Does God Live in the Gaps?

Note: The recent debate between best-selling Christian author Ken Ham and former children’s television show educator Bill Nye, has re-sparked the perennial discussion about creation and evolution. But it has also brought back the unfortunate phrase “God of the gaps.” What does the phrase mean, and what should Christians think about “God of the gaps” arguments?

“There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps,” wrote Henry Drummond, “gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps?”

God-of-the-GapsIn his Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man , Drummond continues:

When things are known, that is to say, we conceive them as natural, on Man’s level; when they are unknown, we call them divine—as if our ignorance of a thing were the stamp of its divinity. If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the dis-orders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. If God appears periodically, He disappears periodically. If He comes upon the scene at special crises, He is absent from the scene in the intervals. Whether is all-God or occasional-God the nobler theory?

Drummond, a 19th century evangelical writer and lecturer, originated the term “God of the gaps” while chastising his fellow Christians for their unscriptural view of natural history. Unfortunately, this confusion about “natural” and “supernatural” continues today even though it is, as philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains “at best a kind of anemic and watered-down semideism” that “is worlds apart from serious Christian theism.”

For Christians, though, a “natural” process is just a normal-appearing process which remains the providential design and control of God. The difference between natural-appearing and miraculous-appearing processes is not whether God is acting — his action occurs in both processes — but the way in which he chooses to act.

So what then does “God of the gaps” mean? The phrase, according to chemist Craig Rusbult, actually encompasses four different views based on distinctions between a “science gap” (a gap in our current scientific knowledge) and a “nature gap” (a break in the continuous cause-effect chain of natural process) that may or may not be bridged by miraculous-appearing theistic action. The four views are:

An “always in the gaps” view — the claim that we should always assume that a science gap is a nature gap

An “only in the gaps” view — which implies that God works only in nature gaps, that God is not active in natural process and defines “natural” in a way that means “without God.”

A “gaps are possible” view — a humble claim that “maybe God exists, and maybe nature gaps exist”

A “gaps are impossible” view — 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.

Rusbult recommends discarding the confusing phrase. But, he suggests, when someone criticizes a theory by calling it a “God of the gaps” theory ask “What exactly do you mean by this?”

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)?

An “always in the gaps” view is scientifically naive while an “only in the gaps” view is theological unsound. Claiming that God does not exist, so nature-gaps are physically impossible, is also an unsophisticated and unsupportable claim. Saying that God does exist, but a nature-gap is theologically impossible because God would never allow it, is simply pretentious.

The most reasonable position is the view that “gaps are possible,” a broad spectrum that ranges from “gaps are exceedingly likely” to “gaps are statistically improbable.” Because this breadth allows for a significant amount of wiggle room, the view that gaps are possible isn’t very useless as a descriptive category. In fact, there is a large variance even among those who believe God (or, at least, some intelligent being) is the cause of all creation.

Some people, for example, believe that simply finding evidence of intelligent agency is sufficient to explain “gaps” while others (including me) believe that such data is simply the starting point for postulating a more robust explanatory framework. After all, the whole of creation — including all processes, all “natural” laws — are the actions of an intelligent agent, the divine Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The distinction between natural-appearing and miraculous-appearing is, again, a matter of which way God chooses to act. “Natural” laws that require low-information content are as much a product of purposeful design and intentionality as the most complex processes.

There is also no reason to be concerned that scientific discoveries will relegate God to a secondary role. Closing “science gaps” almost always has the opposite effect. Science is an hydra-headed creature; with every “science gap” that is closed, two more rise up to replace the one that is bridged. For example, when evolution was first proposed by Darwin, there was no explanation for the mechanism of transmission of traits from one generation to the next. With the discovery of DNA, Watson and Crick appeared to close that particular “gap” and replaced it with a gene-centric theory. But that theory created new gaps that need to be closed:

The gene-centric view is thus ‘an artefact of history’, says Michael Eisen, an evolutionary biologist who researches fruit flies at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘It rose simply because it was easier to identify individual genes as something that shaped evolution. But that’s about opportunity and convenience rather than accuracy. People confuse the fact that we can more easily study it with the idea that it’s more important.’

The gene’s power to create traits, says Eisen, is just one of many evolutionary mechanisms. ‘Evolution is not even that simple. Anyone who’s worked on systems sees that natural selection takes advantage of the most bizarre aspects of biology. When something has so many parts, evolution will act on all of them.

‘It’s not that genes don’t sometimes drive evolutionary change. It’s that this mutational model — a gene changes, therefore the organism changes — is just one way to get the job done. Other ways may actually do more.’

