In this article we are going to consider a doctrine that all Christians should be well-acquainted with: the doctrine of general revelation. The doctrine of general revelation is the biblical teaching that God has revealed himself to all people, at all times, in all places, under all circumstances. In other words, there is no one in the world who does not know the one true God.
But Not Everyone Knows God, Right?
Some of our readers may stumble at these statements. “How can you say that all people know the one true God? I know plenty of people who don’t believe in the God of the Bible.” We can frame the doctrine in these universal terms because Scripture speaks this way. Consider Romans 1:18-20, for example:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Follow the logical flow of Paul’s argument. The apostle is describing unbelieving humanity, and he states first that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” God is rightfully angry at his human creatures’ unwillingness to worship him (“ungodliness”) and their active disobedience against his good law (“unrighteousness”). Paul further describes unbelievers as those “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” According to this text, there is an important truth in the universe that unbelievers are suppressing, not because it isn’t accessible or clear to them (as we will see in a moment), but because it conflicts with their unrighteous desires and behavior.
What truth are unbelievers suppressing? They are suppressing their knowledge of the one true God. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” God has made himself known to his image-bearers through the created order. Specifically, he has revealed some of his invisible attributes—power, wisdom, goodness—through what he made. Every element of the creation—from the largest galaxies to the smallest atom—say in unison: “God exists, and he is powerful, wise, and good.”
Knowledge that is Clearly Perceived
Furthermore, there no deficiency in this knowledge, as though it were faint or hazy or unattainable. No, God has made this knowledge “plain” to all people so that it is “clearly perceived.” Due to the accessibility of this knowledge, therefore, the unbeliever is left “without excuse” for his suppression of the truth and his unrighteous behavior. No one can say that God never revealed himself to them, for the creation gives all people immediate access to a steady, unceasing stream of the knowledge of God’s existence.
This knowledge of God’s existence flows from what theologians have called general revelation. God is actively revealing himself to all people, in all places, at all times, under all circumstances. The word “general” refers to the recipients of this knowledge—no one is left out. The word “revelation” refers to God’s act of disclosing himself. Taking from Christian theologian, Millard Erickson, I prefer to speak of “universal revelation” because the word “universal” better captures what is conveyed by this doctrine. God’s revelation of himself through the creation is accessible to all people, not just a few.
God’s Revelation in the Sky and in Our Souls
Other biblical texts also speak of God’s universal revelation in the creation. David, for example, says that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). During your summer camping trips, after the fire has reduced to a few embers and you’ve cut your lanterns, you can sit out under the night sky and see endless sheets of stars that declare God’s glory. During the daytime, you can behold the sun running its course with joy like an elite athlete (Psalm 19:4-6). This knowledge of God’s glory is conspicuous, unceasing, and worldwide.
But God also reveals himself to us in our own souls. Paul says that we can grasp God’s law with our consciences because this law has been written on our hearts (Rom 2:14-15). Because we are made in God’s image, we all have an innate, God-given capacity to know right and wrong. We regularly quell this intrinsic sense of God’s standard, but it’s there nonetheless. Again: God is revealing himself to all people at all times in all places under all circumstances. This is general/universal revelation.
What Universal Revelation is Not
But it’s also crucial to know what general/universal revelation is not, for confusion exists among Christians as to the scope and nature of this revelation. Some Christians conflate universal revelation with scientific discoveries, psychological insights, or the interpretation of natural phenomena. While these discoveries, insights, and interpretations relate to what God has created, they are not universal revelation as such because they are not, to put it simply, universal. A person living in a developing country may not have access to much modern scientific knowledge or contemporary psychological insights. Indeed, there are countless insights and discoveries that citizens in technologically-advanced countries have no access to or simply don’t know. This knowledge, therefore, cannot be included under the category of universal revelation.
This is an important point because the doctrine of universal revelation has been misused by some believers to endow certain scientific models or psychological insights with divine authority. If one can say that a particular model or insight is an aspect of God’s universal revelation, the Christian is obligated to believe it, for all divine revelation is authoritative. But if we maintain the biblical distinction between universal divine revelation through the creation and human insights and discoveries of the creation, we will avoid the confusion that inevitably arises when we claim that our interpretation of the created order comes with divine authority.
Universal revelation, however, is limited. While it renders unbelievers without an excuse for their unbelief, it cannot provide them with the knowledge of salvation. In order to be forgiven of our sin and come into a right relationship with our Creator, God must provide special (or particular) revelation. This revelation is different than universal revelation because it is only available to specific people at a specific time. For example, God’s disclosure of himself and his Word to Israel through prophets, visions, dreams, and the giving of the law on Mt. Sanai, are all examples of special/particular revelation (Heb 1:1). The Bible is special/particular revelation (2 Tim 3:16). The gospel of Jesus Christ is special/particular revelation (Eph 1:13).
Universal Revelation and Christian Missions
Again, this distinction is vital because we cannot conclude that all people throughout the world have access to salvation through general/universal revelation. A person cannot, for example, look up at the stars at night, conclude that there is a God, and thus come into a right relationship with their Creator. No, for a person to be saved, they need the particular revelation of the gospel.
This truth drives Christian missions. There is no salvation apart from hearing and believing the gospel. It is a hard but necessary truth that all Christians must embrace: every person without the gospel will spend an eternity enduring the just wrath of the God whose existence they suppressed in unrighteousness. Their only hope is that they hear the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners and embrace Christ by faith alone. If we think that universal revelation is sufficient to save, we will lose our impetus for global missions.
Theology is vital for the health of the individual Christian and for health of the church. The doctrine of general/universal revelation is an essential biblical teaching that we cannot afford to ignore. We’ve seen that a lack of precision concerning this doctrine leads to confusion when it comes to other areas of human study. We’ve also seen that neglect of this doctrine can lead to a drawdown in our missionary impulse.
Rightly understood, however, the doctrine of general revelation helps us better engage unbelievers with the gospel. Because unbelievers already possess knowledge of God through their conscience and the created order, we can move directly to Scripture and Jesus Christ rather than spending inordinate amounts of time trying to prove the existence of God.
We will also be able to assess truth claims that present themselves as bearing divine authority. Scientific discoveries, psychological insights, and human interpretation of natural phenomena are not universal revelation and therefore do not require our faith or obedience.
Finally, when we truly grasp the doctrine of general/universal revelation, we will be more inclined toward Christian missions and evangelism because we know that God’s revelation in the creation is not sufficient to save anyone. All people, regardless of who they are or where they are from are in desperate need of the gospel.