Doctrine of Revelation (part 2)

January 03, 2010     Time: 00:42:04


Functions of General Revelation, 4. Relation of General Revelation to Arguments for the Existence of God.

We began last time by discussing two different concepts of what revelation is – a broad concept and a narrow or more restricted concept. In the broad sense, “revelation” means a communication from God. It is some sort of a word or communication that comes from God telling us something. In a narrower sense, “revelation” means the unveiling of something hidden, the disclosure of something not known. It is important to keep these two senses distinct because while the Bible is revelation in the first sense and God’s disclosure in nature is revelation in that first sense (viz., a communication from God), not all of the Bible is a revelation in that narrow sense, that is to say, a disclosure of something unknown or previously hidden. Prophecy would be an example of that; the Book of Revelation in the New Testament would be an example of that. But much of the Bible, like Paul’s letter to Philemon, is not a disclosure of hidden, secret information from God and therefore isn’t a revelation in that narrow sense, though it is in the general or broad sense.

Now in addition to that distinction concerning the definition of “revelation,” I also made a distinction in the types of revelation. This is different than the definition. The definition of “revelation” is either broad or restricted (narrow). But then there are two kinds of revelation: general and special. I explained that general revelation is general in two senses. First, it provides information about God that is generally available to all persons in human history, regardless of the time and place in which they have lived – it is generally available. Also it is general in a second sense, namely, it is general information about God. It doesn’t tell us that God is a Trinity; it doesn’t tell us that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins. It is general in the sense that it tells us that there is a Creator God of the universe who has made the world and to whom we are morally responsible, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot beyond that in terms of specifics. We saw that in nature and in conscience God is generally revealed in this way.

So general revelation primarily assumes the form of God’s disclosure in nature – that is, in the creation around us – and then also in conscience, as God’s moral laws are written on the hearts of all people so that everyone has an innate sense of our moral responsibility before God and of our failure to live up to the demands of the moral law.

Functions of General Revelation

We come now to point 3 of the outline, which is the functions of general revelation. What function does general revelation serve?

1. To show forth God’s glory. First of all, it shows forth God’s glory. Psalm 19:1ff:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Here the psalmist thinks of the creation around us, particularly the heavens and the stars and planets at night, as showing forth the glory of God. It is not verbal, there aren’t any audible words spoken, and yet in a sense this message of God’s creative power and glory goes out to the whole world. So one of the fundamental functions of general revelation is to show forth and manifest God’s glory in the creation.

2. To render people morally culpable before God. Secondly, general revelation renders people culpable before God. I mean morally culpable or morally guilty. Look at Romans 1:19 and then 2:16. 1:19 says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” Paul is speaking here about God’s revelation in creation: what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them.1 And then in 2:15-16, he says,

They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

So there he says that what can be known about God is evident through his general revelation, men have a moral law written on their hearts, and on the day of judgment, when God will judge the secrets of men’s hearts, they will be judged by their own conscience, which will accuse or excuse them based on how they lived up to the standard of God’s moral law.

So on the basis of general revelation people are indicted before this Creator of the universe as morally guilty, as sinners, as persons that are in need of his forgiveness and moral cleansing. Jack Cottrell, in his book What the Bible Says about God the Creator, has a section on this function of general revelation in making people culpable before God which I shall read to you, page 342 and following:

