Theology of Creation,
Scientific Evidence,
and Education

God of the gaps — Science & Theology

What is the definition?  Is it a logical fallacy?

This page is the final section in THEOLOGY about METHODS OF CREATION.

      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 criticized by calling it a "God of the gaps" theory and claiming that the proposing of a nature gap is an illogical fallacy.
      Is this claim correct?  When someone says, "maybe this feature was produced by a nature gap," should we consider their proposal to be a fallacy that uses incorrect logic?   It depends on the level of certainty in the proposal for a nature gap (do they claim that "maybe" or "probably" or "certainly" there was a gap?) and the level of certainty you think is justifiable when we answer two questions:  Is nature 100% self-assembling by natural process?  Can science, either as-it-is-now or in the future, answer the first question (about 100% self-assembly) with certainty?

      The Problem of Vague Definitions — What does "God of the gaps" mean?

      When someone says "God of the gaps" it can be confusing because, although the definition above is the most common, other definitions also exist so there are many possible meanings, and the intended meaning of a writer or speaker must be determined from the context.  Therefore, whenever you hear someone say "God of the gaps" you should ask yourself (and then maybe ask the speaker) "What do you mean?" and try to determine their exact definition for the term.  In fact, God of the gaps can refer to either the claim for a nature gap or (less commonly) a criticism of this claim.  Due to the wide variety of differing definitions, you should read and listen carefully, with critical thinking;  and, as part of an effort to improve communication and decrease confusion, you should try to write and speak with precise clarity when using this potentially ambiguous term.
      Alvin Plantinga asks, "Precisely what is God-of-the-gaps theology?" and answers, "There is not anything that it is precisely; it is not that sort of thing."  He clearly explains what it "somewhat vaguely" is (it's a "watered-down semideism" that is not "serious Christian theism") and why "the whole God-of-the-gaps issue is nothing but a red herring."  (8 k + 9k)
      Allan Harvey describes the problem of not having a precise definition by explaining how "the term 'God of the Gaps' is used in two distinct ways;... one usage describes a way to do science while the other describes a way to do theology. ... One of the concepts is tolerable (though dangerous [but it should not be 'automatically be dismissed without consideration of the evidence']) while the other should be repudiated by all Christians. ... These different usages often cause us to talk past one another in discussing God's actions in natural history ... I find myself thinking [while I'm reading a defense of one usage] that they're missing the point, since what they're defending isn't what I mean."  The gaps-theology that "should be repudiated by all Christians" 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. ... This framework is quite friendly to atheism.  If it is accepted, all one must do is provide 'natural' explanations and God fades from the picture.  What is regrettable is the adoption of this viewpoint by many Christians, effectively playing the game by the atheists' rules. ...  In terms of Christian theology, this view 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. ... Biblically, we should view 'natural' as 'how God normally does things' rather than as a description of God's absence." [quoted with minor non-content changes for smoother flow in transitions]  (13 k)
      Craig Rusbult (editor for this page) thinks "this term [God of the gaps] should be eliminated from our vocabulary due to the imprecision of its definition — does it criticize a ‘gaps are possible’ view (that is theologically acceptable for a Christian theist) and propose a ‘gaps are impossible’ view, or does it refer to a specific historical theory (that should be evaluated using evidence and logic) claiming ‘in this situation a gap did occur,’ or an ‘always in the gaps’ habit (of assuming a science gap is always a nature gap, which is scientifically naive) or an ‘only in the gaps’ view (that is semi-deistic and is theologically unacceptable, so it should be criticized) [or a claim that ‘gaps are necessary for faith’] — so the correct response is to ask: What exactly do you mean by ‘God of the gaps’?"  (12 k + 7k appendix)

      Theopedia explains why they think "God of the Gaps arguments are a discredited and outmoded approach to apologetics, in which a gap in scientific knowledge is used as evidence for the existence of God."
      SkepticWiki describes the God of the Gaps Fallacy by starting with a definition:  "God of the Gaps is an informal logical fallacy where a participant uses a lack (real or presupposed) of mundane explanation for something as evidence of supernatural intervention.  This is a fallacy because just because one is unaware of a mundane explanation, or just because a mundane explanation has not yet been found, does not mean that one does not exist. As such, it is an example of argument from ignorance."  And it ends by concluding that "it is a form of False Dichotomy to insist that the lack of immediate mundane explanation implies a supernatural explanation.  More to the point, it simply violates common sense to assume that today we know everything about any given aspect of the world that we will ever be able to know."  (3 k)
      According to Wikipedia, "the term God-of-the-gaps argument can refer to a position that... is a variant of an argument from ignorance," so they claim that it's a logical fallacy.  They say the term originated with Henry Drummond who "urged them [fellow Christians] to embrace all nature as God's [work]" because nature, "the work of ‘an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology."  And they explain why this criticism is used by some Christians against other Christians: "The ‘God of the gaps’ argument [criticizing a claim that a particular gap in scientific knowledge is evidence for the existence and action of God] has been traditionally advanced by scholarly Christians, intended as a criticism against weak or tenuous faith [especially in an implication that God works only in gaps, or that nature-gaps are necessary for faith], not as a statement against theism or belief in God."

