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Ralph Winter’s Modified “Gap Theory”

Hello folks, trust you are all having a nice summer.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Ralph Winter. He is the editor of the acclaimed book Perspectives on World Missions and is arguably the foremost expert on missions in the world today. Ralph and I exchanged several letters a number of years ago, right after God at War was first published (1997). (By the way, God at War just went into its 13th printing this week. Yeah!). I don’t know what influence, if any, my work had on him, but he told me at that time of a revelation of sorts that he’d had regarding missions and spiritual warfare.

Just as I’ve been arguing, Ralph had at some point come to understand that nature as we now find it has been corrupted by demonic powers. Since missions is all about spiritual warfare, Ralph came to believe that missions must include engaging in warfare against all aspects of nature that have been corrupted. If my memory serves me correct (it may not), he established a program to fund research into the origins of disease as a result of this revelation. The vision that funds this research program is that fighting viruses, parasites, diseases and the like is part of missions!

I couldn’t agree more!

Now, I recently received some mailings from a lady named Beth Snodderly in response to my recent blogs on “natural” evil. She’s the director of William Carey International University (I believe). She reminded me that Ralph had proposed a version of the “gap theory” that avoids the scientific difficulties I’d been struggling with in my own version of the “gap theory” – namely, the lack of corroborating geological and paleontological evidence. (If there was a world-wide “do over,” there ought to be massive evidence of it – and there’s none). I now recall Ralph explaining his view to me eight or nine years ago, and I remember not being very persuaded by it– which perhaps explains why I forgot about it altogether. But Beth graciously sent me several research papers she’d written on Ralph’s view as well as one of Ralph’s own writings, and I have to say this view looks much more plausible to me now than it did when I first heard it.

I can’t possibly do justice to Ralph’s view in a short (well, sort of short) blog like this, so I’ll just give the outline of the view and ask you to trust me that Beth’s excellent essays defending this view make a surprisingly compelling case. (Maybe in future blogs I’ll flesh out some of the argumentation). What follows is mostly from Beth’s essays, and I have to the confess that it wasn’t always clear to me from these essays which insights are Ralph’s and which are Beth’s. So when it’s not clear to me, I’ll just refer to them as “Ralph (and Beth’s) view.”

To begin, Ralph offers the not-entirely-implausible speculation that God commissioned angelic beings to oversee aspects of nature and the production of life, similar to the way God later commissioned humans to have a domain of authority over nature and animals. These angels, he speculates, were “in training,” which in part perhaps explains why life evolved so slowly (from our human perspective). (Read Ps. 82 if you think angels are exempt from needing training).

Some of these angels-in-training rebelled, and this is why the areas they continue to exercise authority over became corrupt. Ralph (and Beth) offer evidence that this corruption began early on during an epoch called “the Cambrian explosion,” roughly 580 million years ago. It is at this point that we find the first traces of violent forms of life, and they increase in complexity – and viciousness –with remarkable speed (by geological standards).

Now, similar to what I argue in God at War, Ralph argues that the phrase “formless and void” (tohu wa bohu) in Genesis 1:2 denotes a pejorative state of affairs. It doesn’t reflect creation as God originally intended it, but rather reflects a creation that has been overcome with chaos and futility. One of the documents Beth Snodderly sent me was a 25 page research paper she wrote on this phrase, and I have to say it’s the strongest case for the pejorative interpretation I’ve ever encountered. (Way to go Beth!).

Where Ralph’s (and Beth’s) view differs from the view I defended in God at War concerns the interpretation of the rest of Genesis 1. In agreement with a number of conservative Old Testament scholars, Ralph (and Beth) argue that Genesis 1 is written from the perspective of a person standing on the earth. In fact, it’s written from the perspective of the sort of ancient Israelite the piece was originally written for. It reflects their worldview. (Thus, for example, the reference to the “vault” that holds water up in the sky, vs. 6). It’s not intended to be anything like a comprehensive, scientific account. So the “creation” of light, for example, does not necessarily imply that light didn’t exist before this time. It only means that this is when an observer on earth would have seen light.

