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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

How Has God Revealed Himself?

Updated: Dec 15, 2023


In theology, when the word “revelation” is used, it is often not in the sense of the book of Revelation (the final book of the Christian Bible written by John which deals with the end times and Jesus’ second coming). Rather, in theology the term revelation most often is referring to God revealing himself to humankind. One of the most basic human questions is not necessarily whether God is real, but rather whether or not – and how - it is possible to know about the higher power that has been self-evident for the vast majority of human history.

 

The modern naturalistic worldview tends to scoff at the idea of man-made religion as, at worst, a ploy for those in power to control the masses and, at best, the misplaced hopes of naïve people. But a survey of the different world religions throughout history, with all their diversity, would seem to point to the fact that until very recently in human history it has been assumed by virtually all societies and civilizations popping up around the globe that there is a higher power, which is the source of everything we see around us.


A thoughtful look at world religions shows that the near unanimous agreement between the different religious systems goes further than simple agreement of the existence of some sort of God. They seem to all have the same ideea that humankind is somehow estranged from this higher power. Things between us and God are not as they ought to be. We find ourselves, as humans, disconnected from God. The very premise of virtually all world religions (with the exception of Christianity) is that human beings must do something in order to earn our way back into a right standing with this higher power. The major Western religions identify this higher power as God and Eastern religions envision it as a sort of unity with the universe. But at their core, all of these systems hinge on a good moral lifestyle as a way to earn eternal life and eternal rest. There is something built into the subconsciousness of the human race that longs to be reunited with this God. Without it there is something missing from the human experience.

 

Is it possible to know things about this higher power? What do we need to get an accurate understanding of its nature and character? Surely such a God that is itself distinct from creation and outside of it (as seems to be universally understood) would need to deliberately reveal itself to humanity in order for us to know anything about it.


In Christian theology there are two ways in which God has revealed himself to humankind.

 

Natural Revelation 


The idea is that any human being, regardless of where they are historically or geographically, can look around themselves at the world they inhabit and conclude simply from what’s there, a great deal about God. This is why we see such commonalities among the diverse and often isolated world relgions.

 

We live in a fascinating and unique time of human history for the theist (i.e. someone who believes in God), because increasingly the scientific data which was once thought to refute and nullify the Christian faith is beginning to affirm what theists have known all along. Virtually every field of natural science is also used in the field of Christian apologetics as evidence outside of Scripture for an intelligence behind the universe. Scientific discoveries like the fine-tuning of the universe, the undeniable information stored in the DNA of living cells which finds its closest modern equivalent in computer code, and the discovery that the universe is not eternal and had a definite beginning are leading scientists to go to greater and more outlandish lengths to explain away the data without admitting that the evidence clearly points to some transcendent intelligent source that exists outside of and distinct from the created universe.

 

Robert Jastrow puts it beautifully. “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”


There is clear evidence of design in nature, and what the thoughtful human can infer is that if there is an organized creation, the source of it must be orderly. There is great beauty and diversity among the creatures that exists, therefore the source must be creative. Ecosystems exists in nature which are perfectly balanced and delicate, which combined with the increasing evidence of the fine-tuning of the universe, tells us something about the intelligence and attention to detail of the mind who created it.


Additionally, there seems to be, across human cultures regardless of how isolated a group is, universal understanding of morality. By and large, every human knows that there is something sacred about human life and understands the concepts of murder, deception, and stealing as falling short of an ideal standard. This would point to a moral law which is universal, which exists outside of humanity. We understand this to be a morally righteous God.


The idea of general revelation is that all of these conclusions can be reached without ever cracking open a Bible. God, through his creation, has revealed himself to us and made himself known. There are things we can learn and infer about God from the world we live in, which we see universally understood across diverse and isolated civilizations. The skeptic will often look at the insights gleaned from natural revelation and object that “Even if there is some kind of God out there, how can you know it’s the God of the Christian Bible.”


Special Revelation


Utilizing general revelation, we can learn and understand a great deal about God. The problem is that the things inferred from creation about God are just that; general. There is a limit on what we can learn about God from the universe. If the God we see from observing the universe wanted us to know more specified information about it, it would need to specifically intervene in the created universe to communicate special information to his creation. The Bible is that special revelation.


The idea that the Holy Bible is something categorically different than any other religious text comes not from what power-hungry people have said about it over the ages, but from what it claims about itself. The pages of Scripture itself tell us that what is contained within is revelation from a personal God who has created the universe and chosen to directly interact with humanity to reveal more to us than we could have otherwise known.


What the serious Christian knows – but the casual reader may not – is that the Holy Bible is not simply one or two fictitious ancient books but is rather a library of sixty-six independently written texts. It was not written by one person inventing a religious system, but was written over centuries, progressively revealing the fullness of God’s plan. What we see in Scripture is God revealing his plan gradually over the centuries through a remarkably diverse array of people with various backgrounds and perspectives. I will write another post sometime about the unity and diversity of Scripture, but the point for our purposes is to point out that the canonical (i.e. universally recognized) sixty-six books of the Christian Bible present themselves as the unique revelation of God to humankind.


This is why any meaningful Christian theology must be based on Scripture. What God has revealed about himself to humanity confirms and elaborates on what can be inferred from general revelation. Other disciplines like science and human psychology can be helpful in explaining aspects of theology, but an accurate picture of God must be based primarily on what God has revealed about himself.