      There are connections between God of the Gaps, Intelligent Design, and Methodological Naturalism:  A gaps-criticism based on the belief that "everything in the formative history of nature happened by natural process" could be proposed based on philosophy or theology, or for scientific reasons, and it must be the unavoidable conclusion of science if science uses a rigid methodological naturalism.  Because of this, there are connections between questions about "God of the gaps" and INTELLIGENT DESIGN & METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM.

      Articles from Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of ASA:
Jack Collins, in Miracles, Intelligent Design, and God-of-the-Gaps, questions the wisdom of a claim that gaps are impossible (because God would never do it) and explains how to avoid a naive "always in the gaps" claim by being aware of the difference between "gaps in our knowledge and... genuine gaps between the properties of the components and the complex structure we are considering."  (29 k + 22k)
      Ronald Larson, in Revisiting the God of the Gaps, explains why "although design arguments for the existence of God are sometimes dismissed as God of the Gaps apologetics, reasons for rejecting them based on the history of science, philosophy, religion, and pragmatism are not as compelling as is often implied. ... Increasingly, many of these obstacles [to belief in God] arise from an inflated view of what naturalistic science is likely to accomplish.  I believe that breaking them down can be helped by highlighting limits or gaps that science seems unlikely to overcome [by "using multiple evidences of design in nature, with regular updates to accommodate new findings" for apologetics], even if this risks using what some would call GOG arguments."
Randy Isaac says, in From Gaps to God: "Arguments for the existence of God that are based on design often specify an aspect of our natural world that cannot be explained by our current understanding of the laws of nature. ... Confident that all such gaps will some day be filled via the scientific method, many people reject design arguments for God.  However, gaps of knowledge do exist in nature and the scientific community acknowledges that many cannot be filled, even in principle.  This article surveys various types of gaps and considers their role in an argument for God."  He concludes that "the strongest argument for the existence of God is indeed a design argument" but this argument for design is based on what we DO understand about nature, rather than what we don't understand.
      David Snoke argues In Favor of God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning because "the standard argument against God-of-the-gaps reasoning deviates from the normal mode of scientific discourse [by implying that we should not consider the explanatory weakness of a theory], it assumes a view of history which is incorrect, and it tacitly implies a naive optimism about the abilities of science."  {also available as PDF}  (27 k + 3k)
      R. Laird Harris, in The God of the Gaps (1963) says, "All admit that there are gaps in the explanation of the phenomena of nature. But with the advance of science many gaps have disappeared. Some suggest that to find God revealed in non-understood phenomena is dangerous, for tomorrow the phenomena may be explained. Better to emphasize that God is revealed in regular natural processes!  True, God is providentially active in nature.  But certain gaps are not understandable by physical-chemical approaches.  Miracles, prophecy, and angelic visitants are examples.  Life itself may well be such a gap, and human life involving the soul surely is.  These gaps and this God will not disappear."

      When does a science gap indicate a nature gap?
Denis Lamoureux, in his response to an article by Gary Emberger about the origins of evil, notes that one possibility described by Emberger "is like the God-of-the-gaps theory, and it bears the problems of that theory.  This is not to say I am philosophically opposed to a God-of-the-gaps view, but the greatest difficulty with this position is establishing the reality of a ‘gap’ in nature and being certain that it is not a function of a scientific discipline's ignorance."
      Craig Rusbult agrees that "one challenge in evaluating design [that claims a nature gap] is uncertainty about the adequacy of current science" and the accuracy of our predictions about what is likely to happen in future science.  In an FAQ about Creation Questions the link takes you to seven possibilities for the origin of life, followed by Design in a Multiverse, and Future Science;  then you can scroll backward to Sections 5D, 5F, and 5G, which ask "Can we KNOW that nature is 100% self-assembling?", quote Bertrand Russell about the error of believing with more certainty than is logically warranted, describe the many possible definitions for "God of the gaps", and ask "What is an appropriate humility about creation?"


