Gap Theory of Genesis 1: Creation and “Old Earth”

Gap Theory of Genesis 1: Creation and “Old Earth”

This paper will argue that the Bible and geological evidence support the interpretation of a gap of an unknown duration between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3 that results in the perspective of an old earth. [To make this article easier to find, this article uses the phrase “Gap Theory of Genesis 1”.]

Introduction

The doctrine of creation is a broad topic. According to John C. Lennox, it is also “a very controversial topic. Disagreement about it has been rather acrimonious at times.” Nevertheless, how a person interprets the beginnings of all things influences a person’s understanding of the Creator. Affirming that God is the Creator, the early church introduced the Apostles’ Creed with the words: “God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Indeed, the Bible declares: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

However, research on the doctrine of creation would be an exhaustive undertaking. Consequently, this paper will be limited to the age of creation. Thus, this paper will focus on the age of creation gleaned from Genesis 1:1-3, and therefore, Genesis 1:3-31 addressing the six days of creation will not be discussed. This said, the writer holds the position that Genesis 1:3-31 refers to six literal 24-hour days of creation. Exegetes who interpret Genesis 1:3-31 in this manner often hold a young-earth view. However, the writer will argue that the opening verses of the creation account, Genesis 1:1-3, supports an old-earth view. Thus, this paper will focus on an old-earth interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3.

Concerning an old-earth view, a number of theories have been espoused to support this interpretation. Namely, the flood theory, the ideal-time theory, the age-day (geologic ages) theory, the pictorial-day theory, the revelatory-day theory, the multiple gaps theory, and the gap theory. Although not all would agree, the writer finds the gap theory the most plausible explanation for Genesis 1:1-3. Thus, this paper will be limited to the old-earth gap theory interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3. Yet, within the gap theory, there are divergent opinions as to what constitutes this interpretation. Nevertheless, the writer is of the opinion that there is biblical and geological evidence to support a Genesis 1:1-3 gap theory interpretation.

Further, the interpretation of the age of the earth derived from Genesis 1 continues to be a contemporary subject of debate. Bill T. Arnold remarks, “Genesis 1 has been studied, debated, and expounded as much as any text in world history. Scholars and amateurs alike have poured over this text for twenty-five hundred years, and it continues to demand our attention.” Thus, in an effort to resolve the ongoing age of the earth debate, this paper will present the historical interpretation of the earth, the traditional young-earth interpretations of Genesis 1:1-3, the antiquity of the earth, the writer’s exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3, and the thesis will argue that the Bible and geological evidence support the interpretation of a gap of an unknown duration between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3 that results in the perspective of an old earth.

Traditional Biblical Interpretation of the Earth

Aristotle, the famed fourth century BC Greek philosopher, argued “that the earth was fixed in the centre of the universe and that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around it”. This belief seemed to agree with the Lord questioning Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . Or who laid its cornerstone?” (38:4, 6). Also, it seemed to agree with 1 Samuel 2:8, “The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He set the world on them.” Thus, for centuries the later Christian church traditionally interpreted the Bible to teach a fixed-earth view.

However, “in the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus’s claim that the earth rotates around the sun rather than vice versa shook the foundations of science and Christianity.” Thus, resistance ensued prompting the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, to remark: “There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around . . . the sun. . . . The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.” Nevertheless, astronomy has proved Copernicus’s claim to be correct, and the Aristotelian and traditional biblical interpretation of a fixed-earth to be incorrect.

As a result, many Christian scholars have since concluded that certain biblical references to the earth should not be interpreted literally, but as metaphors. Also, that Joshua’s bid for the sun and moon to stand still (10:12) was from his perspective at the time. Accordingly, precedent has been established that a once traditional biblical interpretation of the earth was incorrect.

Traditional Young Earth Interpretations of Genesis 1:1-3

Mark F. Rooker holds the young-earth traditional view. To support his position, Rooker counters the old-earth interpretation of Genesis 1:1 that it is a summary heading by citing Anton Pearson who remarks that “the conjunctive particle [in 1:1] connects the second verse [1:2] with it; which could not be if it were a heading.” Rooker then concludes that “this would confirm the traditional interpretation that verse 1 contains the main independent clause, with Genesis 1:2 consisting of three subordinate circumstantial clauses describing what the just-mentioned earth looked like after it was created.” Second, Rooker counters the old-earth interpretation of Genesis 1:2 that asserts “that the chaotic state of Genesis 1:2 was in existence before God began His creative activity in Genesis 1:3.” Concerning this, Rooker affirms the traditional view of creation by citing Edward J. Young that “Genesis 1:2 states the condition of the earth as it was when it was first created until God began to form it into the present world.” Thus, Rooker contends that Genesis 1:1-2 are part of the first day of the six-day creation, and therefore, affirms that the young-earth traditional view “is the most satisfactory position regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3.”

