General vs Special Revelation

I was listening to an atheist present his case a while back, and one of his complaints was Christian apologists wanting to start from scratch, trying to prove the existence of generic theism ad nauseam, rather than the Christian Trinitarian God we supposedly believe in. Since his talk was about why he was an atheist, addressing his rejection of theism didn’t seem that unreasonable of a place to start.  But regardless of where we start, there are two fundamental questions to deal with: does God exist? and is the biblical presentation of Him true? The claims of Jesus and the Bible are foolish at best and deceitful at worst if God doesn’t even exist. But these two questions take us into aspects of how God reveals Himself to humanity. Let’s work through that today.

Revelation is simply the revealing of something, and God reveals Himself to us in two ways: general and special revelation. General revelation is also called natural revelation, or natural theology, because it is God’s disclosure about Himself and His relation to His creation, made manifest in physical nature, human nature, and history.[1]  This is the primary focus of apologetics, because we are often talking to people who reject the authority of the Bible. But, of course, God does not leave Himself without a witness, and astronomy, biology, genetics, geology, archeology, history, and philosophy are some of the disciplines that all reveal calling cards of God, consistently pointing us back to Him. Special revelation, on the other hand, is His direct revelation as recorded in the 66 books of the Bible, written by human authors inspired for His purpose, to specific people or groups of people, but also for people of all times and places.

I think of general revelation like the title sheet of a set of contract drawings for a building, while special revelation is the drawings themselves:

  • The title sheet of the drawings tells you who’s responsible for the design of the project: the various architects, engineers, and specialty consultants. Each designer is responsible for their portion, but the architect over the project will have his stamp on there. It’s not his biography, just his stamp certifying that the drawing set is ready to be used for construction. Similarly, we only get a stamp of divine authority in the wonders of nature. You have to go to the Bible for the rest of the story.
  • There will often be a scaled map of the project site showing where the building is in relation to different streets and how it will be oriented. Nowadays, there is often a nicely rendered 3D view of the project, with cars and people to show the scale of the project.  I can tell a lot about the project just from a good title sheet. Is this from a qualified design team known for good work? Is the project in Miami, Florida or Valdez, Alaska? I would expect pretty different types of buildings depending on the location. The first would need to be designed for hurricanes, while the second would need to account for massive snow loads and earthquakes. Just seeing the project location on the title sheet can tell me about some of the design issues dealt with on that project. The 3D view of the building model might tell me that this is a narrow, 50-story office tower in a one-city-block parcel in a crowded downtown environment, or that it’s a sprawling 1-story retail store with acres of parking all around. Natural revelation tells us where we’re situated and gives us an idea of the scope of this “project” we are part of. Going from the smallest cellular machines up to the grandeur of the universe, we realize our own smallness, and God’s awesome majesty to have created everything encompassed by such extremes (and God’s love that He would care about us on this “pale blue dot” of earth).
  • Most importantly, I can’t build off of that title sheet. Sure, I do know a lot about the project from it. I know where to build, roughly how big to build, some of the loads the building will have to be able to handle. But it’s pretty obvious that that isn’t enough. I don’t know any of the internal layout of the building, or how it’s braced against those various loads like hurricane winds, or the critically-important foundations that will support it. That general overview of the project isn’t enough to actually build it. For that, I need to open up the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pages of detailed drawings and other contract documents. In the same way, I can observe the world around me and learn that God exists, and even that He is a conscious being, is powerful, intelligent, immaterial, and eternal. But that’s not enough. Just like I need detailed plans to go with that general knowledge of a proposed building if I want to build anything that will last, I need the detailed message of the gospel if I want to spend eternity with my Creator.

When it comes to your eternal fate, don’t stop at the title page and try building your life on insufficient information, when the Master Designer has made available to you the detailed plans needed to build a life that will endure forever. And don’t ignore the drawings and title sheet altogether, and say there is no Designer as you try building a life on your own. Atheists are fond of saying religion is only a crutch for weak people, but really, it’s simply that making a mess of our lives is usually what it takes to force many of us to reach out to our life’s Designer and ask for help. Sad but true. As an engineer, I put my contact info on any of my structural drawings or reports so that people will reach out to m before they build something wrong and cause a disaster. Likewise, God has left His contact info. Don’t wait until your life comes crashing down before you call your life’s Designer to figure out how it was supposed to go together.

[1] “Revelation, General”, Norm Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).


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