The Gap Theory
An enormous gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2
From time to time, we receive questions about various aspects of Genesis. One that comes up frequently is the gap theory which asserts that there was an enormous gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. The gap theory was one of the earlier attempts to reconcile the secular belief in deep time (millions of years) with the biblical timescale of around 6000 years. The gap theory does not stand up to scrutiny and has been thoroughly refuted. But since it still comes up from time to time, it is helpful to understand the position as well as its shortcomings.
The gap theory asserts that a large gap of time exists between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2, and that a lot of unrecorded events happened during this time. Advocates of this position often argue that verse two should be translated “And the Earth became formless and void…”, as if the Earth in verse 2 was quite different from the Earth that God initially created in verse 1.
There are a few different versions of the gap theory. In one of the most popular versions, Satan was given dominion over the original Earth. The (unrecorded) fall of Satan supposedly takes place in the billions of years that elapse between verse 1 and verse 2. The dinosaurs allegedly lived and died during this period. In some versions of the gap theory, there is a “Lucifer’s flood” in which God destroyed all life on that original Earth due to Satan’s rebellion.
Hence, advocates of this theory believe that Genesis 1:2 implies that the Earth became formless (a wasteland) and empty (of life) because God judged that original world. After all, the same Hebrew words translated as “formless and void” (in NAS) in Genesis 1:2 are mentioned in Jeremiah 4:23 with respect to God’s judgment against Israel should they continue in sin and fail to repent. Furthermore, Isaiah 45:18 states that God did not create the Earth “a waste place” (using the same Hebrew word translated as “formless” in Genesis 1:2). So Genesis 1:2 must mean that the Earth became formless and empty sometime after God created it, right?
Some advocates of the gap theory also point out that in the King James translation of the Bible, Adam and Eve are told to go and “replenish” the Earth in Genesis 1:28. Doesn’t “replenish” mean to “refill”, thereby implying that the Earth had become empty and Adam and Eve were to fill it again? This would make sense if Satan had ruined the original Earth by his rebellion against God.
The gap theory also has the advantage that it allows Christians to apparently reconcile the Bible with the belief of secular scientists that the Earth is extremely old – billions of years old. After all, there are Bible verses that indicate that the heavens and Earth or various parts of them are “old.” 2 Peter 2:5 speaks of the “ancient world” and 2 Peter 3:5 says that the heavens existed “long ago.” Proverbs 8:22 describes God’s works “of old”, and Habakkuk 3:6 refers to the “ancient hills.”
The appeal of the gap theory is that it answers a lot of questions with a certain amount of internal coherence. When did Satan fall? How do we make sense of fossils? Where do dinosaurs fit in, and why doesn’t the Bible mention them? How did the Earth become “formless and empty?” Why did Adam and Eve have to replenish the Earth? How can the Earth be old if Genesis is real history? The problem is that it answers all these questions incorrectly. Applying biblical principles of interpretation, the gap theory does not stand up to rational scrutiny for a number of reasons.
First, the gap theory is disallowed by Hebrew grammar because verse 2 uses a “vav disjunctive.” This requires some explanation. The Hebrew alphabet has a letter called “vav” (or “waw”) that, when used by itself, is a word. This is just as the English letters “a” and “I” are also words when used in isolation. The Hebrew “vav” is usually translated as “and” or sometimes as “then.” Note that most of the verses in Genesis chapter 1 begin with the word “and” or “then.” In fact, every verse in Genesis chapter 1 (except verse 1) begins with that Hebrew letter-word, though some English translations drop it.
When “vav” is followed by a verb (in the original Hebrew word order which is not always the same as in English translations), it generally denotes a sequence of events. “And this happened, and that happened, and so on.” This grammatical construction is called a “vav consecutive.” Genesis 1:3 through the end of the chapter are all vav consecutives. They all have “and” followed by a verb in the original Hebrew Word order: “And said God… And saw God… And called God…” indicating they are reporting historical events chronologically.
However, Genesis 1:2 uses a Hebrew grammatical construction called a “vav disjunctive” which is the Hebrew “and” followed by a non-verb, such as “the earth.” This construction indicates that what follows is a comment or explanation of what came before it. It is similar to how we use parenthesis in English. Thus, Genesis 1:2 is a comment on Genesis 1:1.
This vav disjunctive disallows any gap of time between verse 1 and 2 because verse 2 does not follow in time. On the contrary, verse 2 is explaining and clarifying verse 1. It describes the conditions that existed when God first created the heaven and the Earth – namely, when God first created heaven and earth, the earth was formless and empty and dark. Why was the Earth formless and empty and dark? Was it because of some disaster? No, it was because God had not yet formed it and filled it, and had not yet created light. Genesis 1:2 clarifies the conditions that existed on Earth when God first created it.
There is good reason for such clarification. A person reading Genesis 1:1 for the first time might erroneously assume that God created the heaven and earth just as they are today – an earth with continents and rolling hills and full of life and light. Genesis 1:2 exists to clarify that this was not the case. When God first created the Earth, it was dark, and without form, and empty; that is the meaning of verse 2. The Earth was not dark, formless, and empty because of some disaster. Rather, it is because God had not yet created light, and had not yet formed the earth (given it continents separated from oceans), and had not yet filled the earth with plants and animals. The rest of Genesis then explains how the Earth became illuminated with light, shaped into continents and oceans, and filled with plants and animals, over the course of six days from its initial state of dark, formless and empty.
But don’t the Hebrew words “formless and void” denote judgment of God since the same Hebrew words are used as judgment in Jeremiah 4:23? Not at all. The words just mean “without form” and “empty” without – by themselves – implying any history. The Earth was originally created as formless and empty so that God would then form it and fill it in stages. This was a pattern for us to follow and forms the basis of our work week (Exodus 20:8-11). The Jeremiah passage poetically describes the judgment of God as being so severe that it would reduce that portion of the Earth back to its original state, as if God were uncreating the Earth. Furthermore, Isaiah 45:18 conveys the meaning that God did not create the Earth for the purpose of being a waste place. It does not mean that the Earth was never formless and void. Rather, this verse is describing the intention of God, not the chronology. Namely, God created the Earth for the purpose of housing life…
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