Contrary to what is popularly supposed, young earth views did not predominate amongst conservative Christians at the time Darwin published The Origin of Species. I’m grateful to historian of science Ted Davis for pointing that out to me in one of his BioLogos posts. In fact, it’s obvious from the Origin itself, in that although Darwin’s main “opponent” is special creation (a slight straw man itself by 1859), he makes no attempt to argue for deep time, although he does mention the need for it in passing.
In fact, amongst educated conservatives the prevalent working assumption at that time was the Gap Theory popularised from 1814 by evangelical Bridgewater Treatise author Thomas Chalmers. It was not original to Chalmers, having been proposed a couple of times since the seventeenth century. But for the nineteenth century it gave a good way of accounting for the new findings of geology, which most agreed could not be fitted into the biblically-calculated chronologies such as that of Archbishop Ussher. Less important reasons included the proposal of pre-adamic men in the new science of anthropology, which also seemed to refute the standard chronology.
The Gap Theory was simple: it interpreted v2 of Genesis 1 as implying that the earth became without form and void, and that the creation of our world followed that. The gap – as long as one might wish or need – between the creation of the heavens and the earth and “Let there be Light” might contain one or more previous creations, during which rocks might be laid down, strange creatures roam the earth, and perhaps even other races live and die.
Rev William Buckland, one of the first British geologists (incidentally born just down the road from my house), was a strong advocate of the Gap Theory, as was his successor Adam Sedgwick, who used it to explain the clear evidence of there having been more than one major flood. Sedgwick, who taught Darwin geology, nevertheless remained an opponent of evolution, as did another of his students, Samuel Wilberforce, who as Bishop of Oxford famously debated Thomas Huxley against the theory of natural selection, yet advocated the Gap Theory. It had many other supporters amongst the theologically conservative of those times.
The theological “liberals”, of course, who were then in their early days as a force, had no reason to bother with such a theory if Genesis was merely a folk tale. Yet it wasn’t primarily for either irreligious or theological reasons that some rejected the theory. Geologist Charles Lyell, for example, who was a great influence on Darwin’s thinking and cautiously endorsed evolution when Darwin “went public”, rejected the Gap Theory because it was supported by rival “catastrophist” geologists like Sedgwick. He himself had developed the geological doctrine of uniformitarianism, ie that the rocks formed gradually over long ages mainly through presently observable forces, rather than (also over long ages) by a series of creations and catastrophes.
The Gap Theory has remained a common way for Old Earth Creationists to integrate deep time into the biblical account. YECs, of course, deny it, and TES tend to have no need of it either because they allegorise the Genesis account or follow the liberals in dismissing it as “ancient (and outmoded) science.”
The thing that seems to make the theory most implausible is the need to read several billions of years “between the lines”: why would God be silent about all the previous creative history of the world in his own cosmological account? There’s a more technical objection too: the first verse, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” is probably best taken as an introduction/summary for the whole of 1.1-2.3, equivalent to the “toledot” verses that introduce later sections (2.4, 5.1, etc). If, indeed, 1.1 covers the whole first account, the useful gap seems to disappear.
Nevertheless, paradoxically the theory may still be of some use, understood in the light of modern scholarship. I want to return here (and refer new readers to) John H Walton’s important book The Lost World of Genesis 1 or its more academic bigger sister Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, which I’ve mentioned here and here.
Walton, an expert in ANE literature, sees Genesis 1 as being a functional creation account, with the same kind of viewpoint as comparable near-eastern texts, in that its interest is how God brought order to chaos rather than how he made things out of nothing. In particular the account is about how God made the world suitable for mankind as his image, so that the cosmos would form his temple, with mankind as his viceroys and priests. This is the kind of view to be seen in pagan “creation myths” of the time, which are not intended to show how the gods made the world’s objects, but how they came to be worshipped in their cult temples by their own special people. The Genesis account is far richer and more profound in a number of ways, but the main point is that to a Hebrew “create” is a word about stuff working, rather than about stuff existing (Walton proves this through a useful word study of Hebrew bara, create). The world before Genesis 1 functions perfectly well under God in its own right, dinosaurs, ice-ages and all, but until God’s creative acts, it doesn’t function to bless mankind in serving God, any more than the desert wilderness does, also described in Scripture as “without form”.
Genesis 1, then, ought to be taken literally, but functionally and not materially, that being a modern way to look at things in which the ancients, to be frank, would not be especially interested.
On this understanding Genesis 2-3 may be seen as the calling of the first man in covenant relationship with Yahweh, the God of Israel, and can be fitted nicely back into the historical framework of the story – the land of Mesopotamia in chalcolithic times. Indeed, one can even re-apply the Ussher style of chronology without creating many problems – though one ought to take into account what we’ve learned about ancient genealogies and so on since Ussher’s time.
If you think about this, it is really another version of the old Gap Theory, but instead, this time, of its sitting a little uncomfortably with the Bible text, as if God had forgotten to tell us some important bits, it actually reflects what we have discovered of the likely purpose of Genesis for the first readers. They were interested in how God tamed the cosmos for them, and even more about how he first called men to himself before sin messed things up and Abraham became their ancestor. It was never intended to disclose the age of the earth, but the age of Adam. And there’s no reason to change that chronology.
The only difference from Chalmers’ theory is that the gap in the scheme occurs after verse 2, rather than verse 1. And it doesn’t leave the world in the gap as a mysterious untold history, but simply as the “functionless” world that existed before God made it his temple for mankind’s worship. He was still its God, though – I suppose you might call him “the God of the Gap”, if that didn’t raise another whole host of problems…