What does it mean that the earth was formless, empty, and dark (Genesis 1:2a)? Before I deal with this question, let me re-visit Genesis 1:1.
Genesis 1:1 introduces us to God. By way of beginning, God created the entire cosmos. Genesis 1:1 denotes the entire creation period. But nobody really knows how God created the cosmos, nor when. After Genesis 1:1 the focal point of the creation story is the planet, our earthly home.
Genesis 1:2a tells us the earth was formless, empty, and dark. Some people have suggested that after the initial creation, then something happened that caused the earth to become “formless, empty, and dark.” In this view, there was a long period of time (a gap) between what happened in Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. Perhaps, the fall of Satan destroyed the Earth completely. At this point, God started all over again (James Montgomery Boice, Genesis: Volume 1, 1998, pp. 56-57).
In this view, the formless, empty, and dark earth existed prior to God’s creative act, and the creation was a matter of organizing the existing chaos—making something good out of something not good. This view was supported by St. Augustine and Basil the Great. In short, the destruction of an original world was followed by a recreation described in Genesis 1:3-31 (Boice, p. 57). This allows for eons of time and can accommodate modern science.
One difficulty of the gap theory is that it requires that creation suffer death and destruction before Adam’s fall. Another objection: if something important had occurred between the first two verses of Genesis, God would have told us so, rather than leave us to speculate. According to R. C. Sproul, “the gap theory puts a strain on the grammar of verse 2 to translate was as became, making it unlikely from a grammatical point of view” (Before the Face of God, Book Three, 1994, p. 34). If the gap theory is really true, it means that God failed his first attempt to create the cosmos in Genesis 1:1 and he had to recreate it again in Genesis 1:3-31.
It is better to interpret that there was no gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Genesis 1:2a tells us that, when God first created the earth, it was formless, empty, and dark; it was unfinished and uninhabited. The rest of Genesis 1 tells us the six days of creation. If God first forms the earth (Genesis 1:1) and then later creates light (Genesis 1:3), there would have to be darkness over the earth in Genesis 1:2a. This indicates that God’s creation is in progress. In other words, the description of “formless, empty, and dark” is simply an expression of stages of progress during the first day of creation (Genesis 1:3-5).
As Christians, we should not be too concerned about how God created the cosmos. We must not miss the wonder, glory, and majesty of what God created. Indeed, the intricate beauty of nature continues to reveal God to us.