Kurt P. Wise, who also holds the young-earth traditional view, asserts “that the creation is actually only six thousand years or so old.” In support of this position, Wise takes exception with dating methods “for determining the age of things in the creation.” An example is radiometric dating. Wise says, “The relative reliability of radiometric dating methods can be tested by performing multiple radiometric dating analysis on the same rock. If accurate, each . . . should produce the same radiometric age. In actuality, however, multiple methods usually yield multiple, overlapping ages.” However, Wise does acknowledge that the world looks old.

Regarding this, Wise asserts that God may have “created things that already had the appearance of age. . . . [concluding that] the physical world does indeed suggest that creation of an apparent, non-existent history may have been a common part of God’s creation.” As examples, Wise mentions plants and trees that at creation would have been fully developed. Regarding coral reefs, Wise believes “if God created coral reefs—which seems likely—then they must have been created with apparent evidence of development that never occurred.” Thus, Wise, who advocates the theory of apparent age, asserts that fossils may have been created of plants and animals that never existed. Wise concludes that “God’s purpose in creation required the creation of things with the appearance of age. Newly fashioned, the creation would have looked much older than it really was . . . because of how God created it.”

The Antiquity of the Earth

A phenomenon has occurred in the last two centuries that has resulted in a questioning of the traditional view of the age of the earth. Harry Lee Poe remarks that “as geologists discovered layers of sediment and rock and developed theories to account for interruptions of strata, a new view developed regarding the age of the earth. The geology of the earth suggested great antiquity and that the earth had undergone tremendous stress, cataclysm, and upheaval over millions of years.” Accordingly, Jeffery C. Blutinger notes that “by the 1870s, almost all geologists had accepted the idea of an Earth that was millions of years old. Such a conclusion contradicted the literal biblical account of a world slightly less than 6,000 years old.” Thus, did God create the earth with apparent age, as Wise theorized?

David Snoke comments that “problems with the theory of apparent age come up when we look at other areas of science. One might not have trouble with the idea of light recording explosions of inanimate stars that never existed, but what about God burying the bones of animals that never existed? . . . The level of apparent deception makes a difference”

Accordingly, Snoke mentions trees and how they produce a ring once a year. Similarly, Snoke remarks that “the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has millions of layers of coral. Knowing the rate at which these layers are added, one can use boreholes to calculate the age of the Reef; recent drills estimate the Reef is from six hundred thousand to a few million years old.” However, even though Snoke presents geological evidence of an old earth, he stresses ‘“that this view is not synonymous with “evolution.”’

Regarding the stars, Alfred Tang remarks that “we now know that the speed of light is finite. It takes about eight minutes for light to travel from the sun to the earth and millions of years from other galaxies to the solar system. If God created the earth instantaneously six thousand years ago, we would not be able to see any galaxies in the night sky even today.” On a side note, could the stars created on the fourth day of the creation week (1:16) refer to the planets in earth’s solar system that Moses, attributed as the author of Genesis, believed were stars based on his perspective at the time? If so, it would explain the antiquity of the galaxies.

Blutinger also comments on the formation of coal by citing the scientist, Hayim Selig Slonimski, who remarked that ‘“its transformation from vegetable matter to rock took “thousands of years.” . . . Successive layers of coal and sedimentary rock indicate the land alternated between forests and seas multiple times, and that in some places this had occurred up to a hundred times, which by implication could only lead the reader to conclude that the world was, at a minimum, several hundred thousand years old.”’

In startling finding off the coast of Norway, Science Daily reports that oil drilling has excavated a dinosaur bone 2,256 meters below the seabed of the North Sea. The fossil, discovered in a drilling core, was a knucklebone of a Plateosaurus, a large dinosaur species that is said to have roamed Europe and Greenland about 200 million years ago.

Thus, the geological evidence from rock strata, coral reefs, coal deposits, and fossils attests to the antiquity of the earth. Concerning this, Tang remarks that “geology is the strongest testifier of the antiquity of the earth. Its denial is intellectually costly. The evidence for an old earth is too overwhelming.” Consequently, geological evidence supports the conclusion of an old earth. However, does an exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3 support the conclusion of an old earth?

Exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3

The opening verse of Genesis introduces the human race to the Creator, holy God. He is the “eternal God” (Deut 33:27), who says, “Even from eternity I am He” (Isa 43:13). He is also a God who is omnipresent (Acts 17:28), omniscient (Mark 4:22), and omnipotent as demonstrated in Genesis 1:1-3. Accordingly, to ascertain more about God’s creative work, this section will perform an exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3 by examining the beginning (1:1), the chaos and darkness (1:2), and the introduction to the creation (or re-creation) week (1:3).  

The Beginning (1:1)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). Gordon J. Wenham remarks that “commentators understand v. 1 differently.” Accordingly, there are three different interpretations of 1:1. Namely: 1) 1:1 begins the creation week literally interpreted as six 24-hour days with rest on the seventh day; 2) 1:1 is a summary heading of God’s creative work that will occur in 1:3-31; and 3) 1:1 is a summary heading of eternal God’s creative work in the distant past. Hence, all three interpretations are equally valid.

“Heavens” (1:1) refers to the sky (1:8), but may also refer to both the heavens (the sky) and to God’s dwelling in heaven (Matt 6:9); that is, the totality of the heavens. “Earth” (1:1) refers to this planet on which humans and animals now dwell. Kenneth A. Mathews remarks that ‘“The expression “the heavens and the earth” indicates the totality of the universe.”’ God spoke and created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) as noted in Hebrews 11:3.

Yet, Mathews comments that ‘“create,” however, does not necessarily mean an altogether new thing. For example, Ps 51:10a [12a] reads, “Create [bārāʾ] within me a new heart”; this line parallels “renew [ḥādaš] within me an upright spirit” (v. 10b), indicating here that “create” has the nuance of restoration. David was asking for a transformation, not a new entity.”’ So, did God create a new entity (new heavens and a new earth in 1:1 at the beginning of the six days of the creation week), or did God begin to restore the heavens and the earth in 1:1 originally created in the distant past?

Chaos and Darkness (1:2)

“The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (1:2). Bruce K. Watke, et al., comments that the narrator begins “with the planet [earth] already present.” Yet, the image of planet earth conveyed in 1:2 is rather foreboding. The earth is formless, void, chaotic, uninhabited, shrouded in darkness, and flooded with water (covered by a sea, the deep). Thus, the earth at this point does not appear to be a praiseworthy sight. However, at the creation of the earth, the Scriptures declare that all the angels “shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Would holy angels shout for joy over a planet that was uninhabited, was covered by a deep foreboding sea, and was shrouded in darkness? Hardly seems likely. Why? Because in Scripture the sea and darkness connote evil (Isa 57:20; Jude 1:13; Rev 13:1; 2 Cor 6:14; 1 Thess 5:4-5; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 1:6).

Watke, et al., “argues that verse 2 seems to depict something negative, if not sinister. The situation in verse 2 is not good, nor is it ever called good. Moreover, that state of darkness, confusion, and lifelessness is contrary to the nature of God in whom there is no darkness.” Also, Watke says that “a perfectly holy God would not be involved in creating or bringing such a condition into existence.” Therefore, Robin Routledge asks, “Where did chaos come from?”

In 1:2, the fall of Satan and his angels is not addressed, or is it? Perhaps it is painfully plain from the text. In 1:2 darkness covers the earth. In Colossians 1:13, the Bible says Satan’s realm is “the domain of darkness.” If the earth, undoubtedly created perfect in the distant past (1:1) which upon seeing the angels “shouted for joy” (Job 38:7), and subsequently the earth became forebodingly flooded with a deep sea and shrouded in darkness (1:2), what could have caused this? Obviously, it was the fall of Satan and his angels who rebelled against God and who were cast out of heaven to the earth (Isa 14:12), with some fallen angels cast into “pits of darkness [the abyss of the earth], reserved for judgment” (2 Pet 2:4). About this, Jesus said: “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning” (Luke 10:18). Thus, the earth at that point became inhabited by evil spirit beings, the devil and demons, resulting in the aftereffects on earth synonymous with evil; that is, chaos and darkness, and death of the animals (dinosaurs).

