Atheists and agnostics sometimes ask, “If God is real and wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he show up?” Well-meaning Christians sometimes respond, “Because he wants us to have faith.” But this is not an adequate answer for at least three reasons.
This question assumes that God has not shown up. But he has shown up in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. Those who are determined to reject God’s existence must answer the question, “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?” There is strong evidence that Jesus was a real man who made extraordinary claims about his own authority. Was he a lunatic who falsely believed that he was God? Was he a liar who knew that he was not God but intentionally deceived people? Or is he Lord? Before ruling out the third option, people must also answer the question, “How do you explain the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus?” Until people answer these questions, it is supremely arrogant and hypocritical to demand that God show up again.
This question also assumes that if God did show up, people would believe. But people did not believe in Jesus, and it is simply not true that everyone would believe in God if he merely showed up again. Many people are determined not to believe, and nothing will change their minds. I was recently listening to an interview with Peter Hitchens, a brilliant thinker, best known as the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens. Christopher was one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” a fierce opponent of Christianity. But Peter is now a Christian, and wittingly remarked that no matter how much evidence you give an atheist, it’s not going to matter if he’s already decided that evidence for God is inadmissible.
Romans 1:21-22 speaks of people’s self-imposed spiritual blindness: “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 foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”
This question also implies that the best (or perhaps the only) way for someone to make himself known is to appear in physical form. But God has made himself known in many ways. We call this revelation. God’s revelation comes to us in general ways and in special ways.
General revelation includes our conscience, for example. The sense that we “ought” to do some things and “ought not” to do other things points to an objective moral source. The moral argument for God’s existence is nearly impossible to refute—unless you are willing to say that nothing is objectively wrong—since naturalism provides no grounding for objective values. General revelation also includes the created world, as we will consider in a moment.
Special revelation includes God’s ultimate self-revelation in Jesus, as I’ve mentioned. It also includes the Bible. A person’s word reveals that person. Both Jesus and the Bible are called the word of God: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 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. 1:1-2). On rare occasions, God specially reveals himself through angels, dreams, visions, or other supernatural means.
One of the most helpful passages in the Bible when considering the subject of general and special revelation is Psalm 19. The categories of general and special revelation are very easy to pick up. Verses 1-6 celebrate God’s general revelation, beginning with the familiar verse, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Verses 7-14 celebrate God’s special revelation as given to us in his written word. Let’s start with general revelation.
General Revelation (Ps. 19:1-6)
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. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (Ps. 19:1-6)
Verse 2 says that the sky “reveals knowledge.” Revelation comes through the created world which “declares” and “proclaims” the truth about God. The NIV says that the heavens and the sky “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 stars, being silent, yet speak.
Romans 1:19-20 goes a step further and says that “what can be known about God is plain to [unrighteous men] 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.”
For many unbelievers, this seems like an extraordinary claim. How does looking around at the created world lead us to God? How does it show us his attributes? After all, many people study the world and still reject a Creator. Hasn’t evolution and the Big Bang theory given us other explanations for the world’s existence?
We do not need to say, “Well, you just need to have faith.” The claims that are made in Psalm 19 and Romans 1 are able to be defended. Our faith is based (at least in part) on the evidence in creation. We can look at the world and conclude that God is the best explanation for everything that exists.
At the most basic level, the heavens and the earth raise the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? Whether you are looking at stars or puppy dogs or the Grand Canyon, this is a reasonable question. And it leads us to God’s existence and glory more quickly than you might think. William Lane Craig explains the cosmological argument for God’s existence:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause of its beginning.
This is a deductive argument. If the first two premises are true, then the conclusion is definitely true.
Most people agree that whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning. Things do not randomly pop in and out of existence for no reason. I was sitting in McDonalds earlier. Can you imagine if a tree just randomly appeared next to the soda machine? Nobody in their right mind would assume that it came into existence without a cause. The same can be said about the stars in the sky. We may be able to identify the cause of a particular star, but at some point we must posit a first cause. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning.
This leaves us with only one question: Did the universe begin to exist? Or is the universe somehow eternal? Has matter always existed? This is where science has actually confirmed the Bible. Scientists now virtually agree that the world had a beginning. While I do not subscribe to the Big Bang theory, even “The standard Big Bang model…predicts an absolute beginning of the universe.” The point is this: most atheists agree with the second premise of the cosmological argument.
If we acknowledge that whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning, and accept that the universe began to exist, then we can say with certainty that the universe has a cause of its beginning. That raises the question, What would this cause need to be like?
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” in part because the heavens and the sky are incredibly massive and powerful. For example, consider “The star UY Scuti, a hypergiant with a radius around 1,700 times larger than the sun.” To bring a star like this into existence, we need a Cause that is extremely powerful (perhaps omnipotent).
This cause must be itself uncaused because…an infinite series of causes is impossible. It is therefore the Uncaused First Cause. It must transcend space and time, since it created space and time. Therefore, it must be immaterial and non-physical. It must be unimaginably powerful, since it created all matter and energy. (Craig)
This is just one example of how the heavens lead us to the existence and glory of God. The “cosmological argument thus gives us powerful grounds for believing in the existence of a beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, Personal Creator of the universe.”
We could talk about more ways that creation reveals God and his attributes. For example, the fine-tuning argument that points to an intelligent designer. (I recommend Mark Bird’s article, “God Is: Arguments for the Existence of God.”) But the point is this: God has revealed himself through general revelation.
