What Does "God of the Gaps" Mean?

Allan H. Harvey
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Background and Purpose of this Essay

These thoughts have been motivated by a number of factors. The most immediate was the recent book from Zondervan, Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Several of the book's authors address the phrase "God of the Gaps," and sometimes (such as when reading the defense of "theistic science" in the introduction by J.P. Moreland and J.M. Reynolds) I found myself thinking "They're missing the point; what they're defending isn't what I mean when I say that." Similar instances of miscommunication have come up elsewhere, particularly in discussions of the positions of people such as Phillip Johnson who appear to make the existence of "gaps" in natural history central to their view of God.

It has become clear to me that the term "God of the Gaps" is used in two distinct ways. The usages are related in that they both refer to God's postulated direct action in carrying out his creation, but they differ at a fundamental level in that one usage describes a way to do science while the other describes a way to do theology. I believe that these different usages often cause us to talk past one another in discussing God's actions in natural history. In this essay, I will describe the two concepts to which that phrase is applied, and offer my thoughts as to why one of the concepts is tolerable (though dangerous) while the other should be repudiated by all Christians.

I will not attempt to say which concept is the "true" meaning. While I first heard the phrase "God of the Gaps" in a sermon in the mid-80's when I was in graduate school (interestingly, Phil Johnson attended the same church), it apparently dates at least to the 1955 book Science and Christian Belief by C.A. Coulson. I have not taken the effort to find Coulson's book to see which concept, if either, he was describing. I lean toward the "usage dictates meaning" school in language, and the term clearly now has two meanings. Regardless of which came first, constructive communication today depends upon making clear exactly what we mean when we invoke that phrase.

GOG-1: "God of the Gaps" as Science

One meaning of "God of the Gaps" is simply the positing of a direct miraculous action by God as the explanation for some "gap" in our current scientific understanding of natural history. I will refer to this concept as GOG-1. The distinguishing aspect of GOG-1 is that it is, or tries to be, a way of doing science. A direct action by God is postulated to explain "what happened," but this is simply an attempt to come up with the best explanation, not an attempt to "find room for God" as though he would be absent if the gap were not filled miraculously.

These approaches have a history of failure; there are many things in nature which once upon a time were attributed to direct action by God but for which we now have "natural" explanations. So, based on the track record alone, one should be leery of postulating such explanations for things we don't understand. It is also vital that we not stop with GOG-1 statements and see gap-filling as all that God does or even the most important thing that he does. The tendency to let gap-filling actions effectively become our definition of God must be resisted; this danger will be discussed further below.

Nevertheless, one can make a good argument that GOG-1 statements should not be "out of bounds" in our investigations of the physical universe. If we truly want to find out "what happened," we should not exclude any possible explanation a priori, be it God or invisible unicorns. Some explanations may be more plausible or more amenable to scientific testing, but I see no good reason why theistic explanations of the GOG-1 type should automatically be dismissed without consideration of the evidence. One can question whether invoking the supernatural can actually be considered science, but just because something is not science doesn't mean it is an invalid means of gaining understanding.

The above should not be construed as an endorsement of current "theistic science" such as that advanced by the "Intelligent Design" movement. While I am not intimately familiar with these arguments, I find them unconvincing so far. I am not optimistic about the possibility for success for those pursuing so-called theistic science, but I see nothing intrinsically wrong with trying it. I would, however, urge caution in that pursuit, both because of its poor track record but more importantly because it tends to encourage the harmful GOG-2 viewpoint discussed below.

GOG-2: "God of the Gaps" as Theology

The second concept, which I will call GOG-2, is primarily philosophical. At its core, GOG-2 is the position that "natural" explanations exclude God. In other words, if God did not do some things (the creation and development of life, for example) via direct action, he didn't do them at all. As a result, the existence of specific "gaps" in natural history becomes a theological necessity, and a "scoring system" is set up in which any increase in scientific understanding counts as points against God. An example of such a statement would be to say that God must have created life through non-natural miracles (preferably leaving "his fingerprints all over the evidence," to quote a prominent proponent of GOG-2), or else theism is false.

In terms of Christian theology, GOG-2 is a serious error. Christians throughout the ages have affirmed that God is sovereign over all things, not just the things we don't understand. The Bible tells us that God is responsible for rain, the birth of children, and many other things for which we have "natural" explanations. Biblically, we should view "natural" as "how God normally does things" rather than as a description of God's absence (because God is never absent). The term providence refers to God accomplishing his purposes via natural means, and those who adopt GOG-2 positions limit God by denying him the ability to work providentially within nature.

