TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

29 March 2017

General revelation: How to (wrongly) deduce God from nature.

Problem is, the details vary widely.

General revelation /'dʒɛn(.ə).rəl rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃən/ n. The universal, natural knowledge about God and divine matters. (Also called universal revelation, or natural revelation.)
2. What the universe, nature, or the human psyche reveal to us about God.

A number of Christian apologists love, love, LOVE the idea of general revelation. And I always wind up on their bad side, because as a theologian I have to point out it’s a wholly unreliable form of revelation. It’s so useless it actually does pagans more good than Christians.

This, they really don’t wanna hear. Because they’ve pinned so many hopes on it.

Y’see, apologists deal with nontheists, people who don’t believe in God and are pretty sure he’s never interacted with them before. What apologists try to do is prove God has so interacted with them before. If the nontheist can’t remember any such events, the apologist will try to point to nature and claim, “See, that’s a way God interacted with you!” God made a really impressive sunset, or God not-all-that-supernaturally cured ’em of a disease, or God created one of their kids, or they had a warm fuzzy feeling which kinda felt divine.

Or, if we’ve got a more philosophically-minded apologist, they’ll try to argue that certain beliefs in a westerner’s brain can’t really work unless there’s a God-idea somewhere deep in that brain. Absolutes of right and wrong supposedly can’t exist unless there’s an absolute authority like God to define ’em. Or an unfulfilled desire for a higher power has to be based on an actual Higher Power out there somewhere.

Apologists like to regularly tap the idea of general revelation, and bounce from there to the idea of special revelation—that God actually does tell us stuff about himself, and particularly did so through Jesus.

Me, I figure all this general revelation stuff is quicksand. That’s why I like to leapfrog it and get straight to Jesus. Apologists waste way too much time trying to prove God exists by pointing to nature, reasoning, and the human conscience. But while they’re busy unsuccessfully trying to sway a skeptic, we could’ve just prophesied, proving there’s such a thing as special revelation… and now we’re talking about Jesus while the apologist is still trying to explain why intelligent design isn’t merely wishful thinking.

Why is general revelation quicksand? Because we’re looking at creation, trying to deduce God from it. We’ve began with the assumption creation sorta resembles its creator; that it has his fingerprints all over it, so when we know what it’s like, we can sorta figure out what God’s like.

So look at the people God created, and the way we think and reason. Look at the intelligence which had to go into some of the more complex things and beings in the universe. Look at the attention to detail, the intricacy, the mathematical and scientific precision, the way everything all neatly fits together. Tells you all sorts of profound things about the creator, doesn’t it?

Well, actually, no it doesn’t.

Doesn’t work without special revelation!

See, one of the important things we know from special revelation is this isn’t the universe God originally created.

It was once. He originally created it and determined it good. Ge 1.31 And then humans sinned. So rather than letting the universe perpetually repair itself and last forever, God’s letting things run down. Things now deteriorate from order to chaos. We call it entropy; scientists even call it the second law of thermodynamics. Eventually God’s gonna fix everything, but meanwhile he only fixes things as needed. Or prayed for.

How do I know this stuff? Special revelation. It’s in the bible. So when I look at nature, it’s not with a blank slate; it’s with an informed perspective. Nature doesn’t really reflect its creator. More accurately it reflects the wayward humans who bollixed everything. And it doesn’t do the best job of reflecting us, either: There’s still quite a lot of God’s brilliance mixed in there.

Now, what if you don’t believe in special revelation? What if you believe in God, but don’t believe the Christians nor the ancient Hebrews? What if you don’t believe God talks through prayer and prophets, or makes appearances, or performs miracles? What if you figure he created the cosmos… then sat back and watched it run, like a proud inventor whose perpetual-motion machine seems to be working perfectly?

Well, where’d you get those beliefs? ’Cause they surely didn’t come from bible.

See, nobody really comes to natural revelation with a truly blank slate. Everybody already has some beliefs about God. Nontheists figure there’s no such being. Pagans figure there is so, but when it comes to what he’s like, they’re all over the place. Christians have either Christianity, or pop-culture Christian mythology which we use to cover up the fact we don’t know our bibles. And other religions have other dogmas.

Yeah, you might quote some bible at me to try to prove God can so be deduced entirely by general revelation. Apologists have certainly tried it.

Psalm 19.1 NKJV
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Romans 1.20 NIV
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.

And I will point right back that in context, we will always find natural revelation getting paired with special revelation. The one doesn’t make any sense without the other.

When the heavens declare God’s glory—here, let’s use my translation—

Psalm 19.1-2 KWL
1 The skies are a record of God’s glory.
The space above reports the work of his hands.
2 Day by day, declarations pour out.
Night by night, God shows knowledge.

yeah we see God’s activity in the sky and clouds and outer space. But in the very next verse we see special revelation: God making declarations. God revealing knowledge. (Yes, I know the NIV has it “they pour forth speech” and “they reveal knowledge,” but the verbs yabía and yekhawéh are both singular.) The skies don’t declare it; he does. And later in the psalm, David also points to the LORD’s law, testimony, statues, commands, respect, and judgment. Ps 19.7-9 The only way to make sense of what nature might report, is through what God does report.

As for God’s invisible qualities… wait, where’d you hear there’s a God who has invisible qualities? Oh yeah, special revelation.

Romans 1.19-20 KWL
19 Because God-knowledge is plain to them!
God revealed it to them.
20 Invisible things like God’s timelessness, power, and divinity,
can be observed and understood in created things since the world’s creation.
For this reason people have no excuse.

Pagans can deduce God’s invisible characteristics because they have God at their foundation. He previously revealed God-knowledge to them. That’s as basic a definition of special revelation as there is. And now they can look back at the universe he made, and see things are precisely as he described them.

See, God talks to everybody. God grants special revelation to everybody. People mistake that for general revelation—’cause if God reveals himself this way to generally everyone, doesn’t that make it a kind of general revelation? Actually no. Because it’s not something he just left in people, like a seed or tapeworm. It’s a personal communication, not an impersonal broadcast. God’s not just sprinkling knowledge throughout humanity; he’s trying to start dialogues. He wants relationships.

But when people ignore him, turn a deaf ear to him, and imagine he doesn’t talk to anyone… it means the stuff we see in nature is open to all sorts of interpretation. Without the Holy Spirit to guide and correct these interpretations, we’re gonna go wrong. Always. Without exception.

And you’ve seen what happens when people try to deduce God from nature, yet reject Christianity. You wind up with nature religions. People stare at nature long enough, they start worshiping nature itself. Ro 1.22, 25 Give it a name, like Pan, Astarte, Aranyane, Eostre, or Gaia. Or, when they figure the people who populate nature religions are a bunch of weirdos, they stick to calling it “mother nature” or “God” and spend a crazy amount of time outdoors, exploring. Or if they don’t really care for the outdoors, they’ll spend a lot of time indoors, studying it from afar, with math and controlled experiments.

The beliefs of nature-loving theists.

Deist /'di.ɪst/ adj., n. Believes God exists, specifically as a creator who doesn’t supernaturally intervene in his universe.
[Deistic /'di.ɪs.tɪk/ adj., deism /'di.ɪz.əm/ n.]

When people talk about deists they’re usually discussing the 17th- and 18th-century post-Christian intellectual movement. ’Cause nowadays we just call deists “pagans.”

Back then, for various reasons, people rejected Christianity. But they couldn’t embrace nontheism: The only way the universe made sense to them was there logically has to be a God. They just couldn’t believe God is relational: He’s not personal, not present, hasn’t revealed himself to anyone. He did start the universe going, but doesn’t appear to have done much since. He’s an absentee creator.

Since they figured God told us nothing, deists figured we needn’t worry about what he may or may not expect of us. Maybe he expects nothing. Many deists, like Thomas Paine, figured nature is inherently good, so likely God expects us to be good to one another. So they did at least strive to be good… however they personally defined “good.”

I myself didn’t grow up figuring nature is inherently good. I grew up hearing about Charles Darwin from my biology and economics teachers. Survival of the fittest, remember? Nature red in tooth and claw. Paine didn’t get his view of nature by actually looking at nature, or he’d have seen what Darwin did. (And every hunter since.) He got it by projecting his optimistic view of goodness upon nature, then projecting it upon God. He’s hardly alone. Most deists assumed God is good because they wanted God to be good. Not because they truly found goodness in our fallen world.

This happens all the time when people try to deduce God from nature. They don’t see God. Don’t expect to see him; they think he’s not there. But they figure they’ll observe what he left behind. God-tracks, so to speak.

Now if I leave tracks in nature, what’re you gonna find? Well, if I rode a bike or motorcycle or ATV, you’re gonna find tire tracks. Which won’t tell you anything about me personally. Just that for some reason, I didn’t walk. Was I tired? Injured? Lazy? In a hurry? Seeking the thrill of riding through the woods way too fast? Without knowing or speaking to me, you don’t know my motives, and are gonna wind up filling in the blanks with your own attitudes: “If it were me, I’d consider myself too important to touch the dirty ground with my feet. So that’s what Leslie must be like too.” Not even close.

Gets even worse when it comes to God. All our unhealthy obsessions with power and control and sovereignty come into play. All our standards of good and evil, right and wrong, proper and improper, clean and unclean, get mixed up in our interpretations. Even with special revelation we misinterpret God. With a silent God? Billion times worse.

The deists made that mistake regularly. “Nature’s God” conveniently believed all the very same things they did. He was kind (like they imagined themselves), benevolent (but only as benevolent as they were), believed in freedom from a heavy-handed government and a legalistic church (but not so much from white slaveowners… which they were). Lots of projection. No humility. “Nature’s God” was secretly, self-delusionally them—writ large, justifying themselves.

In short, it takes all the behaviors we’re attempting to eliminate from the practice of theology, and falls back on ’em. It’s wholly untrustworthy because we’re wholly untrustworthy. It’s why Christians—those of us with half a brain, anyway—stay far, far away from general revelation. If God isn’t in it, we can’t trust it.