God of the gaps

 What does it mean? 
Should we say it?

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

To serve as a foundation for looking at "gaps" views, here are some important concepts about God and nature:
      A natural process is just a normal-appearing process.  A theist believes that God designed and created nature, and constantly sustains nature, so natural does not mean "without God."  And natural does not mean "without control" because God can guide nature so one natural result occurs instead of another natural result.
      Judeo-Christian theism, based on the Bible, claims that God has been (and is) active in the salvation history of humans, in ways that are usually natural-appearing and occasionally miraculous-appearing.  When scientists discover that natural properties are "just right" for important natural processes, a theist proposes that God should get the credit because He is responsible for this clever design of nature.  And a theist should praise God if during formative history (as in salvation history) He occasionally did things in a way that appears miraculous rather than natural.

Alvin Plantinga summarizes "the essential points of God-of-the-gaps theology:
      First, the world is a vast machine that is almost entirely self-sufficient;  divine activity in nature is limited to those phenomena for which there is no scientific, i.e., mechanical and naturalistic explanation.  [so it is "at best a kind of anemic and watered-down semideism" that "is worlds apart from serious Christian theism"]
      Second, the existence of God is a kind of large-scale hypothesis postulated to explain what cannot be explained otherwise, i.e., naturalistically.
      Third, there is the apologetic emphasis:  the best or one of the best reasons for believing that there is such a person as God is the fact that there are phenomena that natural science cannot (so far) explain naturalistically."


      Definitions— What does "God of the gaps" mean?

      When current naturalistic scientific theories (claiming to explain some feature in the formative history of nature) seem implausible, is this science gap due to the inadequacy of current science, or does it indicate a nature gap (a break in the continuous cause-effect chain of natural process) that was bridged by miraculous-appearing theistic action?
      Sometimes, a theory proposing a nature gap is ridiculed by calling it a "God of the gaps" theory.  This is confusing because "God of the gaps" can imply a criticism of four (or more) different views, and the intended meaning is rarely clarified.  Of the four implied criticisms, two are justified, but two are not.

      What are the justified criticisms?  First, an "always in the gaps" view — claiming we should always assume that a science gap is a nature gap — is scientifically naive.  Second, an "only in the gaps" view — which asserts (or implies) that God works ONLY in nature gaps, that God is not active in natural process, that "natural" means "without God" so "if it isn't a miracle then God didn't do it" — is theologically unwise.  { This is the first point of Plantinga;  and Allan Harvey warns against believing "that 'natural' explanations exclude God,... [so] if God did not do some things...via direct action, he didn't do them at all" and "setting up a 'scoring system' in which any increase in scientific understanding counts as points against God" in his essay asking What does God of the Gaps mean? }  An explicit statement of only-in-the-gaps is rare, but it is the implicit basis of a common argument and it can be implied when we fail to clearly deny it.  All theists should deny this implication by emphasizing — in our doctrines and in our actual personal worldviews (the practical theology that we actually use for daily living) — that God is active in the normal-appearing natural events of everyday life, not just in occasional miracles, and that evidence for the operation of natural process in formative history is not evidence against God's activity in this history.  { A "gaps are necessary" view, which can be related but is not the same, is described in the appendix. }
      What are the unjustified criticisms?  First, a "gaps are possible" view — a humble claim that "maybe God exists, and maybe nature gaps exist" — is rational and open-minded, especially when contrasted with the only alternative, which is a claim that gaps are impossible.  Second, every theory — including a theory claiming that "in this particular historical situation a gap did occur" — should be logically evaluated based on evidence.  A theory proposing that "a nature gap did occur" should be criticized (or supported) with evidence and logic, not with a label.