The Bible nowhere teaches that a person can be saved from sin and condemnation through his response to the light of creation alone. General revelation simply does not give us any knowledge of redemption or of the redeemer. . . . Does this mean [people] are condemned on account of their ignorance? Not at all. This would be very unjust. True, they do not know the Gospel, but they are not condemned for not knowing the Gospel. Why then are they condemned? Because they do know general revelation and have not lived up to it. They do know God, and they do know that they should honor him as God and give him thanks, but they do not do this. This is why they are condemned. Not because of what they are ignorant of, but because of what they know. That they have not heard the Gospel is besides the point. When a person is condemned for his abuse of general revelation, the condemnation is just. . . . General revelation grows solely out of the work of creation. It is a revelation of God as Creator, not God as Redeemer. It speaks to man as creature, not to man as sinner. This is how it was intended to function from the beginning, and this is how it still functions. From the beginning man has been able to respond either positively or negatively to this revelation. By responding positively, man is able to avoid condemnation. By responding negatively man comes under God’s just condemnation. The fact is that mankind uniformly responds negatively and thus all are without excuse. Does this mean, then, that general revelation has only a negative function? That it only damns and does not save? No, to put the question in this way is to renew the fallacy that such a revelation is not a function of creation but somehow has an intended purpose for the post-fall world. The point is that general revelation was not intended either to save (positive) or to condemn (negative). It was intended only for the positive purpose of declaring the glory of God the Creator and giving general guidance to the creature.2

So as a function of creation, the function of general revelation is to show forth God’s glory, to manifest his existence and his moral law to creatures. This serves to render people culpable before God because they haven’t lived up to the standard of general revelation by which God will judge persons who have never heard the Gospel of Christ. So this provides some answer to those who ask, “But what about those who never heard the Gospel?” The answer is that they will be judged fairly on the basis of the information they have, not on the basis of information they never received.3 They will be judged on the basis of general revelation. This is information for which they are responsible, and they are culpable for their failure to live up to it.

3. To make salvation through Christ universally accessible. The third point is that it does seem to me that through general revelation one could have access to the salvation wrought by Christ. Here I think I would probably disagree somewhat with Prof. Cottrell. It does seem to me that through general revelation those who have never heard of Christ can have access to the salvation that Christ has won on the cross. Look at what Romans 2:6-7 says, “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” I take that to be a bona fide offer that is extended to all persons everywhere. If someone will follow the guiding of general revelation and seek for glory and honor and immortality, God will give him eternal life.

Now does that mean that these people can be saved apart from Christ? No, not at all! It would simply mean that the benefits of Christ’s atoning death could be applied to these people without their having a conscious knowledge of Christ. This happened all the time in the Old Testament. Look at Old Testament figures like Job, Melchizedek, and Abimelech in Genesis 20. Here you have what are sometimes called “holy pagans” of the Old Testament. These people, when you read the stories about them, evidently had personal relationships with God. Job clearly was a man in whom God delighted. Job was a righteous man. Similarly, Melchizedek was called the priest of the Most High. Abimelech received communication from God, as God would disclose himself to him. And yet these persons had not only never heard of Christ, but they weren’t even Israelites! They weren’t even members of the old covenant, much less the new covenant! Job was from Ur in Chaldea; Melchizedek wasn’t a descendant of Abraham; Abimelech was a Philistine. And yet they seem to have responded to the information that they had. What that suggests is that if a person responds to general revelation by recognizing that he is sinful and culpable before the Creator God of the universe and he casts himself upon the mercy of this God, confessing his sin, recognizing that he has no claim to righteousness through his own good works or holy living but casts himself wholly upon the mercy of this God of creation, that God can be counted on to respond to that person by applying to him the benefits of Christ’s death.

Although that is possible, I think that if we take Romans 1 seriously, we have to say that not many people actually do access salvation in this way. So I’m not advocating some sort of broad or wide inclusivism. On the contrary, I think that Romans 1 gives us every reason to be pessimistic, and that few, if any, will be saved through general revelation. Look what Romans 1:20-25 says,

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.4

The remainder of the chapter goes on to tell how God gives them up to sin and how people plunge themselves into moral degeneracy and rebellion against God. Why? – because they have rejected the truth about God which they knew through general revelation and have instead turned to serve and worship the creature rather than the Creator. So although I think it is possible for a person to have access to the salvation that Christ has won on the cross through general revelation, I’m very pessimistic that there are very many people like this. It does seem that people like Job, Melchizedek, and Abimelech might fall into this category, and I really hope that Aristotle would fall into this category. It would be great to see Aristotle in heaven someday! But I don’t think we can have any sort of confidence in this. On the contrary, the abysmal ineffectiveness of general revelation is an incentive for the preaching of the Gospel and the missionary enterprise to bring the special revelation of God’s Word to all of mankind.

