Design and the God of the Gaps

By James M. Rochford


When Christians give evidence for the existence of God from science, atheists often refer to this as a “God of the gaps” type of argument. For instance, atheistic philosopher Peter Boghossian writes, “The ‘God of the gaps’ argument is the believer’s appeal to God as an explanation for whatever phenomenon we cannot explain scientifically. For example, if the scientific understanding of the day cannot explain lightning bolts, the believer will say, ‘God did it.’ Once we can scientifically explain the mechanism behind lightning, the believer will move on to another phenomenon and attribute God as the cause of that phenomenon.”[1]

To a large degree, Boghossian is right: Science has disproven various supernatural claims throughout the centuries. For instance, the ancient Canaanites believed that rain came from Baal—the fertility god—and they would sacrifice their children in order to make it rain on their crops. However, scientific progress has closed this “gap” in our understanding. The formation of a rain cloud in the sky is not causally linked with how many children we can sacrifice to Baal. Rain clouds arise by the natural processes of atmospheric pressure and precipitation. Since more and more supposedly “supernatural” events are being explained away as purely natural, atheists claim that it’s just a matter of time before all scientific evidence for God is explained. The gaps will close indefinitely, and eventually, God will disappear in the process.

Some gaps have been opening—not closing

Scientific progress has surely closed many gaps in our understanding. And yet, some gaps have not been closing, but opening, with the progress of scientific exploration. We might say that scientific experimentation has grown, but in some fields of study, scientific explanations have shrunk.

Consider the origin of life. Scientifically, we know more about life’s origin than ever before. In this sense, our scientific experimentation has increased, but in another sense, our scientific explanations have only decreased with time. In 2010, agnostic Paul Davies explained, “All that can be said at this time is that the problem of life’s origin is very far from being clearly formulated, and nowhere near being solved.”[2] In preparation for a 2014 conference in Japan (called “Open Questions on the Origin of Life”), research biologist P. L. Luisi writes:

The scientific question about the origin of life is still unanswered: it is still one of the great mysteries that science is facing… Which conceptual progress have we made…? It is [sic] too much to say that we didn’t really make any, if we look at data under really and honest prebiotic conditions? Adding that this situation is not due to shortage of means and finances in the field—but to a real lack of difficulty to conceive conceptually how this nonliving-living passage really took place?[3]

Naturalistic scientists are just as far from explaining the origin of life as they have ever been. In fact, the more they learn about this subject, the less they are able to explain it. In fact, this scientific lacuna raised doubts in the mind of the late atheist Antony Flew, causing him to come to faith in God.[4] Flew claimed that his other atheistic colleagues—like Bertrand Russell and J.L. Mackie—would have been “impressed” with this “evidence,”[5] if it had been discovered earlier.

Yes, science has falsified the claims of various religious systems. For instance, comparative religion scholars Carmody and Carmody write, “In Hindu cosmology the universe… has always existed and always will… The Hindu explanation of creation involves gods molding the world from preexisting stuff.”[6] However, this claim has been disproven by modern cosmology. The universe had a space-time beginning at the big bang. Since the discovery of the big bang in the 20th century, we have learned that the Judeo-Christian tradition had been right all along, while other worldviews were proven false. The Judeo-Christian worldview has always held to an ex nihilo creation (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 33:6, 9; cf. Jn. 1:1-3; Heb. 11:3), which comports nicely with the current consensus in cosmology today.

What a stark difference from worldviews like Hinduism or even naturalism! Who would’ve expected that the biblical view had been correct for thousands of years, while Hindus and naturalists alike were in the wrong?

I gave a lecture this year on the cosmological argument, and as part of my presentation, I appealed to big bang cosmology. Afterwards, during the Q & A portion of the talk, a student asked me, “So, what happens when science eventually disproves that God caused the big bang? What will you say then?” Politely, I told the student, “Imagine if I showed up tonight to teach, and I said, ‘There is a lot of scientific evidence for God… But we just haven’t discovered it yet! Give me a hundred years, and I promise that there will be a lot of evidence for theism!’” Of course, I told the student that if I had made such an “argument,” the audience would have (rightly) laughed me off of the stage!

