General Revelation

Holman Bible Dictionary

The physical world—nature—is not a part of God as my hand is a part of me. Yet, God might reveal Himself through His actions in that world. Besides saying or writing things, persons may reveal facts about themselves in other ways, such as physical gestures or facial expressions. Sometimes persons’ actions communicate whether they are selfish or generous, clumsy or skillful. A grimace, a smile, or a frown can often be telling. Transferring these things to a theological context is not simple, because God is not visible. He does not have facial features or bodily parts with which to gesture. To say God reveals Himself through nature means that through the events of the physical world God communicates to us things about Himself that we would otherwise not know.

What sort of things might God tell us in this manner? Paul explained "What can be known about God is plain to them, for God Himself made it plain. Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made. So those people have no excuse at all" (Rom. 1:20 TEV). The psalmist (Ps. 19:1) saw the glory of God through the spectacles of special revelation. What the psalmist saw was objectively and genuinely there. We can rephrase these observations to say that all that can be known about God in a natural sense has been revealed in nature. This is what we call natural or general revelation. General revelation is universal in the sense that it is God’s self-disclosure of Himself in a general way to all people at all times in all places. General revelation occurs through (1) nature, (2) in our experience and in our conscience, and (3) in history.

In the wonders of the heavens and in the beauty of the earth God manifests Himself. Jesus taught that God "causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45 NASB), thus revealing His goodness to all. "The living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them ... has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy" (Acts 14:15-17 NRSV). God makes Himself known in the continuing care and provision for humankind. The universe as a whole serves the Creator’s purposes as a vehicle of God’s self-manifestation.

God also reveals himself in men and women. They are made in the "image" and "likeness" of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Humans, as a direct creation of God, are a mirror or reflection of God. People are God’s unique workmanship evidenced by their place of dominion over the rest of creation; in their capacity to reason, feel, and imagine; in their freedom to act and respond; and in their sense of right and wrong (Gen. 1:28; Rom. 2:14, 15). Especially through this moral sense God reveals Himself in the consciences of men and women. The fact that religious belief and practice is universal confirms the apostle’s statements in Romans 2. Yet, the creatures who worship, pray, build temples, idols and shrines, and seek after God in diverse ways do not glorify God as God nor give Him thanks (Rom. 1:21-23). Nevertheless, because each person has been given the capacity for receiving God’s general revelation, they are responsible for their actions.

God manifests Himself in the workings of history. All of history, rightly understood, bears the imprint of God’s activity and thus has a theological character. Primarily, God is revealed in history through the rise and fall of peoples and nations (compare Acts 17:22-31).

God’s general revelation is plain, whether in nature, in human conscience, or in history. Even though it is plain, it is often misinterpreted because sinful and finite humans are trying to understand a perfect and infinite God. What we have seen so far is compatible with the following:

(1) Religious belief is a nearly universal human phenomenon.

(2) Such religious belief is implanted by God.

(3) All people ought to acknowledge God on the basis of what they learned from the world around them.

(4) All people believe in God and show their belief even though they do not admit it.

(5) No one, no matter how seemingly insignificant or weak-minded can be excused for missing God’s revelation.

The light of nature is not sufficient to give the knowledge of God necessary for salvation. For God’s power (Rom. 1:20), goodness (Matt. 5:45), and righteousness (Rom. 2:14-15) have been revealed, but not His salvific grace. That is revealed only through special revelation. Special revelation is necessary to instruct people how to worship God rightly. God in His general revelation reveals Himself, but because of our sinfulness, humans pervert the reception of His general revelation, a revelation so plain it leaves all without excuse. It is as if a lawyer were offered the information necessary to solve a case, yet chose perversely to ignore it.

In sum, humans lack the willingness to come to a pure and clear knowledge of God. Men and women suppress God’s truth because they do not like the truth about God. They do not like the God to which the truth leads them so they invent substitute gods and religions instead. The universality of religion on earth is evidence of truths discussed above. According to Paul, the act of suppressing the awareness of God and His demands warps our reason and conscience. Because of this rejection of God, He righteously reveals His wrath against humankind. God’s general revelation does not bring one into a saving relationship with God; it does reveal God to His creatures and they are, therefore, responsible for their response. This view of general revelation can only be accepted through special revelation.

Taken from: Holman Bible Dictionary Copyright 1991 Holman Bible Publishers.