In the Sunday morning message on Matthew 11:20-24, we saw that the severity of God’s judgment on the unrepentant depends upon the level of revelation they have received. The passage indicates that notoriously sinful cities like Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would receive relatively lighter judgment than those Galilean cities that were exposed to the teaching and miracles of Christ Himself. Having received greater revelation, the Galilean cities would come under greater condemnation.
This raises a thought-provoking question. If greater revelation leads to greater condemnation, can we walk that principle backwards to say that those who receive no revelation will receive no condemnation? In other words, does this truth mean that those who are never exposed to divine revelation are not condemned to hell?
To answer that question, we should first distinguish between different kinds of revelation. Theologians divide all revelation into general revelation and special revelation. General revelation is general in two senses. First of all, it is general in scope – it goes to everyone. Second, it is general in substance; that is, it delivers general, not specific, truth. It is broad in nature. It shows truths like “God is divine and powerful” (Rom 1:20). It does not deliver detailed truths like the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Bible speaks of two avenues of general revelation. The first is creation, which Psalm 19 depicts as revealing truths about God: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Likewise, Romans 1:20 shows how God has revealed truth about Himself in creation: 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.
A second avenue of general revelation is the human conscience. Romans 2:15 teaches that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…
The bible teaches that general revelation is sufficient to condemn sinners. Consider Romans 1:18-32, particularly vv18-20 and 28-32:
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…
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,
30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
32 Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
The revelation depicted in these verses is exclusively general revelation. This passage shows that general revelation serves to expose the heart of the unbeliever and his rebellion against God, and brings upon him God's just judgment. Again, this is revelation that is available to everyone. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…so they are without excuse. General revelation is sufficient to condemn.
Special revelation is completely different. It is special in substance, which means that it is more specific, more detailed than general revelation. For example, knowledge of salvation can only come through special revelation. It depends upon details not available in our observation of creation, nor in our conscience.
There are three main avenues of special revelation. The first is through personal encounter, as when God appeared to Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3. The second is through propositional revelation, which is what we have in the Bible. The third is the Incarnation – the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Salvation can only come through special revelation: So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17).
So what is the answer to the question posed above? If someone receives no revelation does that mean they are not condemned to hell? The question itself contains a mistake. Everyone receives some kind of revelation, even if only general revelation, which is sufficient to condemn. Only special revelation contains the information necessary to be saved. Rejecting general revelation results in condemnation. Rejecting special revelation results in greater condemnation. This underscores the truth that Jesus Christ is the only hope for the salvation of sinners.
Posted by Greg Birdwell