We cannot base our rational conclusions on what could be discovered in the future, but based on what has been discovered. Of course, atheists see no problem appealing to scientific evidence to prove the non-existence of God. Why can’t theists appeal to current scientific evidence in favor of his existence? Atheist Bradley Monton concurs, when he writes, “Just because gaps in the past were filled in with further naturalistic scientific investigation, it doesn’t follow that every gap in the future will be similarly filled… To see this, consider an analogous argument. If one looks at the history of science, one sees that all scientific theories before the ones that we currently favor have been shown to be false. Does it follow that the scientific theories we currently favor will be shown to be false too?”[7]

Heads “I win” and tails “you lose”

As a child, my father would play a game with me to see if I had to do my chores. He would flip a coin and say, “If it lands on heads, then I win… But if it lands on tails, then you lose.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that this was a “no win” scenario. With the rules of the game set up against me, I didn’t stand a chance.

Unfortunately, the same sort of situation confronts us when discussing the existence of God. Many atheists claim that we cannot appeal to God as a possible explanation for phenomena in the natural order, because science only observes natural causes—not supernatural ones. Thus appealing to God is beyond the scope of the scientific project.

However, if supernatural causes are ruled out a priori (i.e. before even looking at the evidence), then we must admit that we are no longer looking for the most reasonable explanation; instead, we are looking for the most reasonable naturalistic explanation. However, if this assumed criterion is false, then it could easily lead to false conclusions. Put another way, by stating, “Science only measures natural causes,” we are eliminating theism by definition—not by the evidence. This is special pleading at its worst.

Consider if a Police commissioner told a detective to solve the murder case of a young white girl.[8] As they observe the crime scene, the commissioner tells the detective, “Let’s go out and find whoever did this.” But as the detective turns to leave, the commissioner says, “One more thing, detective… Let’s make sure that the killer is black.” Of course, as the detective surveyed the forensic evidence, he would probably ask himself a very important question: What if the criminal isn’t black? What if he’s white? The detective would be forcing the forensic evidence onto the wrong person, not based on the evidence itself, but based on a previously assumed bias. Similarly, when naturalists do not allow for supernatural or intelligent causes, they will force the evidence to fit a naturalistic cause—no matter how implausible. This is why we see naturalists punting to irrational explanations for scientific phenomena—even when a Creator would be a much better explanation: Theism is precluded by definition, rather than allowing the evidence to point where it may.

Do naturalists always give empirical arguments?

Naturalists often claim that they prefer the cold hard facts of science, rather than unobservable causes like God. Yet when they cannot explain a scientific phenomenon, they appeal to philosophical explanations—not scientific ones. Consider just two of these popular explanations: (1) the anthropic principle and (2) the multiverse theory.

(1) The anthropic principle: The origin of life and the fine-tuning of our universe are so vastly improbable that they demand some sort of explanation. Since empirical or scientific explanations are not forthcoming, naturalists will explain these phenomena with a philosophical explanation: the anthropic principle. Atheist Daniel Dennett explains, “According to the anthropic principle, we are entitled to infer facts about the universe and its laws from the undisputed fact that we (we anthropoi, we human beings) are here to do the inferring and observing… It is a sound, harmless, and on occasion useful application of elementary logic: if x is a necessary condition for the existence of y, and y exists, then x exists.”[9] In other words, naturalists will admit that the universe is finely-tuned for life, but if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to be surprised about it. Rosenblum and Kuttner write, “If it didn’t just happen to work out just this way, we wouldn’t be here to ask that questions.”[10]

Of course, this philosophical argument isn’t very persuasive. But before critiquing it, notice that this is not a scientific explanation; it is a philosophical one. Therefore, we cannot say that naturalists only appeal to science to argue for their worldview. Both theists and naturalists are appealing to philosophical explanations, because scientific explanations are not forthcoming.