4. To stabilize human society. The fourth function of general revelation is to stabilize human society. On the basis of general revelation we have a common moral code that tends to permeate human cultures, and this will provide a moral fabric for society that will prevent moral anarchy from erupting and every man doing what’s right in his own eyes. So on the basis of general revelation we have a kind of stabilizing effect that makes human society and civilization possible by providing a basic moral code by which human beings can live.

So the functions of general revelation, then, are primarily, (1) to show forth God’s glory; (2) to render people culpable before God; (3) to provide access to salvation for those who have never heard the Gospel of Christ; and (4) to stabilize human society.


Question: Just to clarify, you are not going with an anonymous Christian model?

Answer: What do you define “anonymous Christian” to be? If you’re talking about a kind of inclusivism that would say that there are these anonymous Christians, any kind of inclusivism that is biblically acceptable would have to be extremely narrow. The people who managed to access salvation through general revelation are very few and far between, if there are any. Now those that do, perhaps you could call anonymous Christians in the sense that they are saved by the blood of Christ. They are not saved by their own good works, they are not saved through some other religion, they are saved solely by the atoning death of Jesus Christ, just as Job and Melchizedek were, though they had never heard of him. So there may be a few people like that, but I’m certainly not espousing any broad inclusivism.

Question: Do you take this to mean there are no true atheists deep down?

Answer: That’s a really good question! I do think that a person can be an atheist only by suppressing God’s general revelation and that therefore they are morally accountable. Alvin Plantinga, who has developed a model of how we know God through a kind of innate, divine sense, says that atheists are cognitively dysfunctional because if their cognitive faculties were functioning properly, they would believe in God. It does seem to me that that’s correct. As a result of the willful suppression on the part of those who know God but refuse to honor him as God, there results a kind of darkness of the mind. So these persons in their darkened intellect may sincerely believe there is no God. I’m not suggesting that atheists are disingenuous, that they really believe deep down but are faking it. I’m not suggesting that. But I am saying that this darkened intellect is a cognitive dysfunction that they have brought upon themselves by suppressing the truth that is evident to them.5

Question: Do you think there should be a smooth transition from general revelation to Christ?

Answer: When you think about general revelation, what does it give us? It gives us a sort of general or generic monotheism that would be acceptable to the Muslim, to the Jew, to the Christian, to deists (who just believe in this God of nature); there are even some forms of Hinduism that are monotheistic. So it doesn’t discriminate among any of those. It would give you a kind of monotheism, but you would still then have to ask, “Why think that this God of creation has revealed himself in the person of Jesus?” Now having said that, nevertheless, I have to say that there is a lot that general revelation excludes, too. Polytheism, atheism, Daoism, most forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism – all of those are excluded because they don’t have any room for a personal, Creator God of the universe who is the source of absolute moral values and has a moral law that we are obliged to obey. So it does narrow down the world’s great religions just to these monotheistic traditions. It goes along way toward getting you to Christian theism but obviously not all the way.

Question: Do you think as far as being saved through general revelation that that might only apply to the Old Testament?

Answer: Let’s speak to whether or not these figures are exclusively in the Old Testament. You see, the difficulty here is that the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant takes place gradually in history as the Gospel goes out to the whole world. So if you go back to the first century, only a very few people at first had heard about the new covenant, the people living in the Mediterranean basin. But folks living in South America and in the Arctic in Canada had never heard of it –or people in China. In a few more centuries, the message had spread to more people, and more folks were aware of the new covenant. But today there is still between around 15% to 25% of the world’s population that have yet to hear the Gospel even for the first time. So for this minority of the world’s population, they, in a sense, still find themselves in this old covenant relationship with God or at least in the relationship that people like Job and Melchizedek were in, where they know there’s a Creator God of the universe but they’ve never heard the Gospel of Christ or perhaps even the gospel of the Old Testament. It seems to me that that there is a kind of historical progression that takes place, so that you can’t say that when Christ came, this function of general revelation ceased immediately. It seems to me that it would be something that would carry through so long as people remained in this state of ignorance, which many of the world’s population still do.

