keynote gap theorist text to this day. The Gap theory arose at a time in which scientific revelations seemed to contradict the traditional interpretation of Genesis. Regarding its founder Thomas Chalmers, Fields says that “one only has to read the writings of the man to understand how acutely he felt the attacks of science, and geology in particular, upon the scriptures.” (4) We can see this clearly in the writings of Pember as well, as in trying to accommodate long geological ages and defend the Bible, he commented on the Gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 writing –

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.(5)

Both men understood that the traditional interpretation of Genesis came into conflict with modern scientific revelations, however in their attempts to defend the scriptures, they actually compromised them further by accepting naturalistic science as a legitimate hermeneutical tool for the Bible, ending up with the gap theory. Sarfati notes that this was not only the case with Chalmers and Pember but that “Many gap theorists admit explicitly that their motivation is to find a place in the Bible to fit millions of years.(6) The gap theory today while still widely known has lost much of its appeal, especially since the devastating critique by Weston W. Field’s book, Unformed and Unfilled (1976), and the more recent The Genesis ‘Gap Theory’ by M. W. J. Phelan (2005).

While it can be noted that there are many variations of the gap theory, below is a summation of its traditional teachings: –

– Genesis 1-11 is seen as a real historical account

– Moses is the author of Genesis

– The earth is millions of years old

– There is a Gap of undetermined time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2

– In the gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 a number of incidents occurred
     1) The Earth and Heavens had been created perfect
     2) Satan was the ruler of the earth
     3) The earth was filled with a race of soulless people commonly referred to as  Pre-adamites
     4) Satan rebelled against God
     5) When Satan rebelled against God sin entered the universe which resulted in God’s      judgement upon the earth in the form of a flood. This is commonly referred to as Lucifer’s flood
     6) It was during this undetermined time in which most fossils and geologic strata on the earth was formed

– The events after Genesis 1:2 are seen as the reconstruction of the Heavens and Earth by God

– The creation days were six consecutive twenty four hour days

– There was death, disease and suffering before Adam’s sin

– The genealogies in the Bible are tight containing no gaps

– Some gap theorists are of the opinion that Noah’s flood covered the entire globe but caused very little if any geological formations (as these were made in Lucifer’s flood), whilst others argue for a localised flood.

– In the traditional form of the gap theory it is opposed to evolution, however some gap theorists have tried to include it in the theory


Is there a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2?

The gap theorist or ‘ruin-reconstructionist’ would contend that there is a gap of immeasurable time between the verses of Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. They believe that the first verse refers to the original creation and the second verse refers to the start of the reconstruction by God after his Judgement on the earth. They contend that the Hebrew grammar of Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 not only allows the gap theorists rendering of the text, but positively favours it. The most significant of the gap theorist’s points are outlined and examined below:

1) In Genesis 1:1 the Hebrew word for create is bara, which means to create something from absolutely nothing (ex nihilo), and is only ever used in connection with the activity of God (7). In Exodus 20:11, the fourth commandment, we read “For in six days the LORD made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them.” It would seem pretty obvious that if God made everything in six days then there is clearly no room for a gap. However in Exodus 20:11 it is not the Hebrew verb bara that is used, but asah (made), which gap theorists claim means to form from pre-existing material, instead of create ex nihilo, which avoids a scriptural clash between their theory and Exodus 20:11. This would mean that Genesis 1:1 refers to the original creation, whereas Exodus 20:11 would refer to the reconstruction of the earth after God’s judgment on Satan’s rebellion.
While asah can mean to form from pre-existing material (8), being used this way many times in the Genesis creation account, it can also mean to create from nothing, in the same manner as bara.
If we take for example Nehemiah 9:6 “You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them.” In Nehemiah 9:6 the verb asah is used instead of bara, but the verse refers to the original ex nihilo creation. Phelan notes that the phrase heavens of heavens inevitably takes us back to the creation of Genesis 1:1, as only the firmament of heaven is referred to in the hexameron (9).
As Genesis 1:1 was an act of absolute creation (bara), nevertheless, we see here it is embraced within the scope of asah. So while asah can mean to form from pre-existing material it is clear that it can be used interchangeably with bara, meaning that creation ex nihilo is one of its possible interpretations, thereby nullifying the gap theorist’s claim. – Another argument in favor of bara and asah being used interchangeably is that they are used in synonymous parallelism. This can be found in such verses as Genesis 1:26, 27; Exodus 34:10; Isaiah 41:20, 43:7 (10).

