Before addressing what general and special revelation is, it can be helpful to begin by explaining what revelation itself is. Revelation isn’t only the name of the last book of the Bible. It is related to the word reveal, and it basically means something that is shown forth or made known. Within theology, revelation is how God makes Himself and His will known within creation. Or, put another way, it is the eternal and invisible God making something of Himself visible to us.
From the very beginning of creation to today, God has chosen to reveal Himself in two different ways. These are general revelation, what God openly reveals of Himself through nature to everyone, and special revelation, what God reveals supernaturally and selectively.
General revelation, as the name suggests, is the revelation that is revealed to people in general. Everyone, including you and your friendly neighbor with the mustache, experiences this form of revelation, and they are always doing so. Contrary to the wisdom of the age, God isn’t a bashful God who is hesitant about making Himself known. No, He is the opposite. Because He will not share His glory with anyone or anything, like an idol, He is adamant about putting His divine signature on absolutely everything in creation (Ps. 97:6; Is. 42:8).
Now, someone might object, “How is God always revealing Himself to me?” Basically, He does so in two ways, which are mediate and immediate.
Mediate General Revelation
Beginning with the first one, mediate, this word means “with intervening medium or agent; indirect.” The “medium,” in this case, would be your senses. And through your senses, like your eyes, creation reveals something of God to you. When you look at a mountain, for instance, it reveals something of God’s grandeur and majesty to you. Thus, nature points beyond itself toward its Creator.
Think of it this way: In the same way that a painting tells you that there is a painter, creation tells you that there is a Creator. And similar to how the painting was made to be seen and appreciated, creation was made to be viewed and enjoyed. Nobody creates art for nobody. Nobody creates a masterpiece and puts it under a bowl or hides it under a bed. A masterpiece is placed on the wall, where its beauty can be seen by everyone who enters the room. It is put there to delight them and share a message with them. Likewise, this world was created and put here to be a delight to God and us, and in order to proclaim the most important message: the glory of God. As it is written,
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.Psalm 19:1–4 ESV
Likewise, the Apostle Paul taught that all men know, not just God, but also His attributes. As the Apostle wrote in the beginning of his epistle to the Romans,
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.Romans 1:19–20 ESV
Furthermore, this clear revelation comes, not just through one of your senses, but through each and every one of them. You have ears made to hear speech, song, music, and noise; eyes created to see the world, the stars, people, and dirt; a nose molded to smell flowers, food, spices, and fungi; a mouth designed to taste some of them; and a body with its skin crafted to touch. Each of these senses is a gift from God so that you can receive more of His precious gifts through the senses (1 Tim. 4:3–4). Thus, the world was made for you, and you were made for the world. But it wasn’t made for your glory. No, everything was made for the glory of Christ (Col. 1:16).
Immediate General Revelation
Now, a strange individual might ask, “What about those who are born without any senses?” This is a rather unusual case, but this leads me to the second way God reveals Himself to humanity. This one is the opposite of mediate and is called immediate, which means that it is “without intervening medium or agent; direct.” This revelation does not travel through a medium, but arises naturally within the mind itself, whether they are Christian or not. This means that, even if a child were to be born entirely without any senses, whatsoever, unable to see the slightest bit of light or feel the touch of his own mother, he would still, deep within his mind, have some innate knowledge of God. Therefore, despite being isolated from his family, he wouldn’t be isolated from God, whom would be the only person he would ever know of in this life.
Consequently, this means there are no true atheists in the world, nor are there any agnostics. All men, regardless of how little knowledge they have, know that God exists, deep inside. We like to speak of people who are “seeking after God” here in the West, but as Paul says, “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). And instead, “all have turned aside” (Rom. 3:12; cf. 1:18). They are making a mad dash to the edge of the world, getting into the boat together with Jonah, ready to throw themselves into the infinite sea of eternal darkness to get away from God. But it won’t work. There is nowhere they can go and nothing they can do to escape His presence, for He is everywhere, at every time. Even if they plunged themselves into eternal darkness, God would still be there to watch them and judge them. And they would know it. As the Psalmist wrote,
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.Psalm 139:7–12 ESV
Furthermore, this revelation involves more than an innate sense of God’s existence. It has to. Otherwise, how would people know whether or not He is pleased with them and their actions? Do they have to guess at what is right? And if they guess wrong, will God judge them for that? And if He does, does that seem right to you? Do you usually judge people who had absolutely no way of knowing what the law was? Probably not.
Evidently, without the Law, there are no transgressions, which is sin (Rom. 5:13). And if there is no sin, there doesn’t need to be a Savior from sin. Thus, the Law is central to the Gospel. And where do people find the Law of God? It isn’t only in the Bible. No, your conscience will always testify about good and evil, whether or not you want it to. As Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, “the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15).
Therefore, whether you are born into a conservative Christian family who reads the Bible every evening or into an illiterate tribe in the middle of the jungle who has never heard a single word of Scripture, you would still have your conscience pointing you to what is good, directing you to God, who is the source of all goodness, and pointing you away from what is evil, which is everything that is opposed to God and leads away from Him. Thus, you have both a divine compass and a moral compass within your heart.
Because of how comprehensive and ubiquitous general revelation is, it cannot be honestly ignored. That is why nobody will be able to say on judgment day before God, “I didn’t know that you existed or what you wanted of me. If I did, I would have obeyed you.” As Paul asserts, “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
However, although general revelation is enough to condemn mankind, it isn’t enough to save mankind. Basically, you won’t find the way of salvation written anywhere in nature itself. You cannot discover the Gospel of Jesus Christ by decoding the stars or decrypting the sand on the beach.
No, for that, you need special revelation. It is, as the name suggests, the revelation that is special and supernatural. Moreover, because this revelation isn’t naturally occurring, this revelation only comes to specific people, not everyone. Prophets, for instance, do not naturally arise out of nature. They don’t grow on trees. No, they are people specifically anointed, appointed, and sent by God to proclaim His message, which is of a divine origin. As Peter put it, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21). And as the author of Hebrews wrote, “at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1). These ways include visions, dreams, and direct speech.
But those revelations of God, as great as they were, were still inferior to the superior revelation that was to come. As the author went on to say, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:2).
Returning to a previous illustration, there is only so much you can learn about the artist from the paintings he’s drawn. To get to know him, personally, you have to meet him and listen to him. Likewise, to get to know the creator of this universe, we must meet Him and hear from Him. That is why Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. He is the Artist Himself stepping into His own artwork, or the Creator becoming a part of His own creation. Out of His great love, he came to save His little creatures and speak with them.
And now, He is speaking to you personally in the Word. Today, special revelation has been made permanent in the form of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. This is the finished revelation of God, containing everything you need to live the Christian life. As Paul said to his disciple Timothy,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16–17