Therefore, an exegesis of Genesis 1:2 is the earth was “formless and void.” That is, the earth was empty, and lifeless, like death, resulting from sin and evil on the earth, had extinguished all physical life. Also, the earth was shrouded in “darkness.” Satan and his demonic angels roamed the earth in their “domain of darkness” (Col 1:13). In addition, the earth was flooded with water, a sea, “the deep”. Likely the earth being flooded with water resulted from God’s judgment on the earth now occupied by devils committing evil on the animals (dinosaurs) and destroying God’s perfect original earth (1:1). Yet, in time, God decreed to restore the chaotic and dark earth as “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (1:2). Thus, “The heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water” (2 Pet 3:5-6). Accordingly, beginning in 1:3, holy God began to re-create the earth suitable for human habitation.

Introduction to the Creation (or Re-Creation) Week (1:3)

‘“Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light”’ (1:3). This is the first time the words are spoken, “Then God said” (1:3). Thus, the creation (or re-creation) week begins in 1:3. First, God introduces light to separate the light from the darkness. This light is not from the sun which will not be created until day four (2:16). Rather, this light radiates from God who is a “the Light of the world; he who follows Me [Jesus] will not walk in the darkness” (John 8:12). Thus, God decreed that “light shall shine out of darkness” (2 Cor 4:6). Accordingly, Kenneth O. Gangel comments that God “will turn chaotic matter into that which has structure and order. . . . The first couple of days of creation [or, re-creation] will bring order to this matter, while the next several days will bring fertility and fullness.”

Genesis 1:1-3: Argument for the Gap Theory and an Old Earth

The antiquity of the earth is undeniable. Geological evidence from rock strata, coral reefs, coal deposits, and fossils attest to the earth being much older than the traditional literal biblical interpretation of about 6,000 years. Tang remarks that “geology is the strongest testifier of the antiquity of the earth. Its denial is intellectually costly. The evidence for an old earth is too overwhelming.” As a result, does the modern church act as did Roman Catholics and Protestants during the days of Copernicus and deny reality in favor of tradition? Or, does the modern church re-examine Scripture, in light of geological evidence that attests to an old earth, and discern alternative, albeit correct, interpretations of the Scriptures related to the doctrine of creation and the age of the heavens and the earth?

Indeed, many scholarly Christians have acknowledged that the earth is old, and accordingly, have developed Scriptural interpretations to account for an old earth, perhaps millions or even billions of years old. Accordingly, Christians who have accepted an old-earth view have advanced a number of theories to support this position. Such as the flood theory, the ideal-time theory, the age-day (geologic ages) theory, the revelatory-day theory, the apparent age theory, the multiple gaps theory, and the gap theory. Of these theories, based on the testimony of Scripture, the writer finds the gap theory the most plausible explanation for Genesis 1:1-3. Yet, within the gap theory, there are divergent opinions as to what constitutes this interpretation.  

Consequently, the gap theory espoused by the writer is that Genesis 1:1 is a summary heading of eternal God’s creation of “the heavens and the earth” in the distant past. Based on the attributes of God found in Scripture, God would have created the heavens and the earth perfectly, such that a pristine and paradisiacal original earth would have caused all the angels to shout “for joy” (Job 38:7).

Yet, obviously, something cataclysmic happened between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Its evidence in the text of 1:2 is undeniable. “Darkness” in 1:2 is not compatible with the Creator who is a God of “Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “Darkness” and sea (“the deep”) in 1:2 are symbolic throughout Scripture of evil. Further, “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9) was in the garden of Eden from the beginning, denoting that evil had entered God’s creation before the creation (or, re-creation) week of 1:3-31. Accordingly, the chaos and darkness in 1:2 were likely caused by the aftereffects of evil stemming from the fall of Satan and his angels who were cast out of heaven to the earth (Isa 13:12), corrupting it.

Then, for reasons known only to God, God decreed to restore the formless, void, chaotic, and dark earth of 1:2, and to re-create the earth and the heavens (the sky) favorable for human habitation. Thus, began the six-days of creation (or re-creation) in 1:3.

How much time elapsed between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3? The writer argues that the Bible and geological evidence support the interpretation of a gap of unknown duration (perhaps millions or even billions of years, which would have been short for eternal God) between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3 that results in the perspective of an old earth.

