Scripture gives us a complete—albeit contested—account of God’s work on the first day of creation.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 1:1–5)
Verse 1 is a general statement. The rest of Genesis 1 unfolds the sequence of God’s creative work, starting with a “formless and void” earth.
The Barren Planet
As day one emerges from eternity, we find the earth in a dark and barren condition. The construction of the Hebrew phrase that opens verse 2 is significant. The subject comes before the verb, as if to emphasize something remarkable about it. It might be translated, “As to the earth, it was formless and void.” Here is a new planet, the very focus of God’s creative purpose, and it was formless and void. The Hebrew expression is tohu wa bohu. Tohu signifies a wasteland, a desolate place. Bohu means “empty.” The earth was an empty place of utter desolation.
The same expression is used in Jeremiah 4:23. There, Jeremiah is lamenting the doom of Israel. He says in verse 19, “My soul, my soul! I am in anguish! Oh, my heart! My heart is pounding in me; I cannot be silent.” Why? Because the trumpet signaling God’s judgment of Israel had sounded. “Disaster on disaster is proclaimed, for the whole land is devastated” (v. 20). And he borrows the very words from Genesis 1:2: “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless [tohu] and void [bohu]; and to the heavens, and they had no light” (v. 23). That is how he describes the condition of Judah under the devastating destruction that was brought upon it by the judgment of God. What was once a fruitful land had become a wilderness (v. 26). It was a wasted, devastated place without any inhabitants. It had lost its former beauty. It didn’t have any form. It didn’t have any beauty. It had reverted to a state of barrenness that reminded Jeremiah of the state of the earth in the beginning, before God’s creative work had formed it into something beautiful.
Isaiah borrows the same expression. Prophesying the destruction that would come in the day of the Lord’s vengeance against the Gentiles, he says their land will be turned into desolation. “He will stretch over it the line of desolation [tohu] and the plumb line of emptiness [bohu]” (Isaiah 34:11). That pictures God as the architect of judgment, using a plumb line of tohu, which is kept taut by weights made of bohu.
So these words speak of waste and desolation. They describe the earth as a place devoid of form or inhabitants—a lifeless, barren place. It suggests that the very shape of the earth was unfinished and empty. The raw material was all there, but it had not yet been given form. The features of earth as we know it were undifferentiated, unseparated, unorganized, and uninhabited.
Reading Eons Between the Lines
Some have suggested that an indeterminate interval of many billions of years is hidden between verses 1 and 2. This theory, known as the “gap theory,” was once quite popular, and is featured prominently in the Scofield Reference Bible. According to the gap theory, God created a fully–functional earth in verse 1. That ancient earth ostensibly featured a full spectrum of animal and plant life, including fish and mammals, various species of now–extinct dinosaurs, and other creatures that we know only from the fossil record.
Proponents of the gap theory suggest that verse 2 ought to be translated, “The earth became without form, and void.” They speculate that as a result of Satan’s fall, or for some other reason, the prehistoric earth was laid waste by an untold calamity. (This presupposes, of course, that Satan’s fall or some other evil occurred sometime in the gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2.) Then, according to this view, God created all the life forms that we now see and thus remade earth into a paradise in six days of recreation.
Like other old–earth theories, the gap theory is supposed to explain the fossil record and harmonize the biblical account with modern scientific theories about a multiple–billion–year–old earth.
Most who hold to the gap theory suggest that the sun was not created on day four; it was merely made visible on that day by the clarifying of earth’s atmosphere or the receding of a vapor cloud that had encircled the earth. Other than that, the gap theory has one advantage over most other old–earth views: It allows for a straightforward literal interpretation of the creation days of Genesis 1.
The Gaping Holes in the Gap Theory
But the theory is accepted by relatively few today, because the biblical and theological problems it poses are enormous. For example, in Genesis 1:31, after God had completed all His creation, He declared it “very good”—which would not be a fitting description if evil had already entered the universe. Furthermore, if the fossil record is to be explained by an interval in the white space between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, that means death, disease, suffering, and calamity were common many ages before Adam fell. Yet Scripture says Adam’s sin was the event that introduced death and calamity into God’s creation: “By a man came death” (1 Corinthians 15:21); “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). The gap theory also flatly contradicts Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.”
The plain meaning of the text seems to be that the barrenness described in verse 2 is simply the original state of the universe in the twenty–four hours immediately following its initial creation. It is not a state of desolation into which the earth fell; it is how the universe appeared in situ (in its original condition), before God finished His creative work.
The picture it conjures up is reminiscent of a potter wishing to fashion a beautiful vessel and then fill it to be used. He first takes a lump of unformed clay and places it on the wheel to mold and fit it to his purpose. In a similar way, God began with raw material. He first created a basic mass of elements that contained everything necessary to make a habitat for the life He would later create. And then using that mass of elements, He carefully shaped it and formed it into the perfect finished work He had planned from the beginning. So aside from the life–forms He created, His work throughout those first six days is comparable to the potter’s finishing work. It was mostly a process of perfecting what He had already created in the beginning.