In addition, GOG-2 statements are apologetically unwise. If people are taught that the truth of the faith depends on the existence of some particular gap, they are being set up for a fall if science ever succeeds in finding a "natural" explanation for the gap that has been attributed to God. Youth who are taught such things and later encounter the real scientific evidence often feel as though they must throw away either science or the Bible, when in reality it is the faulty GOG-2 philosophy (perhaps along with unhealthy ways of reading the Bible) that should be discarded. From the standpoint of witnessing to scientifically literate non-Christians, a statement such as "evolutionary theory must be false in order for Christianity to be true" is not only a theologically flawed denial of God's providence, but it also puts an unnecessary stumbling block in the way of those who believe the evidence indicates the theory (and I am talking just about the science, not the philosophical baggage that is often added to it) to be a correct description of natural history.

Since the rise of modern science, many of those opposed to Christianity and theism in general have worked from the GOG-2 viewpoint. Examples include Thomas Huxley in Darwin's day and Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins in recent times. This is not surprising, as GOG-2 is a framework quite friendly to atheism. If GOG-2 is accepted, all one must do is provide "natural" explanations and God fades from the picture.

What is more regrettable is the adoption of the GOG-2 viewpoint by many Christians, effectively playing the game by the atheists' rules. When faced with an argument like "Evolution is true, so Christianity is false," our first reaction should be to point out the flawed GOG-2 premise underlying the argument. If we truly believe in a sovereign God, a description of how something happened (be it thunder or the development of life) does not eliminate God from being its source. Once we have rejected the empty GOG-2 philosophy, we can then, if we wish, discuss the evidence for or against evolution without assigning major theological weight to the conclusions. Unfortunately, most opposition to evolution among Christians is pursued with the mindset that the truth of theism is at stake, which is an implicit acceptance of the very un-Christian GOG-2 viewpoint. When Christianity is portrayed as depending on something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ (such as on whether God chose "direct" methods to do his creating), something is very wrong.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned above, my biggest worry with GOG-1 statements is that they can so easily become GOG-2. For example, Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box is essentially a GOG-1 statement. However, its portrayal in the church is often something like "Christianity isn't false after all because Michael Behe and Phil Johnson are showing that evolution isn't true after all," a theologically horrid GOG-2 statement. The easy glide from GOG-1 to GOG-2 happens because most people (both Christian and non-Christian) think in GOG-2 terms. As in other areas, the temptation is to forget God's work in routine things and only acknowledge his hand in obvious miracles. In the case of evolution, the tendency toward GOG-2 thinking is exacerbated because much of the church has unwisely conditioned its members (by presenting "creation" and "evolution" as mutually exclusive opposites) to desperately want evolution to be false.

How can things be improved? For starters, churches need to reclaim the historic Christian doctrine of providence, making it clear that "miracles" are just a small subset of God's work both in nature and in our own lives. One does on occasion hear the message that God is at work in the everyday aspects of our lives; it would be helpful if the application of that principle to the natural world were also taught. In addition, we should reclaim the word "creation," which now often stands for a misguided combination of GOG-2 theology and pseudoscience. Churches need to recover the Biblical doctrine of creation, which teaches the physical universe is not divine but rather is the creation of a transcendent and caring God; this doctrine does not depend on the details of how God did the creating.

Some responsibility for correcting the current problems should also be borne by those who make GOG-1 statements. Because they can so easily be misinterpreted (particularly by those who do not follow these issues closely) as advocating the GOG-2 error, people pursuing "theistic science" must clearly disavow the GOG-2 concept. Their work (particularly that addressed at a popular audience) should prominently make the point that God is not defined by the "gaps" they are seeking, and that the truth of theism and God's status as creator does not depend on their success in finding such gaps. When people do extrapolate GOG-1 into GOG-2, those who made the GOG-1 statements should point out that this is incorrect, leaving no opportunity for anyone inside or outside the church to get the false idea that God must act as a gap-filler in order to be worth our devotion.

Finally, we return to the question of terminology. How do we communicate effectively when "God of the Gaps" has two different meanings? Here I have just a few sketchy thoughts. First, in recognition of the situation, we should make clear exactly what we mean when we use that phrase, and we should try to discern how other people are using it rather than assuming they are operating under the same definition we are. This would avoid the common situation where people defend the role of theistic explanations in science (GOG-1), and then claim to have completely dealt with the "God of the Gaps" objection. For the long term, might it be worthwhile to put forth a different phrase for one usage or the other? I have occasionally heard "God only in the Gaps" suggested as an alternative for GOG-2. While this is an accurate description, I feel that "God of the Gaps" already conveys an "only" (or at least "primarily") connotation, implying that the gaps are mainly what define God. I would therefore prefer to preserve "God of the Gaps" for what I have called GOG-2, and to use terms such as "theistic explanations" or perhaps "theistic gap-filling" (which might remind us of the danger of sliding into GOG-2) for the GOG-1 concept.

In any event, we should choose our words carefully, and we should also think carefully. There is an active GOG-1 movement among Christians today, and that may not be all bad. However, all of us, whether or not we are a part of that movement, need to work to keep it from sliding down the slippery slope into the abomination of GOG-2 theology and to loosen the oppressive grip the GOG-2 view of God's action in the natural world already has within and without the church.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Page last modified September 9, 2000