To put this another way, theistic explanations do not disagree with the scientific facts, but instead, they disagree with the interpretation of the facts. Both naturalists and theists are trying to explain the scientific data. The question is this: Who has a more reasonable explanation for the scientific data? By pejoratively calling an explanation a “God of the gaps” argument, we have done nothing to disprove it, because this sword cuts both ways. Theists could just as easily charge that naturalists are making “naturalism of the gaps” arguments, when appealing to philosophical explanations like the “anthropic principle.”

Now to the credibility of the anthropic principle. Naturalists are right that if the universe was not fine-tuned, we wouldn’t be here to be baffled at this fact. But since we do see a finely-tuned universe, we should be surprised at such a fact. For instance, imagine that you are playing poker with a group of friends for two hundred dollars a hand. After ten hands, your friend is dealt ten royal flushes in a row, and he cleans you out for two thousand bucks. As you go to slug him for cheating, he holds up his hands and says to you, “Wait! Hold on a second… Think about this for a minute… If I didn’t get those ten royal flushes in a row, then you wouldn’t be surprised about it!” Of course, your friend is absolutely right. If he had been dealt other cards, you would not be surprised about it. And yet, since he was dealt the improbable set of ten royal flushes in a row, doesn’t this demand an explanation? Of course it does, and the same is true for the fine-tuning of the universe. Since we are alive, witnessing such a specified improbability, we should offer an explanation for it.

(2) The multiverse theory: In order to explain the vast improbability of our finely-tuned universe, other naturalists posit a multiverse. While we might think that we live in one universe, naturalists speculate that we actually live in one of many multiverses. However, just like the anthropic principle above, this is a philosophical argument—not an empirical one. The multiverse cannot be scientifically observed or empirically demonstrated. In a recent article from Scientific American, cosmologist George Ellis writes,

All the parallel universes lie outside our horizon and remain beyond our capacity to see, now or ever, no matter how technology evolves. In fact, they are too far away to have had any influence on our universe whatsoever. That is why none of the claims made by multiverse enthusiasts can be directly substantiated… We have no hope of testing it observationally.[11]

Here we are seeing a repeated pattern in this discussion. The scientific data is clear to both theists and atheists, but the interpretation of this data needs to be explained philosophically. While the theist makes the claim that the universe was finely-tuned by one infinite-personal God, the naturalists posits an infinite number of universes, which are unobservable—even in principle.

The essential and extra attributes of the cause

Naturalists often worry that allowing God as an explanation for scientific phenomena will lead to bizarre consequences. Some naturalists argue, “If you allow supernatural explanations for scientific phenomena, then you will be opening up the door for explanations like fairies, unicorns, or anything else! We should keep this door shut to avoid nonsense like this!” However, by inferring a supernatural cause, we are not opening the door for any explanation; instead, we are opening the door for a plausible or reasonable one. In the same way, if we allow a naturalistic explanation for lung cancer, we will not accept any naturalistic explanation. Instead, we will only accept a narrow range of reasonable causes (e.g. cigarette smoking, second hand smoke, pollution, etc.)—namely, whatever cause has the most explanatory power.

Take the origin of the universe as a key example: While it’s true we can’t know everything about the Cause of the big bang, we can still know something about it. Here we need to distinguish between the essential and the extra attributes of this Cause. While the Cause of the big bang might have extra attributes (e.g. all-loving, all-knowing, triune, etc.), it must have certain essential attributes. It needs to be at least a single, spaceless, timeless, immaterial, all-powerful, and volitional Being.[12] Of course, these essential attributes fit nicely with the God of the Bible, but they don’t fit well with pantheism, polytheism, or atheism.

Think about it like this: If a thief broke into your car, you might not know the thief’s gender or race (i.e. extra attributes), but you would be able to know the thief was at least volitional and at least powerful enough to break into your locked car (i.e. essential attributes). That is, you would know for sure that an insect or a house pet or a strong gust of wind could not have stolen your car stereo! This is because these would all lack the essential attributes of volition and power. Likewise, theists do not claim to know everything about God by reflecting on the origin of the material universe, but they do claim to know something about him.

