Revelation refers to the revealing of something that was previously unknown to a person or people group, but there are two ways that people receive these revelations; generally and specifically.
When we use the term* general revelation* what we mean to refer to is information that is or should be known generally, without anyone needing to tell us. For example, in scripture we read, “For [God’s] 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.” (Romans 1:20) So in all creation we see the wake of God’s creative power and the work of his hands sustaining all things that he has made.
In a sense, we don’t need anyone to tell us these things because all we have to do is look up and observe the complexity, beauty and vastness of the universe. If that doesn’t convince us, we can look out and experience the magnificence of the earth, the attraction between two people and the enjoyment in laughter. But again, if we fail to be swayed we can look in and behold the wonderful machine called the human body, the intricacy of the cell and read the data of our DNA. Up, out or in; pick any one and you will see the brush strokes of a painter, the poem of an author and the blueprints of a builder. That is what general revelation is, information that can be known generally.
The term special revelation refers to just the opposite; it describes information that is revealed by an outside source, be it doctor, professor, teacher or friend. An example of this would be if we came across a subject that generally aroused our interest (e.g., astronomy, art or biology), we would then seek to learn about that topic, and one of our first tasks would be to see what other people with proper knowledge have said about it. After doing this we could examine their conclusions and do research of our own to decide whether those we studied were correct or not.
In Christianity we believe that the Bible is a form of special revelation and that it was revealed to us by God himself (2 Timothy 3:16). Though there are many people who may claim that their holy book was revealed to them by their god or gods, what we are left to do (If we want to know what’s true) is get out our shovel and do a little digging. Perform some research so that you can know who is lying and who is not. What I have found is that the Bible stands on its own as a book which has validated its claims with fulfilled prophecy, archaeology, consistency, honesty, miracles and other writings that spoke of similar events. You can read more about these topics here.
An Analogy on Revelation
A way that I like to communicate the two types of revelation is by this analogy. Suppose you meet your friend at a concert who has offered to share one of his two tickets with you. As soon as you get to your seats your buddy realizes he left his camera in the car so he asks if you’d be willing to go get it for him (He did give a you a ticket for free you know). So being a good friend you accept. Now generally you would feel like you have no idea where to start looking because all you know is that his car is somewhere outside the arena in an sea of other automobiles. How could you possibly know how to find the one that belongs to him? But alas, your friend does care for you so he gives you some special details about how to find his car. He tells you it is one the second floor of the parking structure, two rows back and ten cars down, it is a current year blue Honda Civic with a license plate that reads ‘;SPECIAL.’ Now you can confidently go look for his car and get his camera without being worried about getting stuck looking for it all night.
This goes to show the difference between what is called general and special revelation; we can look up, out or in and see that there is a God and then look to the Bible to see what he has told us about himself.