      The God of the Gaps by Adrian Barnett (6 k) offers a clever "heads we win, tails you lose" argument:  If there are no nature-gaps then it all happens without God ("Jehovah seems to be shrinking. ... [since] you'd hardly know a guiding intelligence had any hand in it at all, so good a job was done of making it appear natural") but it's wrong to claim a nature-gap (because "you are insulting the very omnipotent being whose existence you try to convince us of; to say that the world works perfectly well without divine intervention, except here, here, and over there, is to say that God is a pretty shoddy builder... he is incompetent").  This brief page is emotionally appealing due to its skillful use of witty ridicule, but the next page is more intellectually credible and interesting.
      Pay No Attention to the Deity Behind the Curtain: The God of the Gaps by Ebon Musings (16 k) begins with a conclusion: "I can imagine a world where God's existence would be an undeniable fact... [but] the world we live in is essentially indistinguishable from one in which there is no supernatural at all."  Then he describes an "always in the gaps" view — "wherever there are gaps in scientific knowledge, God is invoked to fill them... because we don't know any other way it could have happened" — and criticizes it by appealing to dogmatic methodological naturalism ("science, by definition, must rule out the supernatural") and avoidance of "only in the gaps" theology ("it takes God away from an active role in creation and consigns him to the gaps, where he steadily diminishes as our knowledge grows and those gaps shrink").  How should believers respond when we see that "area after area of the universe has yielded to scientific investigation, and nowhere have the telltale fingerprints of a god been discerned"?  A believer could "assume that God acts through natural mechanisms rather than ineffable miracles, and what scientists discover are merely the methods and tools he uses to create" but he suggests that "once a person has taken this step, why not take a further one" and ask "why it is necessary to believe in a deity at all?"



      How can a Christian respond to these "useless God" and "God of the gaps" challenges?
      Each of us should call attention to the fact that many properties of natural process are "just right" for a wide variety of life-allowing phenomena, ranging from the physics of sunshine to the chemistry of life.  For example, we have sunshine to warm our bodies and grow our food because natural processes produce a balance between opposing forces, in a cosmic tug-of-war lasting billions of years, with some forces constantly pulling the sun's fiery atmosphere inward, while other forces push it outward.  And life is possible due to the balance of forces — with chemical bonds that are strong enough, but not too strong — in biomolecules like DNA, proteins, and water.  When we see the many ways in which natural process is "just right for life" we can propose, quite rationally, that God has intelligently designed the wonders we see in nature.   INTELLIGENT DESIGN OF NATURE?
      This principle can be used to address the "boy who cried wolf" challenge — which is appropriate only if we adopt a semi-deistic "only in the gaps" theology — that God's activity "steadily diminishes as our knowledge grows and those gaps [previously claimed to be bridged by miracles of God] shrink."  How should theists feel when we hear a new "explanation of a mystery" by science?  Atheists want us to respond with sadness, as if "this is one less place where God is active."  But if we have a strong Bible-based theology, we can greet new knowledge with joy by proclaiming that "this is one more place where God is active in his intelligently designed natural process."

      Christians should not demand a choice between natural and miraculous, because God can work both ways;  in the Bible, during salvation history God's actions are usually natural and occasionally miraculous.  Affirming one mode of divine action does not require rejecting the other.
      • We should not imply (or allow an implication) that "if it isn't a miracle then God didn't do it," that "natural means without God" so it "counts against God "in our worldview-thinking about divine action.
      • We should not imply that if someone claims God can (or did or does) work through miracles, in formative history or salvation history, they are denying God's activities in natural-appearing situations.
      Both of these either-or dichotomies are useful for atheists, in a clever "heads we win, tails you lose" argument — if there are no nature gaps then it all happens without God, but it's wrong to claim a nature gap — that uses the either-or claims made by some opponents and proponents of evolutionary creation, respectively.  Christians should respond by rejecting both arguments, heads and tails.  Instead of an either-or choice, we believe that God can work in more than one way, so we have our own heads-or-tails argument:  when something occurs by natural process, this happens due to God's clever design of nature;  but if occasionally there is a divine bridging of a nature-gap, this happens because God is powerful and is able to do miracles.  Both methods of creation give us reasons to praise God.   { In formative history, did a miraculous "if" ever occur?  Do "telltale fingerprints" exist in the history of nature?   METHODS OF CREATION — QUESTIONS ABOUT DIVINE ACTION   IS THERE EVIDENCE FOR DETECTABLE DIVINE DESIGN-ACTION? }
      More generally, we can ask:  What kind of evidence do we have for the existence and activities of God?  This evidence is examined in WORLDVIEW EVALUATION & CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS (*) along with other questions, including "Why isn't God more obvious? What does the crucifixion of Jesus show us about God and reality? Is there evidence for the resurrection of Jesus?" and more.  {* apologetics doesn't mean apologizing, it's explaining the rational reasons for faith }

In this page you'll find links to resource-pages expressing a wide range of views, which don't necessarily represent the views of the American Scientific Affiliation.  Therefore, linking to a page does not imply an endorsement by ASA.  We encourage you to use your own critical thinking to evaluate everything you read. 

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This page, written by Craig Rusbult (editor of ASA Science Ed Website), is
and was revised April 24, 2010

all links were checked-and-fixed on May 25, 2009


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