The biggest science gap in biology remains the origin of life. As physicist David Snoke notes, no one today has an adequate explanation for how this highly complicated molecule arose out of nowhere. Also, we do not have an adequate explanation within chemical evolutionary theory for the appearance of the mechanism that gives us a readout of the information, or for the appearance of methods that replicate information with out error, or for the appearance of the delicate balance of repair and maintenance of the molecular systems that use the information stored in DNA.

God does not appear periodically in nature only to disappear again. He does not come upon the scene at special crises to fill in the “gaps” in our knowledge, nor is he absent from the scene in the intervals. The God of Christianity is not a mere “god of the gaps” but is the ever present, always working, Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all creation. The only real gaps that need to be filled are the knowledge gaps that exist between our ears.

  • bj

    “The secret things [gaps] belong to God; but the things revealed [known] belong to us and to our children for all generations.” Revealed things, yet to be revealed things, or never to be revealed this side of eternity – all three originate in Him. His Grace reveals; His grace withholds temporarily or eternally.

  • Steve Cornell

    I appreciate the discussion but (as perhaps you’ll agree) the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate was disappointing on many levels. Prior to the event, I posted 4 concerns about it (if interested, I wish the debate was more focused on the primary issues and best points relating to the faith/science discussion.

    We need more humility and honesty on both sides. For example, a scientist cannot test the philosophy that the physical world is a self-contained system of impersonal natural laws without any outside involvement from a God or a Creator. Honest scientist know this — even if they fear the social consequences of admitting it. Students should not be taught that such a view is based on scientific research. When teachers suggest that the science of evolution leads to the philosophy of naturalism, they give students the misleading impression that the science of evolution offers more than it is capable of telling us.

    Church leaders must also be more circumspect when speaking on matters of science. I’ve heard plenty of religious leaders suggest that evolution is an enemy of God that contradicts the account of creation. This is a careless statement because it fails to distinguish the actual science of evolution from the philosophy or worldview of evolution being used to explain ultimate origins.

    Church leaders also must be careful not to make the Genesis account say more than it does. The Bible does not require belief in a certain age for the earth and the Church should not make such an issue a test of orthodoxy. We need Church leaders and Science teachers to exemplify mutual respect and serve their students well by distinguishing the fields of faith and science. See:

    • Brian Karlik

      Steve, Responding only to your comments directed toward YEC, believers…If as you say, evolution does bot contradict of the account of Creation in Genesis, how then do you define “evolution?” Are you defining it simply as “change,” or do you really mean the “Theory of Evolution” which includes the idea that life come from non-life, the evolutionary tree represent reality, people are evolved primates, and physical and chemical processes can account for everything that exists. That is a very important distinction.

      • Steve Cornelll

        I am interested in honesty about what science can and cannot do/prove. The term “theory” is used in different ways when it comes to science. I am troubled by the use of the tag “science” for what is really philosophy or religion. When a scientist claims that the physical world is a self-contained system of impersonal natural laws without any outside involvement from a God or a Creator, he should be honest enough to admit that he has left the discipline of science to engage in philosophy. He should not attach the word “theory” to it because, in terms of science, he would be implying that he has tested and proven his postulation (which obviously cannot be done). Once he is willing to admit a shift in categories, then we can have an honest discussion about the data that he uses to suggest the plausibility of his philosophy. I would also like more honesty about the validity of truth testing in disciplines outside of science. A valid epistemology is not bound by one discipline. Hope this help and doesn’t make matters more confusing.

  • Nick F.

    Here’s a simple test:

    If scientists were to discover a that a new species had evolved in the past 50 years through random mutation, would it harm your faith?

    Alternatively, if artificial processes could be shown to create “life” in the lab, along the lines of the Miller Urey experiment, would this cause you to doubt?

    If you answered yes to either of those questions, you are worshiping a “god of the gaps,” and that god will continue to grow smaller as the gaps decrease. The true and living God, however, is in no way limited by the gaps of our current scientific understanding.

  • Pingback: Credo Magazine » Credo’s Cache()

  • Pingback: Today in Blogworld 02.07.14 - Borrowed Light()

  • Andrew M

    Does rejecting God of the gaps mean that there is no evidence for God? I know it’s not supposed to work like that – we’re meant to say that scientific explanations don’t compete with “God did it” statements. But if there is no phenomenon which science cannot explain then where is our warrant for the theological rider?
    Unless there is some kind of “gap” – whether it be the resurrection, or the fundamental forces, or moral reality etc – that science cannot explain, then why believe?

  • Pingback: Links I like()