Question: Would their salvation be based on what they worship in nature?

Answer: No! This is where I don’t want to be misunderstood. They are not saved on the basis of what they consciously worship in their religions or because they worship nature. God forbid! That’s the exact opposite of what I mean. They also can’t adhere to the moral code. It is not salvation by works. Rather imagine some Native American Indian living on the Great Plains during the 5th century AD. He looks up at the stars at night and the intricacies of nature around him, and he senses that all of this has been made by the Great Spirit. And as he looks into his own heart, he senses that the Great Spirit has written his moral law there, telling him that all men are brothers and that we should live in love for one another. But suppose he recognizes that he fails to do that, that he senses in his heart selfishness, hatred, that he’s wronged his brothers, and he has not worshiped the Great Spirit. So in despair he flings himself upon the mercy of the Great Spirit, begging for forgiveness and moral cleansing and saying, “I have failed you! Please forgive me!” It seems to me that that is the kind of faith response to general revelation that is very similar to the faith response to the Gospel when we hear it. But he doesn’t have the Gospel, so his faith response is to the information that God has given him. It seems to me that Roman 2:7 suggests that God will honor that by applying to him the benefits of Christ’s death.6 But again I want to hasten to say that I am not optimistic that there are a whole lot of folks like this.

[A quick Q&A on election and predestination – Dr. Craig defers the question for a later class]

Question: Would you agree with Peter Kreeft that Socrates was a Christian since he was a seeker of truth and Christ is truth?

Answer: I don’t know enough about Socrates. I think that Peter Kreeft is more optimistic than I am about the efficacy of general revelation. I hope that someone like Aristotle or Socrates might make it. But I don’t think that we know enough about their hearts to be able to judge whether or not they were genuine seekers after truth that have been accorded God’s salvation. I think, in general, that I’m not nearly as optimistic.

Relation of General Revelation to Arguments for the Existence of God

Let’s say something about point 4 on the outline – the relationship of general revelation to arguments of the existence of God. As those of you who are interested in apologetics know, one of the important subsections of apologetics is natural theology. Natural theology attempts to give arguments or evidence for the existence of God apart from the resources of special authoritative divine revelation.7 So there will be arguments from design, for example, or cosmological arguments, or moral arguments for the existence of God that play a part in the project of natural theology. And the question I’m raising here is, what is the relationship between general revelation and the arguments for the existence of God that philosophers and natural theologians talk about?

Well, the question here comes down to how we should understand general revelation as described in Romans 1 and 2. Namely, is the belief in God in response to general revelation an inference or is it more like perception? Now what do I mean by that? An inference would be drawing a conclusion from several premises. You would look at the evidence and contemplate that evidence, and then you would infer a conclusion on the basis of that evidence. By contrast, in perception you don’t infer something; you just see it. So, for example, my belief that there are other people in this room is not an inference. I don’t say, “Well, I am having these visual experiences, and the photons are impinging upon my retinas in a way to make me see people out there, and probably these are true impressions, and therefore I can conclude that there are other people in the room.” No, not at all – it is not an inference. Rather I just see that there are other people in the room. It is just a perception. And the question is, is general revelation an inference – do people see the handiwork or the fingerprints of God in creation and infer, “Aha! There must be a God!”? Or is it more like perception – you just look at the world, and you just see that “This is made by God,” or “God is convicting me of sin,” or something of that sort?