Conclusion

The centuries-held traditional biblical interpretation was “that the earth was fixed in the center of the universe and that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around it.” This belief seemed to agree with Job 38, Psalm 104, and especially 1 Samuel 2:8: “The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He set the world on them.” However, “in the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus’s claim that the earth rotates around the sun rather than vice versa shook the foundations of science and Christianity. Nevertheless, astronomy has proved Copernicus’s claim to be correct, and the traditional biblical interpretation of a fixed-earth to be incorrect. As a result, many Christian scholars have since concluded that certain biblical references to the earth should not be interpreted literally, but as metaphors.

Traditional young-earth interpretations of Genesis 1:1-3 assert “that the creation is actually only six thousand years or so old.” In support of this position, young-earth exegetes claim the Hebrew syntax in Genesis 1:1-3 supports 1:1 as being the first day of the creation week, and therefore, results in a young earth. Also, some young-earth exegetes espouse the theory of apparent age (fossils of plants and animals that never existed) to account for the perceived antiquity of the earth.

The antiquity of the earth is affirmed by geological evidence in rock strata, coral reefs, coal deposits, and fossils. Tang remarks that “geology is the strongest testifier of the antiquity of the earth. Its denial is intellectually costly. The evidence for an old earth is too overwhelming.”

An exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3 finds that there are differing interpretations of 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The writer argues that 1:1 is a summary heading of eternal God’s creative work in the distant past. At that time, God spoke and created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) as noted in Hebrews 11:3.

Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as foreboding. The earth was formless, void, chaotic, uninhabited, shrouded in “darkness,” and flooded with water (a sea, “the deep”). Darkness and sea are symbolic in Scripture of evil. Satan’s realm is “the domain of darkness” (Col 1:13). The writer contends that the fall of Satan and his angels, who were cast out of heaven to the earth (Isa 14:12; Luke 10:18), likely occurred between 1:1 and 1:2. Because of the sin and evil from the devils on the earth, it resulted in the aftereffects of chaos and darkness described in 1:2.

Yet, for reasons known only to God, God decreed in 1:3 to restore the chaotic and dark earth of 1:2, thus beginning the six days of creation (or re-creation) described in 1:3-31, with God resting on the seventh day (2:3).

How much time elapsed between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3? The writer’s thesis has argued that the Bible and geological evidence support the interpretation of a gap of an unknown duration between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3 that results in the perspective of an old earth.

Bibliography

  1. Arnold, Bill T. Genesis. In New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Edited by Ben Witherington III, and Bill T. Arnold. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  2. Blutinger, Jeffery C. “Creatures from Before the Flood: Reconciling Science and Genesis in the Pages of a Nineteenth-Century Hebrew Newspaper.” Jewish Social Studies 16, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 67-92.
  3. Larson, Knute. I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon. In Holman New Testament Commentary. Vol. 9. Edited by Max Anders. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2000.
  4. Lennox, John C. Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
  5. Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1-11:26. In The New American Commentary. Vol. 1A. Edited by E. Ray Clendenen, Kenneth A. Mathews, L. Russ Bush, Duane A. Garrett, Larry L. Walker, Linda L. Scott, and Marc A. Jolley. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996.
  6. Poe, Harry Lee. “The English Bible and the Days of Creation: When Tradition Conflicts with Text.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 66, no. 3 (September 2014): 130-139.
  7. Rooker, Mark F. “Genesis 1:1-3: Creation or Re-Creation? Part 2.” The Bibliotheca Sacra 149, no. 596 (October–December 1992): 411-427.
  8. Routledge, Robin. “Did God Create Chaos? Unresolved Tension in Genesis 1:1-2.” Tyndale Bulletin 61, no. 1 (2010): 69-88.
  9. Snoke, David. A Biblical Case for an Old Earth. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006.
  10. Tang, Alfred. The Multiple Gaps Theory: A Contemporary Revision of the Science and Theology of Creation. MDiv thesis, Talbot School of Theology, 1991. Accessed February 8, 2019. https://www-tren-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/e-docs/search.cfm?p042-0092.
  11. Waltke, Bruce K., and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
  12. Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis. In New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. 4th ed. Edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
  13. Wise, Kurt P. Faith, Form, and Time: What the Bible Teaches and Science Confirms About Creation and the Age of the Universe. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2002.

One Comment

    Steve Tuggle

    Robert, thank you for allowing us to publish this article. I learned a great deal reading and re-reading it. It had never occurred to me that God would be deceiving us by creating things that looked old but really weren’t. We all know that God can’t lie, and Satan is the great deceiver. So, there must be another answer and your theory sounds very plausible.

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