In two previous articles (you can read them here and here) we’ve considered the doctrine of general/universal revelation and a few of its implications. Perhaps the most important implication of this doctrine is that it necessitates special/particular revelation. Creation only tells us that God exists and that he is powerful, wise, and good (see Ps 19:1-6; Rom 1:18-20; Acts 14:17). Our conscience smites us when we do wrong and reminds us that we’ve violated a moral standard (Rom 2:13-14). For these reasons, all image-bearers are left without excuse for our immoral thinking, feeling, and behavior, and our unwillingness to worship the God who has clearly revealed himself in what he has made (see Rom 1:20-32).
But neither the creation nor our consciences can reveal the immensity of our transgressions, the unparalleled holiness of God, or how we might find forgiveness with the One against whom we have so grievously sinned. A person cannot ponder the stars or an evening sunset and conclude that we can be right with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice. Such knowledge only comes by way of special/particular revelation.
The Need for Special Revelation
Unlike general/universal revelation, special/particular revelation is not given to all people at all times in all places under all circumstances. Like its name suggests, special/particular revelation is provided to specific people at specific times and under specific circumstances. Throughout redemptive history we find God revealing himself to his chosen people and disclosing truths that were unavailable and inaccessible to the rest of the world.
The means by which God has delivered this special revelation throughout the centuries is many and varied. God would sometimes speak in an audible voice (Gen 12:1; Matt 3:17), or through a heavenly messenger (Gen 16:7, 9; 22:11-15; Ex 3:2; Judges 2:1). He has used visions and dreams (Num 12:6; 2 Sam 7:17; Matt 2:19). He has revealed himself in miracles (John 5:39), through the word of the Lord given to his prophets (Ezek 1:3; Joel 1:1; Mic 1:1), and in written Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:16-21). God’s supreme act of special revelation was in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1).
All of this special revelation is necessary because the knowledge provided through this revelation—specifically the message of salvation in Christ—is not available in the creation or the conscience. General revelation leaves all people accountable for their guilt before God, but it doesn’t provide the remedy to our guilt. Only special/particular revelation can provide the remedy.
What About Those Who’ve Never Heard the Gospel?
This truth has massive implications for the work of missions and evangelism. A question I am often asked concerns the eternal fate of people in uncivilized tribes who have never heard and will never hear the gospel. Will they be subject to God’s condemnation? The answer is yes, for they are guilty of sin against God and for rejecting the revelation that God has provided in the creation (Rom 1:18-20).
Occasionally this question is followed by an inquiry related to the religious sincerity of the people in this unreached tribe. “What if they are faithful to the light they have? What if they are seeking the one true God? Might God be merciful to them due to their sincerity?” The problem with this question is that it poses a category that does not exist in Scripture. There is no one who seeks the one true God (Rom 3:10-18). In other words, there is no one on planet earth who is presently “living up to the light they have,” and “seeking the one true God,” apart from the intervention of God’s Spirit working through the special revelation of the gospel. All people, apart from God’s providing the miracle of regeneration are dead in sin (Eph 2:1-3), regardless of whether they live in an uncivilized corner of the world or in a booming metropolis. All unredeemed people, regardless of location, are presently suppressing the truth to which both the creation and their conscience bears witness: God exists, and he is powerful, wise, and good. For these reasons, all people are liable to the just wrath of God.
If it is true, then, that all people in all places in all times under all circumstances face eternal judgement due to their rebellion against God’s general revelation and that only through the special revelation of the gospel can they come to know Jesus and be saved from wrath, then evangelism and missions must be of the greatest priority for Christians.
Yet, the emotional weight of these truths is difficult to bear. If we just take a moment to ponder the reality and never-ending nature of hell and the fact that there are millions today who don’t have access to the special revelation of the gospel, we will likely become overwhelmed at the need that lies before us and the horror that lies before countless eternal souls. We can also see how tempting it is to alleviate this burden by positing theological formulations that would soften the implications we’ve just stated.
Lifting the Wrong Burdens
Some of these burden-lifting qualifications have found their way into evangelicalism over the last few decades. Some prominent theologians have argued for a position called Annihilationism. This view posits that the conscious torments of hell are not eternal but are only experienced for a limited period, after which the sinner is consumed—annihilated—and thus goes out of existence.
Another view suggests that God can save people without the verbal preaching of the gospel. Yes, salvation is only through Christ, and people must believe in Christ to be saved. But God can (and does) deliver this knowledge of Christ through the Spirit apart from the verbal proclamation of God’s Word. Through the Spirit, therefore, God is able to reach the distant and unreached people groups that presently have no access to special revelation.
We can see why these views would gain traction among professing Christians. If those who are under the indictment of general revelation face God’s wrath and can only escape their fate by faith in Jesus, weakening the intensity of hell or removing the necessity of the gospel’s verbal proclamation by Christian missionaries brings great relief to our burden.
But once the burden is lifted, the impulse for missions is cut at its root. Annihilationism removes one of the two primary motivations for preaching the gospel. In the New Testament, sinners are confronted with two grand realities: eternal life with God and eternal judgment. While it is only half of the New Testament’s motivational package, escape from God’s eternal wrath is a crucial incentive to come to Christ. John’s ministry consisted mainly of exhorting people to escape hell (Matt 3:10). Jesus appeals to the horrors of hell repeatedly throughout the gospels to push people toward genuine repentance (Matt 5:22; 29-30; 7:19; 13:40; 18:8-9; 23:33; 25:41; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:5; see also John 3:36). Paul does as well (2 Cor 5:11; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; 2 Thess 1:5-10). The book of Revelation is a detailed portrayal of a coming judgment that ends with a description of the unbeliever’s fate: his portion is in the lake of fire that burns forever (Rev 20:11-15). One very important reason we must repent and believe the gospel is to avoid eternal condemnation. Annihilationism severely weakens this motivation.
The second position, however, undermines missions at an even deeper level. Indeed, taken to its logical end, this view leads us to conclude that there is no actual need for Christian missions or evangelism. If God is providing special revelation to unreached peoples apart from the verbal proclamation of the gospel, why should the church trouble itself to give life and livelihood to global missions?
The biblical reality is that general/universal revelation indicts all people in all places at all times under all circumstances of their guilt before God. Our fate? Eternal, conscious torment. But in and of itself, general revelation can provide no solution to man’s legal and spiritual plight before God. We all stand in need of special revelation which God delivers through the faithful verbal proclamation of the gospel.