Who is God? Where does he live? Some ancients believed that “god” was one of many divine beings that lived on Mt Olympus, but eventually one of them climbed it, and alas, there were no gods there. Others thought he reigned in the sky above, then airships and airplanes explored that blue canvas and found it missing a supernatural realm. Recently some thought he was enthroned in the cosmos, with the earth as his footstool, and yet the men in space did not see him nor his feet. Where was God hiding? And why has he always been just out of our reach?
Throughout history mankind has always believed in the existence of supernatural deities, usually a whole pantheon of gods. These deities were used to fill in the gaps of knowledge that the ancient man was unable to fill with scientific models based on empirical attestation. Because the natural knowledge of the world was grotesquely small and unappealing, men filled those holes with speculative supernatural events. Every single mysterious or unknown phenomenon was directly attributed to the work of god or gods. This type of ontological thinking considers God the “God of the gaps” because “God” is the supernatural answer to holes or gaps in natural knowledge. Whatever we do not know, or could not explain, is “God’s” miraculous work. Historically, because we could not explain a great deal, gods were big, powerful, frightening, and supernaturally involved in the most minute details of the world. To simplify this concept, the ancient people would ask questions like “How does _______ phenomenon work?” and because of ignorance their conclusion was “the gods are doing it!” Every gap in our natural knowledge was filled with supernatural speculation. Yet, along came science and filled in those gaps.
Examples of Gaps where God used to live
1. Why the world does not tip over
Our early ancestors were strongly perplexed about the foundation of our flat earth. They could not understand what the earth rests on, or why it does not tip over. Surely someone is physically holding it up, preventing the flat circle that is our home from falling down. So they imagined it was gods, demi-gods, magic turtles, or elephants that held up the world. Stephen Hawking recounts a clash between an astronomer and an old lady that tried to convince him that the earth was flat and on the back of a cosmic turtle. The astronomer asked the lady “then what is the turtle standing on?” to which she replied “it’s turtles all the way down!” Little did our ancestors know that our earth was an oblate spheroid held in place by the gravitational forces of the sun. Therefore, to them, that gap in natural knowledge was filled with supernatural “knowledge.”
2. Why the sun rises and sets
Our ancestors likewise did not understand our location in the universe, galaxy, and solar system. The ancient Hebrews, for example, believed that the stars were lights located in a “firmament” or dome that encapsulated a flat circular earth. Many variations of such beliefs were held for a long time, the primary focus being that we humans were at the center of the cosmos. The sun rotated around our planet. Some miraculous force was picking it up, and bringing it down, every single day and night, as if on cue. That mysterious force picking up the sun was said to be “god.” However, as Galileo proved, the sun does not “rise” and “set,” but rather we are a small rocks spinning and rotating around the sun. In fact, physics completely understands how this rotation works (my complicated 10 second Google research points to the law of conservation of angular momentum). Unlike yesteryear, now we know there is no supernatural hand that mysteriously picks up and pulls down the sun.
3. Why seasons change
The ancient Celtics believed that the four seasons occurred because of fights and disputes amongst the gods. The Greeks taught that it was because Persephone was abducted by Hades, and was let out for a short time, causing summer. Many other ancient myths try to explain how and why the seasons change, all of them using the gap in natural knowledge as evidence for supernatural events. Yet in today’s modern era, these myths have been abandoned, for God no longer hides in those gaps. There is no mystery, we know that the seasonal changes are due to our planets tilt of 23.5° with respect to its orbital plane. The side of the planet that is “aimed” at the sun, experiences summer, the part that is away experiences winter, there is nothing supernatural about it.
4. Where lightning comes from
I loved the movie Thor. Yet being grounded in reality, I didn’t for a second believe it was a depiction of “real life events.” The same cannot be said for millions of Norse people who lived and died believing Thor (no not Chris Hemsworth) was in the sky and casting down lightning bolts in his anger. Other religious groups believed it was other gods, like Zeus, but nonetheless, the ancients were certain that lightning was not naturally explainable, and because of that gap in natural knowledge, had a supernatural explanation. As you’ve no doubt noticed, Thor is no longer a much worshiped deity, partly because we understand that lighting does not really come from a magical hammer. Instead we observe positive and negative charges in the clouds that cause an electrostatic discharge to equalize the charge. On top of observation, we can even make our own lighting in laboratories, without using the magical lightning rod of Zeus! Today this gap that was once the realm of the gods is filled with scientific knowledge to the point that humans act as the gods of old and create their own lighting.