2) Gap theorists say that Genesis 1:2 is not dependent on Genesis 1:1 and are not connected; it is into this space between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 that they fit their ‘gap’ of millions/billions of years. Bruce says that for this to be the case, grammatically speaking, there would need to a waw consecutive at the beginning of verse 2 (11). This would be a most unnatural interpretation, as the most straightforward reading of the waw conjunction at the beginning of verse 2 produces a waw copulative, due to its circumstantial noun-clause (12). The waw copulative has the effect of joining the two verses together, with verse 2 being dependent, developing, and describing in greater detail the information given in verse 1. The waw copulative that provides the connection between the first two verses of Genesis rules out the gap theory grammatically.

3) The next Hebrew word in question is the verb hayetah. Gap theorists wish to translate this word as became rather than the traditional was, so that Genesis 1:2 would read ‘the earth became without form and void’ instead of ‘the earth was without form and void’. Although it can be noted that became is a legitimate translation of the verb hayetah, it is the context in which it is placed which determines its translation. Gap theorist Custance(13) insists that the verb hayetah is not used in the copulative sense, uniting subject and predicate, in Genesis 1:2, which he argues allows it to be translated as became. He holds that if the Hebrew intended to indicate a copula the verb haya would not be inserted (such as Genesis 3:7), but rather if the Hebrew intended to indicate some other sense, such as became, then it would have been inserted as it is in Genesis 1:2 (14). However Barr disagrees with Custance and says that the verb haya is inserted where the tense is past, and the situation no longer exists. (15) Such examples as Genesis 2:25 shows that the verb haya can be used in the copulative sense. As haya can be used either way, whether haya is to be used in the copulative sense or not comes down to its context. As we have seen above that context of the verb hayetah in Genesis 1:2a is a circumstantial noun clause connected by a waw copulative then it must be translated as ‘was’ (16). Once again the ‘was’ instead of ‘became’ in Genesis 1:2 describes and develops further the situation in Genesis 1:1 rather than a separate time and incident refuting the gap theory.

4) The last two words used to support the gap theory are tohu wabohu, found in Genesis 1:2 and are traditionally translated as ‘without form and void’. Pember (17) says that “These words are found together in two other passages, in both of which they are used to express the ruin caused by an outpouring of the wrath of God.” It is with this reasoning that gap theorists say that tohu and bohu indicate that a process of judgmental destruction has taken place on the earth in Genesis 1:2 (18). This is why it was important to establish the meaning of the preceding verb hayetah, to establish whether the earth became, or was, without form and void. The other two verses in which tohu and bohu are found together are Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. Both of these verses are referring to the future at the time that they were written. Fields (19) says that “In this context these two words describe a ruined earth, but one is not allowed to take a meaning in one context and transfer it to a foreign contextual setting!” The foreign contextual setting obviously being Genesis 1:2. Phelan (20) also points out that “The state of tohu wabohu, is itself perfectly neutral; it is what induced that state which is either positive of negative.”
As with the other Hebrew words that we have considered thus far, it is the context that determines how we view tohu and bohu. For a practical example Batten (21) says that we can take the word ‘blank’ in reference to a computer screen. It can be blank because no-one has typed anything on the keyboard or it can be blank because the screen had been erased. From the context of the other Hebrew words discussed above it is clear that the context for thohu wabohu is a description of the original creation ready to be filled by God’s creative acts. (22)
Another verse often quoted by advocates of the gap theory containing tohu is Isaiah 45:18, which in context deals with God’s restoration of the nation of Israel. Just as God says that he did not choose his people, Israel, to destroy them, Isaiah draws an analogy in God’s purpose in creation, talking about the earth the verse reads ‘he created it not in vain [tohu], he formed it to be inhabited.’ While proponents of the gap theory say that this verse means that as God did not create the world tohu (as in Genesis 1:2), so it must have become tohu at some later date, they miss the mark altogether. Isaiah 45:18 is not talking about the original state of creation, but rather God’s purpose for creation, and we know that the world was not created to be empty, but rather, filled, which it was and is (23).

For the layman – What is going on in Genesis 1:1 -1:3?