Not only this, but Ralph (and Beth) also argue (also in agreement with many Old Testament scholars) that the structure of Genesis 1 is determined by the tohu wa bohu state of affairs referred to in verse 2. The chapter isn’t intended to give us anything like a literal chronology of events, in other words. This view is usually referred to as “the literary framework” theory of Genesis 1. (For a presentation of this and three other competing views of Genesis 1, see Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum).

In this view, the author is interested in proclaiming how God overcomes the state of tohu wa bohu. On days 1-3 God battles the state of tohu (formlessness) by creating space for things to exist, and on days 4-6 God battles the state of bohu (emptiness) by filling out these spaces with appropriate things. Days 1-3 and 4-6 parallel one another, in other words.

More specifically, God fights formlessness by creating day and night (from the perspective of someone on the earth) on day 1 (vss. 3-5) and then battles emptiness by creating lights to govern the day and night on day 4 (vss. 14-19). Similarly, on day 2 God battles formlessness by separating the waters above (by creating the sky) from waters below (the sea) (vss. 6-8) and then battles emptiness by filling the sky with birds and the seas with fish on day 5 (vss. 20-23). And, finally, God fights formlessness on day 3 when he separates the land from the water and produces vegetation on the land (vs. 9-13), and then battles emptiness when he fills out the land with animals and puts human in charge of them both on day 6 (vss. 24-31) .

This creation is all described by the Genesis author as “good.” But remember, Ralph (and Beth) argue that everything about Genesis 1 is said from the perspective of one standing on the earth. So Ralph (and Beth) argue this “goodness” doesn’t extend to the whole cosmos. Rather, they argue that God had carved out a special “Eden,” as it were, on the otherwise corrupted earth. Ralph suggests God specially created humans and re-created animals as he originally intended them prior to the cosmic corruption and placed them in the garden. Standing in the center of this specially created Eden all would appear good. But Eden, in this view, was an oasis of blessing in a cursed desert.

But it wasn’t supposed to remain a small oasis. Ralph argues that Eden was intended to be a sort of mustard seed “beachhead” from which God planned to launch his assault against the rebel forces that corrupt nature and to eventually reclaim the entire globe as his Kingdom. His plan was to extend the freedom for the state of tohu wa bohu in Eden to eventually encompass the entire planet. We were, in other words, created for warfare.

This plan, however, was conditioned on humans remaining obedient to God, which, as you know, unfortunately didn’t happen. Eden was thereby forfeited and engulfed in the very state of tohu wa bohu it was established to overcome. Yet, God didn’t abandon his plan. He simply modified it. He graciously continued to work in and through humans to restore them to their rightful place of authority on the earth and eventually establish the entire planet as a domain of God’s reign. In Christ this happened, in principle. And through the Church this is happening in fact.

We are still battling the state of tohu wa bohu – and this, for Ralph, is what missions is all about. Indeed, it’s what the Kingdom is all about.

I will need to do more research and reflection before I throw my hat entirely in the ring with this revised gap theory. But I have to confess I find it very compelling. It allows one to continue to hold to the gap theory on an exegetical basis, which I’ve always thought was very strong. Yet, by localizing the “gap” it completely avoids the geological and paleontological problems that accompany the standard gap theory.

Not only that, but while I’m sure the interpretation of Genesis 1 as reflecting the perspective of one on the earth and as structured for literary, not chronological, purposes may strike many lay readers of this blog as idiosyncratic, there are, as I mentioned, a host of conservative Old Testament scholars that have been arguing this for decades. In fact, a majority Old Testament scholars, evangelical and otherwise, embrace some version of the literary framework theory.

It’s certainly something to think about.

My heart felt thanks to Beth for bringing Ralph’s view, and her fine defense of it, to my attention.

Stay centered in his peace,



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