Scripture shows us that God is, indeed, a personal being. By calling God a personal God, we do not mean that he can be customized to change his nature to suit one’s preferences (like a personal pizza). Rather, God is a person, not an indifferent universal force. God is a being that is capable of being known on a personal level. By recognizing this, we can rule out the Eastern iteration of religion. God is not an impersonal truth or set of rules like the law of gravity, he is personal and has reached out in real human history. The God that exists outside of space and time has made contact in real history.


God reveals himself as not part of creation, but as preexistent before creation. The God we discover in Scripture is transcendent (meaning that he is outside of and completely separate from the created universe), while also being immanent (meaning intimately involved in the day-to-day workings of the universe). Pictures of a God who ultimately created everything but has since stepped away and has left things to unfold without any guidance or intervention can also be ruled out. God did not wind up creation like a clock and subsequently abandon us. God is constantly intervening and working through human history. The Bible tells the story of God’s selection of an obscure people, whom he choses to bless and reveal himself to, with the promise of eventual restoration for all people.


God has not only made contact with humankind through the Bible, he has reached out with an urgent message. The reason for the disconnect that is universally felt between humanity and God is explained. We are shown a glimpse back through time to the fall into sin, when Adam and Eve chose to live into their own desires rather than follow God’s plan. Sin was introduced into God’s perfect creation and has separated humankind from their creator.


Another aspect that we learn about God from Scripture is that he is good and loving. Sin is introduced into the world, and in response God does not leave his estranged children to fend for themselves. It is true, we are strangers of God because of our sin, but through the Bible we see God directly intervening in history not simply to make himself known, but to fix the problem of sin. God’s primary goal for acting in history is to reconcile us back to himself because we are unable to do so. The Bible tells us a beautiful story of redemption through Jesus Christ and the offering, through God’s own efforts, of a way back into a relationship with him.


Through Christ, God offers the solution that all world religions have universally attempted to find. The answer that God provides is shockingly beautiful. God has done the work for us. Rather than requiring us to build our way back up to God, God has come down to us to offer a hand. The thing that makes the Christian gospel distinct from every other religious system is that according to those systems, the crux of salvation rests with us and our ability to do things and follow rules strictly enough to merit our own salvation. Without God’s intervention in human history, not only would there not be a way to eternal life, but we would not know what God had done for us through Jesus. This is why the Holy Bible exists. We need God’s special revelation because without it we are hopelessly struggling to earn something that we cannot attain on our own.


When we speak of the sufficiency of Scripture and the authoritative nature of God’s Word, what we mean is that in the Bible, God has given us everything we need to come to a saving faith through Jesus Christ. Everything we need to follow Christ and live according to God’s will and spend eternity with God in heaven is supplied for us through Scripture. It may be frustrating for some that God does not explain in greater detail some of the more puzzling workings of salvation, but God’s purpose for revelation has never been information for information’s sake. God tells us what we need to know to be in a relationship with him for eternity.


Jesus Christ


Most theologians classify revelation into these two broad categories of general and special revelation, but there is a third, profoundly different way in which God has revealed himself which is usually lumped into the category of special revelation. That is the act of God in taking on human flesh and becoming the man Jesus of Nazareth and living among us.


The transcendent God who created the universe intervening in history to reveal truth to humankind is one thing, but becoming a human being in order to do the work we are unable to do to earn a way back to eternal life is another. Offering himself as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the entire world was certainly the primary objective of Jesus’ ministry, which was carried out flawlessly. But in a very real way, another beautiful aspect of Jesus’ incarnation was that God himself, who is preexistent and categorically superior to humankind, laid aside his glory temporarily and became one of us and was able to walk, talk, eat, and experience life with us.


In the discussion of revelation, this is a stunningly direct and comprehensive interaction with the God of the universe. Jesus’ disciples had direct, unfiltered access to their creator, and were able to dialogue and ask questions of Jesus that, when really reflected upon, is mind boggling. Scripture is truly alive and active, sharper than a double-edged sward (Heb 4:12) but as text preserved through the centuries and read far removed from the immediate situations in which the biblical authors wrote, it is simply not the same. It is easy to look at the revelation Jesus offered and be sad that we were not there. What a blessing would it have been, to walk with and talk with God himself, learning from him and being able to meet his gaze as he explained the working of reality.


If, however, in the discussion of revelation we see Jesus’ incarnation as the ultimate revelation, we might look at Jesus’ words to his disciples in preparation for his departure in a new and interesting light. “Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:6-8).


The same sadness we might feel at having missed the opportunity to converse with Jesus must have occurred to the disciples as Jesus told them of his impending absence. The Advocate Jesus promises is the Holy Spirit (more on the trinity in a later post), and what Jesus tells his disciples is that the coming of the Holy Spirit will actually be better for them than having Jesus physically among them. How can this be? Amazingly, the promise of the Holy Spirit is that he will actually dwell in the believer (Jer 31:31-34; 1 Cor 3:16). Where as, up to that point in human history God’s truth had been something external to those who followed him, with the coming of the Holy Spirit God would actually dwell within each believer. The theology term for this is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, on conversion, takes up residence inside the heart of the believer and begins the transformation from the old sinful person into someone who more closely resembles Christ. The God of the universe is with you every moment until you are reunited with him in eternity.


In our discussion of revelation, then, the same God who has revealed himself to human history and has given us everything we need for salvation, after we are saved, is actually with the believer at all times, enabling them to understand him on an increasingly deep level (1 Cor 2:14). The Holy Spirit is not there to scold like an angry supervisor, he is there to help and teach. When we approach God’s Word with an open and teachable heart, not only are we reading and studying what God has revealed through history, God himself is with us, helping us and illuminating the truth of what has been preserved in our Holy Scriptures.


This sheds new and beautiful light on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-8 (NIV):

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

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