God of the gaps
 What does it mean? 
Should we say it?

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

Before you read this longer version,
I suggest that you first read the
revised-and-condensed page.

    God of the gaps?
    When current scientific theories (claiming to explain some feature in the formative history of nature) seem implausible, should we conclude that this science gap is due to the inadequacy of current science, or is due to a nature gap (a break in the continuous cause-effect chain of natural process) that was bridged by miraculous-appearing theistic action?  Sometimes, those proposing an all-natural formative history ridicule the second option by calling it a "God of the gaps" theory.
    I think this phrase should not be used because, due to its many possible meanings, it is imprecise:  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.  /  I think most of the views, all except the two criticized in my { }-bracketed comments, can be rational.  Brief descriptions of the views will be followed by my comments about gap-theologies and gap-conclusions.  To help you focus on the difference between views, key words are in bold.
    • three strategies for gap-evaluation:
    A. a science gap is always a nature gap:  if during scientific evaluation a science gap is always interpreted as indicating a nature gap.  This approach is rare among scientists.  { I think this strategy is naive and unwise. }
    B. a science gap might be a nature gap:  in open science, the relationship between science gap and nature gap is a question to investigate;  a theory that "a nature gap probably occurred" can be evaluated based on scientific evidence and logic.  Scientists should keep an open mind and consider all possibilities.  { This is my view. }
    C. a science gap is never a nature gap:  if during scientific evaluation the possibility that "a science gap might indicate a nature gap" is never seriously considered, for reasons of metaphysics or theology, or due to a belief that this conclusion could never be warranted by any evidence, or is forbidden by the naturalistic methodology of science.

    • seven types of gap-theology:
    1. gaps are impossible:  if the claim is that nature gaps are physically impossible because "God does not exist" or "God cannot produce nature gaps."
    The other six views assume that nature gaps are physically possible.  Since theologies are adopted by everyone (by atheists, agnostics, deists, Biblical theists, non-Biblical theists, pantheists,...), I'll describe each view about "gaps in the formative history of nature" as it would be defined by a theistic believer (who says "God exists,...") or by an agnostic (who says "maybe God exists; and if God exists,...").
    2. gaps are possible:  a claim that "God exists, and maybe nature gaps exist" or "if God exists, maybe nature gaps exist."
    3. only in the gaps:  an assertion (or implication) that "God exists and works ONLY in nature gaps" or "if God exists, then God works only in nature gaps."  In this view there is a belief that God is not active in natural process, that "if God didn't do it by miracle then God didn't do it."  { I think this theology is unbiblical and unwise. }  An explicit statement of this view is rare, but a common "sin by omission" is a failure to clearly deny it.
    Views 4a-4d are four points — ranging from necessary to impossible — along a continuum of views:
    4a. gaps are necessary:  a claim that nature gaps are theologically necessary, that "God exists and nature gaps must exist" or "if God exists, nature gaps must exist."
    4b. gaps are probable:  a claim that nature gaps are theologically probable, that "God exists and nature gaps probably exist" or "if God exists, nature gaps probably exist."  { This is my view. }
    4c. gaps are improbable:  a claim that nature gaps are theologically improbable, that "God exists and nature gaps probably do not exist" or "if God exists, nature gaps probably do not exist."
    4d. gaps are impossible:  a claim that nature gaps are theologically impossible, that "God exists and nature gaps cannot exist" or "if God exists, nature gaps cannot exist."

    • based on science and theology, two gap-conclusions:
    also in the gaps:  a claim that theistic action in formative history was (as in Biblical history) usually natural and occasionally miraculous.  { This is my view. }
    never in the gaps:  a claim that, in formative history, theistic action was totally natural.

comment:  I just discovered (oops) that "a nature-gap did occur" (which is in the "short version" of this page) is not included in the definitions above;  later, the page will be revised to include this definition.

    In my opinion, the phrase "God of the gaps" should be eliminated from our commonly used vocabulary because it is not intellectually useful or spiritually edifying.
    This phrase is overpopulated with meanings, since it can refer to seven different evaluation strategies, theologies, or conclusions.  Does a "God of the gaps" accusation refer to a strategy for scientifically evaluating theories by assuming "a science gap is always a nature gap" (this is naive) or "a science gap might be a nature gap" (this is rational)?  Or is it a theology claiming "only in the gaps" (this is foolish and un-Biblical) or "gaps are theologically possible" (every Bible-believer should believe this) or "gaps are theologically necessary" (maybe this is justified, maybe not) or the more moderate "gaps are theologically probable", or a conclusion (considering everything, including science and theology) that "probably gaps did occur in the history of nature"?  Some of these claims seem rational (in fact, they are my own views) while others seem unjustified and unwise.
    Due to its many potential meanings, a "God of the gaps" phrase leads to miscommunication and confusion, and it encourages the use of arguments that simply attach a label instead of clearly expressing a specific logical concern.  Instead of acknowledging the important distinctions between differing claims, it leads to stereotypes that are usually wrong.  Usually, "God of the gaps" accusations are justified by arguing against the extreme views that are rare, so in most cases the extreme views implied by the label aren't actual views.  Instead, the label implies distorted "strawmen" that don't represent actual views.  This is frustrating for those whose views are being misrepresented, and is ethically questionable for those building the strawmen.  All things considered, a "God of the gaps" label doesn't seem to be spiritually edifying for anyone (for the labelers or for those being labeled) and it isn't intellectually useful, so we should trash the term.