Does theism destroy science?

The uniformity of cause and effect refers to the orderly rules that we observe in nature. While naturalists believe in the uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system, Christians believe in the uniformity of cause and effect in an open one. That is, while natural law is normative in the universe, it is possible for God to intervene if he chooses.

Consider if an apple was hanging delicately from a tree. Natural law would dictate that unsupported objects like the apple will fall to the Earth. However, imagine if you (a personal and intelligent cause) reached out and caught the apple before it hit the ground. Would this be a violation of natural law? Of course not. Instead, as a personal cause, you should be able to intervene into the world of cause-and-effect. This extraordinary exception (your intervention) would not invalidate the regular rule (of gravity).

When dealing with non-repeatable events like the origin or fine-tuning of the universe, we need to engage in forensic science—not empirical science. Since the singularity cannot be repeated, we need to make an inference to the best explanation for what caused it. Put another way, while empirical science studies regular events, forensic science studies singular events.

By identifying design in nature, we are not disregarding the uniformity of cause-and-effect; instead, we are affirming it. Because we recognize intelligent causes in the present, we should be able to recognize these same causes in the past. By offering a theistic explanation, we are giving an explanation based on what we do know (an intelligent cause), rather than what we don’t know. Since information always comes from a personal and intelligent cause, we have a criterion for recognizing personal and intelligent causes in the past.

In fact, this same criterion is used in many fields of study, including cryptography, SETI, forensics, archaeology, and intellectual property protection. For example, in the forensic sciences, a scientist can differentiate between a natural death and a murder. A detective might ask, “Was this person killed by natural causes, or was this poison and murder?” Without allowing for a personal agent (i.e. a murderer), the detective would be forced to conclude that every murder was the result of “natural causes.”

Would you employ such a detective in your local police force? Neither would I.

Are we out of our minds?

Because naturalists do not allow for any sort of intelligent or immaterial cause, this leads them to an absurd conclusion: even human decisions and intelligent causes are illusions. This is the price we pay, if we take the naturalistic worldview to its logical conclusion. Atheist Susan Blackmore writes that “we may have to give up the idea that each of us knows what is in our consciousness now, and accept that we might be deeply deluded about our own minds.”[13] Atheistic biologist Jerry Coyne writes,

You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it—perhaps even before you woke up today. And your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them… We are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain—the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with.[14]

Under a naturalistic worldview, Coyne is absolutely right! Any intuition of making choices is merely an illusion. And yet, our first person awareness of the world demonstrates that this is patently false. Our awareness of our own freewill is one of the most certain facts of existence, showing that naturalism is false. If freewill doesn’t exist, then we could never know if our knowledge of anything is true. Reason implies that a personal agent can choose between truth and falsehood. But if determinism is true, then we could never know that we have arrived at the truth, because we would have been determined to do so. All we could ever say is that we believe it is true (i.e. this is our current psychological state)—not that we know it is true (i.e. we have used reason to come to this conclusion). Moreover, what use is it to argue someone into determinism, as Coyne does, if they are truly determined in their beliefs as well?

Here we see that adopting naturalism as the default worldview in this discussion will lead to absurd conclusions. We would need to believe that even our own thoughts, decisions, and choices are an illusion. We might call a determinist “mindless” for thinking such things, and yet under this worldview, this isn’t an insult; it is a statement of fact! If the brain is no more than a collection of chemicals, electricity, and juices, then none of us are really endowed with a mind—only a highly complex brain.

Mind the gaps

Christians should be careful not to make rash assertions about where and when God caused a miraculous event. Historically, we have been too quick to claim that God did something that can just as easily be explained through natural causes, and so, this warrants caution on our behalf. And yet, this shouldn’t cause us to rule out God as a cause altogether. This would swing the proverbial pendulum to the other extreme, taking more a deistic view of God, which is philosophically and biblically undeserved. Moreover, such a hyper-conservative stance would make us inept at making any sort of positive case for the existence of God. As Christians, we should tread a moderate position, making a careful case for God based on the scientific evidence before us.