Well, let’s look a little more closely at the passage in Romans 1 to try to get some answer to this question. When Paul says in Romans 1:20, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature . . . has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse,” you have there a kind of pun on the nature of perception. He says on the one hand that God’s nature is invisible, it is imperceptible, and then he says that this imperceptible nature has been perceived in the things that have been made! So there is a kind of irony that the invisible nature of God is seen. How? Well, it is seen through the things that have been made. But in the Greek, what Paul says could be translated, “the invisible things are perceived through reflection on the things that have been made.” It is by reflecting on the things that have been made that we see the invisible things of God. Moreover, the word there for “eternal” power is aidios (that means eternal). This is a very rare word in the New Testament; it appears only two times in the New Testament. It is a Greek word that comes out of Greek philosophy that would show the links of Paul’s discussion with the sort of natural theology done by the Greek philosophers. Another indication of this would be the word for “divine nature,” theotes, which is a word that appears nowhere else in the New Testament. This is the only place in the New Testament where theotes appears. But it is again a Greek philosophical term for the divine nature, which seems to suggest the linkage between Paul’s discussion and the kind of natural theology that went on among the Greek philosophers.

What is especially interesting, however, is the comparison of Romans 1 with a Jewish apocryphal work called The Wisdom of Solomon. This is a book that, although part of the Catholic apocrypha, is not in the Protestant Bible. It was not written by Solomon but is a pseudepigraphal work, that is to say, written under his name. In the 13th chapter of the book of The Wisdom of Solomon we have a very interesting discussion of how people can tell that God exists just through creation around them. Here I think it is very evident that it is by reasoning that they do this. Let me read verses 1-9 of The Wisdom of Solomon:

For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if men were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is he who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. Yet these men are little to be blamed, for perhaps they go astray while seeking God and desiring to find him. For as they live among his works, they keep searching, and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful. Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things.8

So here in this passage you have a passage that sounds almost like Romans 1. It talks about how the people worship and serve the created things that they see around them rather than God. It says that although this is understandable because these things are so beautiful and so admirable, nevertheless in the end the author says people are not to be excused for worshiping these creaturely things because if they had this much intelligence to investigate the world, they should have also seen that God exists as the author of these things. Again in verse 5 he says from the greatness and the beauty of created things, they can infer that there is a Creator of these things. It seems that when you understand Romans 1 in its historical context, a very good case can be made that Paul is endorsing here the project of natural theology. He’s saying from the created order around us, people can easily form the inference that there is a Creator God of the universe to whom we’re morally responsible and, indeed, if they fail to do this, that this inference is so simple, so obvious, that they are without excuse for not doing so.

In support of this, read Acts 14:17. Paul and Barnabas come to Lystra, and the people begin to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods that came down from heaven. In Acts 14:17 Paul says, “God did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” So what Paul is saying there is that they ought not to worship Barnabas and Paul, who are just mere men, mere creatures. Rather he says the living God who made the heavens and the Earth has not left himself without a witness. And what is that witness? It is the order of nature with its fruitful seasons and so forth that testify to his existence.

So how should we understand the relationship between general revelation and natural theology? General revelation is not natural theology. General revelation is not identical with arguments for the existence of God. General revelation, rather, is the traits of the Creator in the creation. It is like the fingerprints of the potter in the clay, or the telltale strokes of the brush that let you know that this is a Rembrandt, when you look at that painting. It is the traits of the author in his created product. That is what general revelation is. Natural theology is the human formulation of arguments that tries to express this insight. It uses the data of general revelation to construct human arguments to conclude that God exists. So natural theology is a human product. It is fallible. Arguments for the existence of God get revised all the time. It is an ongoing project. While it is not identical with general revelation, it is closely related to it, in that general revelation plausibly involves a sort of inference from the created product to its creator as its author.9


Question: When was The Wisdom of Solomon written?

Answer: It is an intertestamental work. It is a Hellenistic book written in the Greek language, so it is not genuinely from Solomon; but it nevertheless represents the culture milieu in which Paul wrote Romans 1.

Question: There are many that say Paul in Romans 1 was referring to The Wisdom of Solomon.

Answer: Yes, I don’t find it at all implausible that Paul may have known the work. I mean, the literary connections are so close in the verbal similarities that I could imagine Paul had read this chapter in Wisdom of Solomon and here in his letter to the Romans expresses this same idea.10


1 5:26

2 Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says about God the Creator (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1983), pp. 341-346.

3 10:02

4 14:55

5 20:00

6 26:00

7 30:02

8 36:36

9 40:26

10 Total Running Time: 42:29