    Most people want their own ideas to be logically consistent.  This desire produces mutual interactions between scientific theories and theological theories, with each influencing the other.  For most people, the result is that science and theology agree; either both are "yes" or both are "no" about nature-gaps.  An atheist, who must assume that gaps are physically impossible, has no scientific freedom because only one conclusion (natural Total Evolution) is acceptable.  By contrast, a theist who assumes that gaps are possible (but are not theologically necessary or theologically impossible) is free to follow the scientific evidence wherever it leads, because any scientific conclusion about gaps is acceptable: yes, no, or maybe.  This open-minded perspective is liberating, and is compatible with an open science approach to searching for truth.
    But 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 (by inductive extrapolation) that all claims for nature gaps will always fail?  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;  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.

    The rest of this "God of the gaps" section is my comments about each theology and conclusion.

    1) A gaps-are-impossible theology — whether it is based on an atheistic claim that God does not exist, or the rejection of all claims (made throughout the Bible) that God can do miracles — is not compatible with Bible-based theism.
    2) A gaps-are-possible theology says "if the Bible is true, then miracles have occurred" because the Bible makes many claims for miracles.  This is a flexible "umbrella view" that includes most other views (3, 4a, 4b, 4c) and excludes only the two views (1, 4d) which claim that gaps are impossible.  It is compatible with widely differing estimates (based on theology and/or science) about the probability of gaps, ranging from "gaps probably did occur" to "gaps probably did not occur."  For example, most TEs (among those I know) agree that gaps are possible, and that nature gaps (in which the "before" and "after" states were bridged by a miracle) occurred during Biblical history;  but in formative history they don't think any gaps occurred.

    3) An only-in-the-gaps theology is wrong.  An explicit declaration of this view is rare, but a common "sin by omission" is to allow this view as an implication by failing to clearly say "it ain't so."  Although most Christians will deny an only-in-the-gaps view if someone confronts us and asks us about it, this view can creep into our "habits of thinking" due to the tendency in our actual personal worldviews (in the practical theology we actually use for daily living) to ignore the continually ongoing activities of God, to assume in our hearts and minds that "natural" means "without God."  Christians should not encourage, or allow, any "only in the gaps" implications.  Instead, we should recognize and emphasize — in our doctrines and in our attitudes and actions — that God is constantly active, not just in occasional miracles, but also in the normal-appearing natural events of everyday life, and that evidence for the operation of natural process in formative history is not evidence against God's activity in this history.

    4a) in a gaps-are-necessary theology, 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" theist will think gaps are theologically necessary, the reverse is not necessarily true.
    A gaps-are-necessary theology claims that "if the Bible is true, then 100% natural Total Evolution Of The Universe (astronomical, chemical, and biological) is 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 theology, we can ask two questions.  First, does the Bible makes this claim? (and if it does, what is the clarity-and-strength of this 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, which I think is unwise, 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 created everything through natural evolution) can be consistent with authentic 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.  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), and they should also consider the possibility that evolution is implausible and is false.  { The pros and cons of theistic evolution — including
    4b) a gaps-are-probable theology claims that gaps are "probable but not necessary" theologically.
    Theological views range from one extreme to the other, along a continuum:  a moderate version of gaps-are-necessary (4a) is gaps-are-probable (4b) and, continuing along the spectrum, gaps-are-improbable (4c) is a moderate version of gaps-are-impossible (4d).  { And because 4a-4d are simplifications, a "multi-dimensional spectrum" would be needed to more accurately describe the full range of views. }
    4c) a gaps-are-improbable theology claims that gaps are "possible but not probable" theologically.
    4d) a gaps-are-impossible theology claims that gaps are "impossible" theologically.
    Some reasons for choosing a position along the 4a-4d spectrum, and for choosing an "also in the gaps" or "never in the gaps" position, are discussed below.

    Based on a combination of science and theology, two conclusions are possible:
    An also-in-the-gaps conclusion (my own view) is consistent with a Biblical history in which God's theistic action is miraculous and also natural. Should we expect formative history, like Biblical history, to be a mix of natural and miraculous?  Maybe.  Because there are differences in the two historical contexts (*), I don't think this analogy is logically compelling.  But it is reasonable, and the "burden of proof" should be on those who claim that God adopted a different mode of action during formative history, with formative miracles being theologically unlikely or impossible.  {* I've thought about the historical similarities and differences, but haven't yet written anything about this. }
    A never-in-the-gaps conclusion, with a denial of miracles in formative history, is consistent with an affirmation of miracles in the salvation history of humans recorded in the Bible.  In my opinion, this combination can be authentically Christian, although a denial of all miracles (including the resurrection of Jesus) is denying the central message of Christ and the Gospel, and a denial of other miracles in the Bible (such as the healings done by Jesus and his disciples) will lead to a decreased quality of Christian faith and life.

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Here are other related pages:

God of the Gaps (intro by Craig Rusbult)

God of the Gaps (pages by other authors)

Theistic Evolution (page by Craig Rusbult)

Theistic Evolution (pages by other authors)

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