Revelation in theology refers to information that comes from God to reveal truth about Himself or about ourselves and the world around us. Revelation is then divided into two types: natural revelation (or general revelation) and special revelation.
Special revelation is that which comes directly from God and is recorded in inspired Scripture. The content of this revelation is truth that we could not know unless God told us directly. For instance, the Trinity and justification by grace through faith in Christ would be impossible to “figure out” on our own. Our knowledge of such things comes only through special revelation. If a person or a people group does not have access to the Bible in their own language, they will be ignorant of the truth that can only be known through special revelation.
Natural revelation is truth about God that can be discerned by looking at the world around us and by looking within ourselves. Although not everyone has access to special revelation, the Bible makes it clear that people everywhere have access to natural revelation and that people are accountable for their response to it. Natural revelation assumes that the image of God and the mental faculties of logic are still enough intact for fallen humanity to receive and understand some knowledge about God.
Psalm 19:1–4 refers to the abundance and accessibility of natural revelation:
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”
The beginning of the book of Romans explains natural revelation and its implications:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen” (Romans 1:18–25).
According to the above passage, natural revelation is universal, and mankind ignores it to his own peril. Some things about God can be known by observing creation (Romans 1:19). Specifically, one can infer from creation that the Creator has great power and that He is divine—that is, worthy of being worshiped (verse 20). People should thank and glorify the Creator of such a wonderful creation (verse 21). However, the passage also says that people do not respond to natural revelation in worship or thanksgiving to God, and they are “without excuse” (verse 20). They should have known better. The universal response of sinful mankind is not to fall down in worship of the Creator but to suppress the truth (verse 18) and then worship and serve created things (verse 25), even making idolatrous images of them (verse 23).
Romans 1 goes on to list a multitude of sins that people who reject and suppress natural revelation are prone to engage in, even though they know these things are wrong (verse 31). These are people who do not have the law of God in written form, but they have the law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). The conscience is part of natural revelation. There are certain things that people know are right and other things that they know are wrong. The conscience is not infallible, and it can be corrupted, but when people do something that they know to be wrong without ever being told it is wrong, they are sinning by violating what God has revealed to them.
Finally, natural revelation is associated with the principle of consistency. Romans 2:1 says, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” If a person sees someone else doing something and thinks it is wrong, and then later they do the same thing and justify it, they are rejecting a form of natural revelation.
The question is often asked, “What will happen to those who have never heard about Jesus? Will they be condemned for not believing in someone that they have never heard of?” The answer is “They will not be condemned for their ignorance, but they will be judged on the information that was provided to them.” And everyone has received a lot of information. Creation reveals that God is powerful and worthy of worship. People will be judged on whether or not they worshiped the Creator. Conscience reveals that some things are wrong. People will be judged by whether or not they did things that they thought were wrong. The principle of consistency reveals that people often recognize wrong actions in others but justify those same actions in their own lives. People will be judged based on the standard they used to judge other people.
When it is all said and done, Scripture is clear about the verdict: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10–18). No one keeps the law of God as it has been revealed to them, whether it is through special revelation or natural revelation. When all are judged according to what has been revealed to them, all will be found guilty, and the verdict will be completely fair. “All who sin apart from the law [those who have only natural revelation] will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law [those who have access to special revelation] will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12).
Natural revelation is law, and law only condemns. No one will be saved by keeping the law because no one is able to keep the law. The only hope of salvation is faith in Jesus Christ. Although no one keeps God’s law as revealed in natural revelation perfectly, there are many missionary stories of people who have looked around them and recognized that there must be a God behind it all and have cried out to Him. God, in His grace, sent a missionary to them to tell them about Jesus, for no one can be saved apart from faith in Him.