      Those who use a "God of the gaps" label usually don't clarify which of the four views they are criticizing, so usually they are implicitly criticizing a "gaps are possible" view and proposing a "gaps are impossible" view, which is usually based on either a belief that:  1) God does not exist, so nature-gaps are physically impossible, or  2) God does exist, but a nature-gap is theologically impossible because God would never allow it.
      The first reason makes this view necessary for an atheist.  If a theist holds this view for the second reason — due to a belief that God created the universe so it would evolve totally by natural process (*) — instead of "gaps are impossible" it should be a "gaps are improbable" view that is held with humility.  Consistent with this humility, a fellow Christian who claims that "nature gaps are possible" or "a nature gap did occur in this particular situation" should be respected, instead of having their view disrespectfully dismissed by slapping a "God of the gaps" label on it.  {* A rejection of all miracles is not compatible with Bible-based theology, but a Bible-believing Christian can believe that God used miracles in the salvation history of humans but not in the formative history of nature. }
      In our search for truth about nature, there are functional similarities between methodological naturalism (that produces a closed science) and a "gaps are impossible" view (that converts an open search into a closed search), as explained in the appendix.

      Gaps and Wolves:  Is there a reason, based on the history of science, to avoid claiming "a gap did occur"?  In the past, some claims for nature gaps have seemed foolish after science found a natural explanation.  Should this produce a "boy who cried wolf" skepticism about current claims, and a conclusion that all claims for nature gaps will always fail?  And will some people conclude — due to a failure of claims for God "building bridges over nature-gaps" — that God doesn't exist?  { If this happens, it's due to bad theology by the "concluders" and is related to the second and third points in Plantinga's summary. }
      Yes, history does provide a reason for caution, but our theories can improve, so each current theory claiming "a nature gap" should be evaluated on its own merit, not by the weakness of past theories.  { Two more anti-wolf arguments are in the appendix. }

      Appropriate Humilty versus Unwarranted Arrogance
      As explained above, some "God of the gaps" criticisms are theologically justifiable, but others are not.  Usually the unjustifiable claims are based on the unwarranted arrogance of demanding that everyone must say "everything in the history of nature occurred due to natural process."  Any deviation from this assertion, as in a proposal that "maybe this feature was produced by a break in the continuous cause-effect chain of natural process," is ridiculed by labeling it a "God of the gaps" theory.
      Instead of this arrogance, in science and theology we should aim for a humility that is appropriate — not too little, not too much.  We can make some claims, but not others, with logically justifiable confidence.  We should try to avoid the error of believing with more certainty, or less certainty, than is warranted, as explained in this perceptive observation by Bertrand Russell: "Error is not only the absolute error of believing what is false, but also the quantitative error of believing more or less strongly than is warranted by the degree of credibility properly attaching to the proposition believed, in relation to the believer’s knowledge."
      When we ask, "Can the universe totally self-assemble itself by natural process?", the scientific and theological arguments — claiming support either for or against a 100%-natural history of the world — are not logically decisive.  In this context of uncertainty, a claim that "maybe in this situation [for which the claim is being made] nature was not 100% self-assembling" should not be ridiculed by calling it a "God of the gaps" fallacy.  If this "maybe..." claim for a nature-gap is considered to be an unworthy fallacy, it seems that the only acceptable conclusion is to state that "yes, nature was totally self-assembling, and the history of nature has NEVER included any non-natural action."  But can this bold assertion, proposing a totally natural formative history, be made with certainty?  If not, then it should be avoided, or at least it should be stated with appropriate humility instead of unwarranted arrogance.
      The importance of appropriate humility is the main theme in Sections 5A-5G — which ask "What can a Christian believe about evolution?" — in my FAQ for Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design.

      Should we say it?
    In my opinion, "God of the gaps" should be eliminated from our vocabulary because it is imprecise.  This vague phrase is overpopulated with potential meanings.  Does it refer to a "gaps are possible" view (this is theologically acceptable for a Christian theist) or a specific theory claiming "a gap did occur" (this should be evaluated using evidence and logic), or an "always in the gaps" habit (that is scientifically naive) or an "only in the gaps" view (that is theologically unacceptable and should be criticized)?
      Instead, to improve clarity in communication a critic could say that someone is implicitly endorsing a "God only in the gaps" view, or naively thinking "a science-gap is always a nature-gap," or not realizing that "a nature-gap is theologically impossible."  But simply saying "God of the gaps" is imprecise and confusing, it leads to false stereotyping because it lumps together different views instead of distinguishing between them, and it only attaches a label instead of clearly expressing a logical concern.  It can cause confusion (when a reader wonders "what is the intended meaning?") and miscommunication (when a writer intends one meaning and a reader receives another) and irritation (by those who are being wrongfully stereotyped and having their views misrepresented).  It isn't intellectually useful or spiritually edifying, so we should trash the term.

