Question: "What does it mean that the earth was without form and void (Genesis 1:2)?"
Answer: Genesis 1:1 tells us, unsurprisingly, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. There is nothing especially shocking in that statement. However, the statement that follows has raised some eyebrows: the earth was without form and void (Genesis 1:2). The Hebrew tohu is typically translated as “without form” or “formless,” and bohu is rendered “void” or “empty.” Genesis 1:2 could be translated as “it came about that the earth was without form and empty.”
Some have suggested that perhaps God created the heavens and the earth, and then something happened that caused the earth to go from fully created and beautiful to “without form and void.” Such an order of events attempts to explain the perceived old age of the earth. In this view, often called the gap theory, there was a long period of time (a gap) between what happened in Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. Thomas Chalmers, who is credited with popularizing the gap theory, stated his opinion in 1814 that “it [Genesis 1:1] forms no part of the first day—but refers to a period of indefinite antiquity when God created the worlds out of nothing. The commencement of the first day’s work I hold to be the moving of God’s Spirit upon the face of the waters. We can allow geology the amplest time . . . without infringing even on the literalities of the Mosaic record” (Russell R. Bixler, Earth, Fire, and Sea: The Untold Drama of Creation, Baldwin Press, 1986, p. 86–87). The gap theory interprets the words the earth was without form and void as an aftereffect of something that took place in between the two verses. While Chalmers’ view was impactful, later theologians such as C. I. Scofield advocated for the view and influenced many in favor of the gap theory.
The challenge for the biblical interpreter is to understand whether or not the author of Genesis intended to communicate that something might have taken place in a possible gap. The simplest and most historically held position prior to Chalmers and other gap advocates was that the representation of the earth as without form and void was simply an expression of stages of progress during the first day and not a statement of condition prior to the creation week.
In that non-gap understanding, there is no attempt to explain the appearance of age and no special consideration for any theological implications. Advocates of the non-gap interpretation might simply assert that everything created had the appearance of age. For example, Adam was created as a man, capable of speech and critical thought. He obviously wasn’t created as an infant, hence the appearance of age. The same could be said of trees, mountains, etc. Proponents of the non-gap understanding generally don’t sense a theological need or exegetical reason to insert a gap of time between the two verses and conclude that to do so would be an argument from silence and not based on sound interpretive principles.