Without a doubt, design surrounds us. Francis Crick tells biologists that they need to keep reminding themselves that life is not designed: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”[15] Atheist Richard Dawkins writes, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[16] Likewise, even skeptic Michael Shermer openly admits:

The design inference comes naturally. The reason people think that a Designer created the world is because it looks designed. I think we should quit tiptoeing around this inference and admit that life looks designed because it was: from the bottom up, by evolution.[17]

Does this not fit expressly with Paul’s statement that humans have the propensity to “suppress the truth” about God’s design in nature (Rom. 1:18; cf. v.20)? While naturalists believe in the uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system, theists believe in the uniformity of cause and effect in an open system. While naturalism eliminates supernatural causes by definition, the theist is open to where the evidence leads—whether natural or supernatural. There is nothing anti-scientific or unreasonable about this approach to science. Instead, this was framework out of which modern science was originally birthed.

Further arguments considered

ARGUMENT #1: The claims of the Bible repeatedly clash with modern science.

ARGUMENT #2: The “gaps” in scientific knowledge have been closing due to scientific discovery. Eventually, supernatural explanations will be rendered unnecessary.

ARGUMENT #3: Historically, Christians have claimed that God was responsible for phenomena that modern science has later explained away.

ARGUMENT #4: Supernatural causes do not apply to science. Science, by definition, only deals with natural causes –not supernatural.

ARGUMENT #5: If we allow supernatural causes, this will destroy scientific progress and scientific discovery.

ARGUMENT #6: Supernatural explanations are outside of the realm of cause and effect. Without the regularity of cause and effect laws, science becomes impossible.

ARGUMENT #7: Personal and intelligent causes violate the uniformity of cause-and-effect. Without the uniformity of cause-and-effect, science falls apart.

ARGUMENT #8: Theistic explanations are not scientific, because they only offer “negative evidence.”

ARGUMENT #9: What about design flaws?


[1] Boghossian, Peter G. A Manual for Creating Atheists. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2013. 171-172.

[2] Davies, P. C. W. The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. 30.

[3] Luisi, P.L. “Open Questions on the Origins of Life.” OQOL2014. July 1, 2014.

[4] See Flew, Antony, and Roy Abraham. Varghese. There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: HarperOne, 2007. 93, 155.

[5] Habermas, Gary, and Antony Flew. “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas.” Philosophia Christi 6, no. 2 (2004): 210-11.

[6] Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1984. 86.

[7] Monton, Bradley John. Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 115-116.

[8] I am indebted to Greg Koukl for this helpful illustration.

[9] Daniel C. Dennett “Chapter 8: Atheism and Evolution.” Edited by Martin, Michael. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge UP, 2007. 144.

[10] Rosenblum, Bruce, and Fred Kuttner. Quantum Enigma Physics Encounters Consciousness. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2011. 266.

[11] Ellis, George F.R. “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” Scientific American 305. August (2011): 38-43.

[12] The Cause needs to be spaceless, because it created space. It needs to be timeless, because it created time. It can’t be material, because it created matter and energy. It needs to be vastly powerful (or maybe even all-powerful) in order to bring the universe into being from nothing. And finally, it needs to be volitional, because an eternal cause can’t give rise to a temporal effect without the attribute of a will.

[13] Blackmore, Susan. Consciousness: A Brief Insight. New York: Sterling, 2010. 59.

[14] Coyne, Jerry. “Why You Don’t Really Have Freewill.” USA Today. January 1, 2012.

[15] Crick, Francis. What Mad Pursuit. New York: Basic Books, 1988. 138.

[16] Emphasis mine. Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986. 1.

[17] Shermer, Michael. Why Darwin Matters: The Case against Intelligent Design. New York: Times, 2006. 65.