      When someone criticizes a theory by calling it a "God of the gaps" theory, ask "What exactly do you mean by this?"
      • If they are criticizing a claim that "gaps are possible so we should consider this possibility," ask "What is the alternative? Are you claiming that gaps are impossible, or do you know with certainty that a totally natural Total Evolution Of The Universe is certainly true and did occur?"
      • If they mean "only in the gaps," agree with the criticism, but check to see whether this is being proposed (it rarely is) and don't allow an either-or choice between "only in the gaps" and "never in the gaps because it's impossible" as if these were the only two choices.
      • And if they're questioning a specific historical claim that "in this situation a nature-gap did occur," you can have a respectful discussion about the scientific and/or theological merits of this claim.  Similarly, a historical claim that "in this situation a nature-gap did not occur" or "a nature-gap has never occurred" (*) should be evaluated based on its scientific and theological merits.
      * A "never in the gaps" claim could be based on a theological argument that a nature-gap is impossible (an atheist will claim that a non-existent God could not do it, while a theist can claim that God would not do it) or a scientific argument, based on evidence-and-logic, that God did not do it.


God of the Gaps & Theistic Evolution

      For a theist, the only alternative to "gaps in nature" is theistic evolution (evolutionary creation), so a "God of the gaps" criticism is usually a claim that theistic evolution is true.  Questions about theistic evolution — when we ask "Is it theologically acceptable? theologically preferable? What makes it theistic? Could unguided evolution achieve the goals of God? Which universe, with or without gaps, is more impressive? Why isn't God more obvious?" — and why "I'm a critic and a defender," are explored in my page about Theistic Evolution and Theology.

An Illogical "only in the gaps" Argument (against Theistic Evolution)

      Earlier, I say that "an explicit statement of this only-in-the-gaps view is rare, but it is the implicit basis of a common argument."  This argument against theistic evolution occurs in two stages:  First, an atheistic interpretation of evolution — claiming it occurs without God — is accepted.  Second, there is a claim that "since evolution is atheistic, theistic evolution is illogical."  Actually, it's this argument that is theologically illogical, because it is based on the "only in the gaps" idea that "if it isn't a miracle then God didn't do it."  This illogical argument accepts the atheistic claim that "natural" means "without God," and it rejects the Bible-based claim that God designed, created, sustains, and controls natural process.
      The main difference between theistic evolution and atheistic evolution is their nonscientific interpretation of scientific theories about evolution.  A nonscientific atheistic interpretation views a process of evolution as being not designed by God, not guided by God, using matter not created by God. {an example: NABT and "unsupervised evolution" in 1997}  But a nonscientific theistic interpretation can disagree with these atheistic claims by proposing that an evolutionary process was designed by God (and perhaps also guided by God) and used matter created by God.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf?
      Is there a practical reason, based on history, to avoid gap-claims?  In the past, some claims for nature gaps have seemed foolish after science found a natural explanation.  Should this produce a "boy who cried wolf" skepticism about current claims, and a conclusion that all claims for nature gaps will always fail?  And since a "God of the gaps" doesn't exist, should we conclude that God doesn't exist at all?
      This argument provides a reason for caution, but:
      A) Maybe such scientific proposals (to explain lightning,...) have been rare, and their impact has been overestimated in "God of the gaps" concerns.
      B) We should recognize that we can learn from history, and our theories can improve.  Therefore, each current theory claiming a nature-gap should be evaluated on its own merit, not by the weakness of past theories that, although seemingly analogous, are only superficially similar.
      C) We should remember that historical judgments can be reversed.  The most famous apparent failure is now being revisited, but with improved knowledge and logic, to ask whether Darwin really did refute the main claims of Paley.  And for other questions, such as the origin of the universe and the first life, naturalistic science has never offered satisfactory answers.