That’s one reason why Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.” Atheism is not a new problem. There were atheists in the Psalmist’s day. Since general revelation gives us such good reasons for believing in God, the Psalmist considers atheism to be primarily a moral problem instead of an intellectual one: “They are corrupt,” so they don’t believe.
If you are corrupt and self-centered, it is much easier to disbelieve in God than it is to believe in him. Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “Without God…everything is permitted.” In another translation, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?”
Is General Revelation Enough?
General revelation is very important. But at this point, I think that many Christians go too far and make a faulty assumption. They assume that general revelation is enough for someone to have a right relationship with the Creator. They assume that people can be saved because of what God has revealed about himself in creation. But listen to Romans 1:18-23 very carefully:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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. 21 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 foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
This passage establishes one thing: general revelation is enough to condemn everyone in the world, since everyone has (in one way or another) rejected the basic revelation that God has given. This is what Paul goes on to say in Romans 3: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
So Paul says that general revelation is enough to condemn people, but he never says that it is enough for them to have a true saving relationship with God. In fact, Paul says the exact opposite. He says that people need more revelation to be saved. They need special revelation. In Romans 10, Paul asks,
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
Preaching the gospel brings additional revelation that people need to be saved. We need to know more than what general revelation can provide. We need a clearer revelation about God’s holy and loving nature; about sin; about God’s solution for sin.
John Wesley understood this. In the preface to his Sermon collection, Welsey wrote:
I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.
General revelation reveals God and his attributes, but there are many things that it does not reveal. Thankfully, God has given us a book. This brings us verses 7-14 in Psalm 19 on special revelation.
Special Revelation (Ps. 19:7-10)
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps. 19:7-10)
The Psalmist uses many synonyms for God’s word. He speaks of “the law of the Lord,” “the testimony of the Lord,” the “precepts of the Lord,” and “the commandments of the Lord.”
Consider what Paul says in Romans 3:20: “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” He goes on in Romans 7 to say, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
This shows how the law of God, recorded in the Bible, brings revelation that general revelation does not bring. The knowledge of sin is special revelation. People may have a sense that they have done some things that they “ought not” to do, but they do not understand that this is a sin against the holy, personal Creator God.
Psalm 19 emphasizes that God’s word is “perfect,” “sure,” right,” and “true.” As Christians, we believe that the Bible is not merely the words of men. It is “God-breathed,” as 2 Timothy 3:16 says. Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:21 that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This is called inspiration. Inspiration means that the Holy Spirit of God carried the writers along so that the Bible says exactly what God wants it to say. The result of inspiration is that the Bible is inerrant. Inerrancy simply means that the Bible has no errors. It is without fault in all of its teachings.
The Bible is the most reliable source of truth. If you want to know how things really are, turn to God’s word. It will never lead you astray. God’s word never fails. This is what we mean when we say that God’s word is infallible.
Psalm 19 also says that God’s word “makes wise the simple” and “enlightens the eyes.” When you read God’s special revelation, you are reading the words of the only Person who knows everything. Serious students of the Bible are the most knowledgeable people when it comes the the most important questions in life.
In Acts 4:13, the crowd at Pentecost “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” Peter and John were not lawyers. They didn’t have a doctorate degree. But because they were trained by Jesus, the great Teacher, they had incredible insights into important issues. While education and study is very important, it must center on the word of God. When someone reads the Bible, we can truly say that he has been with Jesus. Jesus continues to teach his disciples through his written words.
God’s special revelation is “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.”
The Psalmist concludes with a personal application:
Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Ps. 19:11-14)
God’s words are a channel through which his grace flows and makes us holy. God’s reason for giving us his revelation is that we can have a right relationship with him and enter his presence with clean hands and a pure heart.
This week, let’s make it a point to go outside and enjoy God’s creation. Meditate on God’s attributes. Jesus pointed to God’s character by pointing to the sparrows and the lilies of the field. Allow God to speak to you through the beauty and goodness of creation.
Then, let’s set aside extra time to read and study God’s word. Is there something you can set aside this week to make room for an extra hour of serious Bible reading? Engage deeply with the text. Use a pen and highlighter. As you read, ask the question, “What does this reveal about God, Christ, sin, man, and salvation?” Consider the question, “What can I learn from the Bible that I could never learn simply by looking around in creation?”
But let’s not stop there. Let’s not stop until we’ve been transformed by God’s word. Ask,
- How does God want to change me through the truth that he has revealed?
- What would my life look like if I followed all of God’s commandments in simple, radical obedience?
- Based on what God’s word says, are the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart acceptable in God’s sight?
Perhaps the most important question that we can ask is, Do I desire God’s word more than much fine gold? Do I find his words sweeter than honey? If not, why? As I observe the Psalmist’s progression of thought, I’m convinced that there is a direct link between his love for God’s word and his desire to live a holy life. As D. L. Moody said, “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”
Sometimes, however, we just need to be disciplined enough to read God’s word. You have to taste and see that the word of the Lord is good. Once you do, it’s a little like chocolate: you want more and more and more. But if you stop eating chocolate for a few days or weeks or months, it’s amazing how it begins to lose its appeal. Perhaps it has been a while since you have set aside enough time alone with God’s word to really taste and enjoy its goodness.
If we can rediscover the value of God’s special revelation, we will say with John Wesley, “O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.”