Editorial: Gap Theory
Brother Dick Hillhouse of Newcastle, Australia tells the story of how he was once apparently terminally ill. He went away from home and prayed intensely for an extended period, begging God to change what seemed His plan. And he was cured. During that time of prayer, he told God he would do whatever God wanted and go wherever He said. His illness was unknown to us, and my mother-in-law sent him an email enquiring if he’d come to Ukraine and speak at the Winter Bible School there. He recovered, and came to Ukraine- to tell us his story. In less dramatic ways, we can all go through this process, often. God declares a plan, but there is a gap between that declaration and its fulfilment; and during that gap, He is open to persuasion not to fulfill that plan, and is open to our suggestions as to other options.
The Biblical Argument
God says He is “shaping evil against you and devising a plan” against His enemies (Jer. 18:11; 49:20,30; 50:45; Mic. 2:3; 4:12). For the faithful, the Kingdom will have been prepared from the beginning of the world (Mt. 25:34; 20:23). But not all for whom the Kingdom has been prepared will receive it; some reject the banquet prepared for them. God’s declared judgments against Israel and Babylon sound as if they are final; but the same prophecies contain appeals for repentance so that they need not come true. The idea of God 'preparing' implies that there is therefore a gap between the plan being made, and it being executed- hence when there was no repentance “The Lord has both planned and done what He spoke” (Jer. 51:12; 4:28; Lam. 2:17; Is. 22:11; 37:26; Zech. 1:6; 8:14). This 'gap' between God stating His plan and its actual fulfilment is the opportunity for men and women to plead with Him, as Moses did, as Abraham did regarding Sodom (Gen. 18:17-22), as Dick did... and He is most definitely open to human persuasion. God said that Nineveh was to be destroyed in 40 days; but Jonah understood the gap theory, and suspected Nineveh would repent and it wouldn’t happen; and he was right.
God tells Samuel of His rejection of Saul, and Samuel cries to Him all night. I think the implication is that Samuel was pleading with God to consider another future with Saul (1 Sam. 15:11,35; 16:1). Amos 7:1-6 is another case- God reveals His intention regarding Israel, but then Amos makes a case against this and is heard. This is almost a pattern with God- to devise His purpose, and then in the 'gap' until its fulfilment, be open to the persuasion of His people to change or amend those plans. This could be what Am. 3:7 is speaking of: "Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets". It's as if He reveals His plans to them so that they can then comment upon them in prayer. And maybe this is why God tells Jeremiah not to pray to Him to change His stated plans against Israel (Jer. 7:16 cp. Jer. 11:14; 14:11; 15:1), and why He asks Moses to 'leave Me alone' and not try to persuade Him to change His mind (Ex. 32:10). He didn't want, in these cases, His stated plans to be interrupted by the appeals of His people to change them. Interestingly, in both these examples, Moses and Jeremiah know God well enough, the relationship is intimate enough, for them to still speak with Him- and change His mind.
The Struggle of Prayer
Understanding this means that we no longer fire off requests to God like a ‘wants list’, with the idea that we might just get a couple of them; hoping for the best, grimly submissive in an Islamic sense to whatever might be God’s will. Prayer will become focused on specifics, and we will wrestle over those things. It's this which gives our relationship with God Almighty the dynamism, excitement and importance which is beyond me to paint in words. It's all this which makes prayer, Bible reading and response to it so thrilling. It gives significance to our lives; the postmodern sense of insignificance and irrelevance is behind so much of the passive depression which fills human societies today. Those who've prayed to God in cases of serious illness [and countless other situations] will have sensed this 'battle', this 'struggle' almost, between God and His friends, and the element of 'persuasion' which there is going on both ways in the dialogue between God and ourselves. The simple fact that God really can change- there are over 40 references to His 'repentance' in Scripture- is vital to understand. For this is the basis of the prayer that changes things, that as it were wrestles with God. We may like Jacob come out of the wrestling limping for the rest of our lives. But Jacob’s subsequent brokenness was to be worn proudly by him, as men wear their war medals the rest of their days; for he had wrestled with God and prevailed.
The gap theory leaves God earnestly waiting for our response; He therefore expresses a sense of hopefulness in His people, and therefore also, all the pain of disappointment and dashed hopes and expectations. Take Jer. 3:7,19: "I thought 'After she has done all this she will return to me'; but she did not return. I thought of how I would set you among my sons and give you a pleasant land... And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me [But] as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel". So on one hand, God can know the future. But it seems to me that so often, He chooses not to, and like us, faces futures which are in some sense unknown. This is why we can read of God’s surprise, disappointment, shock, joy at repentance- and accept that language as totally legitimate. As we sit down to read His word, as we decide how or to what extent to respond to daily situations- He must watch with as it were bated breath, and thrill at our positive responses, seeing as He does the billions of wasted potentials in the lives of so many. The very thought that we can break the heart of God with disappointment surely motivates us to be the more responsive to His word. Grasping this, never again can our relationship with Him be merely an occasional hobby.
The gap theory helps explain why try as we may, nobody can put all the prophecies of latter day events into any solid framework of chronological fulfilment. Those prophecies are statements of what could and might be, but there are various possible outcomes which depend on human freewill factors such as when and how extensively Israel repent and accept Christ, the spreading of the Gospel by the ecclesia to all the world, and the drive to spiritual maturity which there should be in the last generation of believers.
Spare a thought for God in all this. He knows all the billions of possible futures which there are for each person with whom He seeks to bring to Himself- and that is a colossal number, beyond realistic comprehension. And the vast majority of those futures never happen, because of human laziness, short termism, faithless selfishness, being so easily phased by negative experience. We mourn for the death of the young more than for the passing of the elderly, because we keep thinking of what might have been, the possible futures, how it could’ve been avoided (e.g. Jn. 11:21,32). It must therefore be tragic beyond our comprehension to be God. God saw how Israel could have been sons which made Him proud: "I thought how I would set you among my sons... I thought you would call me, My Father” (Jer. 3:19,20). He fantasized about how if the prophets had been faithful and if Israel had heard them, then Israel would have repented (Jer. 23:22). Because of His capacity to see possible futures we can feel the poignancy behind His words in places like Is. 48:18: "O that you had hearkened to my commandments!", "O Israel, if you would have but listened to me" (Ps. 81:8,13). It's as if He could see the potentially happy future which they could've had stretching out before Him. Jesus as God's Son had something of this ability in what he said about the possible future of Tyre and Jerusalem (Lk. 10:13; 19:42).
And so we come back to Dick. We are all dying men and women on borrowed time. Our time of dying is now; we are a living death. From our first struggling breaths the sentence was pronounced: You, little sweet baby person, shall surely die. But we live now in the gap, the moments that slip through our hands as cotton wool clouds drift through the sky are in fact moments of colossal significance and opportunity. Having pronounced that death sentence, God is open to dialogue in His thirst for significant, live, active personal relationship with us His beloved children. Now is the accepted time; now, in this moment of unrepeatable history upon whose cusp we sit as we read these words- now is the day of salvation.