In Genesis 1:1 we get the grand opening of the Biblical text in which time, space and matter is created out of nothing (Ex nihilo). The Heaven and Earth together in Genesis 1:1 is a Hebrew idiom (the idiom of totality), or a merism simply referring to everything, the whole universe, the building material used throughout the remaining 6 days. In Genesis 1:2 we then have an aside in which Genesis 1:1 is elaborated on and the state of the earth is described, and then in Genesis 1:3 we have a continuance with the story from Genesis 1:1. For another practical example look at Genesis 13. In Genesis 13:1 we have an introductory Statement about Abram going from Egypt to the Negev. Then in Genesis 13:2 an aside which gives us more detail about Abram (note the waw copulative [a waw followed by a noun] – “And Abram”), and then in Genesis 13:3 a continuance of the story starting with a waw consectutive [a waw followed by a verb] – “And he went”.

Other problems and concerns about the Gap Theory

The Gap theory in trying to compromise with the millions of years of naturalistic uniformitarian geology does itself no favours just thinking about it logically. Firstly Gap theorists use ‘Lucifer’s flood’ to account for the fossil record. But do they not realize that by saying that ‘Lucifer’s flood’ created the fossils which we have would have the adverse effect of wiping out all the long age uniformitarian interpretations of the geologic column? Secular scientists do not agree that there was ever a global flood, whether that be Lucifer’s or the Biblical Noah’s flood. Instead they believe that fossils formed over millions of years, not in a catastrophic flood.
However just to clarify, it is worth pointing out that no-where does the Bible mention or even hint at such an event as ‘Lucifer’s flood’. Rather this idea is superimposed into the space between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 only as they have to account for the fossil record somehow. Secondly many people have pointed out that the gap theorists should not try to account for the fossil record with a flood that scripture has no mention of, but rather use the one that it does, that being Noah’s flood.
While some Gap theorists do recognize that Noah’s flood was global in scale they try to reduce it to a ‘gentle’ flood. Who has ever heard of a ‘gentle’ worldwide flood which leaves little or no geological trace behind that it happened? Thirdly and most importantly its puts the fall of Satan, death, disease and suffering into the world that God declared to be “very good” in Genesis 1:31. In doing so it has serious consequences about the nature and character of God, a God who if the Gap Theory was true, was calling death, disease and suffering ‘very good’. That is certainly not the God of the Bible who created everything perfect. In putting death before the fall of man it also undermines the Gospel of Jesus Christ and renders it useless.
If death had always been present in the world then there was no punishment for sin. If there was no fall, then there is no need for a saviour. This is a fundamental point which Gap theorists fail to see. Rather the Bible says that “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin.” (Romans 5:12) and that Jesus “Bore our sins in his body” (1Peter 2:24).

In Conclusion Batten puts it best – “The gap theory imposes an interpretation upon Genesis 1:1-2 which is unnatural, and grammatically unsound.” (24)

Recommended Resources

The Genesis ‘Gap Theory’ Its Credibility and Consequences by M.W.J. Phelan

Unformed and Unfilled by Weston W Fields

The Creation Answers Book

All available at creation.com


1) Mortenson, T. (2004) The Great Turning Point: The Church’s Catastrophic Mistake on Geology – Before Darwin, Master Books
2) Batten, D. (Ed) (2003, 5th printing) The Answers Book: The 20 most asked questions about creation, evolution and the book of Genesis answered, Brisbane, Australia: Triune Press
3) Fields, W.W. (2000, 6th printing) Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory, Collinsville: Burgener Enterprises
4) Ibid
5) Pember, G.H. (1876) Earth’s Earliest Ages, Hodder and Stoughton
6) Sarfati, J. (2004) Refuting Compromise, Master Books
7) Taylor, C. (2002) The first 100 words, Jubilee Resources
8) Ibid
9) Phelan, M.W.J. (2005) The Genesis ‘Gap Theory’: Its Credibility and Consequences, Waterlooville: Twoedged Sword Publications
10) Ref 3
11) Bruce, F.F. (1946) “And the Earth Was Without Form and Void”: An Enquiry into the Exact meaning of Genesis 1:2, Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 78 (1946): 21-24
12) Ref 9
13) Custance, A.C. (1989) Without Form and Void, Doorway Publications
14) Ref 3
15) Barr, J. (1962) The Semantics of the Biblical Language, Oxford: Clarendon Press
16) Ref 3
17) Ref 5
18) Ref 2
19) Ref 3
20) Ref 9
21) Ref 2
22) Ref 7
23) Ref 2
24) Ref 2