5. Why people get sick
Once upon a time humanity believed that man was the epitome of creation, able to dominate every other smaller being. Little did we understand that we were at the mercy of tiny little creatures called bacteria, fungi, and viruses that would invade our bodies and destroy us from the inside. Instead mankind attributed all sickness to gods and goddesses. If someone died from scarlet fever, it was a magical expression of that goddesses will, if they survived then it was also a deity touching them and healing them. Sickness was not a natural problem that needed medicine, but a supernatural mystery that needed magical healing. Much of early medicine often consisted more of appeasing the gods than actual medicinal treatments. Yet today we understand germ theory and genetics, we are well on our way to curing a majority of the diseases that once killed our early ancestors. Today if someone is sick with scarlet fever, we no longer say it’s a supernatural mystery and the gods want that person dead, rather we simply give them antibiotics and cure them ourselves. There is no mystery or gap there, in fact modern medicine has begun to change the perceived “will of the gods for your death” that the ancients would have ascribed to the many sick people.
6. Why people look like their parents
We have only recently discovered and started comprehending genetics. For most of human history, our race has been ignorant of this phenomenal science that explains much that we are. Previously the reasons why people looked one way or another were attributed to mysterious and supernatural curses and blessings. Why one person was born tall and another short, why one had brown eyes, and another green, was supernatural mystery. Unfortunately, even early Christians misinterpreted a passage about Noah and Ham leading to the invention of a fantasy story that supernaturally explained where the African “race” came from. With complete ignorance of the natural science of genetics, they made a supernatural (and bigoted) conjecture that “black people came from a curse.” Today genetic science can trace all of these characteristics in the human genome (in part due to the work of a Christian scientist Francis Collins) and show the lineage, divergence, and origin of certain traits. This is very clearly a natural and explainable science, not a supernatural and unexplainable curse. Even that gap of knowledge where God used to live has been filled in with a natural explanation.
What do Christians do in response?
This is a mind shattering paradigm change, no doubt. It is not easy to undergo such changes in knowledge and science. In fact such a change usually happens only one way. An older generation has to die off, with their entrenched beliefs, and the younger generation, without such ingrained views grows up and champions these new and updated ideas. This is one of the primary way’s a society changes. This is the same scenario that was recorded in the Pentateuch with Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, the older generation was too stubborn to change and so the scriptures say that God led them in circles and waited for them to die off..
So how does the average Christian react when scientific data explains a gap in which we used to see Gods mysterious hand? They do the worst possible thing, they reduce God even further. If we can explain how molecules hold together, the “God of the Gaps” Christian, simply takes a step back. He says “Fine, fine, maybe that part can be explained and is not evidence for God BUT, how do the atoms hold together!? Yeah, I got you now!” And thus for every single new advancement in science, he is found saying the same thing, but simply moving this God into the ever shrinking gap not yet explored by science. And when atoms are explained naturally, he will turn to quarks and so on. Thus with each new advancement, his answer is the same, finding another, much smaller gap, and saying God exists in that gap of understanding.
It is similar to a child who is coloring a picture. He points to an area and says, “I don’t know what color that should be, therefore it must be RED!” And he proceeds to color this in. Yet, over time he learns that shade ought to be green. He erases the red and replaces it with the appropriate color. He proceeds to do this to the next unknown space, shouting “RED!” and then later replacing it with blue. He keeps doing this on and on. At this point in history much of the picture is already painted in, all of it with colors other than red, and yet this child keeps pointing to the unknowns, arguing one of them must be red.
Perhaps he is not seeing the big picture? Perhaps that’s not the way we should view God?
What the future holds
It seems as though the “God of the Gaps” is losing out to the hard evidence of science. Every day humanity is exploring, observing, testing, and learning. Every day we fill in these gaps of knowledge where God mysteriously moved. Just as we once figured out that the sun is not miraculously picked up but our planet moves in the gravitational fields of the sun, or that epilepsy is not a supernatural demonic possession but a malady of the brain that can be naturally manipulated and cured, so too are we filling in other gaps.
There are plenty amongst us that still run to the “God of the Gaps” explanation to try to seek evidence of God. But every day those Gaps where God’s supernatural miracles control the word is shrinking more and more. Do you know how many supernatural mysteries and gaps have been replaced by science in the last few hundred years? Thousands upon thousands! Do you know how many natural sciences have been replaced by supernatural mysteries? Not even one! That is thousands of examples versus literally zero. At this rate, it does not look good for the “God of the Gaps” and I propose that is a simplistic, naïve, and ultimately damaging way of looking at God. For if you seek to find God in the gaps, what happens when there are not more gaps? For what happens to the child that is taught “God literally and supernaturally causes atoms to stick together” when he grows up, gets a PhD in physics, and wins the Nobel prize for empirically proving an alternative answer? How do with think of God then?
Let’s turn to Bonhoeffner (who lived many decades ago, and did not see the scientific progress we see today) for that:
“...how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.“