Methodological Naturalism and
"Gaps are Impossible" Theology

      I think an open search — in which a person adopts a closed science (which assumes that no miracles have occurred in the history of nature, so only natural causes should be considered) but views this naturalistic science as only one aspect of a broader "open search for truth" that considers all possibilities — is theologically acceptable for a Christian.  But if methodological naturalism (which says "no miracles inside science") is combined with a typical God-of-the-gaps criticism (which says "no miracles outside science" because miracles in formative history are theologically impossible), then an open search will become a closed search.  { An important question — Is methodological naturalism theologically acceptable? — is explored in Sections 2 and 3 of another page. }

Are gaps necessary?
     In a "gaps are necessary" theology, nature gaps can be considered necessary based on specific Bible passages, or a conviction that "God would do it with miracles."  This view is compatible with a recognition that God is theistically involved with both modes (natural and miraculous) in a mixed blend of theistic action (with some natural, some miraculous), so "gaps are necessary" is not the same as "only in the gaps."  Although an "only in the gaps" semi-theist (a semi-believer who believes that God is involved with the miraculous-appearing but not the natural-appearing) will think gaps are theologically necessary (since if there are no gaps, God isn't doing anything), the reverse is not necessarily true.

      A gaps-are-necessary theology claims that "if the Bible is true, then a totally-natural Total Evolution Of The Universe (astronomical, chemical, and biological) must be false."  This is logically equivalent to claiming that "if a totally natural Total Evolution is not false, then the Bible is not true."
      Regarding this theological claim, we can ask two questions:
      First, does the Bible makes this claim? (and if it does, what is the clarity-and-strength of the claim, and what importance is attached to it: Is the claim certain, and is it essential?)
      Second, we can ask about the practical effects on evangelism.  If we refuse to allow a link between "evolution is false" and "the Bible is true," it will be easier — for people who have concluded that naturalistic Total Evolution is a plausible scientific theory — to accept the Bible and the central message of the Gospel.  The alternative is to adopt a "gaps are necessary" view and to insist that people must either reject Total Evolution, or conclude that the Bible is false.

      I think that in the Bible a view that "gaps did occur in formative history" is not taught with certainty, and is not considered an essential doctrine, so theistic evolution (a view claiming that God designed the universe so nature would evolve by natural process) can be consistent with authentic Bible-based Christianity.  But this view is offered with humility, since I've heard logical arguments both for and against a claim that, according to the Bible, miracles did occur in formative history.  { A claim that "gaps are theologically necessary" seems to be implied occasionally by intelligent design proponents and old-earth creationists, and often by young-earth creationists. }
      Theologically, I think gaps are "probable but not necessary" and we should encourage non-Christians to think that gaps are not necessary (i.e., they should think that one of their options is to accept both the Bible and theistic evolution) but they should also consider the possibility that Total Evolution is scientifically implausible (*) and is false.   {* This would be the correct conclusion if God designed the universe so its natural assembly would be partial but not total;  and in this case it would be the rational scientific conclusion if our science was good enough. }

If you want to explore,

A longer (and older, less-revised) version of this page describes-and-critiques the many meanings: "there are three types of gap-evaluation, seven gap-theologies, and two conclusions;  of these 12 meanings, 7 can be a target for 'God of the gaps' accusations."

Other authors — Alvin Plantinga, Allan Harvey, David Snoke,... — criticize "only in the gaps" but defend "gaps are possible."

This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
 a NON-ITALICIZED LINK opens another page.  Both keep everything inside this window, 
so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.

Here are other related pages:

God of the Gaps (pages by other authors)

Theistic Evolution (page by Craig Rusbult)

Theistic Evolution (pages by other authors)

God of the gaps (long version by Craig Rusbult)

This page is

Copyright © 2004 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved