General revelation can be defined as “the revelation of God to all people, at all times, and in all places that reveals that God exists and that He is intelligent, powerful, and transcendent.” Scriptures such as Psalm 19:1–4 and Romans 1:20 clearly state that certain things about God can be understood from His creation around us. Creation reveals God’s power and majesty, but it does not reveal the plan of salvation through Christ. There is only salvation in Jesus’ name (Acts 4:12); therefore, a person cannot be saved simply through general revelation. Usually, the question “Can a person be saved through general revelation?” is asked in relation to another question, “What happens to those who have never heard the gospel?”
Sadly, there are still parts of the world with absolutely no access to the Bible, to the gospel of Jesus Christ, or to any means of learning Christian truth. The question then arises, what happens to these people when they die? Is it fair for God to condemn a person who has never heard the gospel or of Jesus Christ? Some propose the idea that God judges those who have never heard based on how they responded to general revelation. The presumption is that, if a person truly believes what can be known about God through general revelation, God will judge the person based on that faith and allow the person entrance into heaven.
The problem is that Scripture declares that, unless a person is in Christ, he or she “stands condemned already” (John 3:18). Romans 3:10–12, quoting Psalm 14:3, pronounces the unregenerate nature to be universally sinful: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” According to Scripture, the knowledge of God is available (through general revelation), but mankind perverts it to his own liking. Romans 1:21–23 states, “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 mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” The status of those without God is one of rebellion, darkness, and idolatry.
Man rebels despite general revelation. Sinful man willfully rejects what can be known of God through nature and seeks ways to avoid the truth (see John 3:19). Since man does not naturally seek God, God must seek him—and that is exactly what He did, in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
A good example of our need for the gospel is found in Acts 10. Cornelius knew about God and was “devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (Acts 10:2). Did God save Cornelius because of his devotion to God based on the limited knowledge he had? No. Cornelius needed to hear about Jesus. God instructed Cornelius to contact the apostle Peter and invite him to come to Cornelius’ home. Cornelius obeyed, and Peter came and presented the gospel to Cornelius and his family. Cornelius and his household believed in Jesus and were therefore saved (Acts 10:44–48). No one, not even a “good” man like Cornelius, is saved simply by believing that God exists or by honoring God in certain ways. The only way of salvation is the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
General revelation can be seen as a universal call for people to acknowledge God’s existence. But general revelation, by itself, is not enough to lead a person to salvation in Christ. That is why it is so important for us to proclaim the gospel throughout the whole world (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 1:8). Romans 10:14 declares, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Faith in the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation (John 3:16).